The East Coast poker community has known Melissa Burr for years. She has been a participant in some of the highest stakes cash mixed games in the New Jersey area. By all accounts, she’s humble but strong, easy-going yet hard-working, and one of the most genuine and focused players in the game.
While Burr’s area of concentration has been Limit Hold’em and various mixed games, she has dabbled in No Limit Hold’em and recently made an effort to improve her skills in that arena. Those efforts have paid off at the 2014 World Series of Poker.
She started her WSOP with an eighth place finish at the final table of the $10K Limit Omaha Hi/Lo Championship for $51,768. Two weeks later, she made the final table of the $1,500 Seven Card Stud Hi/Lo tournament and finished fifth for $39,181. She played in the new $1,500 Dealer’s Choice Six-Handed event and finished ninth for $9,944, and three days later, she made the final table of the $50K Poker Players Championship. As the first woman to ever cash in the event’s nine-year history, she also made the final table and cashed in seventh for $165,435. The following week, she made a deep run in the $3K Omaha Hi/Lo event and took home $14,122 for 13th place.
Burr has had a whirlwind summer, and it’s not over yet. She played the WSOP Main Event for the first time ever and ended the night with chips. And when she played the WPT500 at Aria over the weekend, the New Jersey online poker site PartyPoker announced her on Twitter as the newest member of its team.
And all the while, she has given of her time for multiple interviews, like this one.
(Author’s note: Read to the end to find out what advice she has for women in poker.)
CardsChat (CC): Everyone has been congratulating you on your WSOP success. Describe the summer so far from your point of view.
Melissa Burr: Actually, my summer has been really tumultuous. When I made the final two tables of the $10K Omaha, I received a call two hours before that day started that my grandmother had passed away, which was so unraveling. I was really close to her throughout my whole life. She was 93, so she lived a very long life. It was a little surprising, though, because it was at that time since she had been in good health and was doing okay. She passed in her sleep, which is what I would’ve wanted for her.
I went to eat before that Omaha restart with Matt Glantz and my boyfriend, Ryan Miller. I broke down, upset about my grandma, and asked how the universe could do that to me before that day of play. Jen Shahade, one of my closest friends, walked by, and I lost it. The number one thing she told me was that I shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to win the tournament because that’s what my grandma would’ve wanted. She knew it was overwhelming for me but told me I shouldn’t feel bad. That really sunk in, and I gathered myself together.
I was one of the short stacks going in, and to make the final table despite all of the adversity was really a turning point for me. It gave me more confidence. That tournament was the most heartbreaking because it’s my favorite game and I knew I could’ve won it. I turned to Ryan and said it would take another five years to get to that point again. I was upset because I didn’t know when I’d get another opportunity like that.
Fast forward, and I got really sick, in my room for two weeks with a terrible cold, and I had to fly back home for my grandmother’s funeral. I flew home, gave the eulogy, come back to Vegas, and then looked at Day 1 of the $1,500 Stud Hi/Lo. And I went on to final table that one.
With all of those feelings going on, it was topped off by final tabling the next event.
I realized that these opportunities are here for me every day, so it didn’t have to be five years for the next one.
I got a lot of money for my deep runs, but when you spend a lot of money on tournaments, it doesn’t always add up. The $50K that I won for the Omaha final table basically just covered the buy-ins for the other $10Ks that I wanted to play, and I got another $40K for the Stud finish. I was looking to be profitable for the summer regardless of what else happened, so it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. But if I didn’t do anything else, it wouldn’t have felt like I accomplished much. In hindsight, though, I was very thankful for everything to that point.
It wasn’t until after the Dealer’s Choice tournament that I got ninth place that I thought, “Wow, this is unreal!” I felt like I was running well and playing well, but I also thought that all of the adjustments I made for the summer were applied.
It started to hit me when I sold pieces for the $50K Poker Players Championship, and everyone bought them so fast. That’s when it sank in what a great series I was having.
CC: A lot of players are not happy with anything but first place. You don’t seem to be feeling that way.
Melissa: I am not one of those players. I love to win and want to win more than anyone, but to say that I didn’t win the $50K Poker Players Championship seems outrageous to me. I was extremely proud to get where I did, just cashing, and the final table was a bonus. I was the shortest stack from 13 players on and slipped into the final table.
There’s nothing that could upset me this summer so far. Even going deep in the $3K Omaha Hi/Lo, I had people giving condolences that I only got 13th, and I told them not to feel sorry for me!
I’m just so high on the summer. While winning would be great, in my mind, I feel like this is a great accomplishment to go deep in all of these events. I know that I’m getting closer and will eventually win. Just wait!
CC: Tell me about your short stack strategy. You really are a short stack ninja!
Melissa: I am a ninja! Short-stack play is something I’ve really thought hard about. I don’t want to be short-stacked, but I’m given a situation and have to deal with it. A lot of people say that they’ve been down to one chip or one big blind and have come back to win. You never actually believe that can happen until you do it.
When I got short in the $10K Omaha-8, I just waited. I didn’t want to leave the tournament yet and decided not to be impatient. In the Stud Hi/Lo, I got really short and had 15K and the ante was 3K. That was with 11 people left, and the cash at that point would’ve been $9,500. By playing a good short-stack strategy, I earned an extra $30K. I became a believer. I’m going to be patient and hang on for as long as possible until they force me to leave.
CC: You told Jen Shahade in an interview for PokerStars a few years ago that playing a big cash game, and winning, in Ivey’s Room at Aria was one of the few times you felt really proud in poker. Does this summer take over that spot?
Melissa: Cashing in the $50K overtook that. They’re kind of the same in that a lot of the same games were played, and that was a defining moment in my poker career because I was only 30 or 31 at the time. But now, being the only woman to ever cash in the $50K Poker Players Championship, the toughest event of the series with all of the disciplines, that was special.
CC: You flew under the radar of the poker media for a long time because you mainly focus on cash games. How do you feel about all of the media attention now?
Melissa: When I started playing big stakes, I liked being unknown and playing under the radar. It was to my advantage when people didn’t know who I was. The East Coast players usually knew who I was and people who constantly saw me in big games in Vegas knew, but it was nice being unknown. I was never looking for the attention.
But it works out perfectly now because I’ve given up being unknown for such a huge summer, so I’m okay with it.
CC: What happens when you go back home? Will you play more tournaments or go back to your cash game routine?
Melissa: This year, I played a lot more No Limit Hold’em because I wanted to play the Main Event for the first time. There are next to no mixed game tournaments back home to this magnitude, so the only thing I might do is play a few more NLHE tournaments, but that’s not really my arena. I play the big tournaments at Borgata and a few other local ones with $1,500 to $5K buy-ins, but cash games are my focus. Every summer, I’ll dedicate to the World Series, though, because it has me now.
CC: Tell me a little about your education and background.
Melissa: My college degree is in business administration with a concentration in marketing and management. I didn’t have much direction at that time, though. I really wanted to be a professional pool player. I knew I was going to finish college no matter what I did and then figure things out after that. I love pool, and it will always have me gripped for life, but I didn’t see a huge future with it.
When I went to work, I gave up that gambling lifestyle a little bit. I was still playing poker online, but when I got laid off, I made the decision to play poker full-time. I was winning and playing such high volume at PokerStars, 24-tabling usually, that I was making money off VPP bonuses. I was always Supernova and toying with Supernova Elite, but I decided to move to Atlantic City to play more live.
CC: How has your family felt about your choices through the years?
Melissa: They have been remarkably supportive. My mom was a teacher for a number of years, and now she’s the head of special education at her grammar school. My dad is the hardest-working person you’ll ever meet. They both come from non-gambling backgrounds, so for them to be supportive of my lifestyle is huge for me.
Now, my mom wants to throw a party for me when I get home. She’s the cutest!
They don’t know all of the stakes that I play, but I had to explain the $50K to them. She doesn’t understand too much of the backing and details, though. I told her when I went into Day 4 of that Poker Players Championship that there were 22 people left, and if I could get to 14, I’d be the first woman to ever cash the event in its nine years. She was so excited! If I told her I got seventh or second or first, it would all be the same to her; it’s all winning to her.
CC: You and your boyfriend play the same stakes. How difficult (or not) is it for you to talk a lot of poker and find time for other things away from the tables?
Melissa: We do talk a lot of strategy, more than I like to. He would talk all day about poker if he could, and I sometimes have to put the brakes on that.
For something like mixed games that have been introduced through the years, we learned them together. We learned faster together, with twice as many hands to see and twice the sample size and two brains thinking about all of the possible outcomes. To have Ryan with me magnifies the learning curve. It’s been a true benefit to both of us to learn the games together, in addition to bettering ourselves in the games we already know.
CC: Now that people are getting to know who you are, what do you want people to know about you?
Melissa: I want people to know that poker, in all these years, hasn’t changed me. I’ve played big stakes and am mindful to credit all of the things that have led me to this point.
I want people to know that you can grind your way to the top because I did. I went from $20/$40 to $40/$80 to $60/$120 and up through the ranks. It’s not impossible.
For women, I want them to know that there are other games besides No Limit Hold’em. I feel that mixed games support the natural habits and environments that women are used to.
If you’re a female mixed game player in cash games regularly, the faces don’t change, and women have great retention. You don’t have to reassess nine players’ faces and abilities every time and then get comfortable with playing. You can play with the same people and exploit those tendencies. It’s more relaxed, without the usual trepidation. Women would fit so much better in that environment.
Mixed games support the way women think. If they would try Omaha Hi/Low or Stud-8, they might really enjoy it. There’s a future that involves games bigger than $15/$30 once you learn all of the games. If I can get to that point, anybody can. It’s not just because I believe or work the hardest. I just kept dreaming and taking the next step. Every cash game, every level, every tournament has stages. I had patience and waited for the right opportunities, and I took them.