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Matt Mendez told folks he wasn’t making the trek to the World Series of Poker this summer.
Maybe if you’d asked a couple years ago, you’d have gotten a different answer. The 28-year-old Floridian spent time grinding the circuit in the past, picking up a few trophies and several hundred thousand dollars in earnings along the way. His record includes a deep run in a $1,500 Razz event at the 2015 WSOP.
Nowadays, though, he’s a full-time husband and a stay-at-home father in rural New Jersey. Although he remains part of the poker community, his days as a nomadic pro are mostly behind him.
“I find it hard to justify,” Mendez said of the summer trip. “I just — I get homesick so fast out there.”
Summering at home in Sicklerville didn’t keep him from winning a WSOP bracelet, though.
Mendez took down the $565 Pot-Limit Omaha 6-Handed event on WSOP NJ last weekend, collecting more than $135,000 and poker’s most-wanted prize. From his couch 2,500 miles east of Vegas, “mendey” became the first player to win a primary WSOP event outside of Nevada.
The $565 PLO event drew 657 players plus another 566 re-entries for a total field of 1,223 entries. The champ was responsible for one of those re-entries himself. The final 99 players earned shares of the $635,960 prize pool.
The event started at 6:30 p.m. Eastern, which worked out well for Mendez. His wife, Victoria, is home to help take care of their two-year-old daughter by that time. Little did she know her husband would still be playing poker when it came time for her to leave again at 9 a.m. the next morning.
“She comes downstairs and I’m heads-up,” he narrated. “I told her, ‘You’ve got to be here to hug me if I win or console me if I lose.’”
It ended up being the former. The last hand played out around 9:30 a.m. — a full 15 hours after the event began. Mendez outlasted a perilous final table and overcame a huge chip deficit against Marton Czuczor en route to the historic win.
Here are the final table results:
Gordon “veilleux” Vayo, the 2016 Main Event runner-up, finished in ninth place.
Brian Koppelman would struggle to write a better script for the first WSOP NJ bracelet winner.
Mendez took up poker very early in life, learning seven-card stud from his aunt and uncle before kindergarten. By the time he was a teenager, he already had his sights set on the WSOP.
“At 12 years old, I thought I was going to win 20 bracelets, right?” he laughed. “Sixteen, same thing. Twenty-one, now I can win a ton of bracelets. As 24, 25, 26 comes, you start thinking ‘If I’d won a few bracelets, I’d feel accomplished in my poker career.'”
Mendez had not won a bracelet by that point, but his prior record does include a couple six-figure scores. He’s skilled in all the games, including — quite apparently — PLO. A lifelong grinder, he still plays tournaments and cash games within driving distance from home. And online, of course.
Family comes first now, though. He continued:
“But then 28 hits. You have a wife and a daughter. And you live next to a bunch of farmland in New Jersey. You don’t really have the opportunity to spend as much time as you’d like chasing these childhood dreams.
And then poker changes with multistate poker. Because of that, I’m able to sit on my couch and have a couple opportunities from Jersey to win a bracelet.”
As of April, poker sites in Delaware, NJ and NV can combine their player pools and share liquidity. That multistate poker agreement gave NJ players the opportunity to compete in Nevada’s online bracelet events this year for the first time.
Mendez was one of 107 NJ players — about 16 percent of the field — that wouldn’t have been able to participate if the event had been restricted to Nevada. There are plenty of past bracelet winners from New Jersey, but he’s the first to do so while in the state.
As it turns out, he’ll be taking that trip to the lovely Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, after all. The Mendez family is flying out this week to collect the hardware at his bracelet ceremony.
The WSOP/888 Poker network offers the only multistate poker platforms for now, boasting the largest pool of players in the country.
“The games have been great,” Mendez said of the recent action. “All the tournament guarantees have gone up significantly, and the cash games have been going pretty strong.”
According to PokerScout, the network averages around 250 players over the last seven days, with peaks above 400. Those numbers have some room to grow before they’re worth bragging about, but they do show a measurable increase in traffic.
Mendez also took the opportunity to comment on the use of heads-up displays, software that gathers data from the table and generates a graphical overlay. The WSOP.com prohibition against HUD use is controversial within the community, but Mendez is all for it.
“Without people being able to use HUDs,” he said, “it makes a more level playing field for people who aren’t as strong with statistics.” He contends that online poker will struggle to grow “if it continues to be as mechanical as it’s been.”
These finishing times are a little rough though, huh? Even for Nevada players, 15 hours of poker ending at 6:30 a.m. is no party — and 9:30 a.m. on the east coast is borderline absurd. Breaks are just five minutes every hour. It’s tough to manage the time zones, so WSOP.com would do well to consider spreading online bracelet events across two days in the future.
Despite needing a caffeine infusion in the wee hours, though, Mendez found it pretty hard to complain about the long night.
The summer’s last two online bracelet events are scheduled for this weekend: