Editor's note: Coverage of the 2010 World Series of Poker begins July 20 on ESPN. Matt Affleck was eliminated in 15th place.
It was during the dinner break of Day 7 of the World Series of Poker main event that 23-year-old Matt Affleck last spoke with his mother. "Ooh," she told him. "I've been refreshing the updates! Don't do anything stupid like you did last year! Try to play passive!"
Affleck smiled as he recounted the conversation. "She just wants me to fold to the November Nine."
You can't really blame Sue Affleck for wanting to protect her son. A year ago, Matt Affleck was the unknown chip leader with 130-some players left. That's when the poker gods slapped him in the face.
"Last year, my biggest problem and my ultimate downfall was that I'd lose a pot and my mindset would be 'I have to get those back,'" said the Seattle native. "I got into a big pot with Q-Q vs. K-Q. Someone said they'd folded a king when we turned the cards up and then I got two-outed on the river. I was stressing out, because I'd been the chip leader and was like, 'I need to get back the chip lead' and didn't play my game after that."
Affleck ended up in 80th place in the 2009 main event. While for many the $68,979 payday would have provided consolation, the what-could-have-beens were monumental for the kid who'd lost the chip lead. Remarkably, he took the lessons he learned a year ago and made the most of them. With 27 players remaining heading into Day 8 of the 2010 event, Affleck sat sixth with 12,515,000 chips.
"Today the same thing happened," said Affleck after Day 7 was in the books. "I got up to 8,000,000, was moved to the feature and lost a massive pot to William Thorson. I thought he'd missed a straight draw, but he'd back-doored the nut flush. All I could think was that last year I'd lost that pot and got all stressed out. This year, I was OK about it. I laughed it off, then we went on break. I think I played very well after that. I came back and played my own game and rebuilt my stack by the end of the day. I'd had the same experience last year, but I got it right this time."
Maturing tremendously over the last year, Affleck believes he's become a different, and better, player in 2010.
"That's a symptom of my growth as a player and as a person," he said. "I think control of emotions in poker is overlooked a lot. I feel I can just turn my emotions out. On Day 4, I played with a guy who bluffed off some chips and you could just tell he was done. He had 40 big blinds left but you could just tell. Two hours later, he was out."
The education of Matt Affleck as a poker player started in high school.
"Like everyone else in high school, I started watching on TV," he said. "We'd do $5 tournaments, then upped it to $10 and then to $20 and everyone was like, 'You guys are crazy, playing that high!' I just played casually through high school, and then at college I wanted to enjoy myself, so I quit my job as a cashier. I started playing online, but I finished school last month. I've been playing pretty seriously for the last year and a half, planning on not getting a post-school job during that time. I still made sure I graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in finance."
School was a priority, but between classes Affleck started finding that he had a talent for the game. "I was a big sit-and-go grinder. I would play 20 tables at a time, $6, then $16, with two monitors going at a time. I eventually worked my way up to $100 sit-and-gos, then started into multi-table tournaments and cash games. Over the last two years I've concentrated fully on tournaments. Studying the tactics, the math and so on. Tournaments are my bread and butter. I've put in a lot of time outside of playing. Studying a lot of situations, talking to friends."
Through his constant dedication, Affleck has developed a style of play that deviated from conventional wisdom.
"I feel like I play a little differently than most tournament players," Affleck said. "There are some people who get so caught up in the standard 'Oh, I have ace-king!' and can't get out of that mode. They always fall to a big set-up hand and don't think the small pots matter, but they do. I'm always looking at how I can make my opponent fold. I'm trying to control my opponents. I try to get them to do what I want them to do. I got the Grinder to bluff four times."
The Grinder reference was to a hand with Michael Mizrachi that happened late on Day 7 where Affleck's confidence and momentum returned just in time to finish the night on a high note.
"I had 8s-7s under the gun, Grinder called and the flop came 7-2-2," Affleck said. "Mike checked and I checked back, because I didn't want the pot to get too big with just [two small] pair I ended up turning a 7, he bet, I raised and he re-raised, and then he bluffed on the river again. My hand looked like an ace-high to him as a result, so he tried to get me off of what he thought was a weaker hand than I had."
The common theme when Affleck talked about the hands against Mizrachi and Thorson is the confidence that Affleck feels building within himself.
"I feel very confident about [Day 8]," he said. "I have the sixth-biggest stack, I have 100 big blinds. There's a lot of play left. I've played thousands of tournaments before and I know how to play these in the late stages. All I can ask for is that I make the best decision of every street. I'm not worried about money jumps. I'm just trying to make the best decisions in each hand. All of the money is in the top three. You get 10-times as much for first as ninth, so you've got to have some chips heading into the final table."
Statements like that might be scary for poor Sue Affleck, at home refreshing her computer, but it seems like even she is starting to understand how talented her son is and how rare the achievement of back-to-back runs like Matt's are. "My dad embraced it a lot earlier," Matt said of his parents' feeling on his poker career. "He thinks it's kind of cool. My mom, not so much. Two months ago she was like, 'Have you applied for any jobs?'"
None yet. For the moment, Affleck is focused on poker. He doesn't plan on playing forever. He knows that Wall Street firms are fans of poker on the resume because of the financial detachment poker players practice every day. For the moment though, Affleck is keenly focused on the game that has him in the spotlight today.
"I'm a guy who wants to win this tournament more than everyone in this room," he said. "I want the money, I want to prove to myself with how hard I've worked that I've earned this. I want to fulfill the confidence I have in myself. This is the ultimate goal."
Maybe -- just maybe -- he'll prove to his mother that this is the right path for him to take. Sorry to break it to you, Sue: You've got yourself one heck of a poker player in the family.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.