Matt Hawrilenko. That's a name we hadn't heard in awhile, so imagine our surprise when we saw him at the 2015 World Series of Poker seated in Event #19: $3,000 Limit Hold'em Six-Handed. If you came to poker recently, that name may not ring a bell, but if you were a fan around 2009, then you no doubt remember "Hoss_TBF."
Hawrilenko began playing at the WSOP in 2005, at least that's the year of his first documented cash. That same year, he finished fifth in Event #36 $3,000 Limit Hold'em for $67,235, his first five-figure score. Hawrilenko had success over the next three years, but it wasn't until 2009 when he hit his stride, notching five cashes for a remarkable $1,159,287, which included just over $1 million for winning Event #56 $5,000 No-Limit Hold'em Six-Handed. All told, his performance that year allowed him to finish seventh in the WSOP Player of the Year race (Jeff Lisandro won POY that year after capturing three bracelets).
Hawrilenko returned to the WSOP over the next few years, but then in 2013, after finishing 66th in Event #10: $1,500 Limit Hold'em for $2,455, he essentially disappeared. That is until today.
"This is actually my first time playing poker in like three years, so you know, trying to dust a little bit of the rust off," Hawrilenko tells PokerNews. "Three years ago I retired from poker. Retired is a funny word to use, but I guess it's accurate. I'm going back to grad school, getting the Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so just sort of a big transition. I make it out here when I can, but the summers are more and more packed these days. This is actually the one event I'm out for, so far so good. Well, I played the Turbo, but that hardly counts. So yeah, this is the only one I came out for. It's a lot of fun, and it kind of fit into the schedule, so decided to get out and have a little legroom at the table."
As it turned out, Hawrilenko opted to leave the poker world behind to pursue other opportunities.
"I loved poker," he admits. "It was great, and at the same time I was kind of thinking years down the road. I wasn't sure, for me personally, this was something I wanted to be doing in the next 10, 20, 30 years, so I was coming up on 30 years old and I started thinking about a transition. I made it pretty slowly. I started volunteering in some research labs, which is funny from going to playing poker to being some 24-year-old girl's research assistant. I started volunteering and absolutely fell in love with it, fell in love with the place that I was. It was just kind of easy from there. I kind of wanted to spend my days doing stuff that felt meaningful to me, and you can do that in poker, you can do that in a lot of places, but for me personally I kind of got what I wanted out of poker. Got some flexibility, and so the next step was to spend that flexibility."
It was refreshing to hear a former pro, one who had experienced a great deal of success, to leave poker behind with no regrets.
As Hawrilenko tells it: "I got three years left. No coursework, so I'm just doing clinical work out in Seattle, doing research. Research half time, clinical work half time. It's just fantastic. I actually thought the transition from poker would be pretty hard. Poker's awesome in a lot of ways. When things go well you make good money, real flexible schedule, some of my best friends in the world are here. Just sort of starting over at the bottom of a whole new field, I thought it'd be challenging, but it's just been absolutely natural, comfortable, exciting. I couldn’t really be happier with how I'm spending my day to day, so that's been a real pleasant surprise."
Hawrilenko currently lives in Boston, but he and his wife, who is four months pregnant, have plans to relocate to Seattle in the next month or two. That's where his better half has found a faculty job in academia. As for Hawrilenko, he's not opposed to capturing another gold bracelet while he's in town.
"I actually love the idea, it feels kind of poetic to me — starting off in poker as an amateur, working really hard, doing pretty well, being pro for awhile, taking a break off and then coming back. I'm an amateur here again. I didn't even know if I felt like I had any edge in this field. I'm back as an amateur and it's really enjoyable. There's no pressure, it's not a career, no financial pressure, so it's just fun. As long as it's just fun like that, as long as my friends are still here, I'll be coming out here hopefully for some time every year."
As of this writing, 52 of 319 players remain in Event #19: $3,000 Limit Hold'em Six-Handed. The top 36 will get paid – the winner will take home $230,799 – and Hawrilenko is in the thick of it with a top-ten stack.