Ben Tollerene is a 25 year old online pro who has been crushing the high stakes NLHE and PLO games for a few years playing both heads-up and short-handed games. He has won millions under the screennames Ben86 (Pokerstars) and Bttech86 (Full Tilt Poker) facing some of the toughest competition around and in this interview, he discusses his rise in the game, his toughest opponents, his participation in the All Star Showdown and his plans for the future amongst other interesting topics.
Hi Ben. Thanks a lot for allowing me to interview you. You have been active within the high stakes community over the past few years playing the biggest games online at both NLHE and PLO. Could you please explain how you started and rose through the ranks to play the high stakes games?
I'm glad we're doing this because the information out there on me is rather inaccurate. I started in 2005 in home games with friends. I began taking the game seriously in late 2006 when I registered on 2p2 and begin reading everything I could find. I started playing almost exclusively NL. I deposited $500 and started at $0.10/$0.25 with Full Tilt’s first time deposit bonus so I essentially had a $1k roll.
At the end of 2007 I was playing $2/$4 and taking shots at $5/$10. I have always been terrified of the idea of working for someone I don't want to work for or doing something I don't want to be doing for money, so that was a huge motivator for me. I wanted financial independence and I worked very hard at that goal.
In 2008, continued up into $5/$10 and $10/$20; $10/$20 took a bit longer as the skill increase there was significantly more than previous limits. Things continued this way and I was playing $25/$50 by the end of the year.
When did you start playing PLO and why did you transition to that game?
I took an interest in PLO in 2009. I felt that it was going to be a very popular game in time and I wanted to be one of the first guys to figure it out. I was a little late to NL, a lot of the top guys had a few extra years on me, but that wasn't the case in PLO. I continued to play NL but my focus shifted and I was very absorbed with PLO.
How did you find your rise through the stakes in PLO and when did you start playing the nosebleed stakes?
I moved directly into $5/$10 - $25/$50 PLO and lost about $100k learning the game. It was an overly aggressive bankroll decision, but I wanted to learn the game faster at those stakes because my opponents were stronger. I then endured some crazy swings in my first year of playing mostly PLO in the $25/$50 deep ante games. I remember going on a $550k upswing pretty quickly and then having an 80 buy-in downswing after that and being unsure of my skill. I kept working and building up the roll and by 2010 I was playing as high as $200/$400 and even played some HU $500/$1k versus Gus.
It seems to be that the aggressive bankroll technique has paid its dividends over the last couple of years. Could you describe how 2011 went for you and also your terrific year this year.
2011 went very well after Black Friday; I moved to Canada and then started travelling the world. I played a ton of volume in both PLO, HUNL, and began playing a lot of HUSNGs as well and was having great success across every game I was playing. This year has been a tremendous year for me and I've been able to continue pushing myself in the $50/$100 - $200/$400 PLO, battle in some HUNL, and out enough volume in HUSNGs to achieve SNE.
Wow. That’s some crazy swings and illustrates the sick variance in PLO. What sort of bankroll management did you keep and have you always been strict in that aspect? How many buy-ins do you think are needed for NLHE and for PLO?
I initially used a 40 buy-in rule to play and 30 buy-ins is when I would move down; this was in my early NL career. However, you have to remember that there would be at least 1 fish at all of my tables. Back when I was moving up win rates were bigger and there were more fish. Now the people I consider fish in my games are lifetime 7 figure winners in poker. I had set high goals for myself and being aggressive made sense, I was younger, and would have time to rebuild if necessary.
As I got into bigger games I would increase the rules and I spent a while at an 80 to play, 70 to move down rule. When I moved to PLO, it changed to 120/100 because of the increase in standard deviation. I was always a shot taker though. I played Gus at Rail Heaven with approximately a million to my name. That was definitely the dumbest bankroll decision I ever made. I am now certain I was losing to him at the time as well but I thought he was the fish.
In terms of the buy-ins that are needed, this is something I have been putting a lot of effort into figuring out lately. I'm actually losing sleep over it at this point in my career. At this point in my career I have a lot to lose. I've earned my financial independence and there may not be more than 3-5 years left in full-time poker for me. As a result, I should obviously take less risk, so I find my current BR goals to be more conservative and to try and diversify my poker roll.
It's hard to force my competitive drive to take a backseat. I see the $400/$800 deep ante on FTP and I want to be in there! I do believe, however, that I am making the best decision for my life in terms of happiness EV by not pushing as aggressively as I did earlier in my career. Win rates are small and a big downswing at those stakes could really hurt me. I may not have time to rebuild from a nasty downswing.
It’s all about happiness at the end of the day and if playing so big isn’t necessary for you then I guess there’s no point taking the big risks. Were you ever conscious of the huge sums of money you were playing for as you moved up the stakes and was there a stake you thought was ever too high?
I was certainly aware of how big the money was getting but there's something about us that let's us put that aside and be objective about our play. I think I’ve got just the right amount of degen in me haha. My degen to nit ratio is really good for this line of work; some of my best poker friends have been telling me that for a while.
Some players like Isildur1 seem to have a total disregard for the money when entails the crazy swings we have seen from him. Who are your close poker friends that have helped you progress in your career?
I worked closely with aejones when I was going from small to mid-stakes, and with Krantz from mid to high. I am grateful for those two relationships. I currently work closely with a couple of people but cannot disclose who they are. I don't mean to leave anyone out but I spent by far the most time with those two.
What are they both up to nowadays as they used to play the nosebleed games on FTP?
We've fallen out of touch a bit but we'll still grab a meal or chat if we run into each other. Aaron runs LeggoPoker and I believe still plays a decent amount of MSNL – HSNL, and also HS MTTs. I think Krantz still does some work for DeucesCracked but moved onto pursuing a new passion for film and producing/ directing.
I think having some intelligent poker friends who can analyse your game from a neutral perspective is certainly helpful to progress as a player. They must have helped you against some tough opponents. Who have been your toughest opponents so far and why?
I think Helio TYF is a fantastic HUSNG player. I have battled him a bit at the $5ks and I think he is very strong. I'm not sure if I'm beating him or not.
I think Kanu is probably the toughest I played significant volume against at HUNL. We played a lot earlier in the year and in late 2011, and then I felt it was likely he was gaining an edge on me as I was playing other games and he's quite dedicated to NL. I don’t think I've ever booked a win against ragen70 as well. I met him in Vegas and he's a great guy but I think I'm cursed when I play him; it's so frustrating. I also thought altiFC played well in our matches this year.
In PLO, Sauce and Galfond stand out at the top. I also think Rafi Amit is a sick player, Jeans is hard to beat, and the two guys from Thailand (azn_baller3 and The Liar) also impress me. Gus has a unique style and I think he's underrated in specifically HUPLO.
Why is Gus always perceived as the fish when he plays PLO?
I think he has trouble adjusting to tighter ranges when playing 6-max which is where he seems to lose a lot but I think he’s a massive winner heads-up.
I guess Isildur1 and Ilari also have trouble adjusting in the 6-max games. What do you think of both of their games?
Viktor is a phenomenal player when he's at his best. I also met him in Vegas this year which I really enjoyed. He's a very happy go lucky guy. We played some 3 handed $100/$200 PLO at the Aria one night trying to start a game. Me, Viktor and my friend Don. It was so much fun; just 3 guys who love to compete. It was a really friendly environment to play in with no one ever getting angry at each other. I think Viktor has too much degen in him which is his biggest weakness in my opinion.
Ilari is an interesting player. He does some things that really impress me, and some things that I think are big mistakes. That's one of the great things about Omaha. There are still so many uncertainties. I have a good feel for Ilari though but he seems to have it in for me by referring to me as “hacker Ben”. I guess I must have run good against him recently.
He seems to like blowing up in the chat but he’s probably just trying to let some steam off. Do you prefer playing ring games or heads-up? How about between NLHE or PLO – which game would rather play nowadays?
I greatly prefer HU. It’s much more engaging for me. I love both games very much but I have a much higher win rate in HUPLO than HUNL, so I probably prefer that.
We often see you waiting at the tables to try and get some action. Will you play anyone at NLHE and PLO?
I regularly play anyone at the stakes I consider myself rolled. If I'm playing really big some of the action is sold and I then make more conservative bankroll decisions.
Oh ok that makes sense in being cautious when playing really high. What do you think about the bumhunting situation in online poker and what should be done to try and rectify it?
Well there's been plenty of discussion on this topic over the last couple of months. I think incentivizing table starting is a good starting point but I honestly don't have any brilliant ideas or anything. The issues are very complex and a lot of intelligent guys have spent time thinking about fair solutions and we still seem to be sitting here at the status quo.
I think Phil Galfond has written quite extensively about this on 2p2 and on is blog. You said that after Black Friday you moved to Canada. In what other ways did the Full Tilt situation affect you and are you optimistic in receiving your money back soon?
I had to deal with a lot of stress. I have a lot of money on FTP and I felt helpless. We pay rake, taxes, and fight off tilt and scammers and cheaters, and we still somehow win money, and then they take that away from us too? It was a terrible feeling.
I don’t follow the situation very closely at all because its so difficult not to get angry about it but my friends who keep up with the news tell me its looking good; I don’t pay any attention myself. The FTP situation was a huge turn around in my life as I had just purchased a house in the suburbs near my family in Texas and poker was going well. The problem was that I didn’t have much of a life outside of the game. Black Friday essentially forced me to move and experience new places and people, which made me develop a lot as a person. I quickly found out that where I lived in Texas wasn’t right for me and that was something I had suspected for a while. My life has changed so much in the last 18 months; it’s been remarkable. I have never been happier than I am right now.
At least Black Friday had one positive effect for you. Why did you decide to move to Canada?
Well, Canada was one of the most practical choices with the proximity to the US and not having a language barrier. The first move was to Toronto and it was great as I got my accounts opened and was exploring a new city by myself for a few weeks. After spending the summer in Vegas, I was relieved to be playing online poker again. It was then when my good friend Luke Staudenmaier came and roomed with me, and we put a ton of hours of work in. I also began to meet some new poker guys in the city. I loved the city, stayed for a few months then travelled around Europe/Australia for the rest of the year. I then came back to Vegas for the WSOP then shot up to Vancouver. It is my favorite city that I have ever lived in by a significant margin.
Have you played in the big live cash games in Vegas during the WSOP period, and if so, how have you done in them?
I have put a decent amount of hours in at $50/$100 and $100/$200 at the series the least 2 years and done ok overall. This year I played a huge match of $500/$1K HU which was obviously pretty intense.
This older gentleman who had been playing PLO walked up and challenged me to $500/$1K HU with a few stipulations. We ended up agreeing and playing all night.
I remember that I had 4 x $100k bullets and took all of my action because I was confident it was a good shot to take. It was a really cool experience; all of the money I wired to Vegas for that summer was on the table, but only $100k was in play to start with. He got me down to my last $150k or so, but I rallied back and ended up winning around $130k or so. I then stumbled over to the other room to play the $10K HUNL event and lost first round haha.
Who was this older gentleman and what stipulations were there?
I’ll respect his privacy and not reveal any information about him. The stipulations were that I had to give some amount back if I were to win and that he can buy in for whatever he wants (he covered me at all times and at the end we over $400k deep). I was also allowed to run my bullets down to zero and hence didn’t have to reload to 100BBs.
Have you considered playing more live tournaments or live cash games such as those in Macau?
I have almost no interest in Macau although a good friend of mine is going soon and asked if I was interested. I don’t like playing the politics side of it and I am afraid of the integrity of live poker games. I also value comfort and routine, and being in hotels all of the time makes that hard to pull off.
I am interested in these $100k Super High Roller events that are being played now. I don’t think, however, that I could justify travel only to play a $100k tourney, a $25k tourney, and a $10k tourney though. I’ll likely do a couple each year and some time in Vegas for the WSOP but mostly be doing my online thing.
Jared Bleznick tweeted in reference to the travelling and expenses of playing tournaments that “over the next 10 years everyone that plays tournaments will be broke. They are dumb.” What do you think of the statement?
I don’t know a lot about tournament rake structure, travel expenses, or ROIs so I am not qualified to comment on that. I think tournaments are the softest form of poker so intuitively I want to disagree with that statement and say that there will be some amount of winners over 10 years.
I believe Sauce had a very similar view to you about Macau. He was one of the entries in the $100k All Star Showdown along with you and top HUNL players. Why did you decide to enter such a competitive event and whom did you specifically not want to be drawn against?
There were a few reasons why I entered. I thought I was very close to neutral EV against the field (I was the last entrant and knew who the other seven players were). Those things are of course very hard to accurately judge, and you have got to fight off what appears to be a naturally tendency to be biased towards thinking you are better than you really are. Another reason is that I love to compete and I love HUNL.
I think the event is going to be a big thing every year maybe more than once per year, and I think being in the pilot event will get me priority in future events which is nice. I have hopes of being a Team Pro and I thought this would be a step in the right direction of getting my name some more publicity. I also knew that even if I lost my match, I would learn something from my opponent.
I least wanted to draw Ike and Sauce because I though that they were the best players in the field. They have both been around longer than I have and I feel like we all have similar approaches for learning the games, but they are ahead of me, so when we do play against each other, I feel like they know very well where I am with my poker development.
Are you looking to get into the limelight by trying to be a Team Pro or is there another reason you want to be signed by Stars?
I think getting a Team Online sort of position would be a good fit for me. I play a ton of volume across many different forms of poker and I am currently in the process of learning more games. I am also one of the biggest winners in online poker over the last couple of years and have got a great reputation within the community. I would love to have the chance to build my name a bit and see if I could be one of the faces of a major site.
I am not too concerned with fame but getting recognition for what you do feels good though. As for the money, of course the additional income would be great, and I like thinking of it as something you can build on and grow. You can see how valuable you can be to a site, which would in return get you better deals in the future.
I guess there are two main approaches to take in HUNL: game theory optimal and/or exploitive play. It seems that the top pros at the moment such as yourself, Ike, Kanu and Sauce GTO strategy. What is your opinion on this?
It’s a delicate balance between the two. I think with the current state of HUNL the top winners are guys who have the best approximations of a GTO strategy as their foundation of play but are also skilled in choosing their exploitative adjustments.
A player who comes to mind as an exploitive player is Phil Galfond. He isn’t all that concerned with being un-exploitable. He seems to be the best when it comes to two players trying to outfox each other in a vacuum, but I think against someone like me I can nullify his talent for guessing right and tricking a little bit with a more fixed strategy, if that makes sense.
It seemed funny to most people that you and Phil played each other in a $100k buy-in match and after he won, you guys decided to go and get something to eat. Are you good friends with him and what advice has he given you in terms of improving in PLO where he is considered one of the best in the world?
Phil and I have only recently starting hanging out together a bit in Vancouver but I do consider him a good friend already. We have a few similar personality traits that I do not find in many other people so it can be very easy for me to express something to Phil and for him to get where I am coming from.
As far as advice, I had fallen into too passive of a game both IP and OOP, which has its advantages, but if you take it too far and neglect your raise button too much you become too easy to play against. It is much easier for an opponent to make a bet when the threat of being raised is very low. That was one of the biggest pieces of advice Phil gave me after the NL match and I know that it applies in both games.
It must be good to get advice from “the greatest poker theorist of his generation”. You said that you might only play poker for another 3-5 years full time. What plans do you have afterwards?
I have a few ideas but I think that that is one of the most exciting things about my life right now. I don’t know what I’ll be passionate about next. It could be almost anything. I have my finance degree and I have some interest there but I do not know if that’s the next step for me. There are so many things that catch my interest these days.
I find myself reading about all sorts of stuff. I am currently on a non-fiction kick with the goal of learning about how things work; most recently about the nature of the universe, and next in line is a book about the rise and fall of some of the greatest societies that we know about. The possibilities are wide open: there could be more formal education in my future or I could do nothing other than enjoy what life has to offer for a couple of years. I guess it’s really hard to say at this point.
It must be good to be in a financially independent situation to have the freedom that poker has offered you for the future. I hope all goes well at the tables and good luck for the future.
Read more of our interviews with high stakes poker regulars in HighstakesDB's player interviews.