By Sean Chaffin
Turning things around in a big way seems to be the norm for Craig Varnell. After entering the final table of the WPT Choctaw second in chips, Varnell seemed in good shape to battle for a title.
Later in the evening, however, Varnell was in seriously bad shape. Down to only 210,000 chips (three big blinds) at one point, he then won five double-ups to get back into the tournament. Adding to the excitement of the victory was celebrating his 36th birthday on Friday.
“It feels great,” he said. “When I found out the final table was on my birthday, I said, ‘Well that’s good.’ And then the day didn’t start out too well. I was down to three or four big blinds. I don’t know what happened, I won a couple of all-ins and all of a sudden I was back in it. It was crazy. I had a big support group here. It was the best birthday present you could ask for.”
After making the final table at WPT Choctaw in Season XV (2017) and taking third for $306,346, this win offers a bit of redemption for an event and property he enjoys.
“I made a really bad call when we were three-handed,” he says. “I was really upset for a while, but after I got short here and doubled up I think I played really well.”
After finishing his heads-up battle with Will Berry, Varnell was enveloped by his considerable rail and was ready to celebrate. He now has a WPT500 and a WPT Main Tour title and takes home $379,990 for his efforts. Along with that, he wins a $15,000 buy-in for Saturday’s Baccarat Crystal WPT Tournament of Champions.
“Never would I have thought I’d have a WPT title,” he said. “To just think about that and now I get to play with all the best tomorrow, and all the added money, more perks if you win, and all that good stuff – I like being challenged. I play whatever tournament, it doesn’t matter.”
“But when I play against good players I feel like it keeps your game sharp. It helps you know what works against certain people and what doesn’t. That’s how you learn. Playing with all these guys is going to be great.”
The Choctaw win moves his total live tournament winnings to more than $2.3 million. Before the action began on Friday, Varnell spoke with WPT.com about his past a bit and overcoming an arrest for drug dealing a decade ago. He completely turned his life around and has found success on poker biggest stages, now with a WPT title and a World Series of Poker bracelet.
As runner-up, Oklahoma’s Will Berry takes home $243,330. Varnell was highly complimentary of the entire final table.
“Everyone played really well,” he says. “It was up and down for everyone. We were battling. I think everyone had the chip lead in this thing almost. That usually doesn’t happen, the chips usually go to one or two people. In this one, chips were just moving around the table, so that made it a little difficult.”
Despite having time chips, the action was fast for Varnell who rarely uses his them. The new champion enjoys that style of play.
“I try to follow my instincts, which a lot of players don’t do anymore,” he says. “It’s all math and game theory. Instinct is a part of the game a lot of players don’t have anymore. They’re always on their phone on Twitter or doing something. I look at people and try to pick up things and pay attention a lot.
“I think that’s why I have success. I don’t study. Some of these kids have no lives. They’re on the computer playing poker all the time. I don’t want to live my life like that. I love playing poker but I’m not doing it all the time. I’ve got family and friends and a girlfriend. I can’t just be studying all the time.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not working on his game. Varnell says he has more of an in-game learning approach, remembering mistakes and moves from a tournament and looking to change it later.
An interesting footnote to his win is that all of Varnell’s WPT cashes are final tables. He credits that to his style of play – often busting early or making deep runs.
“I think I’ve only played 15 WPTs,” he says. “But once I get in the money I tell people I’m going to get to the final table. I told them that at Choctaw.”
That prediction turned out to be quite intuitive and ended with a nice win. Varnell is never afraid to play big pots and seeing his chip stack swing up and down is a regular part of his game. That style works well against players with more mathematical theories to the game, he says, and favors his more instinctive approach.
“I’m always up and down usually. I like big pots – especially against GTO players,” he says. “They have this robotic approach. I like to play big pots and get them out of their comfort zone. I’m always up and down, especially when I’m with good players. I don’t want to play small ball with them all day.”
“You’ve just got to go for it sometimes, and if you’re wrong you’ve just got to rebound and focus.”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas, and his work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions.