Max Young has more than $1.9 million in tournament earnings, six World Series of Poker Circuit rings, and multiple six-figure scores, which include a win for $226,510 in the $1,700 no-limit hold’em main event at the Winter Poker Open just last December at the Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa. But it wasn’t that long ago that Young was grinding out a much more modest hourly rate in small-stakes cash games while taking shots at tournaments less than one-tenth the size of the one he just took down.
Young picked up the game while he was in college. Originally from the East Coast, he moved across the country to California to get his degree. He spent two years at Santa Barbara City College and then finished his higher education with a degree from University of California at Santa Cruz.
Although he earned his degree and had work experience from a New York City-based internship, Young decided to forego the traditional route and take a shot at a career as a professional poker player. He relocated up the coast and worked side jobs while honing his skills in the area’s cardrooms.
“I moved up to Oregon and basically built up from a $0 bankroll playing the smallest stakes live you could possibly play,” said Young about his poker beginnings. “I was playing $40 buy-in tournaments. When I first started playing $1-$2, it was scary because I thought it was too big.”
Young had been working in the restaurant industry and picked up some gigs in construction as well, but eventually he left those behind completely to forge his path at the tables.
“Construction in Oregon in the winter is not so pleasant,” Young pointed out. “So, as I started having some success in poker, I decided I would prefer to just play cards.”
He made the leap to play cards full-time just before Black Friday. Luckily for the South Carolina native, even though he had found plenty of success as a sit-n-go player, most of his bankroll was allotted for live play. The actions taken by the U.S. government that hampered internet poker in the country didn’t affect his bottom line as much as it did others.
But even if it had, Young ended up earning his first recorded tournament cash the following day. He took down a $320 no-limit hold’em event in Pendleton for $23,133, which jumpstarted his bankroll. It also gave him enough breathing room to grind cash games without any real fears of going broke, ultimately starting his ascent up the ranks.
“That kind of got me going,” said Young about his first victory. “I [knew I couldn’t] play online anymore, and I just won that tournament. I just went live from that day on.”
Young moved up from $1-$2 to $2-$5 cash games and continued to earn a living on the felt, but unlike so many others, he didn’t immediately catch the tournament bug after his five-figure score.
He would travel a few hours to play “if there was a good one,” but he was primarily focused on putting in hours at the cash game tables, especially since he felt he was living somewhere that gave him a unique opportunity to build a bankroll from scratch.
“If you were someone who wanted to build a bankroll and you didn’t have a lot of money, Oregon might actually be the best place in the country to do that,” said Young. “You can play low-stakes cash with no rake and that’s pretty awesome. You just pay a $10 or $15 door fee.”
Under Oregon law, only tribal casinos can take a rake on poker games. Cardrooms eventually sprung up throughout the state and worked around it by hiring volunteer dealers that work solely on tips and charging a door fee instead of a rake.
“You literally could get to a poker club at noon, pay $10 and play until 2 a.m.,” said Young. “Some of them even include dinner with that. It doesn’t make sense how good it is.”
The only real downside for the Oregon poker scene is the lack of high-stakes games. However, Young said that the smaller games typically play slightly bigger than what the placard on the table says.
“The $1-$2 plays like a $2-$5 and the $2-$5 plays like a small $5-$10,” he said. “In a $1-$2 game, you can have between $6,000 and $10,000 on the table. You can still get a good hourly in that game.”
Between 2011 and 2016, Young stuck with his plan of playing cash games, only occasionally playing a tournament that was in the area. A few years into his career, he picked up another victory in a $330 no-limit hold’em event in Pendleton for $29,443.
In 2017, however, Young saw his career shift into the tournament world. In February, he made his way down to Florida and won his first WSOP Circuit ring in a $365 no-limit hold’em six-max event in Palm Beach for $13,944. He cashed five other times in the series, netting a total of $38,654 during the two-week run. The successful stop did wonders for Young’s confidence, as well as his bankroll.
He followed that up with four cashes at the Circuit stop in Iowa, including a runner-up finish a $365 no-limit hold’em for $24,584, before taking down his first six-figure payday. Young bested a field of 447 entries in the $1,600 Parx Big Stax event in Pennsylvania for $120,930.
The win at Parx was clearly a memorable moment as it set a new high score for Young. In his eyes, though, it was his 28th-place finish in the Circuit main event in North Carolina a week earlier that really let him know he had taken his game to another level and that a big win was on the horizon.
“There was a lot up top in that tournament, and I thought I was going to win that one,” recalled Young. “I felt like I played some of the best poker in my life in that one. I came up short, but I made one unbelievable fold where I folded the second nuts to the nuts on the river. It was probably, theoretically, a horrible fold. But at the time, I was right. That gave me confidence. Then the tournament at Parx happened. When you have the confidence the bankroll, and it makes things a lot easier.”
It takes discipline to make a huge fold in the late stages of a tournament. Young applies that trait not only to his poker game, but to his bankroll as well. While many aspiring pros traveling the country playing mid-stakes use backing deals to offset costs and preserve capital, Young kept all his own action and never sought a full-time staking arrangement.
“I just didn’t want to play buy-ins outside of the recommended range for my bankroll,” he said. “I was already pretty stressed about losing chunks of money. I know I play poker for a living, but I probably cared about it more than I should’ve. I was never staked or anything, so I tried to play within reach.”
The downside to his plan was simply opportunity cost. Low and mid-stakes grinders don’t have the economic cushion that some of the high-stakes regulars have.
“When you’re playing the lower stakes stuff, even if you’re a successful player, it takes a long time to build up the bankroll because so much of your winnings are going towards your life expenses,” said Young.
Some personal battles only added more time to Young’s low-stakes endeavor.
“My mom was sick for a few years,” he said. “So, I was trying to spend some extra time with her as well. I would take the summer off every year, and I almost felt like I had to start over every fall. Then happened, and I just built my bankroll to a point where I was playing bigger buy-ins and life expenses weren’t such a high percentage of my winnings. It made a big difference.”
Following the Parx score, Young didn’t let off the gas. Two months later, he won his second Circuit ring in Lake Tahoe, besting a 458-entry field in the $1,675 no-limit hold’em main event for $147,699. He closed out the year with a fourth-place finish in the Colorado Poker Championship for $20,696.
His momentum didn’t stop in 2018, either. He won Mid-States Poker Tour main event in April for $97,810, a World Poker Tour DeepStacks main event in San Diego in October, and three more WSOP Circuit rings, including a career-best $263,815 payout for his fifth Circuit title in the $1,700 no-limit hold’em main event at Choctaw in November.
In 2019, he won his sixth Circuit ring at a stop in Tunica for $11,456. Towards the end of the year, he added two more six-figure scores to his résumé with a third in the Circuit main event at Choctaw and a runner-up finish in the $1,100 Wynn Winter Classic for $119,038 and $125,356, respectively.
“I’m going to pick and choose when I play bigger,” said Young when asked about what stakes he aspires to reach. “I’ve started mixing in a couple $10K’s every year, a couple $5K’s. I’m more interested in playing World Poker Tour events now than I was. I’m just trying to be smart managing my bankroll and I know that the competition gets a lot tougher as you move up. I feel like I am mostly a self-taught poker player. A lot of the stuff that I learned came from playing against low-stakes players. And for that reason, my edge has been more significant in those games.”
If he wants to succeed against tougher opponents, Young won’t be able to implement those same strategies he used at smaller stakes. To ease the learning curve and help the transition, he started utilizing Chip Leader Coaching, a company founded by high-stakes regular Chance Kornuth. Young began working with 2015 WSOP main event champion Joe McKeehen and has been building a more fundamentally sound strategy.
“I feel better prepared for higher stakes tournaments,” said Young. “But I don’t feel like I have to make the switch. I’m still going to play those mid-stakes games too. I’ll still play a $300 tournament, you know? I’m starting to feel like those buy-ins might be a little bit of a waste of my time, but I like poker. It’s fun for me. I want to be successful at whatever stakes I’m playing.”
After several years of hard work, Young was making strides and breaking out. He had become one of the proverbial end bosses in mid-stakes tournaments. Heading into 2020, there were few players at those levels that showed as much promise. But just several weeks after recording a cash in the $10,000 Aussie Millions main event, the COVID-19 pandemic essentially put live tournaments on a hiatus. Young was forced to play online again for the first time since his days of grinding sit-n-go’s.
“I just didn’t have the success I was looking for online,” said Young. “I’ve never been as disciplined in making good folds online as I am live. Especially when I’m playing multiple tables, if I have anything reasonable, I just don’t fold, whereas that exact same spot, I would just be snap-folding live.”
Luckily the 35-year-old had built himself a nice cushion. Instead of continuing to grind online, he opted to take some time away from the table.
“I studied a lot and watched a lot of videos, but for the most part, I focused on other aspects of my life,” said Young of his time during the lockdown.
After several months with basically no other outlet for poker besides the internet, live poker slowly came back in many jurisdictions. By the end of the year, a few properties were even hosting tournaments series.
The Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa was one of the first properties in the country to host an elongated tournament series with their Winter Poker Open last December. Young hopped on a flight to Florida for the series and played in the $1,700 no-limit hold’em main event. Despite the newly-installed plexiglass dividers and mandatory masks for players, the demand for a live poker tournament was huge, and 779 entries were made in the event.
The handful of safety measures are in place to make sure everyone stays healthy, but in theory, it could also hinder Young’s edge over the field with fewer live tells to spot.
“I actually didn’t mind it,” said Young about the mandates. “I was thankful that the casinos were taking all the precautions that they were. It’s not so much the physical tells, as a lot of the information I get is from betting patterns. Or maybe you notice things about somebody’s hands, or the speed in which they bet. It didn’t make that much of a difference to me.”
Even with masks, plexiglass dividers, and a nine-month break in between live tournaments, Young didn’t miss a beat. He defeated Edgardo Figueroa heads-up to come out on top and take home $226,510 for the second-largest score of his career. As more live events continue to re-emerge around the country, expect Young to be one of those players taking full advantage of the large fields and inflated prize pools. ♠