“It means the world to me. It’s the holy grail to me. It’s something that I’ve been chasing for so long.”
On July 4, 35-year-old Brooklyn, New York native Donnell Dais’ poker journey came full circle when he bested the 950-entry field of World Series of Poker Online Event #3 ($500 NLHE Turbo Deepstack) to win a career-high $90,801 score and his first WSOP gold bracelet. For Diaz, it was the culmination of more than 13 years on a grind that started from the moment he first discovered the game as a member of the airborne infantry stationed in Iraq to earning one of poker’s most prestigious prizes on a day celebrating the country he chose to serve.
“Well, it was a very unique situation…I have never deposited over $100 at a time and so what I do is every day, I’ll try to play the $20 daily and run it up from there. Or I’ll take $50 and try to satellite into whatever $250 or $500 is going on. I had a little success doing that quite a few times during the pandemic and this year where I just bought it for $50 and [won a satellite] into a $500 event and [final tabled] it. But I never came in first.”
Dais recounts that on the morning of July 4, everything seemed stacked against him. He only had $70 to his name, which he loaded into his account, and instead of following his regular routine of multi-tabling smaller events, his computer died. So if he was going to play he’d have to play on his phone and he could only pick one tournament – he chose to play the satellite to WSOP Online Event #3.
“I’ve played so many of them where you barely squeeze in and get a seat. Sometimes you just, if you play these games long enough, have a magical number that you got in your head that if you hit this number, you don’t have to play any more hands to get a seat. I hit that number and I just hit cruise control. I didn’t play any hands because I really wanted to be in this event.”
Dais won his seat and earned his shot. “I felt like if I had the bankroll to just buy into it, I could win it…I’m confident in my game because I’ve been playing for so long, I just haven’t had the shots.”
According to Dais, the tournament went smoothly from the get-go. An early double where his pocket aces bested a player’s pocket kings propelled him into a top 20 stack from which he “never really looked back.”
“That’s usually my style of play. Once I find myself ahead of the pack I’m never really putting myself at risk. So from there, it was pretty much cruise control. I pretty much folded every single hand unless I knew that I had somebody dominated,” he said. “Once we got down to the last 100 people, I was actually watching all the live streams, clicking between everybody’s YouTube. Because I’m not just watching one person’s YouTube, I need to see it from every angle.”
In the end, Dais used all of his experience to emerge from the final table as the winner, finishing off a respected regular in Mike ‘SammyTwizz’ Azzaro as the runner-up and finally spiking a long-awaited boost to his bankroll with the more than $90K first-place prize.
“It’s something that I didn’t even expect to get first. I thought that I would have won a ring first, before a bracelet, but then, this happens to come first, but I don’t feel like this is the end.”
In 2006, when Dais was stationed in Iraq he picked up the game as a way to pass some of the downtime. Since he’d “always been a number guy” he quickly got a feel for the game. At the same time, he got bit by the poker bug. After leaving the service in 2008, Dais was back in the U.S. and had started school at Georgia Southern University, but he wasn’t ready to leave his new hobby behind.
“After my first semester, I went down to Hard Rock down there in Florida for spring break and I ended up winning their weekly tournament. And school, or anything, hasn’t been the same since.”
He wanted to play more and soon had an idea. Dais found people “working at McDonald’s” and taught them how to deal. He picked up some drinks, ordered some pizza and sent out a text – “game at my house!” Before he knew it, Dais was running a home game and honing his cash game skills against the kids he was going to school with. But when those students went home for the summer or ran out of “the money that their parents sent them”, his games dried up.
“So I decided to move to a city where people have money all the time but there’s no casino, which was Atlanta,” he said. “So I’m in Atlanta, I was running cash games there. Everything was smooth for the most part.”
It didn’t take long for Dais to get involved in the Atlanta poker community, battling in local tournaments, and getting recognized as one of the best in the area. “There’s a bunch of hard hitters in there. These guys are all ringed up and everything…I felt like I was better than all of these guys, but I don’t have any rings. So I decided to leave Atlanta and go on a search and take my talents on the road. And that’s how I started traveling the circuit.”
His adventures traveling the circuit took him all over the country. He scored a final table finish in New Orleans in 2018 for nearly $20K but he never really pulled off that signature win or gold ring victory. Right after the New Orleans stop, he moved to Las Vegas where he’s been grinding ever since. Without any major backing to rely on, Dais has built his poker career on his own and he insists he’s nowhere near finished.
“There’s so much more than I want out of the game. I feel like the game is so much more important to me than it is to the average player because most do it for the money. Most feel like if they just won one, basically they’re accomplished…I really want to be known as the best.”
“I’m set out to be a Triple Crown winner. I want to win one everywhere. Like I’m not satisfied by far, this is this a cherry bust for me, to be honest with you. So I’m soaking it in. But I just got finished watching Daniel Negreanu’s YouTube when he showed his documentary and he got six of these [bracelets] stacked up on top of each other. I have a long way to go. I can’t feel like this is it. I can’t feel like I made it because I have so much farther to go.”
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That next chapter for Dais begins with playing a full slate of fall WSOP live events with buy-ins of $1,500 and under. He’ll be in the mix during The Reunion and, as a veteran, The SALUTE to Warriors, among others. Taking a few shots in satellites to the Main Event is also on the agenda as his passion for the game, both online and live, has only grown in the wake of winning his first bracelet.
“I want to be a different type of ambassador to the game, I want to bring a different sight of the game. The background I come from, most people don’t make it. Most people can’t even fathom even trying to risk their money to do this. But nobody even believed in me, nobody known a poker player from where I’m from.”
“I want to show that anybody could make it from anywhere. And take a chance, because this can happen to anybody. As long as you’re determined it can happen.”