2019 World Series of Poker

Before the Game: Sam Razavi the Stage Performer

Sam Razavi
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  • The 2018 Millionaire Maker runner-up reflects on his days as an actor and transition to poker.

The British poker player Sam Razavi might be best known in America for his runner-up finish in the WSOP Millionaire Maker event this summer, where he came second in a field of 7,361 to claim a career-high score of $724,756. He’s also pretty well known as the four-time APPT Player of the Year.

But what you probably don’t know is that he is a trained actor. Before he sat down to play poker, he trod the boards and turned from shy guy to entertainer. Acting would lead him to the game of poker. This is what Sam Razavi did... Before the Game.

Catching the Acting Bug

“The very first time I acted was in a college play. I was taking A Levels in psychology, politics and law. I dropped out and for some reason, I decided I wanted to do drama. I started flunking all the other subjects to do more drama. I was going into college, not going into my psychology class, but going into the library and reading plays and writing plays. I ended up doing a production called Pravda, which was about journalism.”

Razavi got the acting bug and it was a terminal case. He dropped out of school and took a two-year course in acting at the Academy of Creative Training in Brighton.

“I used to be really shy; I don’t know why I decided to do drama. But within a couple of lessons, I’d gone from introvert to extrovert. We did a production of Road by Jim Cartwright. I played a boy who ended up dying. It’s up North, during poverty-stricken 1980’s. It was a really good production for a drama school. It was very well received and all the actors felt it was quite an emotional experience.”

Razavi now has a son, Eli, with his wife, fellow poker player Menchu Ouano. He believes the confidence acting gave him is an important platform for any child in society today.

“I used to be really shy; I don’t know why I decided to do drama."

“It’s such an important thing. My son naturally leans towards performing. My wife’s a singer. She had a contract with Sony records many years ago and I’m into acting. I think it’s a really important thing to introduce everyday social confidence. I think it’s something all parents should push their kids towards, not necessarily for a career, just for that.”

Razavi was coming to the end of his time in Brighton at ACT and he went directly into a professional tour which lasted a year.

“Straight out of drama school, I produced and directed a production of Merchant of Venice in Brighton. Literally, as that finished, I got an audition for a company called White Horse Theatre, based in the West of Germany. I was never into it, but there’s a show called the League of Gentlemen, and the actors from that did the same tour in Germany and a lot of their stuff is based on that. You’d rock up in a strange town and all the locals would stare at you like ‘who are these people?’ That’s where a lot of their inspiration came from.”

From cosy Brighton to a tour of German schools, part of a company of six actors, it’s clear that the camaraderie that would lead to poker was itself hugely fulfilling for the outgoing Brit.

“I look back on it now as fucking madness. We had three one-hour shows a day. The first show might be at 8 am, so you’d need to be setting up at 7 am, so you’d need to get to the school by 6 am and sometimes we’d leave at 5 am. We had a massive fucking map of Germany and a torch, navigating to schools in four foot of snow in Eastern Germany. Three shows a day and each day was different. It was a great tour to set you up as an actor just coming out of drama school.”

Poker Joins the Show

Razavi was in the common room shared by all the actors when one of the company brought out a pack of cards. Razavi’s first game of poker went badly, but he went away and improved so much that by the next time he saw that actor friend, he was keen for a rematch.

“I kept winning and it went up and up. I let him go higher and higher into debt with me, even though I was never going to take his money. It got to the point where he was saying he could pay me from his next week’s wages, ‘...but could we have another game?’ I let him in on the joke and didn’t take any of his money!”

"It was literally like waking up in the morning, clicking buttons and the money was just rolling into my account."

Razavi had improved. In fact, he’d moved up the levels so rapidly that poker was far more lucrative than acting. It was enough to convince Razavi to swap a life in theatres for the neon charm of a life as a poker player. The game was impossible to resist.

“It was hard for me because acting is the thing that I love doing most, but the money that was to be made [in poker], I couldn’t justify the commitment. I knew that my acting would definitely suffer if I was doing rehearsals all day then playing poker until four or five in the morning. The show was going to be shit, I was going to be shit, everything was going to suffer. I just couldn’t justify it. There was no argument really, £250-£300 a week doing theatre tours or £500-£,1,000 a day playing online.”

Suddenly, Razavi was making the kind of money in a month that his fellow actors wouldn’t earn in a year on the boards.

“It felt like if you weren’t playing, you were missing out. If I’d taken three months break from poker, I could’ve made £20,000-£30,000 playing in that time. I should have capitalised more on it to be honest, in terms of investing. It was literally like waking up in the morning, clicking buttons and the money was just rolling into my account. I thought ‘When’s it going to end?’ It kind of has now, in terms of the cash games online.”

Chasing Gold

Despite the obvious switch in how much harder doing what he did a decade ago now is, Razavi doesn’t believe poker has been cracked, or is any harder as a game than it was.

“All this nonsense that the game’s getting harder. I don’t agree with that, because so many more people are getting involved that don’t really understand the game. People are getting too obsessed with GTO nonsense, putting all the numbers through the right tracker. I’ve never used any of that. I couldn’t be arsed to learn it, and also felt like that’s cheating in a way. I don’t get much satisfaction about winning when I’ve got all the numbers in front of me. It's exploitable within itself, but all that aside, I just think it would be fucking boring. I hate numbers and maths, it drives me up the wall.”

"As long as I give myself enough shots, odds are I’ll make a final table again."

Despite his lack of enthusiasm for push/fold ranges or GTO numbers, Razavi’s numbers have continued to rise. In June, he was as close as it gets to winning his first WSOP bracelet. He came second to Arne Kern in the Millionaire Maker, agonizingly close to the gold.

“That was a killer. More so because I thought ‘If I can get heads up against that guy, I’m in jackpot town’ because I felt like he was an open book. He was relatively inexperienced, and I was so sick I didn’t close it out. I had 50 million chips three-handed and they had 20 million between them. I’d trapped [Kern] in a few spots and he was just firing and firing against me and got lucky. On the final hand, he jammed 20 big blinds effective with deuce-four and I snapped him with ace-jack and he got there. He made some excuse about how he misread the stacks.”

Having gotten so close, will Razavi ever have another chance to win a WSOP bracelet? Razavi himself is convinced that he will.

“It’s not easy to make a final table, let alone get heads up and against an opponent where you think you’ve got it locked up. But the great thing about the World Series is that it’s always there every year and there are so many events. As long as I give myself enough shots, odds are I’ll make a final table again. The fields are so big that sometimes when it does whittle down to a final table, there are some people who’ve never been to a final table in their lives. The edge is so big that I think one day when it’s meant to be, it’ll come. Even if poker becomes something I don’t do, I’ll still go to the World Series.”

Sam Razavi
Sam Razavi at the final table of the 2018 WSOP Millionaire Maker with Joe McKeehen.

Acting Tricks at the Poker Table

The personality and entertainment that Razavi brings to any poker table is no accident. Everything in his personality has a use, from acting lessons to fun at the felt.

"I used to rely on acting skills to help me enjoy the game live, because it’s fucking boring. You play a £10 rebuy and people already think they’re in the WPT. They’re either miserable, they’ve done their sacks on the roulette during the break, or noone wants to talk because they think they’re giving away tells. Nonsense. I used to really enjoy livening up the table, crack a few jokes, chat away and it would help me enjoy the game. Within that, I’ve always managed to find a way to extract information from people without them knowing.”

"I’ve always managed to find a way to extract information from people without them knowing.”

The level of performance Razavi has put into his acting performances at the felt, Hollywood always comes calling, whether he’s in Asia, Europe or the states.

“When you’re acting, you have to be very aware of your surroundings and the people around you, but you have to be aware in a subconscious manner. If I put out a massive value bet and make it look like a bluff, I’m looking around, but I’m subconsciously aware of when an opponent is looking at me. I’ll choose the right moment to swallow, which came from my film and TV training. You don’t have to do anything, just that tiny movement in your throat. Me and my friend in Vegas, it was like a Punch and Judy show, the tricks we’d come up with.”

What's Next for Sam Razavi?

When it comes to Sam Razavi’s future, poker and acting will both play a big part. Since returning to live in England, Razavi has shifted back to dedicating more time to the stage than the felt.

“I’ve put more time into getting a couple of auditions for local plays than I have playing poker. But poker in England had gone from a high to a low, and now it seems like it’s back up high again. I want to get back into acting for my own part. If anything comes along, I’ll give the acting preference over poker. But the World Series is always going to be there and that bracelet is what I’ll aim for.”

Sam Razavi may be pursuing roles in both poker and performance, but if anyone can pull off the trick of combining the two, it might just be the man who became a poker player because of his acting. His future in poker will be continue to be aided by who he was — Before the Game.

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