- Steve Rosenbloom, ESPN Poker Club
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It's the Friday after Thanksgiving, and the $4.25 million man is at the office.
Not a poker table "office'' the way some players refer to their job. Nope, Steve Dannenmann is at his day job this day, and the CPA who built his Baltimore business from scratch is keeping his day job, thank you, no matter that ESPN has now shown how he came into $4.25 million by finishing second to Joseph Hachem in the World Series of Poker main event.
"Yeah, you caught me at work,'' Dannenmann says. "It's been a tradition that while everybody else is shopping and standing in line, I always come to work. The phone never rings. It's always relaxing. You do things that you never have time to do.
"A lot of people would say the No. 1 thing that happened in their life was finishing in the final table at the World Series. Well, it's like my top 10. One of my most successful things is starting my practice out with zero clients and building it up to 2,000 clients. That's taken 16 years to do. I'm not willing to throw 16 years of work away for a poker tournament. I've just worked too hard for that.''
Practical, no? Just what you'd expect from a CPA and financial advisor. But he's enjoying the fame of his accomplishment and ESPN's portrayal of his just-happy-to-be-here approach.
"I was in Foxwoods in Connecticut a couple weeks ago -- not playing, just there for a buddy of mine -- and people came up to me, strangers: 'Hey, I watched you. You were really fun to watch. Congratulations.' Everyone has said that,'' Dannenmann says.
"They liked the fact that I was kind of laid-back and I was having a good time and laughing all the time. They thought that was pretty genuine and that I had no pressure whatsoever and I really didn't care what happened in the tournament.''
Then again, Dannenmann has always taken things that way.
"I feel that every morning that you just happen to wake up, everything else is extra credit, because no one said that when you went to bed that night that you had to wake up the next morning,'' Dannenmann says. "Right now, I could leave my office and get killed in a car accident.''
When fans approach him, they usually want to talk about his bluffing Howard Lederer and his phone call to a friend right after. Dannenmann was caught on camera crowing into a cell phone about the play. But as with most televised poker, the context of the event was missing.
"Here's the real story behind it,'' Dannenmann says. "That hand started 10 hands ago. First thing is, we're on the bubble. Howard's a professional. You look at Howard's chips there, and he had all $100 chips. He was buying the blinds. Howard would come in on every hand. Now, we're 10 minutes between every hand because we're on the bubble waiting to get into the money. Obviously, a professional knows $12,500 [the minimum payout to those who make the top 10 percent of the field] to everyone sitting at the table is a lot of money, so these guys are going to push things. They're going to raise the pot to get some chips.
"I'm talking to my buddy, Mark Schaech [a player from his home game whose poker ability Dannenmann respects], who I talked to every two hours during that whole time period. Right after a level, we'd talk strategy: 'Hey, Mark, this is what I have in chips, these are the kind of people I have at the table, what do you think I should do?'
"I call Mark two hands before that hand goes down, and I say, 'Mark, listen, when it comes to my big blind, I'm going to call his raise and I'm going to check-raise him on the flop to see where he's at.' And that's what happened. It worked.
"Now here's the funny thing: I happened to get my favorite hand when I was in the big blind, 6-8 offsuit. You know how you have one of those quirky things? It's just my favorite hand. I had my picture taken for Bluff magazine before the tournament with 6-8.
"That hand was already set up that I would be bluffing him, that I would play back because I was in the big blind. Some people have written some things -- 'Oh, you really disrespected Howard' -- but I could've really disrespected him by showing him the hand, but I never did.
"After it's all said and done, I walked behind the bleachers and I tell Mark. That's why I'm covering up my hand on the phone, so nobody can hear it. Little do I realize that I'm on the mike and when I turn around, these cameramen are just cracking up. It was that hand that they started following throughout the tournament because they liked me.
"I've seen some of the things that were written about that hand. What they said was here I was, this amateur, trying to make a move on a pro and get it on TV. It wasn't the case. He kept on raising every hand before the bubble and he was getting chips, and I didn't like it. I said, 'That's it, I'm playing back at him, I'm going to put a stop to this because he's not going to run the table over.'
"Here's the other thing: At the end of the second night, it's all over, and I go up to Howard Lederer and I say, 'I really respect you. I watched you on TV. You are the Cal Ripken of poker.' He nods his head. That's the best compliment he could've received in his entire life. There's nobody more respected in baseball than Cal Ripken. I don't care who you ever try to name. Cal Ripken is a genuinely great guy and has done a lot for his sport, and every time you see him, he's there to sign autographs.
"Then the next day, I find out I'm at his table.''
Dannenmann has talked to Lederer since that episode aired. No hard feelings.
"I saw him at the Tournament of Champions and went to him and I apologized,'' Dannenmann says. "He said, 'Hey, it's no big deal. It's just one hand.' And I got my picture taken with him.''
Some poker forums were filled with threads about Dannenmann acting like a jerk on the phone after that play. But that's the editing process. Don't believe everything you see.
"I had a client stop in a little while ago and he said, 'Man, you looked like you really [ticked] those guys off at the final table,''' Dannenmann says. "I said, 'Well, here's the deal: I was all-in 17 times at the final table. I can't outplay these professionals, and I know they hate the all-in. So when I had two good cards, I was was putting maximum pressure on these guys to make a decision for their entire tournament.'''
The other thing that fans usually ask about is the final hand against Hachem.
"Before we started [heads-up play], I shook his hand,'' Dannenmann says. "I said, 'Good luck. I hope you win. You are the better player and you'll respect the title more than I will. And we're going to get this over in five hands.' Those were the exact words. As a matter of fact, Joe came up to me at the Borgata in Atlantic City in September and he repeated it to me word-for-word.''
Dannenman was off by one. It took six hands.
"What I'm thinking is, I just played 12-14 hour days, seven days straight, I've gotten a total of 15½ hours sleep the entire week,'' Dannenmann says. "The goal I had that day was don't go out first, don't be the ninth guy. Thereafter, when you do go out, you want to make sure you have a good hand.''
With the blinds at $150,000-$300,000 and a $50,000 ante, Dannenmann drew A-3 offsuit on the button and raised to $700,000. Hachem called with 7-3 offsuit. The flop came 6-5-4, two diamonds, giving Hachem a seven-high straight. Dannenmann bet out $700,000. Hachem raised it $1 million. Dannenmann called. The turn came the ace of spades, giving Dannenmann top pair with an up-and-down straight draw. Hachem bet $2 million. Dannenmann raised to $5 million. Hachem reraised all-in. Dannenmann called.
"I thought, 'You know what, Joe may have two pair here, I do have top pair and I do have an open-ended straight [draw], and I'm tired, let's go home, if it was meant to be, it was meant to be,''' Dannenmann says.
It wasn't meant to be. Dannenmann needed a 7 on the river to chop the pot. Instead, a 4 came, and the Aussie pro became world champion.
"I don't regret a moment of that,'' Dannenmann says. "The only thing I may regret is not raising it up more [preflop]. But I may have not gotten any action. But I got action, and he got the best hand. He deserved to win.''
Before his World Series experience, Dannenmann had never played in a tournament with a buy-in of more than $300. Even after his multimillion-dollar payday, he doesn't like forking over main-event cash.
"I played at the Borgata and I played at the [U.S. Poker Championship] at the Taj,'' he says. "I won a seat in both of them [in satellites]. I haven't paid [a full buy-in] for a tournament yet. I have a hard time putting up $10,000 to play in a poker tournament. I put up half for the World Series [a friend, Jerry Ditzell, paid the other $5,000], but that was one of those things that was once in a lifetime. I'm going to be real choosy in the tournaments I play in.
"Like I tell my clients, you only have maybe one windfall in your life, and you don't want to blow that windfall. I had a nice windfall. After taxes and all [on his half of the $4.25 million payout], I get about $1.3 million. Well, [$1.3 million] is OK, but it would be about four or five years of working for me. That's one reason I can't retire in a sense, or don't want to retire. It's a lot of money to some people, but to me, it's a really nice emergency fund. And the last thing I'm going to do is blow through it in poker tournaments.''
He still plays in home games with the usual gang -- home games where he told ESPN that he was the fourth-best player.
"I don't know if it's even that,'' Dannenmann says. "We played Wednesday night. There were 22 players, and I was the first one knocked out. We played the night before, and I was the third one knocked out of 10 players.''
Dannenmann laughs. It is what he does. It is his way, because after all, he happened to just wake up that morning. Everything else is extra credit.
Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback, check out his mailbag.
10hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com