LAS VEGAS – There is, Martin Kampmann says, at least some similarities between mixed martial arts and playing professional poker.
The longtime UFC fighter has recently turned professional in poker and is currently playing in the World Series of Poker at the Rio.
Contestants begin with $30,000 in chips, and at the end of the day on Tuesday, Kampmann wound up with a stack of $40,775, so he'd made considerable progress.
MMA fighters need a poker face and must remain cool under pressure, traits that also help greatly in poker. But there is one thing, he concedes, that makes fighting more appealing than poker.
"I don't have to worry about getting punched in the face in poker, though," Kampmann said, chuckling. "But staying cool under pressure is a big similarity. One mistake in fighting, if you leave your chin up or your arm out, the fight is going to be over quickly and you'll wind up being knocked out or submitted.
"In poker, if you lose your focus, before you know it, you're out of the tournament. When I fight, the one thing I know is, no matter how well I do or how poorly I do, I'm going to get paid. In fighting, you never have to worry about losing money three straight days."
Kampmann, who represents Ultimate Poker, a company co-founded by UFC co-owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Ultimate Gaming chairman Tom Breitling, is being coached by pro poker star Jason Somerville.
Somerville is a huge MMA fan and MMA bettor who attended UFC 69 in Columbus, Ohio, on March 3, 2007, a card on which Kampmann fought.
Randy Couture captured the heavyweight title that night from Tim Sylvia, a fight Somerville recalled in vivid detail more than seven years later.
"That was one of the great live sporting events I've ever been to," Somerville said. "That arena was just insane that night. I don't think I'll ever forget it. The emotion in the building for Randy was incredible.
"Martin fought [Drew McFedries] on that card and I remembered him because he won with a pretty slick little arm triangle. We met and became friends."
Kampmann was a longtime poker player, though he did it just for fun. But when he mentioned to Somerville that he wanted to learn the game and compete as a pro, Somerville came up with a plan.
Somerville would coach Kampmann in poker if Kampmann would coach him in MMA.
They made a deal, and Somerville has been helping Kampmann rise through the ranks.
Kampmann entered a pro event in Reno and won the tournament and $52,000.
"I'd say for a player of his experience, that's rare to extremely rare to win a tournament of that size," said Dustin Iannotti, the director of content and pro marketing for Ultimate Poker.
There were 185 players entered in that event in Reno who paid an entry fee of $1,100 apiece.
Iannotti said Kampmann has been extremely receptive to Somerville's instruction and has shown a keen aptitude for the game.
At the Reno event, he faced situations that Somerville hadn't coached him on yet, but he made his moves flawlessly, according to Iannotti.
"Knowing that was Martin's first live tournament, Jason was emphatic about being able to help Martin as much as he could," Iannotti said. "So Martin would text him on the breaks to try to advise him and help him through situations that came up or might come up. Jason was floored by the information that Martin was retaining.
"Martin didn't understand the mechanics of some of this, not being a longtime poker player, but Jason would tell him something that would be a true nuance of the game in the hope that Martin would pick it up and learn for a future game. But he was stunned because Martin picked things up so quickly, he was a level ahead of where Jason thought he'd be."
Somerville said he knew Kampmann had innate ability after that victory in Reno. He said the moves he made were those of a veteran, and that he remained calm and rational even while playing heads-up on the final table when his opponent began making highly unconventional moves.
Kampmann's opponent was, for one thing, making unexpectedly large raises. Kampmann, though, dealt with it expertly, Somerville said.
"Martin had never really played heads-up before," Somerville said. "When his opponent started making those very, very large raises, he and I had never, ever, discussed what the proper strategy was and how to react to that. It's not necessarily intuitive, or something that everyone understands.
"But Martin correctly played tight, waited for a good spot and eventually drafted the point. He's impressed me since the beginning and I actually think he has a bright future in poker if he chooses to pursue it."
The first prize in the World Series of Poker is $10 million, the kind of stakes that could make anyone's heart pound.
Somerville has drilled into Kampmann relentlessly that the World Series is a long, hard grind and that one of the mistakes many players make is being too aggressive, too soon.
Kampmann navigated his first day well and didn't panic even though his stack dipped to $12,000 early Tuesday. He battled back and moved on to compete in Day Two.
"I still have a chance for the $10 million," Kampmann said. "It may be a long shot. I'm definitely not the favorite, that's for sure, but as long as I'm alive and still playing, I have a shot and that's the most important thing."
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