Life in the Rast Lane: Brian Rast's Incredible Poker Journey
Brian Rast didn't exhibit the demeanor of a man who'd be playing poker for more than $1.2 million in a mere 12 hours. But then again, why should he? He'd already won over $7.73 million in tournaments by that point, which included three seven-figure scores. Still, Rast was at the final table of the Aussie Millions Poker Championship — the southern hemisphere's most prestigious event — so one might expect a hint of nervousness.
If there was, Rast didn't betray it. He was reticent yet professional for the interview, which centered on his new training venture, Zen Poker Mentoring. Maybe that's why he wasn't nervous — after all, who would want to take a "Zen" training course from someone who couldn't keep his shit together?
Sitting on a cushioned bench in Melbourne's Crown Complex, Rast talked about the origins of Zen Poker, his passion for teaching, and the inaugural class held in Las Vegas. He was very businesslike, but the more he talked the more the façade disappeared. There was a man behind the poker player, one with a story to tell. Sure, Zen Poker was interesting, but there were other aspects to Rast, ones that needed to be mined.
How did he get his start in poker? How did he stumble upon love in Brazil? What was his relationship like with Phil Hellmuth? And how did he become a part of the "Super Friend" triumvirate alongside Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak?
Despite the impending final table, Rast was willing to answer all of these questions. But first he needed to grab a beer.
The Valedictorian's Vice
Born on November 8, 1981 in Denver, Colorado, Rast was actually raised in Poway, California, which is essentially a suburb of San Diego.
"Just a straight family suburb, you know,” Rast, with newfound beer in hand, says modestly. “A school, places to go shopping, all homes."
You might not guess by looking at him, but Rast was the Class of 2000 valedictorian at Poway High School, an achievement that soon led him to Stanford University. In a different life he might have graduated with a degree, found a traditional career, and toiled away at a nine-to-five. Of course, poker got in the way of that.
"I played a little bit with people in college my junior year at a poker club which a friend of mine started, and went maybe once or twice to a casino — all in all playing very small and more or less breaking even," says Rast. "That summer I bought a couple of books and decided I was going to turn this into a hobby and make some money. I played all cash, no tournaments. I played limit hold'em live in casinos and no-limit online. That summer down in San Diego I started out at the $3/$6 limit game at Barona Casino in San Diego, and playing no-limit on Royal Vegas Poker on the Prima network."
That summer Rast also took a temp job, and in turn used the little money he made to fund his poker habit. Within five weeks, he quit the temp gig. That was when "tsarrast" was born.
"I made about $20K that summer playing cards," says Rast. "After that summer, I didn't care about school anymore. The more I played poker the more I wanted to make money doing it. What did I need a degree for?"
That didn't mean Rast left school right away. On the contrary, he slogged his way through a whole year of higher education before traveling to Europe for two months. He went to the Olympics in Athens, he visited France, England, and Italy, and he even ended up stopping for a few days in Barcelona and Cypress, where he played poker in internet cafes to make enough money to cover the expenses of the trip.
"The very next year in school I quit shortly into the semester,” explains Rast. “I just failed all my classes and quit — on 'Academic Probation' is the current status if I had a status. As far as they're concerned, I'm an alumni because I get all this alumni shit even though I didn't graduate (laughs)."
By that time Rast had built up a bankroll of approximately $100,000, which he deemed the "baseline number" at the beginning of his career.
"I think money management is one of the biggest things when people are starting out,” he offers. “No one is the best player in the world in their first couple years playing poker, but by using good money management you can keep your career going, which a lot of people can't do. Back in college I had gotten up to $200,000, then dropped down to $100,000. Do that again and you can bust. There were a couple different times I'd get up and go back down. Getting back down to around $100,000 is when I'd reevaluate game selection and stuff."
Rast continues, "I knew if I had $100,000 I could always play $10/$20 live cash, $2/$5 on the internet or something. I was crushing those games basically. Not a lot of ups and downs. I was moving up, playing $25/$50 live, even some $50/$100 on the internet, and in those games I was having very big ups and downs. Even with $100K, I could go bust in those games."
Not only was Rast crushing the live scene, he'd also make his mark online finishing third in a PokerStars Sunday Million for $73,490 and third in the Full Tilt Poker FTOPS III Main Event for $114,203.50. Rast was living the high life, and that's when he decided to move to poker's mecca, Las Vegas.
New Friends and Bad Influences
If you're an introvert, it's good to have friends who are a little more outgoing. They help pave the way to new opportunities and experience, which is exactly what Phil Laak, who is undoubtedly an off-the-wall extrovert, did for Rast.
"I met Phil one day playing at the Bellagio," says Rast, who had moved into the famed Panorama Towers. "He's a little more of a grinder," says Rast. "The game was increasing in size or something, and I wasn't going to play, but Phil said he would take a piece of me, which he doesn't do very often. I guess he thought I was playing well and decided to trust me. He took a piece of me and I won in that game. That's how I met Phil."
Not long after, Laak introduced Rast to his friend, a once-aspiring magician.
"Shortly after that, I met Antonio Esfandiari,” Rast says before launching into one of first hands they ever played together, a bad beat of course. “He lived in Panorama also."
According to Rast, it happened in a $50/$100 game and Esfandiari felted him for $20,000. As the story goes, Esfandiari was a loser in the game and got involved with . The flop came down nine-high, and Esfandiari ended up getting his chips in. Rast, who held pocket jacks, called him. Of course a queen hit, and Esfandiari won the pot.
It was a big hit to Rast at the time, but it did lead to a friendship, one that saw Esfandiari putting Rast's number in his phone as "Rastinator JJ Everett" — "Everett" being Rast's middle name.
A few months later, Rast returned to the Bellagio and discovered Esfandiari playing a heads-up $25/$50 game against a fish. Rast took a seat in the game, the two promptly crushed it, and afterwards Esfandiari, who at that time was in the prime of his partying days, invited him out to the club.
"It was sort of a good fit,” Rast says. “We were both single guys living in Vegas looking to have a good time. We kind of just hit it off. We're kind of different people, but it worked in a way. I'm somewhat reserved, and Antonio is a lot more outgoing and makes things happen. Antonio and Phil were already very close friends, so as Antonio and I started hanging out more it meant more time with Phil. I hit it off with both of them on a lot of levels and our friendship naturally evolved as we spent time together. They quickly became two of my closest friends. That's sort of how I met them, the very beginning."
Rast fell headfirst into the party lifestyle, and it became a period he describes as a "downswing in my life." He drank with reckless abandon, lost in what little poker he did play, and lost even more with online poker site Victory Poker, a venture that ultimately shutdown after Black Friday.
By the end of 2009, Esfandiari (who has publicly admitted he wasn't the best of influences) and Rast both knew a change was in order. They couldn't continue to live as hard as they had been and mutually agreed to slow down. They made a no-drinking bet with each other, and in December of that year hired Dave Swanson (a.k.a. "All-American Dave") as their full-time trainer.
Less than a month later, in January 2010, Laak convinced Rast to travel to Brazil with him. It'd be a trip that would change his life in a big way.
Wherever It Takes You — Especially Brazil — The Future Takes Visa
So... that Brazil trip, the one that would change Rast's life. As fate would have it, in the midst of partying at a club he met a girl named Juliana, or Julie for short. You know that old stereotype about girls in Brazil being out-of-this-world sexy and able to dance the Samba? That was Julie. Rast just had to talk to her, but there was one big problem — he didn't speak Portuguese, and she didn't know English.
"I had taken Spanish in high school,” he remembers. “It was pretty bad, but I could say a few basic things. She is fluent in Spanish, so we kind of communicated some in Spanish the night that I met her. Pretty quickly after that we started to use technology to say stuff. That was kind of how it started."
Was it love at first sight? You could say that. The two were inseparable for the rest of the trip, and both wanted it to continue. The question was, how were they going to make it work?
"A lot of perseverance,” Rast says as if there were never any doubt. “Really having a connection with someone and wanting it to happen. I was there with her for four days — the last four days of my trip was when I met her. She stayed with me. We both wanted to continue it. We both actually said I love you in the first four days. When I got back, I was talking to her every day on Skype. We weren't quite sure how it was going to happen. My first plan was to get her a tourist visa and have her come stay with me in the U.S. to see my life. That visa actually got rejected. That was actually the first test because then it was like, 'What are we gonna do?' She was very nervous at that point that things weren't going to work out."
Still, Rast was determined.
Upon returning to the U.S., the two continued talking on Skype every day, during which time Rast began to learn Portuguese. It was a challenge.
"You have to have a really high level of motivation for it," Rast declares, seemingly reluctant to talk about how gruesome it was learning a new language. "I was doing all the copy/paste translating. You do that for hours and you start to pick things up. She didn't get a visa for a year-and-a-half, so I made like 10 trips down there. Her family and friends didn't speak English, so I got thrown into a situation where I kind of had to try and talk with them. You just have to make do, and it made me learn. Once you start learning, then it gets easier."
Between all the traveling and spending at least 15 hours a week on the Internet when home, Rast's party days drifted further and further into the past. He had something else, something better, to put his time and energy into. He was in love with Julie, and in this case it came with a bonus — her six-year-old son, Krishna. There was never any doubt — Rast was willing to be a dad. On his second trip to Brazil, which happened in March 2010, things solidified.
Julie still hadn't received a visa, so Rast renewed his and traveled back to Brazil later that year with two of his friends. Julie rounded up a couple of her friends, and together they all traveled the country. "Whatever it takes," Rast told himself after that trip. He proposed in the autumn of that same year, and immediately had Julie apply for a fiancé visa.
It takes a long time for such a visa to either be approved or denied, and with the 2011 World Series of Poker rapidly approaching, Julie's interview was scheduled. It would take place at the U.S. embassy in Brazil, and of course Rast wanted to be there. The only problem was the date was during the $10,000 Main Event. If the numerous trips back and forth weren't enough to convince his poker-playing friends that Rast was serious about this girls, skipping the biggest tournament of the year for her sure did. It's the ultimate sacrifice a poker player can make.
"I didn't play because if I did well in it I would have had to leave," says Rast. "The morning of the interview we couldn't find something important — I misplaced her passport or something — and we ended up being 30 minutes late. We had to reschedule the interview for two weeks later, which means basically for no reason I missed the Main Event that year. It's the only year I've missed the Main Event since I started playing. I missed it for a good reason, but it turned out I wouldn't have had to."
Even though Rast missed the Main Event that year, the 2011 WSOP proved to be one that would change his life. There's no doubt in Rast's mind that meeting Juliana was a big part of that.
"If I hadn't met her, maybe I would have went back to partying, who knows what I would have done?” Rast expounds. “Once I met her, I kept working out, I kept doing all this stuff. I'm in better shape than I was five years ago. I've done better in poker. I'm a lot more focused. I used to play more, but sometimes I'd get worn out and do dumb stuff, like gamble just for the sake of it. Now when I play, I'm more often on my 'A' game — almost never a 'C' game session, anymore. It's definitely been pretty big, and a lot of it has been her. Men fall in love and become more motivated with a lot of other things in life."
The Summer That Changed His Life, Professionally Speaking
Eventually Julie did receive a visa, and along with her son joined Rast in Las Vegas. Preceding that though, Rast had launched into the stratosphere of poker stardom.
He may have had only three cashes at the 2011 WSOP, but two of them were wins. On June 9, Rast scored his first gold bracelet by defeating Allen Kessler heads up to win Event #15: $1,500 Pot-Limit Hold'em for $226,232. Four days later, he placed 42nd in Event #23: $2,500 Eight-Game Mix for a modest $4,883, and a few weeks later Rast notched the biggest score of his career, more than $1.7 million, after topping a field of 128 of the world's best players to win Event #55: The Poker Players' Championship. Aside from the Main Event, it's the most prestigious tournament one can win at the WSOP. Not only did Rast take it down, he did so by defeating the most decorated player in WSOP history, Phil Hellmuth.
Rast reflects, "Getting heads up with Hellmuth was awesome. Just to contrast, I had won a bracelet that summer. It was off on some side table. Honestly, after I won, it wasn't like I celebrated. The money was nice, but it's not like it was a ton. It was pretty small for a bracelet tournament. It was great to have won my first bracelet, although I didn't really appreciate it as much at the time. That was likely because neither the final table experience nor the money felt special. Whereas the $50K was not only at the real final table, it was being televised on ESPN. It was the first time I'd been at a major final table that was going to be on TV with hole-card cameras — definitely more pressure. After I won, it was probably the only time in my career that resulted in pure unadulterated celebration. It was a totally different experience. Way better. That's the experience you're going for. To this day it's definitely my most memorable accomplishment in poker."
Rast played spoiler to many in attendance hoping to see Hellmuth win his then-record 12th bracelet, doing so by mounting one of the greatest comebacks in WSOP history.
Hellmuth had dominated 90 percent of heads-up play and pulled out to nearly a 4.5-to-1 chip lead. Then, on a flop, Rast got his chips in holding against Hellmuth's , meaning Hellmuth had a 47.78-percent chance of capturing the title. The "Poker Brat" ended up missing his plethora of outs, and Rast had doubled up. Not long after, Rast faded another flush draw when he got it in with against Hellmuth's on a flop. Suddenly, the stacks were even.
Then, on a flop, Rast bet 500,000 and Hellmuth moved all in.
"I'm sorry, Phil, I have the nuts. I call," Rast said as he stood and tabled . Hellmuth then showed for his third flush draw, but for the third time he would be left wanting as the blanked on the turn followed by the on the river. Despite taking home $1,063,034 — his first seven-figure score ever — Hellmuth was disappointed, and in true "Poker Brat" form verbalized his frustration.
"I love Brian Rast, but it is kind of tough to watch a third person with my bracelet and piles of cash over there taking pictures," Hellmuth told ESPN after the loss. "To have a massive chip lead here and not win, it's brutal. But you take your hat off to the tournament, it's a great event, and you take your hat off to Brian, he's a great guy."
For Rast's part, he knew that lady luck smiled upon him.
"I definitely wasn't one of the favorites in the $50K field," Rast admits. "I was a big-bet player, didn’t have much mixed-game experience. I got through the field, and then that final table was no-limit hold'em. I was pretty happy with how I played. I had a couple really nice hands at the final table, and got lucky. You always have to get lucky."
Since then, both Rast and Hellmuth have developed a mutual respect for one another. They even go out to eat together from time to time, and square off in an occasional game of open-face Chinese (OFC) poker.
"I think over the years I've earned Phil's respect for my game,” Rast says. “Phil's got a thing that he tries to do, I don't know how conscious it is, where if someone is an aggressive player and is going to make life difficult for him, he'll try to verbally berate them and change what they're doing. He has a lot he can gain out of that. People will play badly against him, maybe they'll stop or do it more. I think he's good at gauging that difference, how people are reacting to his berating, the 'I'm going to trap you,' 'Oh, keep raising.' It can be off-putting. He definitely wants to be the table captain."
Rast continues, "I thought Phil played quite well in that tournament. He made a really good fold of top pair of kings to me when I had a set, and he called my hand out. He does things very differently. I think the way he plays is extremely effective against weaker players. He's always doing exploitative shit, and the problem is that gives away information about what you have. So against really strong players and hand readers, if he's trying to do that stuff too much, it makes him a little bit easier to play against. But it does allow him to exploit weak players. He does have a very good intuition about what's going on. He does the table captain thing. Daniel Negreanu does a lot of that, too. Talking to people and getting an emotional reaction out of them, and then he knows what that means they're going to do. Phil is one of the best at that along with Daniel and Antonio. All three do that and get a lot out of it."
In the years since that big summer, Rast married Julie and has continued to find tournament success. In 2012, he played the inaugural $1,000,000 Big One for One Drop and finished sixth for $1,621,333 before adding to his poker résumé by winning the 2013 World Poker Tour Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Poker Classic $100,000 buy-in High Roller for $1,083,500; taking down the 2014 Bellagio $25,000 High Roller IV for $289,119; finishing third in the 2014 Alpha8 Las Vegas for $755,370; and ultimately taking fifth in the aforementioned 2015 Aussie Millions Main Event for $248,893.
Macau, the Big Game, and a $3-Million Pot
In addition to establishing himself as a force in tournament poker, Rast had made a name for himself in the realm of high-stakes cash games. In fact, prior to his big outing in 2011 he'd been playing the nosebleeds ($200/$400 and $500/$1,000 half pot-limit Omaha and pot-limit hold'em) for years on Full Tilt, and was well known in the big live games at Bellagio.
Rast even played in the legendary Macau "Big Game."
He wouldn't reveal many details about that game, which tends to be shrouded in secrecy, but he did say he's played it a few times. That is, before the game underwent some big changes.
You see, Paul "MalACEsia" Phua and Richard Yong used to be the catalysts for the games. The “bigger” game was held in the Neptune Room and a "smaller" game in an outer room at Winfred Yu's Poker King Club (PKC) at StarWorld. Now, the PKC has relocated to Venetian Macau, and neither Phua, who is currently facing illegal sports-betting charges in Las Vegas, nor Yong are allowed in Macau for reasons not associated with poker. For all intents and purposes, the Macau Big Game as the poker world knew it is dead.
Still, Rast had nothing but good things to say about the Macau patriarchs.
"They're playing against good players, they realize that," says Rast. "They're seeing what the pros are doing. They like the challenge. It's part of the reason they do the high roller thing. They're competitive. Poker is something they've made a serious part of their life, and they're trying to get better at it."
Rast went on to say that Phua was likely the more accomplished cash-game player, due in no small part to his experience online, but that Yong had done a little bit better in tournaments. Interestingly, Yong won the AU$100,000 Challenge at the 2015 Aussie Millions while Rast was saying this.
"They're professionals in their own right," Rast adds. "They've both won money in the game of poker."
It's that level of respect that's no doubt contributed to Rast getting an invite to the game, at least the outer one.
"I got to play the outer game. I never played the Neptune game," Rast admits. "I was in Macau and sometimes they sort of needed players and I was around and knew people. Paul and Richard liked me enough. I give action. Sometimes in those situations you might get the invite over someone else not because you're worse or better, but because they know you better and like you. From what I've been told, Paul and Richard think I'm a very good player. I was getting to play even though they apparently think I'm one of the best players. Compared to a lot of people, I give action. I'm a pretty active player. They like people who are gambling with them and not just being a nit. I've gotten in there and gotten crazy with some of them sometimes."
Rast went on to cite the following example:
"Another thing I definitely like doing, if there is someone I know isn't good, I will give them action,” he says. “If they raise and everyone else folds, I will defend my big blind with almost any two. This play may be slightly losing, but they see me playing hands with them. There was a session one time with Rono Lo. He came and sat down in the VIP seat. I was to his left and gambling crazy with him. I sucked out on him in two big pots in the session. He was upset and wanted to play heads-up. I actually played him heads-up three to four hours. He was beating me, then I made a small comeback winning back 25 percent of what I was down. He then switched out with his friend, 'Mr. Six.' We played for an hour or two and broke even. Then we quit. The next day everyone in Macau knew the story, that Rono beat me. It was obviously a good story for him. It happens (laughs)."
Rast continues, "The Chinese guys, those guys are real, true gamblers. They've been gambling at poker and other stuff their whole lives. They like people who play. They don't like people who complain and whine. They would hate to play with Phil Hellmuth. You take your beat like a man. You lose, you win, you just take it like a man — that's what they like. I take my punches pretty good at the tables. I never really get upset. The only time I ever have a problem at the table is if it's interpersonal, not cards. That to them is the biggest thing. They're really gamblers. That's what they want and that's who they want to play with. That's probably number one, even above giving action. You don't complain after losing a big pot, you just move on to the next one. Especially if you're a pro."
Speaking of giving action, Rast elaborated on a big hand he played against the "Chairman," an unknown Macau businessman who has attained near-mythical status in poker forums. The Chairman likes to play big, and this game, which took place at ARIA in Vegas, had stakes of $2,000/$4,000 and the minimum buy-in was $500,000. Rast, who had sold some action, bought in for twice that.
"I did play it in May when the Chairman was there — I played two times," Rast says with extreme hesitance. In one hand, which happened two hours into the game, the Chairman raised from the small blind and Rast three-bet from the big blind holding pocket kings. A call was made, and the flop came down . The Chairman checked, Rast bet, and the Chairman raised. That prompted Rast to reraise.
"I decided on the flop to three-bet and go with it rather than just all," Rast explains. "I have no idea what his hand is. If a flush card comes, I'm not going to have any idea. He check-raised small. He could have any pair on the board and gutter or straight draw — I have no idea. I just felt like he might get some hands in incorrectly. If blanks come off, I'm not going to want to fold my hand."
The Chairman ended up shoving all in and Rast called to create a pot of over $3 million. Chairman said he only wanted to run it once.
"It all happened pretty fast," says Rast. "It came out pretty good for me on the whole, like and then . He's a big slow-roller. I didn't want to show my hand, but I have a big hand so I better just show. The last thing I want is to make him show the losing hand when I have kings. He could get pissed at me, even though he shouldn't be, maybe he does. Why piss him off? I'll take the slow-roll pain."
Rast showed his kings and breathed a massive sigh of relief when Chairman rapped the table and showed for a missed open-ended straight draw. Even so, Rast had a great deal of respect for the Chairman for putting him in the pressure cooker.
Of course, one of the game's foundations is privacy, so Rast wasn't willing to talk about who was in the game, who won or lost, and so on. Rast was only willing to share a bit of his own experience, and even that may have been too much. After all, a pro wants to get invited back, so that was all he had to say on the matter.
On to the Next One
Nowadays, Rast lives in Vegas with his family, though they also have a place in Brazil so Julie can visit her family.
"My wife goes to Brazil more than I do,” says Rast. “She goes once or twice a year without me. Also during the summer, she and our son go down before me during the WSOP. I usually go after I'm done. I was in Brazil more when we were dating, but since we've gotten married it's been a little bit less. I'm probably in Brazil maybe one to two months a year. This was actually the first Christmas we didn’t go down there for the holidays. We'll probably be there again next year for that."
Rast actually foresees himself spending more time in Brazil, especially if the game continues to grow in that market. In fact, he hopes to travel to the next Brazilian Series of Poker, which has blown up in recent years.
"If I can do well in poker down there, maybe there will be opportunities," says Rast. "I speak Portuguese, my wife is Brazilian, so there are more reasons I could have something happen there than somewhere else."'
In the meantime, Rast will continue to ply his poker trade by playing cash games in Vegas, traveling to various tournaments (he's never played in an European Poker Tour event), and putting his energy into Zen Poker. First and foremost, though, he'll be spending time with his family, because for him, that's what it's all about.
*Photos from Facebook with Rast's permission.
Executive Editor US, PokerNews Podcast co-host & 2013 WSOP Bracelet Winner.