Garry Gates placed a significant wager on himself when he moved out to Las Vegas in 2003 to pursue his dream of playing professional poker. That bet paid off, quite literally, when the Titusville native finished in fourth place at the 2019 World Series of Poker Main Event, earning a $3 million payout.
Gates, 37, would be the first one to tell you that his journey hasn’t always “looked pretty.” Like with any collection of life experiences, Gates has had his fair shares and ups and downs. However, the lows have proven to be worth it for Gates, who made it just three steps away from the precipice of the poker world a few days ago.
“It feels like my body is finally coming to from it all,” Gates said on Thursday afternoon after getting his first full-night’s sleep in days. “The whole thing was just surreal and I’m a very happy man right now.”
The road to fourth
Starting with the second largest field of players (8,569) in World Series of Poker history, Gates quickly worked his way through the field into the feature tables. At the end of Day 5, Gates was one of just 106 players remaining in the field, which guaranteed himself the largest payout of his career after earning $47,107 for his 173rd place finish in the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event.
On Day 6, Gates was at risk of being eliminated for the first time in the tournament when he went all-in with ace-king against Robert Heidorn, who held pocket kings, with the community cards showing a queen, four and six. In what Gates referred to as “the hand of the tournament,” the board delivered a five on the turn before an ace on the river to keep Gates alive.
“Somehow that ace dropped on the river and I jumped out of my seat and ran toward my rail,” Gates recalled. “When you think about it, that was a $2.7 million card, because without it, I wouldn’t have got to fourth place. That was the difference in the payouts from 35th to fourth. For all intents and purposes, when you navigate through a field of over 8,500 players, you’ve got to count on some things to go your way. It’s the reason why an amateur or non-professional like me can play in a tournament like this.”
Another hand went Gates’ way on Day 7 that helped him claim second place heading into the Final Table, which guaranteed a $1 million payout. In a reverse of circumstances to the day prior, Gates held pocket kings against eventual champion Hossein Ensan, who had ace-king. With a flop of two eights and a three and a turn of a two, Ensan five-bet a total of chips that equaled Gates’ entire stack. Gates called, which proved to be the right move, as the river turned over a jack which lifted Gates into the top five overall in stacks.
Gates continued to improve his position even though the stakes got higher and higher at the Final Table. He won 11 of the 56 hands in Day 8 that saw four of the nine players eliminated. While maintaining his second-place position, Gates eliminated Milos Skrbic when his ace-queen held up against the challenger’s ace-jack.
Unfortunately for Gates, his luck began to run out on Day 9 with just five players remaining. Wielding the second largest amount of chips, Gates began to put pressure on the other four players with larger bets, but the cards never landed in his favor as the Titusville native and final American at the table settled for fourth place.
“I’d say the cards were pretty fortunate to me all the way up until the last day,” Gates said. “In hindsight, I wish a couple of things went a little differently. I wasn’t necessarily making hands and it seemed like anytime I did put some pressure on folks, they had (the better hand). I always had the second-best hand or someone made a better play. That didn’t go so well, but looking back you can’t necessarily have regrets about the decisions you made and how things played out. I can’t complain. I’ve been a lucky guy throughout this whole experience. It was once in a lifetime.”
A superstitious man
Gates described himself as a “very superstitious guy” when it came to playing in the tournament, although he wants it to be known that he didn’t “necessarily believe that any of that had to do with the results from the Final Table.”
Throughout the tournament, Gates tried to stick to a routine to help keep his body cared for and his nerves to a minimum as the number of remaining players dropped while the prize money grew larger and larger.
After waking up around 6 a.m. every day, Gates took care of some work-related tasks for his full-time job, the Senior Manager of Player Relations at PokerStars, before preparing for the 10-hour day of poker with some sort of workout that kept his metabolism and energy levels high.
While playing poker, Gates wore a different color every day until the Final Table. He also used a different restroom each time during breaks from the game. On Day 9, at the Final Table, Gates wore the same exact outfit as he did from the prior day when he jumped from 99.3 million chips to 171.7 million chips.
Gates felt that his routine and quirks helped him avoid feeling the pressure of the tournament.
“As the days went on, I started to get a little more superstitious with my routine,” Gates said. “It was important to me, especially as we got closer and closer to the Final Table. It was really hard to get sleep, especially after Day 6 when the payouts got bigger and bigger. Your adrenaline is just pumping so fast, and your mind is racing about the possibilities. It was just something that keeps you sane and keeps your spirits positive.”
A journey rooted in Titusville
Gates’ finish at the World Series of Poker was the culmination of a long, hard-fought journey that began in Titusville. A part of Gates’ love for the sport of poker could be attributed to his family, which gave him plenty of glimpses of a potential life on the Vegas strip.
Growing up in town, Gates’ mother was involved in the production of “Monte Carlo Night” and his father ran “Wednesday Night Bingo” at St. Titus Church. Additionally, Gates and his family took yearly vacations to Las Vegas around NCAA’s March Madness.
Ultimately, Gates calls his father the “culprit” who really turned his eye to the game of poker. His father, Garry Sr., played in a weekly Thursday poker game at the Titusville Elks Lodge.
One night, Gates came home from college and walked in on his father playing online poker for money, and it immediately caught “junior’s” attention. Gates pulled up a chair and sat down beside his dad at the computer and started studying the action. Soon after, Gates purchased as many books about poker that he could find in order to learn as much about the game as possible. He then set up his own account, began playing online himself and joined his father at the Elks Lodge’s weekly poker night. It was clear that Gates found his passion.
“I remember having a fond childhood (in Titusville), and there really are honest people in my hometown,” Gates said. “There are people here who work hard and who are family-oriented. It’s always been a good community in my mind.”
Betting on himself
After graduating from Titusville High School in 1999, Gates attended Westminster College, where he would earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and writing. Degree in hand, Gates moved back home and worked as a bartender at Molly’s Mill for a few months before deciding to take a chance and move out west.
“I packed up everything I owned into a 1999 Honda Accord (without) even having a cell phone or much money to name,” Gates recalled. “I just made the drive cross-country to pursue this dream, and I guess I’ve never really looked back since.”
Initially, Gates struggled to make his way on the strip. He “went broke more times than anyone could count,” while working a couple of different jobs, such as serving, bartending and substitute teaching. Gates enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in their graduate program as a backup plan just in case his dream never came to fruition.
A few years later, Gates got the big break he had been waiting for when he met Gary Wise, ESPN’s feature poker writer at the time. Wise was in the process of launching his own website that covered poker, “Wise Hand Poker.” It was match made in heaven, as Wise was in need of writers and content producers, while Gates had an English degree in hand and a passion for the game. Since then, Gates has been working in the industry and currently is employed at PokerStars.
After competing in the tournament, Gates has gone from the man writing about the stars of poker to the man that everyone wants to write about; a change that he is “still processing.”
“I have so many great relationships with the biggest and best poker stars in the world,” Gates said. “So to be on the other side of the rail, and have the outpouring support that I did, it was just awesome. It would be like being the water boy for the Steelers, and then a few years later, suiting up for the Super Bowl as a wide receiver and getting messages from Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann saying they’re going to be watching you. I hope to experience it again.”
Thriving, not just surviving
Gates was a survivor of the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival on the Vegas strip that claimed the lives of 58 concert-goers, while injuring more than 800 people. After experiencing such a horrific act of terror, Gates claimed that his perspective about life “took a positive turn.”
“I try so hard not to take anything for granted, whether it’d be little moments with friends, or the experiences that I get to participate in,” Gates said. “I’ve sort of maintained that mentality since the shooting. Tomorrow is never promised to any of us and it’s important that we realize that time is the most valuable resource. How you spend it is everything. I do my best to live like every day is my last and to have fun doing the things that I’m doing, while paying a bit of homage and living a little extra for those who weren’t as lucky as I was that day. I think that’s why you saw a smile on my face during the Final Table. It was a dream come true and I really did just feel fortunate to be there.”
Keeping it in perspective
Gates doesn’t have any outlandish plans for the way he intends on spending his prize money. In fact, Gates will only bring home $1 million of the $3 million that was paid out to him because well-known poker player Jason Mercier sponsored two-thirds of Gates’ $10,000 buy-in to take part in the event. Gates has no problem helping out his long time friend, saying it’s a “special feeling” being a “profitable horse for someone you have a lot of respect for.”
“Jason and I have been good friends for a long time,” Gates said. “He just started a family and hasn’t necessary played as much poker as he used to. His wife is now seven months pregnant again. To give them a jump start on their new family feels pretty good. I’ll still take being a millionaire. That’s enough money to change our lives. (I plan on) starting my own family, buying a house and paying off some debt. It just really sets myself up for a nice future.”
Gates was somewhat hesitant when asked about giving advice to those pondering making such a drastic change in their lives because he didn’t want to “give any advice that is going to send everybody out of Titusville because it’s a city that (he) loves.” However, Gates wanted to encourage those who were unhappy with their current circumstances to make a change for the better.
“For me, I knew I had big dreams, a passion for competition and a love for the game of poker,”Gates said. “You hear so often people complaining about hating their job or hating what they do, having work be a dark spot in their lives. The best part about that is that every last one of us has the opportunity to change that. If you don’t like what you’re doing or you’re not following your passion, you can wake up one day and decide to change your own circumstances. It didn’t always look pretty for me. There were bumps along the way, twists and turns, but I think that’s a good metaphor for life. You’re going to see ups and downs and obstacles, but you have to just keep working at it and keep following your dream. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where they are paying you to do what you love to do. It’s just all about making that choice for yourself. It’s going to be scary and there’s going to be fear involved, but if you pull the trigger, you might surprise yourself in what you can accomplish.”