Interview with Brian "tsarrast" Rast

Brian "tsarrast" Rast

Brian "tsarrast" Rast was born in Denver, Colorado and raised in Poway, California. He and his high-school buddies began playing poker buddies after being inspired by the movie "Rounders". It's no wonder Brian would be fascinated by the storyline and main character - a rebel with a brilliant mind who applied his talents to the game of poker.

You are a pretty well known player, but for all that I haven’t seen too much information about you (apart from poker results) on the web. Why don’t you give us a short introduction of yourself for our readers, leaving out the poker stuff for the time being?

I grew up in Poway, California… a suburb just outside of San Diego. I graduated from high school as Valedictorian, and went on from there to go to Stanford University. While at Stanford, I was never sure what I wanted to do with my life, and once I started playing poker, my interest in academics went from little to zero. I eventually dropped out of school to be able to focus my attention fully on playing cards. I moved back home for a little while before eventually coming to Las Vegas. Because I always liked playing both live and online poker, it was important for me to live somewhere where I could play live at a casino. On the west coast that means Vegas or LA. I have been in Vegas ever since. There are a lot of details that I could fill in, but that is the big picture.

How did you get into poker, and how did you make your ascent from the stakes that most of us are playing to the highest limits available?

I got in to poker because I have always loved playing games. As a kid I played video games, board games, and did a lot of sports. I’ve always enjoyed strategic thought, trying to optimize decision making, etc. I played board games like Risk and Axis and Allies as a kid. Of the card games, my favorites were Hearts and Spades which I played with my friends in high school. There were also others like Big 2, Mafia and Pai Gow. In addition to video games where some of my favorites were Command & Conquer, Starcraft, Counterstrike, Master of Orion 2, Civilization 4 to name a few. I’ve just always liked to think, and a good game makes you think.

The first time I played poker was after watching the movie Rounders in high school with my buddies. We played for 5$ a couple times, and after that I didn’t play much during my first two years in college. In my 3rd year however, my closest friend from college, Mike, started a poker club, and I saw a flyer and joined up and that’s how I met him. The poker club met once a week, and we played different poker games for maybe 20$ - 40$. I realized quickly that poker was not just fun, but pretty complicated. So, I started to try to learn the game at that time, because the fun part for me with poker was learning how to master it and play it as well as possible – making the best decisions. Mike had some books that I borrowed, and I also bought books on my own to learn the game. We started going to casinos to play by the end of the year, and that summer I decided I would commit serious time and try to make some money.

The first summer I played seriously when I was home from school, I believe it was the summer of 2003. I played in a $3/$6 limit hold’em game at an Indian Casino called Barona in San Diego, and I played small no-limit hold’em on the internet on Royal Vegas Poker (Prima) under the handle ‘tsarrast’ which I have used ever since. I won $20k that summer, and never looked back. My ascent was done the hard way, and although I’ve had a couple decent tournament scores that helped me out, I worked my way up the stakes the hard way by improving, and sometimes having setbacks and having to drop back down. A tournament win never got me playing limits that I hadn’t already played before, and most players that jump limits after tournament wins end up losing a lot back because they aren’t +EV at significantly higher stakes than they have already been playing at.

Your profile states that you are a PLO expert. I assume that you, as most of us, did not get started in PLO so what made you decide to dedicate your time to that game? Are there some aspects about PLO that suits your playing style particularly well as compared to NLHE? What are the most common mistakes a hold’em regular makes when he starts playing PLO?

Correct, I got started playing hold’em. I started playing PLO at first because I thought it would be easy, because it was the game most similar to hold’em. The first time I played seriously was in the $25/$50 game on PokerStars, which at that time was one of the biggest PLO games on the net. I got totally schooled and lost about 100k in a few days, which was about 40% of my bankroll at the time. It was one of the worst decisions I made in my poker career, but I have always been cavalier about learning new games at higher stakes than I should. To my credit I am a quick learner, but perhaps not that quick. After this, I had to drop down, grinding smaller NLHE, and I started playing smaller PLO also. I started to learn a lot about how to play PLO well. I am very good at math and estimating things, and it is more important and difficult in PLO to be able to correctly estimate your equity in various situations against one or more types of hands your opponent can hold. I’m also not afraid to gamble, which is necessary in PLO. So those things suited me very well. The biggest mistakes hold’em players make are two things: 1) overvaluing raggedy big-card hands like AQT5 in certain spots, and 2) not mixing up their preflop 3betting ranges enough, so that it is too weighted towards Aces, or Aces and big-card hands.

I guess the question a lot of small stakes players are wondering about is how do you do it? I mean, how is it possible to make objective decisions when the money in a single pot can literally buy you a house? Are there ever times when you get overwhelmed by the sums we are talking about in these games?

Gambling for a living forces you to adjust the way you think about money. I always had the mindset that I am playing with chips and they are my tools. I cannot think of it as money used to purchase things in the real world while I’m playing. I feel it is something that I have always been good at doing at the poker table, but adjusting to the swings of winning or losing away from the poker table is another story. Inside of the game, I can adopt the mindset of playing the game, and trying to make the best decisions. For me that part is much easier. Dealing with the effects on your life, the financial ups and downs, away from the game, was more difficult for me.

There is also a story about the time you won well over a million dollars in a cash gamer in China. First of all, how did you get to play a game there (was it in Macau, by the way?).

They have a Wynn in Macau, China. I got to play there by flying to China, and just showing up to the public cardroom. It was fun!

Maybe you could take us through this hand? You have won bigger, but I think this is the most interesting one considering your brave call on the end.

I remember this hand very well now that I am seeing it again. At the time it was maybe my largest $$ river call ever. Steve Sung was new to playing PLO, and playing extremely aggressive, opening 100% of buttons this session. I had a very playable hand in the small blind and reraised him. I flopped a decent hand with bottom two-pair, a gutshot, and a backdoor flush draw, but by no means a monster. Check/Call the flop is pretty standard there I think. The turn is a great card for me, giving me a flush draw. I checked again b/c I wanted Steve to fire light. I thought he would have me on a weakish range on this flop given my check/call, and might try to bluff me lighter than usual here on the turn. If I bet then I take that away. As it turns out he had a reasonable hand with a big flush draw and gutshot. After he bets, I have too much equity to fold, and decide to just call. At the time I thought if I shipped the turn he would fold most of his bluffs and call me with a range that is ahead of me. If I was trapping with a straight or big set, I felt that Steve would expect I would shove the turn, so on the river my range is pretty weak. Given how I played the hand, I thought that he will bluff the river some, as it seems like I might have missed a few draws, and likely have one or two pair at best. The flip side is that I would expect Steve to value bet most hands that beat mine (Q9+), as it is unlikely I show up with better then top two on the river. Calling wasn’t easy, as it was a huge call for me at the time, and I went in to my time bank to think about it.

What about tournament poker? I know you don’t play all that many, but still your results have been very good, with about $800K in live tournament winnings. Are tournaments important to you or is it something you choose to play more as a diversion? What are the greatest adjustments you have to make when you play tournaments as opposed to cash games?

Big live tournaments are fun for me when I make it deep down near the money. They can just be both physically and emotionally draining when you play for days, come close to a big score, but don’t end up getting lucky. I enjoy playing them when they are in Las Vegas and I don’t have to travel for them… but ultimately I have always decided what games to play based on my EV, and also based on ease of playing in them. Travelling around to play tournaments just never seemed like a good way to live, and for the most part not even the most profitable way to play cards. I spent about 3-4 months playing the online Sunday tournaments about 3 years ago, and learned a lot about the adjustments you have to make. I think the biggest adjustment you have to make in tournaments are that you have to know short-stack situations, something that does not come up often in cash games; also, you have to understand “chip flow” and how to try to win chips within that flow at the table later in tournaments. Lastly, in tournaments you have no control over when you are playing, and you have to be mentally prepared to continue playing until the day is over. In a cash game if you get tired or bored you can just quit, but this is not possible in a tournament.

You attended Stanford for a couple of years, but left in order to play poker professionally. Was that a difficult decision to leave school, and what advice would you give to other people considering doing the same? Have you got any plans of going back one day to finish your degree? What was your major?

I was majoring in Math. I did not declare until late, near the end of my 3rd year, and by the time I declared I had started playing poker. After poker, my interest in college went to zero and I was a horrible student. I recognized that finishing Stanford and having a degree would always be a good insurance plan, and also a sign of respect for the money my parents put up for my college education. But, once I decided I was going to play poker for a living ,actually going to classes and learning stuff that seemed totally useless to me, was beyond draining and very difficult. It got to the point where I never went to class, didn’t do most of the work, and sometimes didn’t even show up for tests. My last quarter there I failed every class, and finally I decided I needed to give up on trying to finish school, it was just not going to happen. I also figured out very early on that even if I didn’t blow up in poker, that I would always be able to made a decent living playing smaller stakes, something that led me to discount needing a degree for a backup plan.

For players thinking of doing the same, I would recommend that they follow their hearts and minds. You only live once, and you need to be happy. You owe that to yourself. Think long and hard about your life, what you want, and what you want to do. Realize that you will be best at whatever you are passionate about. If you love poker and that is what you want to do, give it a try. Just realize that you need to train hard to improve at the game. You will have ups and downs, and that the downs can be quite bad, and in order to prepare for the downs you have to be careful about managing your money. If you are prepared for all of these things, then why not? In many ways playing poker is like opening a small business. Most will fail after 5 years, and a few blow up and become very successful. A mix of skill and luck determines your fate.

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