Her ’14 WSOP is only the latest in a good run
Melissa Burr had a breakout 2014 World Series of Poker, but her “rungood” started well before the first tournament she entered.
Burr was originally born in South Korea, but was put up for adoption by her biological parents. She was adopted by Cheryl and Kenneth Burr and found a new home in New Jersey, a state she still calls home.
“Everything in my life would be vastly different had it not been for the hearts of the two greatest people I have ever known,” said Burr. “My parents afforded me every possible opportunity, including life. It is because of them that I was able to have such an open-minded approach to everything I did. Without them, I would not be the person I am today. I spiked the biggest one-outer I will ever hit. They are my heroes.”
Her close connection with her parents and the importance she puts on her family life led her to become the soft-spoken down-to-earth person she is.
It’s that same humble nature that caused her friends to refer to her as an “interview fish.” She isn’t used to any attention from the media and isn’t used to having people bombard her with questions. She is used to sitting in Atlantic City’s biggest mixed games and making a comfortable living for herself, completely unknown to anyone outside of the walls of Borgata.
That all changed after this past summer at the WSOP. Burr tallied five cashes that totaled $280,450, all of which coming from events that were either mixed games or non-Hold’em games, and three final tables, one of which making history.
Burr became the first woman to final table the Poker Players Championship with a seventh-place finish for $165,435. That’s an accomplishment she hopes will attract more women to play in mixed games.
“I feel like this accomplishment is a huge stride to awaken women to play other games other than No Limit [Hold’em],” said Burr. “Even if one woman considers playing mixed games, then it is great for the game.”
Burr’s regular game is a $200/$400 mixed rotation with four variations of lowball draw games, Omaha Hi-Lo and Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo. Occasionally there will be a $400/$800 game that will run that she will also take part in, but that has a different mix and runs less much less often.
Some may say that a player of her caliber is a prodigy, but Burr feels that most women are more likely to succeed in a mixed games setting based on the skill sets that women possess.
“In reality, mixed games are a better environment and more suited for women,” she said. “A lot of my strengths in poker come from the ability to sit with the exact same people every week and automatically know their ranges, know when they tilt and know what they are capable of. If you think about women coming into poker, they have to sit with nine different people every time they play a tournament. They have to take two hours to assess how they play and what they are capable of.”
“But in a mixed games environment, it’s a little bit more comfortable. Women have great memories and a great retention. They can use all of these things to their advantage in mixed games and have a more enjoyable experience and also be more profitable.”
Burr is hoping to inspire some women into the mixed games arena, but she never set out to be in the spotlight. Her motivation in poker is strictly financial. She had been coming out to Vegas every summer, but spent her time playing high stakes mixed games and playing a limited tournament schedule. Before the 2014 WSOP, her tournament resume consisted of only one cash at the WSOP. An 84th-place finish in the Ladies event for $1,923 at the 2013 WSOP.
“I was never searching for fame and glory in this,” said the Mullica Hill, N.J., native. “I want to make the most money. This year it kind of blew up, but in the beginning, nobody knew who I was and even this year, those who do know me travel in the high-stakes cash game circuits. Now it’s going to be a little harder to kind of sneak under the radar.”
Burr was introduced into the gambling world when she became immersed in billiards during her four years at the University of Delaware. Due to an allergy to alcohol, Burr found herself playing billiards while she was out at bars with her friends while they were drinking.
Burr had always “messed around with pool” prior to her time as a Fighting Blue Hen, but really got into it after spending some time at a local pool hall.
“It kind of got really old standing around being the only one sober while everyone else was drinking,” said Burr. “I got serious into it at this one local pool hall and everyone that was good told me I had a lot of natural talent for it. I have a very addictive personality, so I took that head on and was playing 10 hours every day. That’s when I first started gambling.”
While studying for her degree in marketing and business management with a minor in philosophy, Burr started her short lived professional pool career. She began traveling around playing handicap tournaments making what she considered good money for a college student.
“For a college kid, I was making a lot of money. It’s definitely not comparable to poker money, but $300 here and $400 here,” she said.
Burr became very good at negotiating handicaps that were in her favor and credits that to the fact that the one thing she lacks is an ego. That same lack of ego also helped her learn her weaknesses in poker and help her accelerate through the ranks.
She struggled to find time for class with as much pool as she was playing, but she found a way to complete her degree on time in four years. As graduation inched closer for Burr, she was ready to get her degree and take on professional pool, but it was an objection from her dad that pushed her away from the felt on the pool table and toward the felt on the poker table.
“My dad is one of my biggest fans and supporters,” said Burr. “However, he did not like me playing pool. So we butted heads a lot because I wanted to be a professional pool player, but he didn’t want daddy’s little girl hanging out in a pool hall. I kind of took on to poker and I kind of let pool go by the wayside.”
In 2004, Burr graduated from Delaware and landed a job as a recruiter for a couple of years before finding a better job as head of recruiting for a franchise company when she was 27.
While working in the recruiting field, she spent her spare time honing her poker skills on the Internet. Like a few of the very knowledgeable players were doing at the time, she was mass multi-tabling and was playing up to 24 tables at once.
Unlike most players at the time, Burr didn’t fall in love with No Limit Hold’em. She preferred to play the limit version of the game. She would play anything from $2/$4 all the way up to $30/$60.
Her love for limit stemmed from one of the first games she played in Atlantic City, a $7.50/$15 limit Hold’em game.
“It was a pink chip game,” said Burr. “They were $2.50 pink chips and those were the only chips on the table and the pots were enormous. The pots were just like end-to-end with pink chips and every hand was like this.”
Burr enjoyed the rush of playing for big pots all the time. She wasn’t able to find that same excitement in No Limit Hold’em.
“I played a little bit of No Limit [Hold’em] and I would see someone raise to $7 and steal $3 in blinds. Of course you could stack that person, but the excitement just wasn’t there for me. I just saw a lot of exploitable edges that suited the way that I play even today. To play a tight solid strategy and I got to learn how to show the best hand very early on in my poker career.”
Burr was having plenty of success on the poker felt, but didn’t have any aspirations of leaving her job as head of recruiting. Unfortunately, when the economy turned for the worse in the late 2000s, she didn’t have a choice.
“It was a great job,” she said. “I worked from home, got paid six figures, the whole nine and then the economy hit and I was laid off. I got more into poker after the economy crashed. It gave me the push I needed to just play poker.”
With her job in the rear view mirror and her mind set on starting poker full time, it was time to choose an avenue in which to pursue her new career. She had been playing almost exclusively online with occasional trips to Atlantic City, but she had to evaluate the lifestyle that each would give her.
Burr was what many online would consider a rakeback grinder on PokerStars. She was achieving the Supernova level of the PokerStars VIP rewards system, which was worth a lot of money in and of itself, but not enough for her to live comfortably. She would have to shoot for the next level of the rewards system, Supernova Elite, or play live poker full time.
“At the time, this was before Black Friday, I decided to move down to Atlantic City and just play live instead of going for Supernova Elite,” said Burr. “The lifestyle and the amount of hours I was going to have to play online just didn’t seem appealing.”
At the time of going full time, Burr was on pace to be a $15,000 loser in the online games for the year.
“Supernova Elite was worth about $112,000,” said Burr. “So for the $96,000 at the time or whatever it was, it wasn’t justified for the lifestyle. I didn’t want that.”
Burr made the move east toward the coast of her home state to one of the most popular cities to play poker on the East Coast. During that time, she would play $20/$40 Limit Hold’em or $40/$80 Limit Hold’em with lots of success.
During the early goings of her stay in Atlantic City, Burr met Ryan Miller. Miller convinced her that what you can earn playing Limit Hold’em was capped and that she would have a better future playing in the mixed games.
Miller was playing $10/$20 Omaha Hi-Lo/Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo mix when he met Burr. They began talking strategy and learning from one another before eventually dating each other as they worked their way up the limits together.
“Ryan told me that the opportunities were in Omaha and Stud Eight or Better because in Limit Hold’em, the max you could play it at the Borgata was $40/$80. You couldn’t really play it any bigger except occasionally and he said that if you really want to make a career out of this to make the switch. I taught him Limit Hold’em and he taught me Omaha and Stud Eight or Better.”
The two also helped each other learn the other games that were spread in the mixed games and they quickly moved up the ranks together. Within two years, they had gone from $40/$80 all the way up to $400/$800.
“People think that I ran really well this summer,” said Burr. “But the truth is that I ran really well while I was moving up. The reality is that I could have played well and perfectly and variance could have just took us down. We moved up together. It took us about two years to get to the biggest game in Borgata.”
Burr knows she is talented and admits that which one of the two is the better player is a “heavily debated question amongst a lot of our friends,” but readily admits that the learning curve was sped up by dating Miller.
“The fact that we are dating and learning from each other, people don’t really appreciate how fast you can learn these games,” said Burr. “Because when you think about us from our foundation, you are really talking about three games — Hold’em, Omaha and Stud Eight or Better. We had to learn Deuce to Seven together, Badeucey together, Badacey together and we do have different playing styles.”
“But to have a sounding board and talk about the different strategies, we learned at an incredible rate to get us to stay in that game and stay competitive and stay profitable in that world with us.”
Like any relationship, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but Burr has enjoyed the journey they have been on and wouldn’t change it for anything.
“I would be lying if I said it’s a perfect world with us because there is going to be conflict when you disagree about hands and the constant stress of playing in these high-stakes environments,” said Burr. “For every good thing, there’s a bad thing, but in the long run to have someone there to go through this with you and to get to this point together in the long run is so rewarding.”
Over the last few years while she has been climbing the stakes in live cash, she’s been gradually improving her tournament game and having small bits of success before her breakout this summer.
Burr’s first recorded tournament cash came in 2007 in a $350 Limit Hold’em tournament at the Borgata. She went five years before cashing in another tournament, but when she did, the buy-ins were much bigger. Her next cash came in 2012 at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in the $1,000 HOE event. She finished second and took home $7,860.
“If you look at my resume, I have prior tournament cashes and they are always in mixed games,” said Burr. “I just didn’t play a lot of tournaments and I just wasn’t able to learn correctly what these strategies are. It took me the last four years to really put together my knowledge of the games and cater them to a tournament strategy.”
“It’s been a lot of adjusting over the four years. Every year, I was getting closer and a little bit closer and even this year, I’m getting so much closer, but I still haven’t won a bracelet. I’m really grounded in the fact that you should always be changing and looking to adjust your game to the most profitable.”
Regardless of whether or not she breaks through and takes down a bracelet, Burr will never become a tournament grinder. She won’t play many tournaments outside of the summer and will always rely on high-stakes mixed games to put food on her table.
“I’m not going to add tournaments to my schedules because I am a cash game player and that is how I make my living, so I’m going to stick to cash games,” said Burr. “But on my off-days when they have a Day 1 starting on Tuesday, I’m always playing that tournament and probably working to learn that game as well, but it will never be my primary function.”