Among the less likely superheroes at last year’s World Series of Poker was over-60-year-old Californian Neil Blumenfield: software startup entrepreneur, jaunty dresser, and unconfrontational, super-nice guy.
How did such an underdog turn into a top dog? And how has his life changed since his third-place finish at the 2015 WSOP Main Event final table?
We’d spoken to Neil twice last season, but this is a man who gives thoughtful, insightful answers, and is refreshingly candid and unassuming, while still being positive and confident.
So we were delighted to have another opportunity to talk to this 888poker-sponsored pro about how this year will be different and how much the feds grabbed from him after his monster cash.
CardsChat: It’s no secret that the major tournaments in recent years have been dominated by the younger players. But you and Pierre Neuville were able to achieve the final table at the Main Event last year in a massive field that included many players decades younger than both of you.
Do you expect more over-50, 60, and 70-year-old players to make deep runs in major tournaments now that you’ve shown them it can be done?
NeilB: So many players 50+ have stopped me to say that I inspired them to play and to improve their games. That is such an amazing compliment and makes me feel good almost as much as cashing the big check. (OK, maybe a few notches below.)
If players my age work on their games as hard as my young elite poker friends, they will certainly make a run at going deep in the Main Event. I am now convinced that it is much more about talent and dedication than it is about age. The real issue is, at 22 there are so few distractions (job, family, property…) that, if you are dedicated to the game, you can spend 12-14 hours plus almost every day playing or working on the game.
When you put that work on top of strong math skills and intelligence, you get a great poker player. When you get to 50+, life just affords less time. So, yes, it is harder to focus for 13 hours at 60 than it was at 20, but the time put into preparation is the biggest differentiator between successful and average players, much more than age.
CardsChat: What, if anything, has changed the most in your life since your final table last year and appearing on ESPN? Do people recognize you when you’re out and about now?
NeilB: The biggest change is that I gave up (not quite by choice) my day job. So I am free to travel (or not), play (or not), but no more getting up for 7 [am] conference calls. I did that for over 30 years. That is a big change.
Once a month, someone on the street stops me and says, “aren’t you that guy…” but it’s mostly in poker rooms that people know me now and it never gets old shaking hands, taking photos and talking to people about the November Nine experience.
Since I have no kids, I can say, without repercussions, that it was the highlight of my life (as opposed to the birth of my kid), and there have been a lot of highlights. And when people tell me that my play provided inspiration for them, that is so very flattering and will never get old and I will never take that for granted. Very, very special.
CardsChat: You told us last year that you were holding onto half of your $3.4 million win from the Main Event to give a wad to The Man, as in the Internal Revenue Service. Do you think many Americans and heavily taxed EU players forget about the tax man, and how big a pound of flesh he will want from these wins? What would you advise players on handling this much money if you could give them the benefit of your expertise now?
NeilB: I wrote the biggest checks of my life in April [of this year]. I know that there are a lot of players who forget about the checks they will need to write in April, or just expect to keep winning and mis-manage their bankrolls. So many “successful” poker players go broke.
The very best poker player I know (and considered by everyone with insight to be one of the top 10 NLHE players in the world) has had downswings as big as $1M. There is huge variance in the game, something that Amir reminds me about all the time. You have to prepare for the downswings and play within your bankroll.
Having said that, the US laws and tax code are horribly unfair to poker players, especially considering how much variance there is in the game. It is a great disservice when the government tells us that we cannot earn our living playing online.
It is even more horrific when they not only tax us at the highest rate on winnings, but also give no credit for losing years. If I invest in the stock market or have options in a private company, first, I get beneficial capital gains rates which are 50 percent of the ordinary income rate. Moreover, if I have losses in the market, I can carry them forward to offset future gains.
If I play poker and lose $500,000 in 2016 and win $1M in 2017, that looks pretty good, a net of $500,000 in two years. Very respectable and very livable. But the $500K loss does not carry forward, so I pay full taxes on the $1M in 2017. That’s 38 percent federal, 13 percent state (if you live in California), plus 3 percent Medicare.
So 54 percent comes off the $1M, leaving $460,000 gain for 2017 and a net $40,000 negative over 2 years. It is no wonder poker players go broke. It is a wonder that any of them can afford any kind of living at all.
CardsChat: The 2016 WSOP is now upon us again. What events are you planning to play in this year? Is it more relaxing when you’re playing with a heftier bankroll?
Neil B: For the first time, I will play more than four to five events. It is the first time I don’t have a day job, so I will be in Las Vegas for most of the six weeks of the WSOP. I will certainly play the Seniors and the Main, but mostly play it by ear otherwise. I expect to play 12-15 events this year overall.
It is a lot different from last year between the Seniors and the Main Event, when I was laid off my job and was unsure that I could afford to spend $10K to enter the Main. However, despite the big cash, I am very careful with my bankroll. I am retirement age and don’t want to put myself in a situation where I need to drive Uber to pay rent when I’m 75. (Not that driving Uber is bad. I did it for a day before November. Just don’t want to have to do it to pay bills when I am in even more golden years.)
CardsChat: Last year, you were a virtual unknown in the poker world. This year, when you sit down at a table at the Rio, people will know who you are. Do you feel any added pressure to prove last year wasn’t a fluke, or do you even care at this point in your life, given that you’re not poker-dependent to pay your mortgage?
First, I can’t get a mortgage. When I bought in Florida, I paid cash. Poker players do not get loans, no matter how much success or what assets they have. (I do still pay a mortgage on the house I have owned in Truckee [California] for many years.)
No, I feel no more pressure. I’m looking forward to being around players who know who I am. I have made so many new poker friends over the last year. I feel hugely fortunate to have met and made friends with so many great people.
As far as last year being a fluke, of course it was a fluke. A fluke is “a stroke of good luck”. Getting to the final table is a fluke, even for the best player in the world. So much has to go right and very little can go wrong.
I got it in bad twice last year before my final hand, both [on] Day 6 against Brian Hastings. Obviously I got lucky those two times. But in the seven days leading to the final table, I was never sucked out on.
Never lost all in with AA to QQ or with AK to AJ. That is a fluke over 80+ hours of poker. And amazingly, in the seven days (and through the final table), I was never in an all-in race. Never got it all in with 88 vs AQ or vice versa. Never. Not once. That is a fluke over seven days+.
This year, I am a much better player than I was last July. But I feel like I have nothing to prove. Having said that, I certainly hope to run deep in a few events, including the Main, but I know that it is a game of great variance, so if I have no big cashes, I will be disappointed, but not surprised.
CardsChat: You’ve now had about seven months to reconsider your final table moves last year. Anything (as in any hands) you would have done/played differently?
NeilB: I would have been more aggressive on Monday (2nd day) and tighter on Tuesday (3rd day) with $1M on the table, just to finish second, rather than third. I would have played three hands differently that day, just checking the Q8 vs Joe’s limp, and be willing to check it all the way down or lay it down to a bet. I should have just shoved the A7h vs Josh rather than three-bet and fold to his shove, and I should have laid down the [pocket deuces] in the knockout hand.
CardsChat: Should poker fans expect to see you decked out in your trademark attire at the WSOP this summer? You sort of have a reputation to live up to now. What about your lovely girlfriend, will she be cheering you on from the rail again this year?
NeilB: I plan to play in tanktop, shorts, flip flops, and a baseball cap that says “Donkey”.
Not really. The fedora has been on my head every tournament I have played with one exception, when I walked out of the house forgetting it.
It has been upgraded to a Burns Custom hat that will be with me all the time in a few varieties. The scarf will return, though not always. The rest, we’ll see how I feel.
[My girlfriend] Pascale will be in LV with me for the first week in June, and she will return if I am fortunate enough to make a final table. I know people prefer to look at her than at me.
CardsChat: Stamina and mental acuteness are huge factors in (especially multi-day) tournaments. The shortest live events this year are three days, and some events are five days, with the Main being a grueling nine days, if you make the final table again. What are you doing to stay mentally sharp and physically stalwart this year? Did you learn from anything you did last year in this arena, right or wrong?
NeilB: I have decided that the stamina/age factor is overplayed. While it is easier to focus for 13 hours and seven days at 20 than [it is] at 60, slowing down at critical times, especially when you feel fatigue, helps avoid fatigue-based critical mistakes.
I work on my game, which aids in both preparation and in mental awareness. I review hands individually and with other players to make sure I am not falling into bad patterns. And I am working on physical conditioning. I will be in better physical shape this year than I have been the last five to six WSOP’s and that has a huge benefit in terms of stamina.