There’s a famous scene in the movie Rounders in which Mike McD (played by Matt Damon) walks in on a game of Texas Hold ‘Em and proceeds, through a combination of superior skill and Hollywood magic, to accurately name the hand each player at the table holds. It’s the kind of moment that movies love to feed to audiences: a baby-faced prodigy astounding seasoned veterans with his abilities in a contest of skill. By the end of the movie, Mike is heading off into the sunset toward Las Vegas where he plans to test his skills against the world’s best poker players in the World Series of Poker. This is the point when, if the movie world crashed with present-day reality, we would see reigning World Series of Poker Card Player of the Year Ben Lamb destroy all of Mike McD’s dreams.
Of course, Rounders was released in 1998, when Ben Lamb was a 12-year-old living in Tulsa, and long before he became one of the top poker players in the world, with more than $7.4 million in career winnings. Lamb’s gambling experiences up to that point were limited to high stakes games of Monopoly, some intensely competitive pool and Pog.
“When you’re a kid you tend to want the things your friends have,” Lamb says and laughs, “whether it’s a video game or a 10-cent Pog.”
It might seem silly now, but those Pogs were instrumental in shaping the competitive nature that would lead him to become one of the top poker players in the world. But first he would have to actually take up the game.
“I played a lot of pool in high school, betting on games,” Lamb says, “but I didn’t really play a lot of poker until I was 18 or 19.”
Although 18 might not sound particularly old, it is a bit late for mastering the skills needed to excel at poker, especially when you consider that 2009 World Series of Poker champion Joe Cada was the youngest winner ever at 21. But Lamb turned out to be a quick study and began playing in money games online and in college at Trinity University in San Antonio.
It was the online poker games where Lamb received his real poker education. Back then, before online gambling laws forced the two largest poker sites in the world to shut off access to money games in the U.S., a young guy like Lamb could shorten the learning curve by playing hundreds of hands a day. In fact, he became so good so fast that he quickly made the decision to drop out of college and pursue poker as a career.
“It seems stupid now,” he says of leaving college. “It probably was stupid. But I guess it turned out okay.”
After moving back to Oklahoma, Lamb took a job as a dealer at the Cherokee (now Hard Rock) Casino in Catoosa, where he continued learning by watching the players and playing in tournaments, often finding himself playing against older and much more experienced competition.
“I think (my age) was an advantage sometimes,” says the baby-faced Lamb. “I was underestimated a lot. Back then there weren’t a lot of young players.”
Soon he was winning enough to travel to Atlantic City and Las Vegas for tournaments. In 2008 Lamb went to Las Vegas and stayed.
“I had been making money for a while by then,” he explains. “It was sort of the natural progression.”
One might say the rest is history, but for Lamb, history is still waiting to be written. The natural progression he speaks of has been a steep and steady slope that he has climbed at unusually high speeds. In 2011 alone, Lamb totaled more than $5 million in winnings and finished number three in the main event at the World Series of Poker.
“I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams,” he says, “but I always want to improve as a card player.”
For the most part, that improvement comes from simply playing cards. Lamb plays anywhere from twice a week during slow periods to every day when he’s preparing for tournaments. But he also never hesitates to ask his peers questions or seek their input in trying to learn more about the game. For Lamb, the ultimate goal in poker is learning to always play to his utmost ability.
“A lot of my friends who play will maybe have their B or C game a lot of the time,” he says. “I want to get to the point where I bring my A game every time.”
One would be wise to expect that Lamb will get to that point sometime, probably sooner rather than later. Any good gambler will tell you that it’s a safe bet that he will make it back to the final table at the World Series of Poker Main Event. A safer bet would be that the next time he makes it there, Lamb will be the last man standing. And if and when he does, maybe he’ll stop being so hard on himself for dropping out of college.