In our 2007 World Series of Poker preview issue, we took a look at a group of young and still somewhat unfamiliar faces who had a good chance of having a breakout year and making their marks on the live tournament circuit. Six months later, two of those players have risen to the challenge and then some.
Jonathan Little has arguably been the best live tournament player in the world in 2007. He has three WPT final table appearances, including one win and one final table bubble (seventh place). He will almost certainly be the WPT Player of the Year and, at such a young age (22), he is in a great position to be a fixture on the live circuit and put up monster results for years to come.
Few people had the kind of WSOP that Travis Rice did. He broke onto the scene with two final tables, including one televised appearance in the tournament that Allen Cunningham would go on to win. He topped it all, however, in October, when he took down the famed Ultimate Bet Aruba Poker Classic for $800,000. Reporters and spectators recollected his performance as "dominating" and "masterful." He seamlessly weaved through the field in order to capture the title.
Two in the Same
While both might admit the details are a little bit hazy as to the first time they met -- because poker players are constantly traveling around the country and staying and meeting with various friends -- both remember the poker details behind it.
"I went to Texas to meet with some friends from TwoPlusTwo, and I slept on the floor at Travis's place," Little said. "I remember he was just grinding out tons of sit-n-go tables when I got there, which was pretty much also what I did at the time. He had gone from not having much money at all to playing tons of the $100 sit-n-goes in a couple of months, and I was really impressed by that. I played the Sunday tournaments that day and ended up getting second place in the Poker Stars Sunday Million, which was a huge score for me at the time."
Rice remembers it similarly: "I definitely remember when he came over and had that huge Sunday Million win. He was such a sicko and he still is. Jonathan is one of my best friends on the live circuit. I have more nicknames for Jon than I've ever had for any other friend. Right now my favorite is 'J-Lit,' but that could definitely change by tomorrow."
Rice and Little have traveled similar paths to get where they are now and, with the kind of friends, knowledge and experience they are gaining, it's difficult to imagine either of them slowing down.
Nothing Little About It
Around this time last year, Jonathan Little spent most of his time playing poker on his computer, multi-tabling multi-table tournaments and earning a reputation for being one of the best sit-n-go players in the world. "Little" did he know that in the coming year, he would win nearly $2,000,000 and collect a lifetime of experiences highlighted by earning a WPT title on one of the toughest final tables ever assembled -- one that included Phil Ivey, Darrell "Gigabet" Dicken, Amnon Filippi and Cory Carroll.
Little doesn't forget where he started though. As a young and aspiring pro, he would put in hours and hours a day playing online to learn the game. "I study a lot of poker and have a lot of experience from playing online," he said. "I also have much more live experience than most of the young online pros just getting into them. Another important quality I have is that I never tilt. I used to play 16 tables an hour and would take bad beats nearly every minute. It's easy not to tilt if you take only one or two bad beats an hour when you are used to so many online."
That mature and intelligent attitude contributes to Little's success. One of his more impressive qualities as a poker player is the composure he maintains at the table. Most of us who watch poker on TV notice the young players being very loud and mobile and often arrogant at the table. Little, contrarily, handles himself as if he is a pro with decades of live experience. Being somewhat inexperienced in live tournaments, he realizes the importance of controlling his table image.
"It's definitely a choice I make," Little said. " I could be wild and loud, but I think that at this stage in my life I might give away more information than I could receive, which is the case with almost any loud or talkative player.
His reputation as being unreadable has gained reverence from other players who say that Little is "nearly impossible to read" and "never gives anything away -- you never know what the kid has."
Due to his affiliation with the "Ship It Holla" crew and the general reputation of young Internet players who live as aggressively as they play at the tables, you would think Little is out in Vegas living the big life, partying as much as he plays; but that's not the case.
"After I won the Mirage Poker Showdown, I went to dinner with some friends who were watching me, but that is about it," Little said. "I never really celebrate my big scores."
Travis Rice grew up in Texas, and his earliest experiences with poker were not online but in a live card room.
"I have a greater ease about my live game than most online players because I played for my first three years at a club in Dallas," Rice said. "I also dealt there, so I am used to dealing with chips and cards and am not uncomfortable at all on the table."
It didn't take long for Rice to see the value of playing online though. He began to play sit-and-goes much like Little and, through playing thousands and thousands of them, he gained the experience needed to become a good tournament player. He then started playing and having success in online tournaments and built up a bankroll to support entering the much larger live buy-in tournaments. His career really began taking off after that.
Rice said that he "attributes a lot of my immediate success to the transition to live play, because a lot of online players have trouble adapting since they don't understand the difference in structures. I had played a lot live and understood the important differences. When you play online, you play so many tournaments. Different spots become profitable where you can shove over the top of someone or 3-bet someone with a wider range. Playing live is completely different, and the online players who can adjust to the structure and tempo changes are the ones who have the most success."
Although Rice maintains his home in Dallas/Ft. Worth, he plans to spend much of the year traveling the world playing tournaments. He was recently in China to play on the Asian Poker Tour and then came all the way back to the States to play in the Bellagio Five Diamond World Poker Classic. Coming off his win in Aruba, he is looking to make an international star of himself.
The Road Ahead
While Rice and Little are independently successful of one another, it is no coincidence that success grows in groups of friends with the sort of intellect and maturity that they show on the poker table. Given the opportunity of being able to talk over the Internet and in forums to meet new like-minded friends, they use the information that is shared to help elevate their games to another level.
This profile might be an introduction of Jonathan Little or Travis Rice, but you are sure to know them after a year full of TV appearances and seeing their faces all over poker Web sites and magazines. And if you are ever playing in a tournament and glance across the table at either of them -- well, may the force be with you.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the No. 1 poker magazine in the country, Bluff.