This weekend, Tony Sinishtaj saw off the challenges of players such as final table chip leader Vanessa Kade, Alex Livingston and Tony Tran to claim the biggest score of his poker career so far, winning $1.65 million by taking down the Wynn Millions Main Event.
In the aftermath of Sinsihtaj’s stunning victory, however, he was criticized in some quarters for a winners’ photo that showed no emotion, featuring him holding the trophy and staring at the camera without the obligatory posed grin.
The poker presenter Lara Ni Si, who presented some of PokerNews’ coverage of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in 2021, posted the image on her Instagram page accompanied by the comment: “Why poker is now totally non-marketable can be summed up in one picture of a player who just won 1.6 MILLION dollars.”
Did Ni Si have a point or was her comment way out of line? Poker Twitter, perhaps predictably, blew up.
Takes like these tilt me so much. The man just played 6 days of the best poker of his life and you’re gonna criticize him over how he looks in his winners photo. When I won my WPT I cried my eyes out for finally accomplishing one of my biggest dreams. Everyone reacts differently
— Mikey D (@3kingme3)
The Winner Weighs In
“That hand got me two-thirds of the chips in play; I thought I was going to steamroller them.”
When we spoke to Tony Sinishtaj, he was back in his nativeafter arriving home from his lengthy 10-day stint in Las Vegas. He looks back on the final table with pride on the effort he put into what was a tough final table from the first card.
“I started the final in a terrible seat compared to other big stacks,” he says. “I was healthy with 75 blinds, but the people to my left had more and I was handcuffed. I was playing pretty tight.”
Despite that initial situation, a hand where Sinishtaj turned a full house with jacks over queens against chip leader Vanessa Kade, he showed his rail the hand. He thinks that hand contributed to Kade eventually losing her stack to him.
“To the table, I can look like a maniac. On the six-five hand, I flopped the flush draw and turned a flush with the queen of spades. I led out pretty big and she had two red aces. The river pairs the queen and I have about a pot-sized bet behind and put her all-in. I guess she felt like I was getting out of line before that pot and I really wasn’t.”
Kade called and busted and the hand gave Sinishtaj 30 million of the 43 million in play.
“As the overwhelming chip leader it’s negative pressure to go from chip led to not having it and you can feel like ‘this guy is taking advantage’. I could understand her position and call; it’s a tough spot, especially since she had no idea what I had the previous hand. That hand got me two-thirds of the chips in play; I thought I was going to steamroller them. I went from 30 back down to 8 million. We played three-handed for a long time.”
At the end of that epic denouement, Sinishtaj had got the better of Alex Livingston and then Isaac Kempton after initially starting the heads-up behind. As he explains, it was an epic period of 10 days for him, and it was finally over.
“I played the satellite to get in, I got in. I played 1a on the satellite, I lost. I played 1b, I lost. I played 1c, I made it. There was a day off on 2a, but I literally played 10 days, with 13-hour days here and there. The last thing I want to do is take a picture.”
Sinishtaj admits that the photo was not a one-off and that he has had a hard time posing for pictures ‘my whole life, let alone after 10 days of poker’.
“My wife always gives me a hard time about pictures,” he says. “I don’t take good pictures, sorry, I just don’t! The person taking the picture was like ‘Smile!’ and I’m sure there are pictures of me smiling, but they picked that one. I read the Twitter stuff, my buddies sent it to me. I deleted Twitter months ago and it’s because of threads like that. Even reading other stuff about other people, I got tired of it and I’m glad I didn’t have it through this whole thing. People want to figure out what my mental state was like at the time and if I was unhappy. It was one of the happiest moments of my life! It doesn’t have to show in my face.”
From Goofballs to Gold
“There was a big incentive in the past to be a goofball.”
As Sinishtaj remarks, the life of a modern poker player is all about keeping emotion out of the game. That’s a direct flip from the past in his eyes.
“There was a big incentive in the past to be a goofball,” he says. “You got an endorsement deal, you got Full Tilt Poker orto throw you half a million dollars just to wear a patch. There were people playing the World Series in 2004 and 2005 who were making animal noises when they won a pot. You don’t see that anymore. They wanted attention, and they made more doing that than playing the tournament. I wouldn’t have done it back then, let alone now when there’s nothing on the line.”
When the tournament ended, Sinishtaj says he just wanted to ‘Get outta Vegas’. He hadn’t seen his young family in 10 days and had missed his child’s birthday on the day of the final table.
“I have a three-month-old baby,” he says. “My wife is there with the kids alone; obviously she wants me home and I want to get outta there. My job was done. Sometimes, your partner is like ‘It’s over for you now, get home, it’s time to come back’. When I’m at home, I’m a dad first. When I go away, I try to get into that poker mindset. You can’t be a dad and poker player at the same time; you can try, but you’ll do both poorly. We were in the process of buying a house, but this clearly makes it much easier. This is going to change my life for the better. If I could set the family up with a nice place to live and school, then I’m doing my part.”
Sinishtaj’s family inspiration is not exclusive to the generation of three young children he is raising with his wife. Just before his first major win on the World Poker Tour in 2017, Sinishtaj lost his father a few months after becoming a father for the first time himself.
“He was my biggest fan in poker,” Sinishtaj says. “Until then, I really hadn’t won anything. I’d had a second-place to Joe McKeehen and a Circuit Main Event result for $100,000 that was my biggest score, but nothing crazy. He was always there rooting me on. I don’t remember exactly when it started but playing this tournament, I really felt his presence like I’d never felt it before at the table.”
Deep into the Wynn Millions Main Event on Day 3, Sinishtaj could hear his father’s voice. It kept him grounded and inspired him to believe he was destined to win, it was a lot to deal with whilst trying to negotiate a tough field.
“It was a little overwhelming to deal with while playing, but I really felt like I was going to win. When I was all in with jacks six-handed against ace-king, an ace comes then a jack. I’m all in against Livingston four-handed with king-jack on jack-three-deuce and he has jack-three; the board runs out eight-eight. The third hand of heads-up, I get aces, the kid gets jacks. The whole tournament felt that way. It’s a surreal experience to run so well in one of the biggest tournaments you’ve played.”
Sinishtaj tells us ‘I truly played my best’. The day before the final, he confided in a friend that if there was one thing he wanted to make sure of it was that he wasn’t going to ‘let poor play ruin my chances’. Determined to bring his A-game, Sinishtaj felt like his Dad was out there under the lights with him when he achieved his lifelong dream.
‘And then they wanna take pictures, y’know!’ he laughs.
Do Poker Players Have a Responsibility to Entertain?
“I was right there with the Moneymaker Boom.”
One player might occasionally say or do something that initiates a spike in growth or popularity of poker. Buthas to co-habit with looking for new heroes that come from the modern age. Poker is so much bigger than it has ever been and that juxtaposition of welcoming the new while treasuring days gone by exists within the grasp of the media as well as with players and fans.
Daniel Negreanu has joined the discussion on Twitter, saying: “Lara Ni Si correctly points to a troubling trend. The no celebration, no emotion, too cool for school culture is tough to sell. That’s just an indisputable fact.” Sinishtaj agrees but says it’s not his responsibility to sell the game.
“Is it better if a recreational player who looks and acts like he’s a recreational player wins? Probably,” agrees Sinishtaj. “It might want to make someone think ‘If that guy can do it, so can I.’ Maybe they look at me and don’t see that, but that’s not my job.”
Ironically, Sinishtaj was exactly that guy more than two decades ago.
“I was right there with the Moneymaker Boom”, he says. “When he won, I fell in love with the game. In 2003, I was 22 years old. Maybe you needed a Moneymaker to win to get me interested in the game. It really became my dream. I get it and understand where Negreanu is coming from, but I’m sorry that’s not me. I can’t change my personality because it might generate more buy-ins to poker. I’m not gonna be somebody I’m not. I wouldn’t know how to.”
Sinishtaj correctly points out that while the Wynn Millions is one of the biggest tournaments around, the event is not televised and there are no hole cards on display to fans.
“I know it’s expensive for productions teams, but if you really want to market the game, we could have played the final table at the PokerGO Studio. That’s how you market the game, the game isn’t marketed by the winner’s photo. People want to watch it and see my cards.
Could one player really market the game now as Moneymaker once did? Sinishtaj laughs.
“It’s definitely not going to be me! The game is not what it used to be, a lot of work needs to be put in. I’m always trying to get better because everyone else is getting better. I don’t play the small field big buy-in high rollers. To play this and win is almost unreal and there wasn’t even a chop made. I would have been happy to make one. When we got four-handed, [Kempton] politely said ‘I don’t chop’, and there was never any talk about it at all. Your opponent has to be someone like that to outright win one of these.”
Sinsihtaj agrees that of the many photos taken of him during the game, the ones where he’s actually playing poker look more like the real him, saying ‘I always look better in those pictures’.
Perhaps the traditional winner’s photo is a thing of the past. Tony Sinishtaj deserves his moment in the spotlight as much as the next player, whether he is smiling or not.