Somerset Poker Pro Ryan Hagerty Goes From High School Home Games To Shot At World Championship

An impulsive decision to enter the "hybrid" 2020 Main Event has led New Jersey pro Hagerty to the precipice of poker history.
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All it takes is one bad beat to end your poker tournament. You can play perfectly hand after hand, make the right decisions in every crucial spot, and then have the wrong card turn over at the wrong time and get sent packing.

As the 2020 World Series of Poker Main Event was approaching, Ryan Hagerty saw the potential for the bad beat to end all bad beats — one that had nothing to do with flops, turns, or rivers. So he made up his mind that playing in this year’s tournament wasn’t worth the risk.

Every year prior to this one, from the first freezeout-style Main Event in 1971 through last year’s tournament that ended with Iranian-German pro Hossein Ensan turning $10,000 into $10,000,000, the action played out entirely in person in Las Vegas. But, as with almost all things in 2020, this year is different. With the in-person summer WSOP canceled, a hybrid Main Event, starting online and building toward a final table played in a COVID-tested live “bubble,” was the only way the annual tradition could continue.

And Hagerty, a 28-year-old poker pro from Somerset, N.J., was turned off by one particular detail.

“I saw that the rules said if you make it to the final table but then you test positive for COVID, you get ninth place,” Hagerty told NJ Online Gambling. “I wasn’t really about that.”

Imagine: You maneuver past hundreds of players in a two-day online tournament, you’re in position for a possible seven-figure payday, and your dreams and chip stack all go poof if the virus slips past your defenses.

That was enough to position the 2020 Main Event as a negative-EV proposition for Hagerty. He decided the only way he would play is if he qualified for the $10,000 buy-in tournament in a much cheaper satellite qualifier. He didn’t have any luck in those. So when Dec. 13 rolled around and the tournament was hours away, Hagerty wasn’t going to enter.

“Then around 1:30 p.m., I’m watching the football games … and I’m just like, I gotta be in there,” he recalled.

The lure of playing for poker’s world championship was too strong to resist. He sold some shares of his entry cost to friends in exchange for pieces of his potential payout so that it wouldn’t cost him the full $10,000, and he bought in.

“I really had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to play,” Hagerty said. “Thank god I changed my mind.”

The ESPN-televised final table starts on Monday, Dec. 28. Hagerty is third in chips and guaranteed $98,813 — with a shot at $2,553,256.

Nine — well, ten — players remain

Technically, the tournament Hagerty is in only comprises half of the 2020 World Series of Poker Main Event. There was an international tournament that began online, finished with a live final table in the Czech Republic last week, and awarded just over $1.5 million to its winner, Argentina’s Damian Salas.

The U.S. version began on WSOP.com, available to Nevada and New Jersey online poker players only. The requirement to get yourself and your computer or mobile device into one of those two states to play proved limiting, drawing 705 entries (on top of the 674 playing the international tourney) to an event that had exceeded 5,000 entries in each of the last 15 years.

The domestic tournament will pay $1,553,256 to whoever prevails on Dec. 28. That victor will then face Salas on Dec. 30 for an extra million dollars and the coveted Main Event bracelet.

Hagerty has almost exactly 12% of the 42.3 million chips in play at next Monday’s final table. Here’s a look at where he stands chip-count-wise and who he’s up against:

Joseph Hebert13,052,534
Shawn Stroke5,252,000
Ryan Hagerty5,071,572
Ye Yuan4,829,459
Michael Cannon4,408,847
Gershon Distenfeld3,475,481
Ron Jenkins2,476,746
Upeshka De Silva2,151,969
Harrison Dobin1,581,392

Humble home game beginnings

Hagerty first started playing poker about 10 years ago, taking part in $20 buy-in home games with friends during his senior year of high school.

“I’d say the first five times I played, I lost $20 each time,” he recalled. “But I really enjoyed playing. I was enjoying the atmosphere of poker. I liked the game. But I was like, I can’t just keep losing 20 bucks. So I really started to dive into it and started to read online articles about poker and studying strategy.”

When he headed off to Rowan University in Glassboro the next year, Hagerty was the guy in his dorm organizing poker games. “We’d play until like 9 in the morning sometimes,” he remembered with a laugh.

It was during his junior year, in 2013, that New Jersey became one of three states to legalize and regulate online poker, and Hagerty dove in.

But he didn’t have poker in his sights as a career choice. He graduated with a degree in journalism in 2015 and got a job covering high school sports for NJ.com, the standard entry-level move for aspiring sportswriters. That only lasted a couple of months, though, before he moved to Baltimore to live with his then-girlfriend. He gave up the writing job and worked at a Target. Hagerty’s path was unclear. Until one fateful weekend when he headed back home to New Jersey to play in a Borgata online poker series.

“I binked [won]  the $215 tournament for $21,000,” Hagerty said. “I was like, Wow, OK, now I’ve got a bankroll. My girlfriend and I broke up, and I decided to move back to New Jersey and take a run at grinding poker.”

Main Event magic

Other than a brief dalliance with Uber driving, poker is the only job Hagerty has had in the past five years. He mostly plays online but has also had his share of success in live tournaments, including scores at Parx Casino in Pennsylvania, Borgata in Atlantic City, and a career-best win for $70,865 in the $1,100 WPT DeepStacks main event in Schenectady, N.Y., in August 2019.

ryan hagerty 2018 delaware poker championship
Hagerty celebrates winning the 2018 Delaware Poker Championship for $25,500, his biggest live score at the time

“It took some time, but eventually I started to figure out what it took to win live, and I started to have some success there,” he said. “At this point, I feel just as comfortable live as I do online.”

That’s a good thing, because his live skills are going to be tested at the WSOP Main Event final table.

His online skills were certainly tested over the tournament’s first two days — and Hagerty admits he needed a little luck to get as far as he has.

Playing in his second World Series Main Event — he busted at the end of Day 2 in 2018 and had to miss the 2019 tournament to attend his sister’s wedding — Hagerty struggled throughout Day 1. After about two hours of play, he had only half his starting stack. But the tournament’s slow structure meant he didn’t need to panic. And some good fortune kept him alive when he got his chips in with A-Q against pocket aces and managed an unlikely chopped pot when both he and his opponent made an ace-high straight.

“That was pretty lucky,” Hagerty acknowledged. “But you’ve got to have that stuff happen sometimes in tournaments.”

Hagerty never got any real momentum going on Day 1, but he did escape the day with about 17 big blinds, in 55th place out of the 69 remaining players.

Day 2 was a completely different experience for him. He doubled up immediately when he made a flush with A-8 of diamonds. Then he got into a three-way all-in with pocket eights against A-K and A-Q and his medium pair held up. Now he had a stack.

“I just took off from there,” Hagerty said. “I didn’t lose many hands on Day 2. I went from like 17 bigs to the chip lead, and it didn’t take long at all.”

One more stroke of luck

Play intensified as the final dozen players scrapped it out for those nine seats at the Rio in Las Vegas. Hagerty was no longer the chip leader, and the player who was, Joseph Hebert, was at his table, aggressively trying to accumulate chips.

“At that point he’s playing every hand, and it’s kind of hard for me to do anything about it,” Hagerty said. “So I kind of just laid low, until I thought I saw a good spot to make a move.”

Hebert opened on the button, which, in the case of an aggressive chip leader, doesn’t necessarily mean he has a good hand. So Hagerty went all-in for about 23 big blinds with K-J offsuit. It turned out Hebert did have a premium hand: A-Q offsuit. About 62% of the time, Hagerty would be busted just short of the final table. But the wind was at his back again. He doubled up and found himself with a third-place stack when Anthony Spinella was eliminated in 10th place shortly thereafter.

“I was beside myself,” Hagerty said, looking back on the moment online play ended. “It took a while to sink in. I got all these texts, people congratulating me, and for that first hour, it just doesn’t hit you.

“But once it did, it’s like, this is truly incredible. And it’s been a grind for me. I’ve been grinding poker really hard, so to make the Main Event final table, this is amazing.”

Final table outlook

Hagerty is one of three NJ players, and one of five from the general region, heading to Vegas to play on Monday. Gershon Distenfeld of Bergenfield is an interesting story: an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t play on Friday nights or Saturdays, but, in this COVID year with the hybrid setup, could buy in without worrying about any sabbath action. Mike Cannon of Harrisburg, Pa., is also an interesting story, in that he’s one of Hagerty’s closest friends in poker.

“I respect his game a ton,” Hagerty said of Cannon. “It’s going to be an interesting dynamic because me and him, we talk poker a lot, we both know each other’s games really well. But at the end of the day, we’re both trying to win this tournament.”

Arguably the two most dangerous players at the table will be Hebert, who has more than 30% of the chips, and Upeshka De Silva, who has the second-shortest stack but is a widely respected three-time WSOP bracelet winner.

“If ‘Pesh’ chips up, he’s going to be tough to deal with, for sure,” Hagerty said.

The final nine won’t draw for seats until they’re in Las Vegas, limiting the amount of preparation and simulation they can do. Hagerty’s biggest job between now and then is to remain COVID-free. He’s confident he’s up to that challenge.

“I’ve really been quarantining this whole year, so as far as quarantining for the tournament, it’s not a big deal for me,” he said.

Hagerty is trying not to get ahead of himself and think about a heads-up showdown with Salas for the championship. His mindset is just to play it one hand at a time.

Some poker observers have objected to this tournament, which started online and had regional accessibility issues, being counted as a “world championship” the same way the previous 49 Main Event tournaments have. That doesn’t affect what Hagerty believes he’s playing for.

“Honestly, I don’t really care how people look at it,” he said. “I made the final table, I did what I did, it’s a super big accomplishment for me. If you don’t think it’s a real Main Event, it doesn’t really bother me.

“I play poker for the love of the game, and I’m a competitor, I play to win. It’s cool to leave a nice legacy, but I don’t think too much about stuff like that. The money’s still the same. There’s good money to be had, regardless of how people view it.”

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