For a time, as Andrew Feldman has so capably recounted with his blogging, "Isildur1" seemed like the unstoppable force. He turned $60,000 into more than $1.6 million faster than you can bat an eye, then proceeded to take more than $5 million of Tom Dwan's hard-won cash. The mystery man's name was the only one on the lips and hearts of all poker players longing to be in the know. Now, as the world watches his every hand, he's lost more than $8 million in the past month and is quickly becoming the sad, iconic story that teaches us the dangers of wielding talent without discipline.
Brian Hastings, the biggest beneficiary of that downward spiral, is the perfect study in contrast to his opponent and provides a case study in the future trends of the highest stakes of online poker. Whereas Isildur1 plays too many tables against too many opponents for too many hours, Hastings, who won a record $4.2 million in their heads-up battle this past week, keeps poker in a balanced place in a balanced life. In doing so, he's taught us a few lessons about how best to approach online play and the future of poker.
1. The strength of the collective.
2. The importance of off-table work
3. Life balance
CardRunners is the biggest and best-known poker coaching tool on the Internet. It's based on pro-player blogs and instructional videos in which players like Hastings, Brian Townsend and Taylor Caby share their mindsets throughout a session, and Hastings was one of the original members.
"I remember having conversations with [Hastings] online," recalled "Green Plastic" Caby. "Then he started showing up in our games and we saw he was really good. Inviting him to do some videos with us was a natural choice. He's become a really good friend."
Hastings' joining their games was a clear sign to the CardRunners team that he would be a factor in the online world for some time.
"I kind of started moving up stakes pretty fast and ended up playing the same games as [CardRunners co-owners] Andrew Wiggins and Taylor Caby," Hastings said. "Taylor was making a sit-and-go video and we got heads-up and he made comments [in his stream-of-consciousness narrative] like 'This guy is pretty good.' I was one of the original members at CardRunners back when it was a small community and everyone knew everyone. We struck up a friendship and they asked me to come on and make videos for them."
The initial discovery of Hastings came in March 2006, when he was just 18 years old. In the time since, the friendships he's forged at CardRunners have resulted in remarkable benefits, with millions of dollars in winnings even before the Isidur1 showdown. It's the way those benefits have come about that reflects the changes in the approach to upper-tier cash games.
Hastings had played Isildur1 three times previously, so he, Townsend and Cole South conglomerated their hand histories, allowing them to study the mystery man's playing style.
"We've done quite a bit of studying of his habits," Hastings reflected. "Honestly, I give most of the credit to Brian Townsend here. I mean, Brian is honestly the hardest worker I know in poker. He analyzed a database of heads-up hands that Isildur1 had played and constructed ranges of what Isildur1 was doing in certain spots. In a way, I feel bad that it wasn't Brian who got this win instead of me. Obviously I'm happy and I'll take it, but Brian did a ton of work. The three of us discussed a ton of hands and the reports that Brian made, so I'm very thankful to him and to Cole as well."
Don't cry for Townsend. While he admits he'd have liked this kind of payday, he insists he's happy with the overall outcome.
"If [Patrik] Antonius or [Phil] Ivey had blown up Isildur1's bankroll, I'd have been upset," Townsend admitted. "Brian's one of our guys, though."
Also, Townsend can find solace in the fact he's taken some $1.7 million from Isildur1 himself.
There are some who are bringing into question the validity of the work the CardRunners guys did in conjunction with one another. Cries of "One player per hand!" and the soullessness of so coldly targeting a player who has brought unprecedented viewing entertainment to the masses echo throughout their number. It's almost as though they forget this is poker and that, in the online age, the levels of strategy will always evolve. Hastings may have been part of a study group, but in the end he passed the test on his own.
"At the highest stakes, there are players who are playing closer to perfectly than ever before," Townsend explained. "Poker's getting closer and closer to becoming a solved game. It helps us get closer to making the right mathematical decisions. In the end, that's really what makes one successful."
By working together, this poker study group has put the pieces together quicker than ever, but in the new online age, improving efficiency is almost always the priority.
"At that level, to be successful, you really have to take advantage of the little things," Hastings added. "They can help make the difference. That's why [the off-table analysis Townsend has been doing] is so important."
Upon his victory, it may have appeared to some that Hastings was grabbing for his 15 minutes. As described by many, his CardRunners blog entry read like an acceptance speech, and he immediately accepted interviews with The Poker Edge, myself and a number of other outlets. Still, he insists he's not looking for poker celebrity.
"I mean, I don't think I'll ever be that poker celebrity type," Hastings insisted. "Maybe more like a Patrik [Antonius], someone who quietly does a few interviews and plays the high stakes games. Keeps under the radar to a point."
With a Full Tilt Poker deal already in place, he doesn't see much benefit to the attention. Some would seek the glory of fame, especially at the ripe age of 21, but Hastings' mature take on the matter is in line with the way his peers see the way he lives. There's still school (12 credits this semester), fraternity life and everything that comes with it. It leaves him playing just 5-10 hours of poker a week at an age and talent level that would inspire 98 percent of his peers to take the Isildur1 route.
Hastings isn't done. While writing that blog was a means to procrastinating rather than studying, he's finishing exams now, investing his money wisely and gearing up for greater poker challenges. He sees a foray into Bobby's Room in his future in addition to continued high stakes play, but even with his newly fattened bankroll, he'll continue to maintain his backing arrangements rather than risk damaging himself. It's a smart way to ensure a bright future. It's the smart way to nurture talent. Isildur1 should take notice.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.