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“I corrected some faulty thinking... I learned how to think more like a pro. And that meant I was making better decisions.”
Tom O’Neal: Teacher Takes 2nd Place in WSOP Bracelet Race for $375,000
Tom O’Neal’s poker journey has lasted more than 16 years, starting with a home game and culminating at the final table of a World Series of Poker $1500 bracelet event. He still recalls his first encounter with the game that has changed his life.
“I was working as an operator in a plastics plant, and my supervisor invited us all over for a poker party,” Tom says. “I didn’t know how to play but I had a good time.
“Then the same guy invited me to meet him at a casino a couple hours away. We don’t have casinos in Texas, so we met in Louisiana a couple hours away, and I had a blast!”
Tom knew so little about poker that “I had my little cheat sheet with me that told me the rank of hands.” Despite his lack of knowledge of the game, he says, “I just fell in love with it.”
Working on His Game
Tom realized that part of getting good at poker was working hard at learning and practicing.
“I started reading all I could on the subject and running simulations and thinking about it,” he says. “And I kept getting better! I got to where I could break even, then I got to where I was making a profit, and then my profit just kept increasing, and I just fell in love with it!”
Tom liked playing poker whether he won or lost. But, he says, “When occasionally I made more money playing cards and having fun than I did at work, then I really enjoyed it!”
Much as he loved poker, Tom never thought of it as a serious source of income. Through the years, he worked at the plastics plant, got a B.S. in chemistry, worked at NASA, worked as an industrial chemist, and then taught junior high and high school for several years. But he never stopped playing.
Turning Point at the Tournament Camp
The quantum leap came for him at a WPT Boot Camp. “It was very good,” he says. “I learned a lot, and I picked up a lot of good ideas.”
Tom appreciated the overview that Boot Camp gave him. “I corrected some faulty thinking,” he says. “And I got some clarification of a lot of things. I just felt like I walked away with several really good ideas and that I definitely improved my game.”
Asked to sum up what he learned, Tom thinks for a minute and then smiles. “I learned how to think more like a pro,” he says. “And that meant I was making better decisions.”
Winning Big at the World Series
Soon after his first Boot Camp, Tom found himself playing a low-priced online tournament.
“I had a buddy who talked me into playing a $3 rebuy on PokerStars,” he recalls, “and I ended up winning it. They had something like 5,000 people in it, and it paid me like $7000.” Now Tom had a stake and so he headed out to the biggest series of poker tournaments in the world.
“The very first event I entered was this $1500 buy-in and I got second!” Tom says. The $375,000 he took home was worth about eight years of his salary as a high school teacher.
“I called the IRS and found out how to make them happy, and then I called the mortgage company and paid off the house, and then I called the principal at the school and told him I was not gonna come back,” Tom recalls.
But the associate principal had already shown Tom’s boss how much he’d won. “And my principal said, ‘He ain’t comin’ back!’ He already knew I wasn’t coming back. And he was really nice and real supportive, so I decided to just take a year off and just try to improve as a poker player.”
From Teaching School to Learning Poker
The money Tom had won enabled him to take the plunge. He’s still trying to decide whether he can earn the money he needs from live tournament play. But if he can make the numbers work, he know he’d love the life of a pro.
“I like the math, I like the psychology, I like the competition,” Tom says. “I like the freedom that it gives you. And the potential for more money…In four days I made more than I make eight years teaching."
“You get the freedom. You have no alarm, you have no boss, every day is Saturday. It’s heaven! I got all my friends telling me, I’m living their dream. And I say, well, I’m living my dream!"
At least for right now. We’ll just see…
Meanwhile, Tom has continued to take several more Boot Camps and is excited by how steadily his game is improving.
“They helped me make better decisions. And I’m gonna make even better decisions next time!” he says. Since his WSOP cash, he’s read, played, and picked up whatever he could. “Anything I could think of to get better,” he says. “And of course, I keep going over my notes from the Boot Camp. Sometimes I review them by myself, and sometimes I go over them with a friend.”
Tom especially likes how available WPT Boot Camp pro instructors are to answer student questions. “It’s really good to go in there if you have anything you’ve been thinking about,” he says. “Because they’re happy to answer you on breaks and in between the sessions.” Tom was impressed with how ready even the big-name pro instructors were to spend time giving him detailed answers.
Figuring Out the Future
Tom hopes that continued tournament success enables him to keep playing professionally. If not, “Maybe I could teach school and then play the World Series in Vegas in the summer. We’ll just see how this goes.”
Meanwhile, Tom is happy just to be playing the game he loves.
“I like to figure out players and get to where I can accurately predict how they’ll respond to my actions,” Tom says. “And then I can take advantage of their personality and their style. I enjoy that a lot. That’s a lot of fun.” He laughs. “Yep. That’s a lot of fun!”