He went from working at a car wash to a World Series of Poker bracelet.
It's been a crazy four years for Craig Varnell, but his poker journey reached its pinnacle — at least to this point — when he won Event #19: $565 Pot-Limit Omaha for $181,790. He got through a field of 2,419 entries in the four-card bonanza to get his first bracelet.
"It's a great feeling that I accomplished something in the thing I do for a living, the highest accomplishment you can get," he said.
Official Final Table Results
|1||Craig Varnell||United States||$181,790|
|2||Seth Zimmerman||United States||$112,347|
|3||Omar Mehmood||United States||$81,852|
|5||Christopher Trang||United States||$44,677|
|7||Shaome Yang||United States||$25,325|
|8||Jason Lipiner||United States||$19,344|
|9||Ilian Li||United States||$14,920|
Varnell said he nearly faded the event after experiencing a terrible run in the Colossus. The Colorado resident estimated he fired eight shells in that one without any luck. He was "over the quick structure" but wound up taking a shot anyway.
This time, Varnell had some good fortune and ran up a stack. At that point, things got easy. He could afford to gamble with the shorter stacks and, because of the nature of PLO equities, he wasn't in terrible shape more times than not.
Going into the final day, Varnell had seen enough of the unofficial final table of 10 the previous night — they had played for a couple of hours with no eliminations — to know his game plan. The most dangerous opponents at the table were former WSOP Main Event champ Jonathan Duhamel and his Canadian compatriot, WPT Montreal champ and chip leader Maxime Heroux.
Varnell would just aim to run everyone else over. That's exactly what happened as he continuously raised, especially after Duhamel took an early hit when he lost half of his stack doubling someone up.
"Everybody was folding to make that final nine," Varnell said. "I opened about 90 percent of the hands and just accumulated over a million chips just raising without having a flop."
Indeed, Varnell scored four of the first five Day 3 eliminations gambling with shorter stacks, often without great cards. A pattern repeated itself: he would raise, they would jam, and he'd often do some rough math and figure if he was committed against what was often aces and get there. Duhamel was one such victim, falling in sixth, though he didn't have the bullets, just better high cards.
"They weren't playing bad, they just knew they had one hand in them and they were folding hands they probably should have been raising," Varnell said. "I just took advantage of the situation and then I just ran good in all-ins.
"I'm not afraid to go for it. It's kind of my M.O., I guess," he said. "I'm not as educated in the game as a lot of people. I just kind of have a feeling for the game. I think it kind of gives me an advantage sometimes when people are so in their heads with math and GTO."
The one big hurdle left was Heroux. He had come in with chips and chipped up a big himself with the other two knockouts heading into four-handed play. Varnell said there seemed to be an unspoken agreement between the two not to butt heads on the way there — when one would fold, the other would raise — but with four left, a confrontation became inevitable.
They played two three-bet pots and both went to Varnell. On the first, Varnell called a three-bet in position and took it away with a big bet postflop when Heroux checked a fairly coordinated board. On the second, Varnell called for about half of Heroux's chips preflop and got top set of queens, then faded aces, a gutter, and a flush draw on the flop.
From there, victory seemed a matter of time. However, Seth Zimmerman put up quite a fight heads up. He started down over 6-1 in chips but doubled several times, even taking a small lead when he flopped top two with a raggedy hand and held against kings.
However, Varnell took it right back when he hit a straight and a bigger set against bottom set to totally crush Zimmerman. Left with crumbs again, Zimmerman scrapped awhile and managed to double twice while short but couldn't fade the river on the final hand as Varnell hit two pair against a strong double-suited Broadway hand.
It's the culmination of a wild journey.
"This is all surreal to me," Varnell said. "This is crazy. Four years ago, I was working at a car wash and now I'm just playing poker for a living. It's pretty amazing.
"Poker saved my life. Before poker, I was in trouble and all kinds of stuff. Poker kind of leveled me out. I met the woman of my dreams. You make a bad decision and you can either keep making bad decisions or you can go another way."
Varnell had played a lot of poker before Black Friday but quit when he could no longer play online. He got back into it a few years ago and had a dream run in 2015. That summer, he put himself on the poker map with an official win in a five-way chop in WPT500 for $185,800 and a third-place finish in the inaugural $1,000 WSOP.com Event.
He's remained a mainstay around the American scene for the last several years. However, he's been on something of a hiatus as he dealt with family issues. Just getting back to the tables, he said, felt like a win. The feeling of a final table was fantastic.
Winning a bracelet left him positively ecstatic.
"I'm just so excited," he said. "You never think when you play poker for a living you're going to get this moment. To win a tournament is so hard to do.
"This is the monumental moment, you made it."