Throughout Adam Friedman’s poker career, money was first and foremost. The Ohio native was in it for financial freedom, not the glory of winning tournaments.
Four World Series of Poker bracelets later, the 39-year-old still has the same outlook. But his fourth and most recent bracelet made poker history, and even Friedman couldn’t ignore the non-monetary aspects of his accomplishment in the 2021 edition of the $10,000 Dealer’s Choice Championship.
“I have waited 28 months to play the Dealer’s Choice,” tweeted Friedman on Oct. 18, the first day of the event. “For the first and probably last time in my life, I can say it’s not about the money. This is the most excited and nervous I’ve been for a tournament since the first time I played the main event in 2005. Time to three-peat!”
Friedman defeated Stuart Rutter heads-up to win the tournament at the 2018 WSOP for $293,275 and then defeated Shaun Deeb at the 2019 series for $312,417. With the absence of a live WSOP in 2020, it was more than two years before Friedman had a chance to set poker history.
Nobody in the history of the game ever won the same WSOP event three years in a row. Johnny Chan almost did it in the 1987, 1988, and 1989 $10,000 no-limit hold’em main event, but after winning titles the first two years, he finished runner-up to now 16-time bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth in his third attempt.
Like Chan, Friedman also had to battle Hellmuth to make history. Unlike the “Orient Express,” Friedman succeeded. He denied his fellow Midwesterner a record-extending 17th career bracelet and made history of his own while earning $248,350 in the process.
Despite Friedman’s overall money-first attitude, even he couldn’t ignore the spotlight he was playing under.
“It’s severely unlikely that there was going to be any other heads-up match for this entire World Series, or maybe even the next year or two to come, that’s going to have a bigger headline battle,” Friedman told Card Player. “On the one end, you’ve got Phil, who’s trying to extend his ridiculous lead in the overall bracelet count to 17, which would be seven more than the next three guys on that list. And then you’ve got one person who’s trying to do something that’s never been done in the history of the series.”
Luckily for Friedman, he was up for the challenge. He admitted that his younger self may have been a bit too star-struck to make history.
“The fanboy in me from two decades ago was like, ‘Oh my God! I get to play Phil Hellmuth for a bracelet.’ That’s the most amazing thing ever,” said Friedman. “If you would’ve told me that when I was [first starting], I would’ve been said, ‘That’s not possible.’ So the fanboy in me was ecstatic, but the 39-year-old version of me knew I needed to take care of business. I needed to treat Phil like everybody. And that’s what I did.”
Friedman got his start in poker like so many others his age did, as a product of the Moneymaker boom of the early 2000s. He got his start in no-limit hold ’em and really kicked off his career as a poker pro with a 43rd-place finish in the 2005 main event for $235,390.
But a few years into his journey as a poker pro, he found himself diving into other games besides no-limit hold’em. In 2008, he earned his first non-no-limit hold’em tournament cash at the WSOP in the $10,000 8-game championship. He cashed in that same event the next year, which seemingly spurred a string of tournament mixed game accomplishments over the next 13 years.
Now he’s considered a mixed-game specialist as he makes the majority of his living playing anywhere between $100-$200 and $300-$600 limit mixed games. Being able to sit down and play any game proficiently is a skill he is proud of and a major reason why he feels that winning the $10,000 Dealer’s Choice back-to-back-to-back is more special than almost any other event.
“You really can’t have any weaknesses,” said Friedman. “And I do pride myself on the fact that I don’t think I have a game that I suck at. I’m not saying I’m great at all 20, because that’s definitely not the case, but I do put the work in to at least be good at every game. And when a new game gets invented, I’d like to think that I can understand it, regardless of whether it’s a flop, stud, or draw game, and pot-limit, no-limit, or limit. I like to think that I can adjust pretty quickly to whatever gets [thrown out there], and it makes poker more fun.”
A “more fun” game is what draws Friedman to mixed, but it’s also why he thinks they will increase in popularity as years go on. As no-limit hold ’em becomes more solver-based, those looking for games that require more card sense and “feel,” as some old school players would call it, will gravitate towards the mixed arena.
“People that play this tournament, they tend to want to play it year after year just because they see it as such a unique event,” said Friedman. “Most tournaments have the same strategy over and over, regardless of whether its no-limit hold ’em or other limit variants that are just strictly one game. Anything can happen in this tournament at any time.”
“There was a much more well-rounded group [this year],” he continued. “And it was nice to see. It wasn’t just the limit players dominating this tournament because it feels like a lot of the players, whether they’re tournament players or not, they start to learn, and start to grasp all the other games. Now, it’ll give other big bet players the idea to take a shot.”
From a strategy perspective, the Dealer’s Choice event has more intricacies than other mixed tournaments. With more games available than any other tournament, and the lack of a set rotation, choosing the correct game can be one of the most important skills a player can possess for the event.
“Stack sizes can dictate what games are being picked at all times,” Friedman said. “You don’t know what people are going to choose, and it makes it really exciting and a tiny bit nerve-wracking, but in a fun way. It makes for a more interesting dynamic.”
His heads-up match with Hellmuth is a perfect example of how things can change so quickly in the format. Hellmuth is, at his core, a no-limit hold ’em player. Someone who feels proficient at the big bet games in the rotation. While Friedman is a limit player, albeit with no-limit success of his own.
But Friedman found himself shying away from the games he is most comfortable with, and instead, opted to choose ones that he thought take Hellmuth out of his comfort zone.
“This is the first time I’ve ever picked pot-limit Omaha,” said Friedman, who also finished fifth in the tournament in 2015. “Which actually surprised a couple of my friends. I had a feeling it was the right game choice to call against Phil. I’m not sure if I want to get into all the reasons why, but he was having a lot of confidence in the games that were my best games, which I think is for the most part Badeucey and Badacey. But sometimes you could feel a guy’s momentum, and sometimes he’s really feeling a specific game in that given moment. Maybe they’re not the better player long term in that game, but maybe for a given stretch, they’re just feeling it.”
He found himself choosing completely different games than his prior heads-up matches against Deeb and Rutter in 2018 and 2019.
“I don’t find pot-limit Omaha to be in my top four or five games, unlike Badeucey,” said Friedman. “But it just felt like a game that Phil was not going to want to play a big pot without the nuts. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to get it in super light by any stretch, but I just felt like I was going to be able to do a couple things heads-up which Phil might not have wanted to do, especially when he had the chip lead.”
One of the distinct advantages Friedman has in the Dealer’s Choice format is his extensive cash game background. Cash game grinders get to experience the new games before anyone else has a chance to play them.
“Any time a new game gets invented, it’s going to happen in a cash game before it becomes a tournament game,” said Friedman.
While that is an advantage for Friedman, he was quick to downplay the idea that every cash game player will have the same success that he experienced on the tournament side of the poker world.
“Not all cash game players can necessarily adapt to tournaments,” said Friedman. “And the good thing is, for predominantly tournament players, they understand certain concepts that they’ll be able to apply across multiple games very quickly. Maybe they won’t understand all the specific nuances, but it might not necessarily come up in a given tournament.”
With his history-making bracelet, Friedman bumped his career tournament earnings to north of $3.3 million. Despite seven figures in tournament earnings, a successful career playing high-stakes cash games, and securing a spot in the poker history books, his biggest accomplishment was simply staying in action for the last 16 years.
“Even with the three-peat, I still say the best accomplishment I’ve ever had in poker is never going broke,” said Friedman. “I look at the majority of professional poker players, and I don’t know how high the number is, but the majority of them have gone broke at one point or another. It’s just something I never really wanted to happen to me because I was pretty certain if I ever went broke, I would quit poker altogether. I can be very mentally strong in some things within the game that others aren’t, but I don’t know if I have it in me to go broke and rebuild after that, especially if that were to happen in my thirties. Now, at 39, I could never see that happening.”
It goes back to Friedman’s money-first attitude on poker. (His father took $100,000 from his first big score and put it away for him to save.) In a way, he’s like Joey Knish from the classic poker movie Rounders. Friedman doesn’t play poker for the thrill of victory, the glory, or the chance to be on ESPN. He plays professionally to stay out of a traditional office job, and he’s not going to let his ego cost him a comfortable lifestyle.
“When you’re playing poker for a living, the money has to come first and foremost,” he said. “People view poker as an escape from a real job, but at the end of the day, you still need income. You still need to make money. And just because you’re not doing a traditional nine-to-five or anything in that realm of reality, you still need to make money.”
He said that cash game players usually take that mantra to heart. After all, their general swings over shorter time frames will be much smaller than that of a tournament player. But a summer (or fall) full of high-stakes tournament buy-ins can eat up a bankroll if you aren’t careful.
The same mindset is what kept Friedman from taking shots at nosebleed stakes games. While he realizes there is tremendous upside to beating those games, the downside isn’t always worth it.
“Do I have this need to play $2,000-$4,000? No. Because I think you need to have a tremendous amount of money, and maybe even a little more gamble than I might be willing to have in some of those situations,” said Friedman. “Those stakes are just ridiculous. Now, is it possible? I might take a shot eventually when the situation feels right. I’ve just never felt the need to play that high and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Friedman might not be taking gigantic six-figure gambles anytime soon, but that’s exactly why you’ll likely see him at the poker table for years to come.