As an 18-year-old Ali Imsirovic was playing $0.02-$0.04 online cash games, just beginning his journey into the poker world. Just eight years later, the 26-year-old has put together a record-setting year on the live tournament circuit that saw him run away with the 2021 Card Player Player of the Year award, sponsored by Global Poker.
“Honestly, I never thought this would ever be a possibility. My goal was to make it to $2-$4, or $5-$10, and make a reasonable living; to have the freedom and be happy just to play the game,” Imsirovic told Card Player after his incredible run this year. “As I got better and worked harder, it became more and more plausible that I could reach something higher than that. So, I started just dedicating basically all my time to [poker]. It was really all I cared about.”
“There was obviously a lot of luck to get to this stage, but I feel very accomplished,” he continued. “I’m super happy after dedicating all of that time, just to be able to achieve something like this that I can be proud of forever.”
In addition to winning the Card Player POY race, Imsirovic also secured the inaugural PokerGO Tour Player of the Year award. Check out a recap of that victory here.
Over the last 12 months, Imsirovic made a total of 30 POY-qualified final tables, falling just one shy of tying Jake Schindler’s record of 31. While Imsirovic narrowly missed out on that record, he managed to raise the bar to a whole new level in another key category: titles won.
Imsirovic racked up an astounding 14 POY-qualified titles this year, blowing away the previous record of 10 set by Justin Bonomo in 2018. That means that he converted a final table appearance into another trophy on the mantel 47 percent of the time in 2021. Imsirovic attributed his incredible success at closing out events this year to his time spent in the proverbial lab studying ICM (the Independent Chip Model).
“It’s the main thing I spent my time on, just working on how to get better at final tables, because that’s where all the money is. You’re playing the highest stakes at that point. To me, I think it’s the most important thing to get better at,” said Imsirovic.
Imsirovic accumulated more than $5.9 million in POY earnings in 2021, piling up 8,058 POY points before the race concluded at the end of the year. That gave him a gigantic lead of 2,978 points over second-ranked Qing Liu.
To put that in perspective, the amount of points representing the gap between Imsirovic and the nearest competition is just slightly more than the total points accrued by 37th-ranked Brock Wilson, who made 11 final tables this year and cashed for more than $1.3 million. Imsirovic was a whole Brock Wilson better than his nearest competitor, so to speak.
When asked about what he thought separated him from other top players this year, Imsirovic offered one theory.
“Work ethic,” he answered. “I picked that up from my dad. He was working three jobs, just trying to make a living for us. He came to the States with literally nothing, and just accomplished so much for my sister and me to just do whatever we want to do. So just seeing how hard he worked growing up motivated me to try to be the best at whatever I wanted to do with my life. I’m just very happy to just sit down at my computer and just spend hours every day to get better at my profession. I’m sure a lot of these other guys work hard as well, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just one thing that I think gives me an edge.”
Salko Imsirovic, Ali’s father, owned a restaurant in Bosnia before leaving the country with his family due to conflict in the area. After years of cheering on his son’s burgeoning career from the sidelines, Salko put on a show of his own on the felt, making a deep run in this year’s World Series of Poker main event. The 59-year-old earned $50,900 as the 100th-place finisher.
“It was such an incredible experience for him,” the younger Imsirovic said of his father, who picked up the game before he did. “Basically, I’m playing poker because of him. He is always checking the updates and really invested in how I’m doing at all times, so it was nice to be on the other side and get to cheer for him.”
The second trait Imsirovic pointed to when asked about his success this year was his ability to find exploits against his highly studied opponents. “I think most players at the highest stakes focus on game theory more than anything else nowadays. But I think just being able to deviate from that and exploit certain tendencies of the other guys helped me a lot as well.”
A Look Back At Imsirovic’s Dominant 2021 Campaign
The live high-stakes tournament scene was only beginning to pick up steam in the early months of 2021, following a prolonged shutdown due to the pandemic. Imsirovic recorded only one final table finish in the month of January, finishing third in a $10,000 buy-in high roller at ARIA for $54,400 and 160 POY points.
The final few days of February saw Imsirovic score his first two titles of the year, taking down a $25,000 buy-in event and a $50,000 buy-in event in the span of three days. The pair of victories kicked off his record-setting title campaign while adding more than $530,000 and 372 points to his totals.
Springtime saw Imsirovic’s surge to the top of the POY standings truly begin. From March through May he cashed for more than $1.3 million in POY earnings, with eight final-table finishes and three titles won. He lodged one podium finish in March, playing third in a $10,000 ARIA high roller for $74,200 and 200 points. Then he and Sean Perry made it down to heads-up play against each other in three consecutive high roller events at ARIA in April, with Perry winning their first showdown in a $10,000 buy-in tournament before Imsirovic came out on top with back-to-back victories in a pair of $25,000 buy-in events. Imsirovic earned $721,300 and 922 POY points across the three deep runs, bringing his title total to five while climbing inside the top five in the POY standings.
Things kept heating up for Imsirovic in the summer months, with another ten final-table finishes and four more titles added to the tally. He kicked things off by making the final table in one-third of the twelve events that made up the 2021 U.S. Poker Open schedule, accumulating $456,500 and 1,150 points while securing his sixth title of the year in the process as the winner of a $10,000 buy-in high roller that drew 99 entries. Imsirovic earned $217,800 and 540 points for that win alone, which was enough to see him overtake the lead in the POY race for the first time in the year.
July played host to the inaugural PokerGO Cup, which saw Imsirovic make three final tables and win two more titles in a six-day span. With $545,500 and 890 points added to his annual total during the series, Imsirovic began to pull away from the rest of the pack. Imsirovic recorded his ninth title of the year by taking down a $10,000 high roller at Venetian, and finished third in a $25,000 at the same series the following day. He then made his way to the Merit Royal Hotel Casino & Spa in North Cyprus for the Super High Roller Bowl Europe series and added another final-table finish before summer came to an end.
Imsirovic’s next trip to the winner’s circle came just a few days later at the SHRB Europe, which continued into the early days of September. He defeated a field of 26 entries in the $50,000 buy-in high roller there to earn $598,000 and 306 POY points. It was his tenth title, tying Justin Bonomo’s record with months still to go.
The high-stakes tournament world returned to Las Vegas for the Poker Masters later in September. Imsirovic, who won the purple jacket back in 2018, recorded just one final-table finish during the series, placing fourth in a $25,00 high roller. But a week later the record was his when he took down a $50,00 buy-in high roller event at ARIA for $529,000 and 306 points. Just a few days after that he picked up his 12th victory of the year, in a $25,000 buy-in event for another $192,500 and 168 points.
October was another slower month by Imsirovic’s illustrious standards this year, with just a single final-table finish in a $10,000 event for third place. He closed the year out strong with his second-best month of the year in November, however, adding more than $1.1 million in POY earnings across four final-table finishes with two titles won.
He took down a $10,000 event at ARIA in the first few days of the month for $120,000 and 240 points, and finished fourth in a similar event a few days later. During the final week of the WSOP, Imsirovic made his lone final-table run of the series and finished fourth in a $50,000 buy-in event there for $278,840 and 340 POY points.
Imsirovic saved what he described as his favorite victory of the year for last. He defeated a field of 102 entries, including Bryn Kenney heads-up, to win the Rock’N’Roll Poker Open $25,500 buy-in event at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida. He earned $695,355 and 840 points for his record-furthering 14th POY-qualified title of the year.
“The reason why it sticks out to me is it was a bigger field $25k,” explained Imsirovic. “A lot of events I play get like 40 to 50 entries, and you definitely hear people like, ‘Oh he’s just winning small field tournaments, which is not as impressive.’ Beating a larger field felt really good, and I also had friends and family there as well cheering me on the whole time, so I really enjoyed that. It was just an experience that I loved having.”
Wrapping Up, Looking Forward
Imsirovic spent most of the pandemic battling online at the highest stakes in the world, both in cash games and tournaments. He said he often played as much as 14 hours a day, battling what he characterized as, “literally the best in the world, every day, for hours on end.” At one point, he even set the record for winning the largest no-limit hold’em cash game pot in online poker history, at just shy of $1 million.
“I improved so much at the game in 2020,” Imsirovic admitted. “So, once live poker came back, I got the chance to kind of prove that. The live games feel so much softer than the high-stakes online games. I felt very prepared, like I was one of the better players in the field, and it just translated to more success.”
Imsirovic secured more than a third of his $15.5 million in career earnings in just the past year, putting together his most consistent performance yet and breaking a record in the process. With the POY award under his belt, we asked him what he hopes to achieve in his poker career moving forward.
“Honestly, more of the same. I don’t want to just have a good year and just be done. I want to solidify myself and try to reach the number one spot. Just continuously try to prove I belong and keep improving,” answered Imsirovic. “I love the game. I just love to play, and I also love to learn more about it and how to get better. Honestly, in my eyes, I’m still learning stuff every day, and I still feel I suck at the game. I feel like everybody sucks at the game (laughs) because there’s so, so much to learn. That fact keeps me hungry, keeps me motivated to keep getting better. Because the game is still tough, and I got a long way to go.”
At just 26 years old, Imsirovic has already achieved so much in the game. If he is able to keep this hunger for the game that he professes, who knows what he might accomplish in the years to come.
Imsirovic’s Top Ten Scores of 2021:
|SHR Rock’N’Roll Poker Open $25,000 NLH||1st||$695,355|
|Super High Roller Bowl Europe $50,000 NLH||1st||$598,000|
|ARIA High Roller Series $50,000 NLH||1st||$529,000|
|ARIA High Roller Series $50,000 NLH||1st||$344,910|
|ARIA High Roller Series $25,000 NLH||1st||$310,000|
|ARIA High Roller Series $25,000 NLH||1st||$300,000|
|World Series of Poker $50,000 NLH||6th||$278,840|
|PokerGO Cup $15,000 NLH||1st||$240,000|
|U.S. Poker Open $10,000 NLH||1st||$217,800|
|Venetian High Roller Series $10,000 NLH||1st||$200,200|
The top 20 in the final 2021 POY race standings:
|Rank||Player||Points||Titles||Final Tables||POY Earnings|
|13||Sung Joo Hyun||3,928||3||11||$952,142|
Card Player Player of the Year Winners:
Multiple photos provided by PokerGO / Antonio Abrego. Rock’N’Roll Poker Open winner photo credit: Seminole Hard Rock Poker blog.