It’s Christmas Day At the 2024 WSOP for Heads-Up Hero John Smith

75-year-old John Smith returns as a fan-favorite to the WSOP $25,000 Heads-Up Championship where he’s hoping to add to his legacy of deep runs against some of poker’s top talent.

Jeff Walsh
May 30, 2024
John Smith is back in action at the WSOP in his favorite event, the $25K Heads-Up Championship.

It’s May 30 but for one 77-year-old, it’s Christmas Day. But rather than the anticipation of opening presents under the tree, John Smith has his sights set, once again, on competing in the World Series of Poker $25,000 Heads-Up Championship. And there’s no place he’d rather be.

“I’ve been playing poker for over 50 years and I got into tournaments in 2005,” Smith recalled. “Then I got into a small-stakes heads-up [match] against Johnny Chan…and he beat me. But I liked it. So I carried it and I went to the WSOP and played the $10,000 and I did well and then I kept on getting better and I just enjoyed it very much by coming in second two times back-to-back.”

There’s no event on the calendar that Smith looks forward to more, not even the Main Event. For the past 10 years, Smith has likely been the oldest player in the field, finding success in making the finals in both 2016 and 2017, as well as savoring the opportunity to challenge himself against poker’s best and brightest. He says the better they are, the more he enjoys it.

“They don’t make mistakes. Rarely do they make mistakes,” he said. “But it’s good to analyze what they’re doing and it’s hard to analyze an amateur. So I just analyze it, what play they’re making, and I make the best decision and it works…not all the time, however, it works a lot of the time.”

Smith and his wife Marguerite have arrived early, some small part anticipation and another simply looking to get the registration details sorted out. While for many, playing high-stakes poker constitutes as work, for Smith putting up $25K is a day off from a day-to-day job running a highway construction company that he continues to keep from his home in Southern California.

“I’m a workaholic. I work six days a week,” he said. “I enjoy working, so I’ll work all my life. I tried to retire three times and it didn’t work. I got too bored, so I gave that up and I just work every day and I enjoy it every day.”

But today, he’s hanging out near the back of the Paris Ballroom getting ready to take on his first round, as of yet unnamed opponent (it turned out to be Guiseppe Dario Sammartino). He looked relaxed, excited, and prepared as he could be in the moment.

“A lot of people prepare when they know who they’re going to play against. In this, you don’t know who you’re going to play against, so it’s hard to prepare,” he said. “So…instinct. And I watch a lot in the beginning and see what moves they make and I learn by that. And then I go from there.”

It’s not just his former experience and success in the Heads-Up Championship that Smith leans on. At the onset of the poker boom, starting back in 2005, Smith began to take poker seriously. Battling in WPT and WSOP events in the Los Angeles area and then traveling to parts of the world to play. He even made the televised final table the the World Poker Tour 2019 LAPC where he finished in fifth for what remains a career-high cash of just over $267,000.

Despite all of his experience, with more than $1.6 million in career earnings, Smith knows that if you don’t know him you might just underestimate him. That’s something leans into and is going to use to his advantage saying that sometimes he can simply “come in and surprise them.”

Smith says although he’ll probably play the Main Event this year, it’s clear once this $25K Heads-Up event is over – he’ll really be right back looking forward to the next one.

“It’s good for his mind to keep everything alert and he enjoys it,” Marguerite added. “He used to water ski, snow ski, motorcycle, all those things. And now he plays poker and it doesn’t hurt his back.”