PokerStars is celebrating its 20th Anniversary: 20 years as the best known and most trusted online poker site.
To join the celebrations here at PokerStars Blog, we are looking back year-by-year on those two decades, noting the landmarks and remembering all the remarkable moments, fitting them into the wider landscape of poker’s sensational development.
Today we go back to 2014, a year in which Dan Colman won the EPT Monte Carlo Super High Roller and Fedor Holz won the WCOOP Main Event. Both victories kickstarted two of poker’s most amazing winning streaks, and in this article we consider that incredible art. Win, win, win. So much winning.
Dan Colman just couldn’t stop winning.
At EPT Monte Carlo in April 2014, Colman picked up $2.1 million for beating a field of 50 entries in the €100K buy-in Super High Roller event. But then two months later in Las Vegas, he won $15.3 million in the Big One For One Drop, and followed up with scores of $800K, $1.1 million, $1.4 million, $960K, and $374K before the year was up. It was a winning streak like none that had been seen before.
In October of that year, Fedor Holz won the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) Main Event on PokerStars for $1.3 million. Throughout the next couple of years, Holz secured six-figure live tournament scores on more than 20 occasions, including five seven-figure results. Holz seemed to take up directly where Colman left off.
A few years later, Justin Bonomo did something similar, taking over at the top of the all-time money list. But he was knocked off the perch by Bryn Kenney, thanks to a remarkable streak of his own. Etc., etc., etc. Yadda, yadda, yadda. You probably know the story by now.
If you’ve paid any attention to high stakes tournament poker over the past seven or eight years, you’ll be all too familiar with the nature of the winning streak. Seemingly out of nowhere, a top player rises above his peers and begins to win absolutely everything: millions upon millions of dollars, all going to one person.
At time of writing (November 2021), the Australian Michael Addamo is deep in the latest streak. Since September, Addamo has picked up tournament wins of $680K, $1.16 million, $322K, $3.4 million, $544K, $1.13 million, $219K and $1.96 million. In comparison with other eras, there isn’t even that much poker being played at the moment. But in customary style, Addamo is winning everything around, including two bracelets. He can’t be stopped.
But what exactly is going on here? How are these streaks possible? It’s certainly a subject that has been talked about before.
“People ask me this a lot and it’s really, really simple,” Holz told me during an interview in 2018, when I asked him how he accounted for his incredible streak. “I was one of the best players and I ran very good. That’s the whole story.”
When I put the same question to Bonomo, his explanation sounded familiar: “It was a combination of factors. I’ve been working incredibly hard on my poker game, I’ve been studying with some of the best players in the world, and at the end of the day it was a lot of luck as well.”
So there you have it: skilful players running well. But is there more to it than that?
In simple terms, probably not. Holz and Bonomo also admitted that what happened to them could have happened to a number of players, somewhere between 10 and 20 of the very top players in the world. When you think about it, would anyone have been surprised to hear of the same kind of thing happening to Stephen Chidwick? Mikita Badziakouski? Christoph Vogelsang? Sam Greenwood? Tim Adams? David Peters? It’s far from an endless list, but most poker fans could comfortably name at least 15 players for whom a ridiculous winning streak would not seem out of the question.
The crucial fact is that most of the spectacular runs take place in super high roller tournaments, which have small fields of mostly the same players. Many of those players are the elite, the world’s very best tournament talents, whose games are as close to perfect as it is possible for humans to get. And in these specific circumstances, it becomes a simple matter of mathematics.
“Someone is going to have a lot of wins in that environment, it’s inevitable,” said Daniel Negreanu, when I asked him about the nature of winning streaks. “It’s just how standard deviation works.”
At the time I was asking all these questions, I was reporting an article for the UK’s Guardian newspaper about the world of super high roller poker and I was talking to the best players in the world. Negreanu had fairly recently tweeted that he had let himself get left behind slightly by advancements in the game, as the top players embraced solvers and relentless study. Negreanu said it wasn’t as much fun as a previous era. The top players treated it like a very serious job.
Although Negreanu was less than enamoured by the super high roller world at the time (he latterly changed his mind), he offered an astute commentary for the layman about what was going on. Negreanu said to imagine a bag containing 40 bingo balls, each with a unique number. These are our super high roller players. Then, you draw them randomly from a bag 50 times, representing 50 super high roller tournaments in a calendar year.
“You’re going to notice patterns,” Negreanu said. “You’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, number three is amazing. Number three came up so much more often than everything else.’ That’s not to say there’s not skill, because there is, [but] luck plays a major factor in anyone having a run like that.”
Negreanu is right. Try it, using a site like Random.org, for example. If you ask it to pick a random number between 1 and 30 on even 30 occasions, there’s almost always one number that gets picked three or four times. If you reduce the number of balls — i.e., you slim down the field of players good enough to win — and increase the number of events — perhaps to represent the ever-growing super high roller tournament scene — then streaks become even more pronounced.
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“If you have one-day events, where blinds go up quickly, you’re going all in a lot, the cards can make you look like a genius and they can make you look like a fool,” Negreanu said. “We overestimate the skill level required in these events to separate the player who’s hot of late versus the other ones who are possibly playing even better, but not having the luck in the right situations.”
None of the other super high rollers I spoke with disagreed with this general assessment, but we also spoke about the amount of work it takes to get to the level where you’re playing these kind of events, where you become a bingo ball in this very exclusive bag.
At the time, study with solver software was becoming the norm, embraced in particular by the tight-knit poker crews who shared knowledge and experience, pooling their massive intellect. The same players were the most attractive propositions for backers, and they were able to limit their exposure to risk by picking up lucrative staking deals.
This became a clear meritocracy, where so much of poker’s variance was removed. For any one player, tournament poker is an exceptionally volatile world: one can play perfectly for an entire year and simply not get the breaks at the right time. But for a team of eight, nine or ten players, combining their resources and spreading their risk, there’s a very good chance that at least one or two of them go on heaters, bringing home the bacon for the rest. These teams don’t just let in anyone, though. They are open to the most committed and most skilful, those who can bring something positive to the team. Thus the best players clutch together and their chances of winning increase even more.
In discussing their streaks, Holz and Bonomo were both very keen to credit their network of friends, colleagues, coaches and peers with whom they had learned the game and refined their skills. Streak players tend to emerge from these groups.
It’s tempting to try to determine whose streak was the very best, but there is no impartial arbiter who can provide an answer. Even poker’s in-built scoring system — i.e., the “winnings” column on a database — is unreliable as it does not take into account buy-ins lost, nor staking and swapping arrangements. There’s also no agreement as to how wide we can throw the net, how many months or years we’re allowed to count when thinking about a streak.
For all that, Colman, Holz, Bonomo and Kenney are the names most commonly mentioned when talking about streaks of this kind, with Addamo now challenging them strongly. There are also a couple of streaks worth talking about over and above those from the super high roller era.
Negreanu’s tournament resume from 2004 is still one of the best ever seen in the game — five six-figure scores, two of seven figures, including a bracelet and two WPT titles — as it came when fields had reliably more than 300 players and buy-ins were $15K max.
Dan Smith’s 2012 was also, in his word, “wild”. It started with victory in the Aussie Millions AU$100K Challenge in January, and included three outright wins inside of a week, all in $5K side events at EPT Monte Carlo. He won a super high roller at EPT Barcelona that summer too.
There was also a period during 2015/16 when Dzmitry Urbanovich was untouchable on the EPT, winning four side events in Malta (including a $25K), finishing top four in each of his first three super high rollers, and then winning the EPT Dublin Main Event. (Urbanovich also has six WCOOP titles.)
Below are the highlights from some of the best-known streaks, where only wins of $500K or more or included. (It’s mad that we can even set such a restriction: $500K is a tournament score that would change most player’s lives.) Judge for yourself which was the best…
DAN COLMAN – 2014-15
$111K One Drop – 3rd – $1.54m
£60K WPT Alpha8 London – 1st – $957K
€50K SHR EPT Barcelona – 2nd – $1.2 million
$5K Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open – 1st – $1.4 million
$100K Aria SHR – 3rd – $796K
€1 million One Drop – 1st – $15.31 million
€100K SHR EPT Monte Carlo – 1st – $2.13 million
FEDOR HOLZ — 2014/2017
HK$400K PokerStars Championship Macau SHR – 2nd – $869K
$50K SHR EPT Barcelona – $1.47 million
$111K One Drop, Las Vegas – 1st – $5 million
$50K Aria Super High Roller – 1st – $637K
$300K Super High Roller Bowl, Las Vegas – 2nd – $3.5 million
$100K WPT Alpha8 – 1st – $1.6 million
$200K Triton Series Philippines – 1st – $3.1 million
$10K WCOOP Main Event – 1st – $1.3 million
JUSTIN BONOMO – 2018
Big One for One Drop WSOP – 1st – $10 million
$300K Super High Roller Bowl – 1st – $5 million
HK$2 million Super High Roller Bowl Macau – 1st – $4.8 milliom
$25K Lucky Hearts Poker Open – 1st – $557K
$100K PCA SHR – 2nd $1.1 million
BRYN KENNEY – 2019
£1 million Triton Helping Hand – 2nd – $20.5 million
HK$1 million Triton Montenegro – 1st – $2.7 million
HK$500K Triton Montenegro – 1st – $1.4 million
HK$2 million Triton Jeju – 2nd – $3.1 million
HK$ 500K Triton Jeju – 1st – $500K
$10K Aussie Milllions – 1st – $914K
MICHAEL ADDAMO – 2021
$100K WSOP High Roller – 1st – $1.96 million
$15K Aria High Roller Series – 1st – $219,300
$50K WSOP High Roller – 1st – $1.13 million
$200K Aria High Roller Series – 3rd – $544,000
$300K Super High Roller Bowl – 1st – $3.4 million
$100K Poker Masters – 1st – $1.16 million
$50K Poker Masters – 1st – $680K