Being a University of Michigan graduate, it's not often that I will go out of my way to cheer on a Michigan State alumnus. But during the World Series of Poker main event, all collegiate allegiances will be put aside, and I will root for a former Spartan to take down the biggest event in poker.
Eric Mullen, a 37-year-old transportation planner for the Michigan Department of Transportation, defeated 441 players, and earned his seat to the WSOP main event. Mullen has been playing on and off at the ESPN Poker Club since June 2005, and now is one of five players who has won his WSOP seat for free from ESPN.com. Mullen battled through the final tournament, and finally beat "Garto" for the win after a 15-minute, heads-up battle.
"I was pretty stunned," Mullen said after the victory.
On the final hand he flopped two pair with Q-9 versus his opponent's top pair with Q-5. A bet and all-in risk later, Mullen was celebrating along with hundreds of followers in the rail. Unfortunately, because it was approaching 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning, sharing the news with friends and family was difficult.
"My whole family was in bed," he said. "I was pretty much in shock, and I emailed a couple friends and let them know. But nobody was awake, and I didn't get any response from anyone. I told my wife, who came out with our eight-month old when I was at the final table, then she went back and went to bed.
"[After it was over] I nudged her and told her 'I won!' She said, 'That's nice.' She woke up 45 minutes later and asked, 'Did you say you won? What does that mean?'"
It means he's heading to Vegas.
Mullen has only played online at the ESPN Poker Club, and has already started to prepare for the difference in play between live and online. A frequent viewer of the WSOP on ESPN and listener to the Poker Edge podcast, Mullen has followed poker for years, and if he plays his cards right, he could be watching himself late this summer on ESPN.
He'll be off to Las Vegas on July 4 with intentions of starting his first live tournament on Day 1D. He has never played in a casino, but will rely on home game experience and strategy to get him through one of the toughest tournaments in the world.
"Everyone keeps telling me that I need to go buy dark sunglasses, but I think I'm going to try to play the first few levels pretty tight," said Mullen. "Get comfortable, let the nerves wear down a little bit and only play really good hands."
Will Mullen sit down with some of the game's biggest superstars? That depends on the table draw, but he said he would love to play with Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson. He's said he is worried about one talent the professionals have that Mullen himself will need to fine-tune, his poker face.
"The guys who will tell you what is in your hand, that's the type of thing that scares me," said Mullen. "If I ever pick up a big hand, my eyes will bug out or something and they'll all know."
Playing in the main event can be intimidating but having fun along the way is most important. Through the free-roll, Mullen will have an experience he has only dreamed of. He's playing in the biggest poker tournament in the world, and while making the money would be amazing, the trip will be one great ride.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," he said. "The chances of me paying $10,000 are slim to none unless I satellited the way in, there's no way I could go out there and [spend $10,000]. I'm excited to have the opportunity."
With the first place prize at the main event estimated in the $9 to $10 million dollar range, making a deep run would mean a lot of cash. None of the last four ESPN Poker Club winners have made it out of Day 1, but with the increased starting stacks and two hour blind levels, this could be the year the ESPN Poker Club represents on Day 2 and beyond.
"If I were to win the whole thing, I'd find something else to do," said Mullen. "I'd be looking for a little more leisure time I guess. A boat, new car, all those things are good. Plus, start a trust fund for the kids' education."