A long journey for that first WSOP bracelet

Sigurd Eskeland was walking on air. The second-grade teacher turned poker pro from Norway was onstage in the Rio’s Pavilion Ballroom, with hundreds of poker tables and dozens of cheering supporters in front of him, and a wall bedecked with pictures of champions behind him. He stood silently as World Series of Poker director Jack Effel presented him with a diamond-encrusted gold bracelet, then he silently mouthed the words of the Norwegian national anthem being played in his honor. With the flags of many of the nations represented in the tournament fluttering in the air-conditioned breeze, it was a moment worthy of any Olympics or World Cup.

The ceremony marked Eskeland receiving his first WSOP bracelet, one of professional poker’s most valued prizes. Good poker players win money, and great ones win tournaments, but only the best of the best have the bracelets awarded to the winners of World Series of Poker events.

There’s no better example of what the bracelet means than Gavin Smith, who was born in Canada but now calls Las Vegas home. Smith, who’d worn the unofficial crown of “best player never to win a bracelet” for years, has been playing poker professionally for 13 years. Nothing was sweeter than his finally winning a WSOP bracelet at Event 44, a mixed $2,500 Texas hold ’em game, on June 28.

“It’s the Holy Grail, what everyone’s after,” says Smith, a likable 41-year-old who’s won more than $5 million at the tables, including a $1.2 million payday for winning the 2005 World Poker Tour Mirage Showdown, part of an incredible run that saw him named WPT Player of the Year.

Yet the big one always got away, until now.

“To get so close and not get it hurt,” says Smith, who finished second in a 2007 pot-limit hold ’em event. “It’s been five years of battling through a lot of ups and downs.”

Winning the bracelet wasn’t easy, even for a player of Smith’s talent. The three-day tournament only ended after hours of heads-up play between Smith and Danny Hannawa during which Smith was mindful of history—both the tournament’s and his own.

“This time, I stayed focused on the job,” he says, referring to his end game with Hannawa. “A few times in the past I acted too quickly, and it cost me. This time, I took my time with every decision. I knew that I might lose, but if I did, it wouldn’t be because I made a mistake.”

As Smith built up a chip lead, he didn’t move in for the kill, instead playing “small ball” with Hannawa to “grind him down.”

As the stacks in front of Hannawa dwindled, Smith allowed himself to look up. He was amazed at the number of people crowded around the table at almost midnight to cheer him on.

Just before his ace/queen beat Hannawa’s 10/eight in the final hand, Smith locked eyes with his friend and backer, Erick Lindgren, who won his first bracelet two years earlier in the same event—mixed Texas hold ’em.

When the final card of the hand—a jack—was dealt and Smith was declared the winner, he had one thought: how much his dad, who had taught him to play cards, would have loved to witness the moment.

Afterward, Smith celebrated modestly with a few friends at a local bar, then went to bed around 5 a.m.—not unusually late for a professional poker player. He didn’t take much time to savor his walk into poker history. A few hours later, he woke up, went to church and then headed back to the Rio for another event.

Smith won’t wear his bracelet, or even keep it on his mantle to show off. Instead, he’s giving it to his big brother, who’s “always been there for me, been my voice of reason.”

It’s a fitting gesture from a big-hearted man who guesses that the birth of his first child—scheduled for November—will mean far more to him than even his bracelet win.

“You’ve just got to know when you’re playing well,” he says to those still trying to win their first bracelet. “Eventually you’ll get results. Keep pushing; don’t lose heart. [The tournament] is seven weeks. That’s more difficult than dating or selling life insurance—you keep getting kicked in the teeth every day, but you’ve got to keep coming back.”