Henning poker player wins second naitonal championship

Photo courtesy of Free Poker Network
Joel Smith, of rural Henning, was all smiles after he won his second poker national championship earlier this month. He took first place at the Free Poker Network Chasin’ Bracelets National Championship.

By Chad Koenen


Few feelings in life can match that of a poker player watching a card hit on the river, or having their opponent push all-in, only to see you have the top pair heading into the flop. There is a roller coaster of fear, anguish, excitement and just plain jubilation when the final card is turned over to reveal the winner. And when that victory can happen on the final table of a tournament in Sin City, well that’s just the icing on the cake.  ¶  Joel Smith, of rural Henning, had his fair share of ups and downs during a recent Free Poker Network Chasin’ Bracelets National Championship in Las Vegas. After outlasting the field of 225 of the best poker players in the country, Smith entered heads-up play with a 3-1 deficit to Greg Larson, who is also from Minnesota.

Smith was able to put together a string of hands he won’t soon forget and not only retook the lead, but won his second national championship when Larson pushed in a mid-pair that couldn’t touch Smith’s top pair of queens. This is the second time Smith has won a national championship after previously taking the title in 2015. 

The tournament was held earlier this month in Las Vegas and capped off a tremendous week for the local poker player as he took fourth place in a deep run with his wife Nikki in the team championship.  His wife also competed in the Free Poker Network National Championship and finished in 50th place out of the 225 entrants. 

The long-time poker player not only enjoys the thrill of winning a hand, but also the social aspect of getting to know opponents over a game of cards. 

“I think just the social aspect of the game. Just getting to know the people,” said Smith. “Typical tournaments last four hours so you get to know a lot about the people and their lives. When you go to a national tournament it’s kind of like a family reunion.”

Smith, who is a regular at league poker nights at Billy’s Corner Bar in Vergas, the Dugout Bar in Dent and Playtime in rural Perham, has qualified for national championships in the past. He has made multiple final tables over the years and placed second at least twice, in addition to his pair of national championships. 

“We’ve been playing this league for 10 plus years,” said Smith. “The ultimate goal is to always get qualified for the national championship and win the top prize for that promotion.”

With his national championship, Smith won’t need to worry about his plans for the Fourth of July as he will be returning to Las Vegas to compete on poker’s biggest stage. As fireworks go off over the Leaf Lakes and Otter Tail Lake in the heart of Otter Tail County, Smith will be competing in the World Series of Poker. As the champion of the Free Poker Network Chasin’ Bracelets tournament, Smith received a free buy-in to one of the biggest poker tournaments in the world. 

The tournament will kick off on July 3 in Las Vegas and the Henning man is hoping he can find similar success to eight years ago when he competed in the World Series of Poker. That time around he took 776th place out of 6,800 of the best poker players in the world. Last year the grand prize at the World Series of Poker was $10 million. 

As he prepares for poker’s biggest stage in July, Smith said he is excited to not only compete in the World Series of Poker, but share the experience with his wife Nikki. Since breaks can be short as several thousand people compete for one of the biggest prizes in poker, Smith said having someone there will help to keep him balanced, as well as provide a quick refreshment during a short break. 

“It’s really nice to be able to share the experiences with her. She is planning to come out to the World Series of Poker,” he said. “It’s nice having someone to cheer you on and have someone there to help you.”