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Best of Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – A year ago at this time, Adam Levy was wrapping up a two-month stint as a youth camp counselor at a reform Jewish summer camp, deep in the woods of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia.
On Sunday, he was walking out of the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino with $222,865 in his pocket after spending the last six weeks playing in the 2008 World Series of Poker.
When asked to assess which was more satisfying, Levy's response was surprising, yet refreshing.
"In the end, I think it was a real good decision [choosing not to play in the 2007 World Series]," said a heartfelt Levy. "Financially, maybe it wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done, but as a person, it was just definitely worth it.
"I mean, for two months I was around such great people. And sometimes working as a poker player for a living you lose sight of reality. Being a camp counselor is something that keeps you grounded, and I think everybody needs something like that once in a while."
Spending a summer with 400 kids at Camp Coleman isn't the only reality slap Levy has been hit with in the last few years. He was dealt one as a professional poker player when he came to the 2006 WSOP as one of the most-feared online players and left with an earnings total of zero. That's right, 17 events, zero cashes.
But instead of going into a tailspin that may have threatened his promising career, Levy picked himself up off the felt and was determined to make himself a better poker player, despite the self-doubt that crawled into his head after the brutal 0-for-17 run.
"Yeah, it was discouraging, for sure," said the 26-year-old native of Orlando, Fla. "It was tough. But I knew that the whole live poker thing was new for me. I knew that I made some mistakes and that I really didn't run very good. But all along I still believed in my game."
He continued to rack up big money online – where his screen name "Roothlus" is renowned worldwide – and also had some modest success as a live player, capturing Top-25 finishes in three events that earned him close to $10,000.
But when the time came for a chance at WSOP redemption last year, Levy packed his bags and headed for Camp Coleman.
"I had [been a counselor there] a few years back and really enjoyed it," he explained. "My brother and one of my best friends did it with me and at that point of my life I thought it would be good for me to go back.'
He didn't totally escape from poker while at the camp, however. Levy admitted that one time during an hour break in the day he ducked into his room and logged onto PokerStars where he played a $500 sit-n-go.
"I won $2,500 in an hour," he said with a wide smile. "That's as much as I got paid for the whole two months as a counselor. And I did it in less than an hour."
A $2,500-per-hour wage is nothing knew for Levy. His career online earnings are in the range of $1.5 million. Just this year, during a three-month span from January to March, he won more than $70,000.
It was his potential as a live poker player that was still been in question as he made the trek to Vegas for this year's WSOP. But after six cashes – including a 48th place finish in the Main Event that added $135,100 to his bank account – the doubters will be few and far between.
"It feels good, this was a great experience," he said on Sunday after being eliminated on Day 6 of the Main Event. "I'm real happy with where my game is right now. I don't think I came here having to prove anything to anyone and I think I improved myself as a player by being here and doing so well."
During the Main Event, Levy certainly proved he could handle the wrath of one of the game's biggest stars. On Friday during Day 4 action, he was seated at the same table as Phil Hellmuth, meaning the ESPN cameras were out in full force and the rail was three rows deep with fans.
On one hand mid-way through the day, Levy called a couple of The Poker Brat's raises and re-raised him when he realized he had the nuts. When Hellmuth lost the pot, he went off on a 20-minute tirade that was directed at Levy for the whole world to see.
"It was insane, but I actually kind of enjoyed it," Levy said with a laugh. "He went crazy. He was calling me an 'online punk,' asking me who the hell I thought I was re-raising him. He got the whole crowd laughing. But I didn't care. I just kind of sat there and took it all in. We ended up playing at the same table almost the entire day. It was awesome."
Sitting at a table with a true giant of the game for a full day at the Main Event validates just how far Levy has come in the last five years. He was a fanatical player of the card game Magic: The Gathering and then caught the poker bug after Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event in 2003. He began playing online and took his lumps in the first year or so. But by 2005, he started to become a force. He played in two events at the 2005 WSOP without much success and his parents started to question what he was doing with his life.
"They didn't really understand it," Levy said. "But once they started to see the kind of money I was making they came around. But it wasn't until about a year and a half ago that they totally accepted it. Now, my mother loves poker. I've got her playing quite a bit."
With his impressive run at this year's WSOP in the books, Levy is looking forward to progressing even more in the next year as a live player. But he's not completely sure that he'll be back in Vegas when the cards go in the air for the 2009 WSOP.
"To be honest, I wouldn't mind going back to [Camp Coleman]," he said. "Some of the kids that I've been a counselor for will be graduating next year and I'd love to be there for that. Poker will always be there for me, but I can't be a camp counselor forever. I guess we'll have to wait and see."