Trio of ClubWPT Players Hope to Cash In on Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance

Ahead of their Day 1B starting flight in the WPT World Championship at Wynn Las Vegas, three qualifiers tell the story of how they got in, and how they’re feeling about playing the $10,400 tournament.

Tim Fiorvanti
Dec 12, 2022

Poker players from all over the world won their way into the WPT World Championship at Wynn Las Vegas, which kicked off Monday afternoon. Casinos and card rooms, both physical and digital, ran satellites and contests over the last few months that will likely help make this $10,400 buy-in tournament one of the biggest in the history of poker.

ClubWPT offered a variety of opportunities for more than two dozen players to enter this event. These players hail from all over the United States, from Alaska all the way south to Florida. And even with the ClubWPT ecosystem, there were several different paths to the WPT World Championship.

One of them played in the Brad Owen WPT World Championship Bounty event, and finished second in the 2,154-player field – to Owen himself.

Another played through an entire season of events to become the 2022 ClubWPT Player of the Year.

And one of the last to win their way in did so by out-driving Phil Ivey in a golf simulator.

Ahead of each player starting their journey in this event on Day 1B Tuesday, we checked in with these three qualifiers to find out more about their journey and how they’re feeling ahead of the opportunity of a lifetime.

The long way back around

“I hadn’t played poker in, I don’t know, 8 to 10 years – especially not full-time or anything.”

Billy Haines had taken poker pretty seriously in the early-to-mid 00s. He played mostly single-table tournaments on PokerStars and PartyPoker, and even won his way into the 2006 World Series of Poker main event – to date, the largest poker tournament prize pool in history – and finished about 100 spots outside of the money.

But Haines had long since left playing poker seriously in his rear-view mirror. He’s been a pilot for 23 years, with experience in both commercial and cargo flights, with a few years of hiatus during the poker boom. Recently, Haines has been flying part-time in Colorado, where his brother lives.

Haines did retain one significant connection to poker, though – watching Brad Owen’s vlogs. That’s what led him to sign up for a free one-month trial to ClubWPT, just in time for Owen’s freeroll event.

With a World Championship seat on the line for the winner, and a $2,500 bounty for eliminating the freshly minted WPT Ambassador, Owen did the unthinkable and beat out the entire field. And while there was some debate as to how the prize would be awarded, Owen elected to give the seat to Haines, the runner-up.

As he set out to fly to Las Vegas with his wife, Haines was in good spirits.

“I’ve been running solid – I won one of those Sunday $10,000s [on ClubWPT] the other day, and I’m playing well, as well as I can,” Haines said. “Feeling as well as could be expected for not having played any really kind of tournament poker for 10 years.”

Will Leppert poses with Phil Ivey after winning Ivey’s golf simulator challenge. Leppert’s prize was a seat in the WPT World Championship at Wynn Las Vegas.

One shot worth over $10,000 – and maybe more

Will Leppert is no stranger to WPT main events. When he was living in Jacksonville, he qualified to play in several of them, and earned a pair of cashes in those tournaments in 2012.

But his winning ticket to the WPT World Championship came to him in a far different way than any previous satellite. Leppert, who is an instructor pilot who recently moved to Las Vegas, saw a sweepstakes posted on Twitter by ClubWPT that would allow five Club members to play in a golf simulator with Phil Ivey. If any of them outshot Ivey, they’d have a chance to win a seat. And if only one of them outshot Ivey, the seat would be theirs straight away.

“I’m kind of into golf, so I thought, ‘there’s a sweepstakes involved in golf and poker – I’ve got to be a part of it.’ I quickly went up on Twitter and just posted my ClubWPT username, and the next day I had a message that I was selected. I was pretty stoked.”

On the most critical shot, Ivey was the only player to put his ball on the island green. Leppert followed, and put his closer to the pin – sealing his victory and a $10,400 seat.

As he lives in Las Vegas and already has some major tournament experience, Leppert has a leg up on most of the other qualifiers who will be in the WPT World Championship field. He’s also had a chance to take in the main tournament ballroom, and formulate his plan of attack once he sits down.

“This whole atmosphere here has been pretty electric, the turnouts have been very large. So, it’s all kind of exciting,” Leppert said. “I think the main event structures kind of favor a player who’s more balanced, who is looking for their spots and has time to learn about the players he’s playing against. I really liked the longer events that stretch out over several days, just because you get a lot of that play. It just becomes more of a strategic test, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Stepping out from behind the screen

Mark Symons had held a comfortable lead for months, heading into the final eligible tournament of the 2022 ClubWPT Player of the Year race. But it wasn’t an insurmountable deficit, so he was determined to remove any doubt about its conclusion.

A positive finish in that Sunday $10,000 tournament locked up POY honors – and that distinction led Symons to being honored at a celebration at Wynn Las Vegas, held a few days before the start of the World Championship.

The ClubWPT “Stream Team” had assembled for a long-discussed BBQ – a group of players who came together during the isolation of the COVID pandemic to form a community around live-streamed ClubWPT events – and they were there to meet each other and WPT Ambassadors including Lynn Gilmartin. And sitting on a table as a centerpiece was a trophy with Symons’ name on it.

“That was really cool,” Symons said. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen going into it. I knew it’d probably be a little bit of attention on me, but I was kind of surprised how many people were there and how they kind of centered around the trophy. I got to put a lot of faces to names of people who you see playing [on ClubWPT], and it was also really cool to meet some people that I’m used to just seeing on TV.”

It was the culmination of Symons’ journey on ClubWPT. During the summer of 2020, he had seen an advertisement during a WPT broadcast, and after a free trial decided to stick around. As an engineer, Symons tapped into his math skills and understanding of probabilities, and after working on his game over two years, he was POY.

One more challenge remained. As someone who had exclusively played online, once it was clear he had a real shot at winning a seat to the WPT World Championship, Symons started playing some live tournaments at his local card room. He wanted to get a feel for the cards and the atmosphere.

Only time will tell how his first $10,400 buy-in event will go, but Symons has been studying up. He even got a bonus on his flight to Las Vegas, as he was able to watch Phil Ivey’s poker MasterClass on the in-flight entertainment system. And then, upon his arrival, Symons immediately ran into Ivey himself in the elevator going up to his hotel room.

He’s also looking forward to the possibility of being seated among other top name pros once Day 1B kicks off.

“I’m definitely excited,” Symons said. “There’s obviously a little bit of nerves that go with it, just because you almost feel like you don’t belong, but I know I’m pretty decent at poker, so it’d be kind of cool to see everybody. I’m just going to try not to let myself get intimidated or let it affect my game.”