Michael Niwinski is a professional poker player, although not the kind you may have heard of, until today.
Today, the 25-year-old psychology grad from Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada who grinds online cash games for a living, finds himself in uncharted territory, deep in the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event, making a name for himself in the top portion of the chip counts heading into the dinner break.
Niwinski is one of thousands of players quietly eeking out a living playing online poker in parts of the world, away from the major tournament spotlight, where it's legal to do so. After graduating from the University of British Columbia in 2015, his part-time poker career was going so well, he decided to take a shot at doing it for a living. Since then Niwinski can be found playing six-max cash games at stakes that range from $2/$4 to $10/$20, on sites including 888poker, and partypoker.
"Anywhere that I can play really, and I'm playing five days a week, grinding, studying, and just trying to live a balanced life," he said.
Niwinski got some coaching from a good friend in 2011, and has been crushing online cash in those mostly under-the-radar stakes ever since. He says the time required for the online multi-table tournament grind is too much for him, but he decided to give the WSOP a shot this summer. He spent a week out here to start out, booking one small cash in a $1,500 buy-in event before taking a week off. When he returned, Niwinski played a full schedule of no-limit hold'em tournaments.
"It went OK," he said. "I didn't make money, but that's how it is in tournaments sometimes. So if I'm here, I figured of course I'm going to play the Main Event. This is actually my first time, so the feeling of making this deep run in my first time, it's honestly indescribable."
So far, things have gone strangely similar each day throughout the tournament, and in the first few levels today, Niwinski exploded into chip lead position.
"The theme for each day for me has kind of been the same," Niwinski described. "It starts out fantastically and then kind of fades out. On Day 3 I doubled up immediately with aces over kings. On Day 4 I shot my chip stack immediately up from 500,000 to 1.1 million, and then today I shot it up from 1.2 million to 5.7 million, after just a couple of key hands that were huge pots. No real strategies. I can't tell you how it happened, it's just awesome."
Basically, Niwinski got paid off with a full house winning a huge pot to climb into contention. Then he moved into the top spot of the counts getting an opponent all in with the nut flush draw and a gutshot versus top two pair. Niwinski turned the flush and faded all trouble on the river to move up to 5.8 million.
Finally, in the level before dinner, he collected soul after shorter-stacked soul, becoming the first player over eight million in chips.
Niwinski says he's focused on playing his game right now, but despite having a degree in psychology, it's not that aspect of the game he focuses on.
"I initially started with an engineering degree for one semester, but that load was too heavy," he said. "I'm definitely more of a mathematically oriented guy. Every time I tell someone that my background is in psychology, they ask if that helps with poker. I would like to think it does a little, because I do like the mindset of getting into someone's head and trying to figure out what's going on, but for the most part I am a math player, I am an online player, and I feel like that's where my biggest edge comes from."
Now playing on one of the feature tables, in front of the ESPN cameras for the first time, Niwinski is simply trying to remain composed under what appears to be the ever-mounting pressure of his Main Event moment.
"When I've actually been playing I don't think the nerves have gotten to me at all," Niwinski said. "Certainly when I've been on break I'bve been feeling like it's all so overwhelming. This is all happening so fast, and I did not expect it. Only time will tell how I'll be able to handle it all, but for now, it's just one step at a time, focus on the game and then whatever happens, happens."
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