Everyday Grinder: NJ’s Benji Folson Reflects on Nice BetMGM Las Vegas Finish & Poker Life

July 27, 2022
Everyday Grinder: NJ’s Benji Folson Reflects on Nice BetMGM Las Vegas Finish & Poker Life

The US online poker market may be small compared to the major international poker platforms. But the market has grown in recent years and a few players have carved out a niche to play professionally.

Benji Felson (pictured in lead image at left) is one of those and in June turned an online qualifier into a nice score in the $3,500 BetMGM Poker Championship at Aria in Las Vegas.

The tournament featured a $1 million guarantee and brought some major online/live poker synergy back to the US. After earning a spot in the event, the 39-year-old poker pro from Newark, New Jersey, finished fifth for $50,000. It turned out to be a nice turn of events, but left Felson with some mixed feelings. As a competitor, he learned some lessons along the way.

“On the one hand, it’s impossible not to feel grateful for the good fortune that allowed me to get to the final table and finish fifth.,” he tells USPoker. “On the other hand, I know I misplayed a few hands at the final table due to either exhaustion, nerves, or feeling overwhelmed.

“However grim that may sound, I’m hopeful that in time I will use the experience more as motivation to continue to improve as a player, as opposed to just wallowing in regret.”

BetMGM online qualifier to live event final table

With poker raging all over Las Vegas throughout the summers, the BetMGM Championship found a nice niche in the card-playing landscape and surpassed the seven-figure guarantee by almost $100,000.

To get there, Felson played six $500 satellites before finally snagging a seat in the last one. A couple of those satellite entries came from $100 satellites. In total, he spent about $2,200 to earn his tournament and travel package. 

For Felson, reaching the final table came with some major bumps along the way. While he may be used to major online events, adjusting to the live stage took some trial and error.

“It’s one of the craziest things that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “I’d played three live multi-table tournaments (MTTs) in my life that were dailies under $300 and were years ago. Naturally I played horribly on day one, losing track of the blinds, the stack sizes, and I even managed to accidentally min-raise someone in a five-way pot.”

The experience was a bit intimidating, but slowly Felson adjusted. Some big hands later in the series helped as well. His experience offers a real insider’s look at tournament poker on such a big stage.

“I was very insistent on trying to give away my chips but the deck would not comply,” he says. “I was doing so many dumb things that I wouldn’t ever do when I play online. Day three I got Aces a lot and by day four I was on five nights in a row of four or five hours sleep. It was a complete blur and still doesn’t feel real.”

Grinding in the Garden State

When it comes to his online poker life back in New Jersey, the daily schedule is pretty rigid for Felson. He wakes up around 3 pm, exercises, grabs something to eat, and is at the tables by 7 pm. He plays 10-12 tables of MTTs at once, ranging from $20 to $500.

“I listen to anything from classical to hard-charging electronic music during a session, but I bluff a bit too much when a techno bass drops,” he says.

At 2 am Felson wraps up the session, but his work isn’t over yet. He then reviews some of his more interesting hands or watches training videos. Felson may also read some of his notes from a training course before turning in and doing it all again the next day.

As far as working on his skills a few other northeastern grinder also serve as sounding boards.

“I talk to Derek Sudell on a regular basis about poker-related matters,” Felson says. “He’s been incredibly helpful as he’s an excellent player and an exceedingly decent guy. Mike St. John, a big-time New Jersey grinder, is another guy who I’ve had positive interactions with and has always been supportive.”

Looking back on the BetMGM experience

At the Aria, one key hand sticks out in Felson’s mind. He three-bet with A♦K♦ on day one against an open bet and a call in early position. That led the caller to quickly raise to 40% of Felson’s stack, about 35 big blinds. Thoughts of an early exit entered his mind.

“I immediately started thinking about how late the Aria pools might be open and if I’d get steak or something more casual for dinner,” he says.

However, poker instincts kicked in and folding became an option. Felson figured his opponent held pocket Aces or Kings more than 95% of the time. But the allure of a relaxing afternoon in the sun and a nice dinner proved to be too much, he says.

The elimination could always be chalked up to a cooler, Felson figured. His instincts about being behind proved correct, but a nice board kept the New Jersey grinder alive.

“He had Aces, but was drawing dead by the turn,” Felson says.

Overall, he loved the experience and the camaraderie felt among players. He’s hoping for another shot at a big final table.

“I had such warm, quality interactions with the other qualifiers, the Aria staff, the BetMGM staff, and many of the other competing players,” he says. “I understand the appeal of playing live MTTs much more now, and it’s not just because I luckboxed my way into a fifth-place finish. 

“Day four will always stick out due to how intense it was at the final table with the lights, cameras, and action. I only hope that I’ll get another opportunity in the not-too-distant future to redeem myself, and for that moment, I’ll be ready.”

* Lead image courtesy BetMGM/Jamie Thomson

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