Sam Barnhart is envious of people who have a goal in life and stick to it – “like a person who wants to become a doctor and does that. I’ve never really had one goal; I changed my college major four times.”
The fact that Barnhart has always had many interests can be a curse, he says, but to his friends in Little Rock, Arkansas, Tunica and Biloxi, Mississippi, Barnhart is a hero. This year, Barnhart has won more than $800,000 in poker tournament prize money. He currently lives in Las Vegas and plays $20/$40 limit poker most nights at the Bellagio Las Vegas. He’s the subject of numerous poker columns, and his bright smile and Arkansas accent have become familiar to ESPN viewers. What’s not to like?
“Yes, all this is exciting,” says the soft-spoken Barnhart, “but when I’m asked about my future, and all the interviewers ask that, I don’t have an answer. I’ve won a lot of money, but I’m a realist. I doubt if I could have another year like this. So I’ll need an income. I’m living in Las Vegas now to see if this city is in my future. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Tunica and Biloxi, MS and I like those towns as well. Maybe I can make enough money playing poker; maybe not. If not, I’ll go back to work. Or maybe I’ll start some kind of business. Poker will always be part of my life – maybe not the entrée that is is today, but perhaps the appetizer.”
Indecision clearly bothers Barnhart, but he’s also willing to take his time making a choice. For now, he’s working with his CPA to make sure his financial house, including his taxes, are in order. He’s an organizer who keeps all his receipts and maintains a spreadsheet of his wins and losses. Other than his tournament wins, Barnhart says so far he’s doing “all right” in the Bellagio games. “I’m slightly ahead, but I need to take a longer look.”
Indecision hopefully will turn into great results later, as it did earlier this year. On day three in the WSOP Main Event, with TV cameras looking on, Barnhart took some 15 minutes to make a decision. He had been dealt a pair of kings; his opponent jumped in with a big raise over Barnhart’s initial bet. Ultimately, after thinking long and hard, the man from Little Rock folded the kings. “I’ve only folded kings pre-flop twice that I can remember,” Barnhart said. “But in both cases, my intuition was right in that my opponent had aces.”
Intuition aside, Barnhart is a man whose interests have always had a scientific bent. His father was a hands-on jack-of-all-trades who could build or fix anything. Although Barnhart started his working career as a welder (he still has a long scar on his right thumb as a souvenir), Barnhart thought his life should offer more than the hard work of welding. He went to night school and earned an Associate’s Degree in Computer Science. A job in programming wasn’t the right fit either, so at age 25, Barnhart went back to school full-time at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway. He worked while he studied, pumping gas, working at the university, and some Tuesdays laboring all night at the Lewis Sale Barn in Conway to be paid in cash the next morning before going to Wednesday’s classes. “I also learned about living cheaply. Four boxes of Mac and cheese only cost a dollar,” he said with a grin. Barnhart’s degree was a BS in Biological Sciences.
“I do get bored easily,” said Barnhart. “And even though I did get work after my degree and I was regularly moving up in terms of a career, my friends and I also found weekends in Tunica, MS were great breaks. In the casinos, I played blackjack at first and then migrated to poker.”
Barnhart had known how to play poker from childhood. His father was part of a hunting club and the young country boy observed his elders and their game, becoming a player himself by age 11. In Tunica, when World Poker Tour poker tournaments were introduced, Barnhart thought he was in heaven. He could play for a modest buy-in but have the prospect of a substantial win.
Initially, Barnhart wasn’t successful in tournaments, so the scientist went to work, buying poker books and “learning the math”. “The mathematical probabilities of poker can’t be beaten long term,” he says, “though only by playing does one learn intuitional and observational skills which are also important.”
Very gradually, Barnhart’s finishes in tournaments improved. In recent years, he used his vacation time to test his game at tournaments in Tunica, Biloxi and St. Louis. He rarely cashed, but his confidence increased.
Barnhart’s big year began with entry, on a whim, into a satellite tournament in Tunica. He entered with $180 of his last $300 in budgeted poker money. He won the tournament! His victory then made him eligible for Harrah’s World Series of Poker (WSOP) circuit event in Tunica. His conservative/aggressive style of play in that tournament then brought home another first-place finish and a good payday.
Enjoying being part of the poker world, Barnhart, a bachelor, had often thought about taking time off to play poker full time. He had saved his money, but he’d never had real tournament success. However, when he won the circuit event and its $148,612 top prize, he felt the time was right. He left his job of five years with the Arkansas Department of Education, gave away most of his worldly goods and said good-bye to his rented townhouse. He also purchased an individual health insurance policy from Blue Cross/Blue Shield, then packed his Ford Explorer with his remaining possessions and headed for Las Vegas.
His victory in the Tunica circuit event had qualified Barnhart for entry in the new WSOP National Circuit Championship at Caesars Palace, and Barnhart wanted to play. Remarkably, the 51-year-old “newcomer” won that tournament and the WSOP’s first 2011 gold bracelet as well. On a roll, Barnhard then entered seven other WSOP tournaments, including the prestigious WSOP Main Event with its $10,000 entry fee. Could Barnhart’s streak continue?
Almost. Yes, he did cash for a little over $1500 in one of the minor events.
Out of a field of 6865 playersin the WSOP Main Event, Barnhart did much better. He beat all but 16 other players, finishing in 17th place. The ESPN commentators loved Barnhart’s “out of nowhere” story, and they couldn’t help but mention he was also one of the oldest competitors to be among the finalists. Why wouldn’t age be an advantage, in terms of wisdom and experience? “It might be,” said Barnhart, “but big poker tournaments can mean long days, and the younger players have the endurance. When I was at my last Main Event featured table, one of the players next to me was barely 21; he made it to the final table.”
Barnhart laughs when he says that currently, he is homeless, that is, he owns no real estate in Nevada, Arkansas or Mississippi. His current landlord is Janis Sexton, former Director of WSOP circuit events, whose large home and pool make the arrangement work. Sexton points out that her tenant is extremely thoughtful and neat, “and I know the dealers love him too; he’s never abusive, and he’s real George….meaning, he’s a good tipper.”
Barnhart travels from Las Vegas to tournaments he wants to enter, but otherwise he plays in the red-chip limit games at the Bellagio and is “thinking” about playing the no-limit game at Aria. He’s also contemplating establishing a permanent home base…somewhere. Barnhart has joined the Las Vegas Athletic club where he regularly works out, and he’s made friends in Las Vegas, but then again the beaches of Biloxi are also inviting. “Right now,” he says, “I just don’t know what I’ll be doing next. Stay tuned!”