For poker players, there is no bigger prize than winning a gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker.
The annual poker spectacle features 61 tournaments culminating with the No Limit Texas Hold’em World Championship, which is broadcast on ESPN. The 60 preliminary tournaments also offer a chance at poker glory and big money.
And in early June, St. Charles native Brent Wheeler beat a field of 645 players to win his first bracelet and $191,605. The win came in Limit Hold’em, a version of the game with fixed betting limits.
The win was a dream come true for the 27-year-old, who is no stranger to poker success. Wheeler staged two comebacks to win the title. He began play at the final table seventh in chips, and – when playing heads-up – his opponent had a 2-to-1 chip advantage at one point.
“It was a big relief. Every break, I would walk over to my supporters and say, ‘I just want to win,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t about the money, the difference between first and second wasn’t going to change my life. I just hate to lose, especially after coming so close.”
A win at the WSOP validates a professional poker player’s career, Wheeler said. Several friends were in attendance at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Growing up, Wheeler said he had a great family with three brothers and two sisters. His parents have been married for more than 25 years, and they were all very close and always competitive. Wheeler competed in all sports, and also was driven at school and work.
“While I was quite lazy at school, I did what I had to do to stay at the top of the class GPA-wise to make sure I could get into a good school,” he said.
Wheeler served for a time as a St. Charles Country Club caddie and later attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study actuarial science. At that point, however, poker was consuming more of his time, he said.
Playing online poker since age 16, Wheeler raised and bluffed online and in home games.
By age 18, he was playing live tournaments in Minnesota’s Canterbury Park and at European Poker Tour stops. College got put on the back burner.
“I rarely went to class. I would grind online in my dorm during the day and then go out at night. My natural intelligence and strong short-term memory allowed me to cram for tests and still pull off good grades. I made the dean’s list at least once,” he said. “I paid for college out of my pocket thanks to poker. So, after two years of getting good grades but learning nothing, I decided to drop out. I was making consistent good money online and was confident in the life plan I had as a poker player.”
As a poker player, he’s never looked back and has amassed more than $1 million in winnings. Wheeler has scored several six-figure cash prizes, but the WSOP victory was his biggest by far. Beyond that, he had finished in the money in three more events as of press time. To what does he attribute his success?
“A lot of hard work and dedication. The WSOP is the busiest time of the year for me, and I don’t take it for granted. I play every day for 45 days straight, often 12-plus hours a day,” Wheeler said.
“I’ve also been fortunate to make a good friend in Vegas who has helped me with ‘patience’ in my game. My game evolved over millions of hands of online poker. Online poker is much different than playing live, and it took a lot of poker talks with this friend to realize some of the adjustments I needed to make.”
With his winnings, Wheeler plans to do some backpacking across Europe in August with his two younger brothers. The rest of the cash will go to savings.
Away from poker, he is also hoping to find himself on the small screen.
“One of my life goals is to get on the reality show ‘Survivor,’ ” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and only recently have begun applying. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to get noticed. I’m hoping if I win enough tournaments, someone will start paying attention.”
• Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Rockwall, Texas. His new book, "Raising the Stakes: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering and Poker Faces," is available as an eBook and in paperback at www.RaisingtheStakesbook.com, Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is also editor of www.PokerTraditions.com, all about poker history, lore and people. If you have a gambling or poker story idea, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @PokerTraditions.