Russell Thomas: Say Goodbye to Your Life as an Actuary

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In recent days, Russell Thomas(pictured) booked a $2.8 million payday for finishing fourth in the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event. The East Coast resident formerly worked as an actuary, but on Friday, a going away party will mark the end to that chapter of his life. Thomas, an 888 Poker pro, sat down with PocketFives to rehash the Main Event and go through his mindset during a number of key hands.

We’d like to thank 888 Poker for setting up this interview. The site is hosting our next PocketFives Open on Tuesday, November 20 for non-U.S. players with $5,000 in added prizes. Read more here.

PocketFives: Tell us how you’re feeling two weeks after your Main Event run ended.

Russell Thomas: I’m coming back to Connecticut and we’re having a going away party for the job I was working at as an actuary on Friday. A lot of people at the job are sad. I’m a little sad to go as well. I’m also excited for new opportunities.

PocketFives: Is there any link between poker and actuarial work?

Russell Thomas: At times, I felt like poker translated back into actuarial work. When you play poker, you have to take a very logical way about what’s possible and not possible. That can definitely help you in an actuarial job because we’re managing risk for insurance companies to make money. At a high level, poker players and actuaries do some similar things.

PocketFives: What has your life been like since the Main Event ended?

Russell Thomas: I was in Vegas until Monday, so I was still partying and hanging out with friends. I had friends who couldn’t come out for the final table, but could come out on the weekends afterward, so I was waiting for them in Vegas. I’m heading back to Philadelphia in a few days.

PocketFives: Can you walk us through the call with A-9 on your final hand?

Russell Thomas: Jake Balsiger (pictured) shipped all-in for 25 big blinds. My analysis was that if he had a hand as strong as 9-9 or A-Q+, he would have just 3bet to a normal size rather than shove. That was my analysis at the time. Looking back on it, I think maybe that analysis was flawed because Jake wasn’t as experienced as everyone else, so he was more likely to ship it in with his strong hands rather than raise-call them.

I think I misread him. He’s probably not shoving that wide for 25 big blinds in the first place, so I probably could have folded. Against other players, the move I made would have been okay. Jake is also very aggressive pre-flop, though. He doesn’t like to play a lot of hands post-flop, so that could also lend credence to my original thought process.

PocketFives: Jason JCarverSomerville coached you leading up to the final table. Can you talk about how that relationship started?

Russell Thomas: I didn’t know him that well. I played with him a bit during the Main Event and we talked a little bit. I followed him on Twitter and knew how he had done in live tournaments. I reached out to him on Twitter and asked him if he’d be interested in coaching me. He came back with some great ideas and seemed enthusiastic about it. I knew I would stay motivated for the three months because my coach was so into it.

PocketFives: What advice did you receive from Somerville (pictured)?

Russell Thomas: He’s a very good hand reader and we have similar styles. We aren’t super aggressive pre-flop. We like to call and hand read and play post-flop. I think we play similarly. He’s looser than I am too. The biggest value came in the fact that we talked about thousands of hands together and discussed all of the factors I should be thinking about. I thought I was a good hand reader going in and am even stronger now. The mock final tables were really helpful. They were helpful for game flow and observing the mistakes people make. We also spent a lot of time on short stack math, but I didn’t get to use it that much. I was very prepared to be a short stack in that tournament.

PocketFives: What happened during the mock final tables?

Russell Thomas: The stacks and structure were the same as in the Main Event. We had 10 players come in for a few weeks. We aligned people’s playing styles to players at the final table. The guy on my left, Anthony Lombard, played exactly like Jake Balsiger. We had people play like they had been at the final table. We wanted people to play their best and didn’t want people to make decisions just because they thought someone at the final table might actually do it. I thought it was more about getting me ready for action than anything else.

We actually had money on the line for people who won. You couldn’t do a standard buy-in for everyone, so we had people at the mock final table buy in for ICM numbers. Then, the payouts were in a graduated structure. If you won, you got a few grand. It was forcing people to play and not act like it was a sit and go.

PocketFives: What are your plans now? Will you stay in the U.S.?

Russell Thomas: I have a lease in Toronto, so I’ll go back and forth. I don’t know what I want to play. I want to learn Mixed Games, but I want to keep making money. I came up playing cash games. I’m a $2/$4 and $3/$6 Six-Max player, so that’s where I built my bankroll. I’m a huge luckbox in tournaments. My brother was a good tournament player and I watched him take down tournaments on PokerStars, but I have been playing cash games mainly.

PocketFives: How did you end up signing with 888 Poker?

Russell Thomas: I first found out about them sponsoring people because Jesse Sylvia (pictured) was at the featured table and started talking to them. They patched him for Day 6 and I wanted to get a piece of that sponsorship too. I went out to dinner with them and after I made the final nine, I wanted to be sponsored. I liked their offer and since Jesse was part of it, I thought it’d be cool to be on the same team as him. They bought our buy-ins for EPT Barcelona, WSOP Europe, and the 2013 Main Event. I’ll also be playing a lot on 888 over the next few months.

PocketFives: Who did you have watching the hole cards at home and how did that work?

Russell Thomas: Jason Somerville had B.J. Nemeth at home sending him all of that stuff. B.J. recorded every single hand during our mock final tables. That made review possible and made it easy for everyone. During the actual final table, B.J. was at home watching on TV and relaying hole cards to Jason. I would periodically come over to Jason and we’d talk about anything interesting. He’d let me know things like, “Greg is raising Q-5 offsuit from middle position.”

PocketFives: Okay, the question everyone is asking. Walk us through the call against Steve Gee where you had Q-Q.

Russell Thomas: I knew Gee had bluffed me earlier on and I’m not sure if I make that call without seeing the hole cards from a few hands before. When I saw him raising J-10 suited and K-Q offsuit, it told me his UTG range was quite wide. He was not passive on flops that might not hit him. Steve raised to 900,000 UTG, Greg Merson called, and I flatted queens. You don’t want to get involved too much nine-handed with these payouts. I didn’t want to ship all-in if I got 4bet. That was my thought process. Squeezing is fine, but Greg’s calling range from UTG+1 is strong in the first place.

The flop came 7-5-4, Steve (pictured) bet, and Greg folded. What I’m thinking is, “I know Steve has a wide range UTG. My read on him was that if he had A-K or K-Q of clubs, I didn’t think he could check-fold. He was out to prove he’s not tight. He came off as very aggressive and I felt like those hands were in his range. When the jack of clubs turned, he would continue barreling any Broadway clubs or A-K or A-Q sometimes. He could have had A-A or K-K or a set, but I know he had a wide opening range and was not afraid to bluff hands that miss.

The river was a three and Steve went all-in. I would make that call against certain people, but not others. Steve saw the three and thought it was a good card to bluff. A six makes a straight, but a lot of people would realize I have sixes in my range more often than he does. I have the straight more often than he does. I thought he thought it was a good bluff spot. If he had kings, he’d bet for value. If he had a set, he’d bet smaller. If he had 6-6, I’m not sure he’d shove all-in because of my perceived range. All of that combined made me think it was possible to call.

PocketFives: How did you feel when you won that hand?

Russell Thomas: When I won it, it was more relief than anything. It was relief that I didn’t screw up the biggest decision of my poker career. I was thinking on the river, “Is this it? Is this what my Main Event has come down to? If I lose this, I’m the next person out.” The regret I would have had about that call for the rest of my life – I would not get over it. It’s not a spot you get put in very often. I was not put to any of those big decisions in any of the mock final tables. It was definitely fun to see my rail go insane after it.

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