Among the players to make the last two World Series of Poker main event final tables, one of the nine finalists previously experienced the feeling of being a world champion outside the scope of poker. In 2014, it was Massachusetts native Billy Pappas, former world champion in foosball, while last year, 2015 WSOP main event champion Joe McKeehen was the 2010 Risk world champion.
That trend continues in 2016 with Griffin Benger, a world champion in the first-person shooting game Counter-Strike. The 31-year old played professional Counter-Strike under the alias shaGuar throughout his teenage years, beginning in 1999, and he retired from the game in 2007.
As strong as his results have been in the poker world, Benger was also among the elite of the elite when it comes to Counter-Strike. In 2004, the Toronto native won a World Championship in the Cyberathlete Professional League with his team, NoA. Just a few years later, in 2007, Benger was a team member of the Championship Gaming Series’ Chicago Chimera -- part of a competition that offered a then-staggering first team prize of $250,000 that won the inaugural CGS.
Becoming a world champion definitely came at a price.
“I had to put in such crazy hours, and I was so obsessive. I hit kind of a wall where I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Benger said. “I felt a lot of closure with my Counter-Strike career after winning with Chimera. I felt finality with it. I have no regrets, and it was time for me to move on from the game.”
During his Counter-Strike days, many fellow players suggested that he get involved in poker. When his Counter-Strike interest began to wane, his curiosity in poker began to blossom.
“A little after the Moneymaker boom, my buddies started talking about poker at events and eventually pushing me to try it,” Benger remembered. “I was really starting to get interested in poker, as I was playing a lot during my down times.”
After his retirement from Counter-Strike, Benger dove headfirst into the world of poker and put the focus and work ethic he picked up in his previous career toward becoming a dominant online poker player. Benger never watched any training videos or read any books, but rather learned from playing and talking with his experienced poker buddies.
Additionally, Benger decided to return to school to pursue a degree in sports broadcasting at the College of Sports Media in Toronto. During this two-year program, Benger fortuitously met his initial poker guru, Shyam Srinivasan. Under the screen names, s_dot111 on Full Tilt and g’s zee on PokerStars, Srinivasan became one of the most successful online players in history, earning over $9 million online. Benger credits Srinivasan for much of his early success.
“When I first started playing, I was lucky enough to be surrounded my players who were better than me,” Benger said . “One of those players was Shyam Srinivasan, who I met during my second year of school in my sports media program. He was my mentor, taking me under his wing, and also my backer for many years. He was at the top of the game at the time, and I was basically copycatting a lot of the stuff he was doing and putting in my own little twists. He definitely got me to the professional level.”
Benger fully dedicated his time to learning online poker under the online moniker Flush_Entity. On April 15, 2011, Black Friday changed the online poker landscape in the U.S. forever, but as a Toronto native, the U.S. closure didn’t change much for him. Instead, Black Friday may have been an indirect benefit which eventually led to his becoming the No. 1 online player in the world in 2011 -- a position that he held numerous times over the next three years.
“I was very fortunate to be one of the few players to have benefited from Black Friday,” Benger said. “Many of the best American players were no longer around, and I was kind of one of the best of the rest. Also, I was playing with a lot of confidence at the time and went on an incredible heater around 2011 and 2012.”
After Black Friday, Benger began to branch out to live poker and quickly found success there as well. In 2013, the Canadian captured his first major title on the European Poker Tour with a high roller win in Berlin. Besting a 107 entry (and 33 rebuys) field for the 10,300 Euro, Benger took home 429,000 euros for his efforts.
“I wanted to hit the EPT stops and try my hand at live poker,” Benger said. “Before this win, I had mixed results, but this win was a culmination of a lot of hard work and grinding. It was also a very tough, challenging field. It was definitely a cool moment.”
In the biggest cash of his career to date, Benger won $1 million on Pokerstars’ Shark Cage TV show in October 2014. This massive win immediately followed a previous deep run in the 2014 WSOP main event, where he finished in a disappointing 90th place. Although he was having tremendous success, he felt like he was burning the candles from both ends.
“I got a little burnt out,” Benger said. “The game can take a toll with lots of swing and lots of emotions attached to it. The WSOP and Vegas can be a big drain, especially if you don’t have lots of success. I was trying to go to all the different EPTs stops and still have a presence online. I played a bit too much back then.”
Thus, he cut back on his poker schedule in a big way -- so much so that he had originally planned on skipping the 2016 WSOP.
“I wasn’t going to go to Vegas this summer,” Benger said. “I haven’t had a lot of success in Vegas. The last summer, I really overindulged and overextended myself. I just didn’t want to go back to Vegas this summer, and I wanted to spend it in my hometown of Toronto.”
Fate intervened, however, because in April and May the newly formed GPL’s founder, Alex Dreyfus, handpicked Benger, alongside Englishman Sam Grafton, to commentate on the preliminary matches in the GPL.
“I wanted to have an online poker player, who had a background in esports and broadcasting media,” Dreyfus said. “I chose Griffin, who was a nice fit. He was not only very knowledgeable about the game but also passionate about his involvement with the GPL. Overall, he brought a great personality to the broadcasts.”
While performing in this commentary gig, Benger had the benefit of watching a tremendous volume of poker played by some of the best in the world -- a fortunate benefit that he attributes the recent improvement of his game to.
“I really enjoyed doing it, especially with Sam (Grafton),” said Benger. “I have a lot of experience with most of the people in the GPL. The biggest surprise was learning what makes certain players so good. You were seeing their hole cards, watching them play and discussing their thought process. It definitely helped my game watching these top players.”
Benger immediately saw results as he finally tabled the 1,100 Euro UniBet Open in Malta right after he finished up his GPL commentating gig, finishing eighth. Although he did not plan on going to play in this year’s WSOP, he decided to take a shot at qualifying for the WSOP main event on 888.com.
“I decided to give it one shot, and it just worked out,” Benger recalled. “I bought directly into the satellite. Every time I played the satellite, I feel like I have a pretty big edge versus the other players, so I just went for it.”
After he won his WSOP main event seat, he decided to go to Vegas, along with his girlfriend Jeanne, who had never been to Sin City before. Making a vacation out of the trip, the 31 year-old poker pro had very low expectations. The WSOP main event quickly became all- encompassing, but the time was clearly worth it as Benger enjoyed a relatively easy ride for the first five days; he ended the night in the top 10 percent each time out.
“I got a lot of good table draws, and that was huge,” Benger said. “I also ran into a couple of fortunate coolers in my favor. I was getting a lot of momentum, and it seemed to work out every day for the first five days.”
Day 6 was a challenging day which nearly derailed his main event run; his chip stack actually dipped from 9.86 million to 6.53 million. Benger drew upon his previous run to 90th place in the WSOP main event, and it was likely one of the biggest reasons he soldiered through.
“I definitely drew a lot from my 2014 experience,” Benger admitted. “It’s crazy to have another opportunity because it felt very deja vu. I felt like a made a lot of mistakes in the 2014 (main event) that cost me. This year, I just kept my head level and in the game and preserved to make sure that I got to Day 7 with a fightable stack.”
Entering Day 7, Benger was 20th out of 27 players. Nevertheless, he still had about 30 big blinds and a determination to do everything within his power to make the November Nine.
“I was almost obsessive about the fact that I was not going to let this second opportunity to fall by the wayside,” said Benger.
After a very difficult Day 6, Day 7 got off to a much better start for Benger as he ran his stack up to about 20 million without any major showdowns. Midway through the day, a critical hand took place between him and the acerbic William Kassouf at the featured television table (which ESPN.com will examine further on Friday and will air on Sunday’s broadcast on ESPN).
A heated exchange between the two players over the course of several minutes, with Benger eventually snap-calling his opponent’s all-in. After Benger flipped over pocket aces, the Englishman dejectedly revealed his pocket kings. This unbelievably timed cooler was met with cheers from the crowd and even their fellow competitors as the polarizing Kassouf made his exit, but more importantly for Benger, it catapulted him among the chip leaders.
The next few players were quickly eliminated, and just a few hours after Benger’s massive cooler versus Kassouf, the final 10 players assembled on the main stage. Exhausted but finally controlling a solid chip stack, Benger was ready to lock in his spot in the November Nine.
“I was really tired. I was ready for it to be over.”
With Josh Weiss’ elimination in 10th place, the celebration commenced, and Benger couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“To get through the minefields and the seven days, making the November Nine is definitely my greatest accomplishment so far to date,” Benger said. “It’s hard to really put into words. It is a very surreal experience. I definitely have dreamed about making the WSOP main event final table before.”
Benger believes he is ready for the most important final table of his career, because he’ll be armed with numerous top players as his support system.
“I’m pretty confident,” Benger said. “I’m just going to go in there and play poker. There are a lot of different players that I have grown to consider friends and colleagues, and I will have a lot of players in my corner at the November Nine.”
A devoted Toronto fan, Benger plans on wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat at the WSOP main event final table, like he did throughout his run in July. With his beloved team falling short in the American League Championship Series, Benger can now focus on his task at hand, though he'd rather they were still fighting for a World Series. When asked if he could choose between a personal WSOP main event win or Blue Jays WSOP win, he was honest in his assessment.
“I’m a diehard Blue Jays fan,” Benger said. “If the Jays get back to the World Series, it would be great for them to win, but their future is bright. Although I would love the Blue Jays to win the World Series, $8 million is a lot of money, and I may never have another chance again. I will probably never make the November Nine again. So, as much as I love the Blue Jays, I’m hoping for me to win. I was so grateful to have this opportunity and hope to capture the title and bring it back to Toronto.”