The Intense Focus of Kevin Rabichow

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Kevin Rabichow continues to find new ways to push himself in poker. (PokerCentral/Drew Amato photo)

In early 2019, having become one of the most respected heads-up No Limit Hold’em players in the world across a decade of high stakes online crushing, Kevin Rabichow decided to switch gears and commit his time and energy to live tournaments. Six months later, he finished second in the partypoker Millions Montreal $10K for $484,460.

“It was kind of surreal,” Rabichow said from his home in Toronto. “The speed at which I went from being lukewarm on travelling for tournaments to having my phone blowing up with 200 friends all railing me, it was cool. And it was totally foreign to me.”

Prior to that score, Rabichow – who is more than a million in profit over two million online hands – was used to a solitary grind and had only experienced the “miserable side” of live tournaments. “I’d reluctantly go to an event, brick everything, then have a drink with other guys who also bricked everything and talk about variance,” he said.

But now he’d experienced the amazing side. Now he understood why people loved them and why they were worth dedicating his time to. To date, he’s cashed for more than $2 million in live and online events under the screen names ‘KRab42’ and ‘Barewire’.

He had a big year of tournament travel planned for 2020. Then the world shut down.

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You might be familiar with Rabichow from his work as an Elite Pro at Run It Once. While building his bankroll and earning the respect of his peers in high stakes heads-up no limit, Rabichow was also building a reputation as one of the most sought-after coaches in poker. “I definitely had an influx of coaching work [during lockdown],” he said. “Part of that was natural because of the circumstances and part of that was a deliberate effort to shift more of my attention to coaching.”

Like all of us, lockdown presented some challenges within his personal life (“I used to strongly prioritise getting out of the house and seeing people and playing sports”). But he’d made connections on his live poker excursions and with people stuck at home, his phone kept ringing. “A lot of people reached out to me pretty early saying this is a good time for them to work on their strategy and get coaching. By late summer, I had comfortably committed myself to the quality of work with my students rather than my own play.”

Coaching comes naturally to Rabichow, who has been doing it on a private basis as far back as 2009. With a competitive schooling background (he went to a top high school before studying Economics at the University of Chicago) he has always been theoretically minded. “Strategy discussion and the theoretical side of things has always been a natural draw for me,” he said. “I think that would have been my place in whatever community I joined. It just happened to be poker.”

Rabichow was first exposed to poker in high school after a friend latched on to play money games as a hobby. “We’d meet at my house and play at the weekends,” he told me. “Sometimes we’d meet up to study for school for a few hours then play poker the rest of the night.” Right away he immersed himself in strategy and got caught up in the nuance of how to play well. “I didn’t just play for the sake of fun.”

Always methodical, Rabichow remembers a blog post he wrote on a now-defunct platform tracking his results in his $2 home games. “I was taking it so seriously. In retrospect, it’s kind of funny.”

When he went to university and roomed with his high school friend, they began playing online poker immediately. If he wasn’t taking care of schoolwork, he was interacting on Two Plus Two and swapping strategies in MSN chat groups. “Back in 2010, if you had a good network, you could move up the heads-up no limit stakes once a month,” Rabichow told me. “The acceleration was so fast, but strategically speaking, we were probably getting better very slowly.” By 2011 he was playing $10/$20 heads up cash on Full Tilt, PokerStars and Absolute Poker, “the three worst sites to be playing on in 2011.”

He graduated that year and was moments away from signing a lease on a Chicago apartment that would become his grind station. “I wasn’t really looking into jobs or anything at this point. I was so involved in the community and felt pretty good about my strategy and results.”

Then Black Friday happened. “I was just about to turn pro when I got a call telling me the sky was falling,” he said. He didn’t sign the lease. He had to reconsider everything. Three months later Rabichow headed to Canada and set up shop in Toronto with friends, their only plan being to play as much online poker as they could. Things really took off.

“I took a big financial hit from Black Friday but now I was in a position where I felt I was going to be successful,” he said. “It was like an incubator for accelerating my growth rate. We were exchanging ideas all the time. We played 12-14 hours a day for two years straight. By 2013, I had really hit my stride as a professional player.”

He took life strides too. Not content with life behind a desk, Rabichow really made Toronto his home, finding new friendships, falling in love, and forging a new passion in the local Ultimate Frisbee community.

All the while he was making heads-up no limit training videos. “When I started playing, lots of people were making heads-up content [Rabichow lists Jay Rosenkrantz and Emil ‘Whitelime’ Patel as the creators he watched the most], but by 2014 I was pretty much the only one.” A friend suggested he send his videos to Phil Galfond’s training site, Run It Once, who subsequently signed him as an Elite Pro. “They were really supportive of whatever I wanted to make. They’re great to work with.”

But with so many hours of work required to become successful in poker, burn out is fairly common. When Rabichow felt exhausted, he’d throw himself into ultimate frisbee or daydream about training as a chef. “80% of my YouTube subscriptions are cooking channels,” he said.

For a while, tournaments had totally eclipsed cash games in terms of popularity. The format Rabichow had dedicated his career had begun to feel stale to him. “Lobbies were full of people sitting and waiting for a live one,” he said. “When a live one sat down, you’d just clean them out. The edges were massive. They basically had no hope of winning. It became a nasty environment.”

Rabichow had never approached heads up from the angle that he wanted to play all of the best players in the world and thus be recognised as the best. “I just wanted to be very proficient and make money,” he said. “But at some point, it stopped being exciting and fulfilling.”

Instead, Rabichow wanted to focus on tournaments. That is until 2020 became the year of high profile, stay-at home, heads-up duels.

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When Rabichow first became known in the heads-up world, one-on-one grudge matches were a weekly occurrence. “It was so common because it was so hard to tell who was better than one another,” he told me. “There was no standard for good play.”

These days, the matches are so widely seen thanks to Twitch and YouTube, and so closely scrutinised by viewers, that it creates a sports-like environment, something Rabichow enjoys. “I think heads-up battles with streams and side betting are here to stay. I’m pretty excited about that.”

When Doug Polk began training for his match against Daniel Negreanu, Rabichow was one of the players Polk played a session against. The two talked afterwards and Rabichow gave Polk an honest assessment of his play.

Rabichow followed the match closely (like much of the poker world, he had wagers on it) and enjoyed the spectacle of it all. “Neither of them has released much content yet, but I was hoping we’d see more around their preparation and the day-to-day work,” he said. “That’s the stuff I’m interested in. How did they prepare? What did they prioritise? What techniques did they use to go from scratch to a top-tier heads-up player? These are extra layers I’d love to see highlighted in future matches like that.”

Don’t expect to see Rabichow take part in any grudge matches though. He’ll continue to coach others in heads up, taking on new clients through his website, but his focus will remain firmly on live tournaments when the tours resume safely. “I have no intention of leaving tournaments behind just because of a hiccup in the schedule and availability,” he said. “Everything that was promising about tournaments in 2019 is going to be twice as promising in 2022. Any time I’m not spending on coaching I’m spending on tournament preparation. I just want to be as prepared as possible.”

With the majority of the world still on pause, Rabichow has had time to reflect on his incredible career and goals for the future. “I’d like to have a positive impact on the poker industry,” he told me. “I feel compelled to be a voice reason, to be fair, to promote the good things we could be doing.” One of those being Run It Once Poker, the poker room extension of Galfond’s training site. In February 2020, the company announced that Rabichow was to become their first Team Pro.

He’s been locked down ever since, but Rabichow seems thrilled with his life in Toronto, the city he’s called home since moving there in his early twenties. His coaching services have never been so in demand. He’s built a great life with his girlfriend. He cooks and imitates YouTube chefs daily, posting the results to his Instagram. He practises Ultimate Frisbee and even coaches others. He only plays poker when he feels like it. “It’s not lost on me that I’m ridiculously lucky to live my day-to-day life how I do and actually have an income,” he told me. “In other careers, I might struggle because of my attachment and intense focus. But in poker, it’s perfect.”