In the post-Black Friday poker world, it is unusual for new poker stars to emerge from the woodwork. While there have been some notable tournament winners in recent months, the lack of sponsorship opportunities has made it difficult for them to garner the recognition they deserve. It seems the best way to make a name for oneself these days is simple: find success and don’t stop. Sam Barnhart has done just that, going from relative obscurity to becoming the World Series of Poker Circuit National Champion and amassing $835,033 in cashes — all in only six months.
Barnhart first appeared on our radar in February at the World Series of Poker Circuit Harrah’s Tunica Main Event when he navigated a field of 480 players to make the final table, which he began sixth in chips. Two weeks earlier, Barnhart finished 21st in Event #5 $345 No Limit Hold’em for a modest $2,432, so it was no surprise that the $13,789 guaranteed prize money for making the final table meant a lot to him, especially when you consider how he came to enter the event.
In an interview with PokerNews shortly after the event, Barnhart related the story: "It was the greatest experience and one of the freakiest stories. I had packed up, checked out of the hotel, was on my way home, and in a split moment decided to drop by the poker room, and Teresa [who works there] had a $180 satellite going. I had $300 left and decided to get into that, and ended up winning the single-table satellite. From there, I parlayed it in to where I am today."
As fate would have it, Barnhart’s tight-aggressive game was enough to get him heads up against Jesse White. In their final hand, Barnhart raised to 250,000 with , White moved all-in for around 3,000,000 holding , and Barnhart snap-called. The board ran out , and Barnhart captured the $148,612 first-place prize. In addition, he also booked a ticket to the inaugural WSOP-C National Championship $1,000,000 Freeroll in May.
Barnhart expressed his excitement regarding the National Championship: “That is an opportunity that is a part of any poker player’s dreams. Just like it is winning one of these rings. Yeah, maybe you’re going to be a little intimidated dealing with some of the top players that have had some extreme successes, but it’s an opportunity I think that any poker player would love to have.”
While Barnhart experienced a fairytale ending by parlaying $180 into a fortune, his incredible story was far from over.
How It All Began
Even before his win in Tunica, Barnhart was no stranger to poker. In fact, he discovered the game decades earlier when he did what many children his age did — he watched his father.
“The story is that when I was a young, little kid, my dad had a hunting club, and I started watching him. We’re talking eight, nine years old. By the time I was 11, I was already playing poker. We were playing five-card draw, seven-card stud, and whatnot. The kids would get together and we would play poker, so I was kind of raised up in the poker atmosphere as far as my dad and the hunting club, all the guys getting together playing poker, and watching them.
"After that, throughout the years, I played off and on. Of course I went to college, I didn’t play, and when Tunica started up with casinos, I started playing there a little bit off and on. When the poker tour started up, that’s when I really got seriously involved in it. Probably around 2001 to 2002, that’s when I started really hitting the books and started researching game theory.”
After working as a welder in his early twenties, Barnhart attended college where he earned an associate degree in computer science, and later a degree in biology at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway. From there, Barnhart spent 15 years working in informatics, a field that combined both of his degrees, before landing a position with the Arkansas Department of Education. While there, Barnhart worked with computers, compiling statistics like the state’s graduation ratio, and engaging in your run-of-the-mill analysis work. All the while, Barnhart cultivated his limit game in nearby Tunica.
Before the start of the 2011 World Series of Poker, the WSOP Circuit culminated in the National Championship at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The field was comprised of 100 players who qualified for the tournament throughout the WSOP-C season including notables Andy Frankenberger, Ali Eslami, Brandon Adams, Steve Brecher, David “Doc” Sands, Steve Zolotow, Dwyte Pilgrim, and Bernard Lee. Needless to say, Barnhart faced some stiff competition.
The Arkansas native managed to lay low and ground his way to the top 35 on the first day of the event. On Day 2, Barnhart kicked into high gear and amassed a decent stack, which he rode all the way to the final table. Coincidentally, he began that final table sixth in chips,the same position in which he began the Tunica final table. On a nationally televised stage, Barnhart held steady, and slowly but surely his opponents hit the rail. Soon, he was heads up against WSOP-C Hammond Champion James Anderson. The two began heads-up play with even stacks, but Barnhart managed to cripple Anderson when his outdrew his opponent’s . Not long after, Barnhart emerged as the improbable National Champion, $300,000 richer.
PokerNews caught up with Barnhart shortly after that win:
Barnhart was awarded a WSOP gold bracelet, the first of 2011, for his victory, so it was only natural that he’d try to capture the last one in the $10,000 Main Event. That particular tournament attracted 6,865 players, creating a prize pool of $64,531,000, meaning Barnhart’s chances of success were minimal; however, overcoming staggering odds seemed to be the National Champion’s forte.
Barnhart used his experience and momentum to survive the first two days of the Main Event, leading to a hand on Day 3 that earned Barnhart the respect of the poker masses. In the hand, Barnhart four-bet preflop to 55,000 with only to have Denilson Menezes move all-in for 150,000. As the ESPN cameras rolled, Barnhart tanked for a long time before folding his hand face up. The table was stunned at the laydown, and at Freddy Deeb’s insistence, Menezes revealed his hand to the cameras — ! Not only had Barnhart made the correct decision, but he did so in what many consider the toughest spot in poker.
“I have gotten more notoriety over dropping those kings than I did on the National Championship,” Barnhart explained. “On that particular play, and I have to go by each play . . .. I use each individual play as an entity in itself. So, on that particular play, it really took a long time. You’ll notice on TV I asked if they could call a clock on me. Obviously it’s tough to lay down the second best pair that you can possibly get, but at the same time when you know that you feel you’re beat, my opinion is throw the hand away. There’s always a next time.
“It was a tough lay down and I almost didn’t, and if it had been Ben Lamb or anybody else at the table, I probably wouldn’t have. With this guy . . . he’s from Brazil, Brazilians are not really crazy players, they’re not overly aggressive players like you have in some other countries, and I’ve been playing with this guy, and I came to the conclusion that is the only hand he could have had the way that he played the hand out . . . When you feel that you’re beat, you just have to lay the hand down . . . thank God I had the discipline to drop a big hand like that.”
Barnhart, no doubt energized with confidence, proceeded to navigate the massive field into Day 4 . . . then Day 5 . . . all the way to Day 8 when only 22 players remained. Seated at the feature table, Barnhart had his eyes set firmly on the November Nine. Unfortunately for him, his amazing run came to an end in 17th place. It happened when Barnhart raised to 550,000 from middle position only to have Pius Heinz reraise all-in from the small blind for 5.51 million. Barnhart called off for around 4.025 million total, and he discovered the grim news.
There was no miracle for Barnhart as the board ran out , and with a big smile on his face, he grabbed his familiar Bellagio hat and removed it as a big round of applause rained down from the spectators. Barnhart seemed content and appreciative with all that poker had given him over the past six months, including his biggest cash to date, a cool $378,796.
Check out our interview with Sam Barnhart after he cracked the top 20:
Even though he ultimately came up short of the November Nine, Barnhart had the opportunity to play with many of the players who went on to make it. When asked who he thought would be the next world champion, Barnhart said, “I think that if Ben Lamb continues on his run like he’s been on, I think anybody at that table can win it, don’t get me wrong, but I think if Lamb continues the way he’s been going, he’s a very good player, I have high respect for Ben Lamb . . . [he’s] probably one of the favorites there, and I wouldn’t disagree it. If I had to pick anybody, it would be him.”
Barnhart’s journey to poker triumph was as implausible as it was incredible. Not only that, but it was made all the more special by his age. In an era when poker has been invaded by young online superstars, Barnhart proved that your average 50-year-old, good ol' southern boy can still get it done. Perhaps his initial win could have been chalked up to luck, but Barnhart dispelled such notions by continuing to put together impressive scores, proving that a combination of experience, wisdom, and a willingness to learn goes a long way in poker.
“I really think I’ve shined a light on the middle age, especially those that may consider a life after work, going into poker, changing careers,” Barnhart reflected. “I think that age comes where you have the wisdom, but at the same time you think you’ve got enough that you can succeed in what you’re doing. Well poker’s just not that way, and you have to have the ability to accept, ‘hey look, I still have to learn.’”
Now 51, Barnhart views his success as an opportunity to pursue one of his dreams: to make a living from playing poker full time. While Barnhart contemplated moving to Las Vegas even before his Tunica win, the success he experienced in six months not only gave him the bankroll to actually do it, but the confidence, as well. When we last spoke to Barnhart, he had just finished a move to Sin City and addressed the change in scenery:
“It’s different, it’s definitely different from Arkansas. It’s something that I’m having to get used to, but it’s definitely a poker player’s playground. The games out here give you a better variety of games to play, and I’m a limit player, a red-chip limit player, so you definitely have an opportunity to at least give different games a chance to see how well you can do.”
Aside from relocating to Vegas, Barnhart is busy making preparations for other poker outings. Right now, he is in Biloxi, Mississippi, for a tournament and a working vacation. He will also be playing the World Poker Tour event in Reno, citing the desire for a WPT win as his primary motivation, and may even make the trip to Cannes, France, for the WSOP Europe.
If the first half of 2011 is any indication, we’re sure we’ll hear even more from Barnhart in the second half.
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