The son of Canadian actress Nicky Guadagni, Benger got his first taste of international travel and high-level competition in professional gaming as a top-ranked Counter-Strike player under the alias "shaGuar."
But despite being one of the most dominant players in that corner of the gaming world, his earnings don’t even come close to the $2.83 million he’s made playing online MTTs.
A rabid fan of sports, movies, television, and of course poker, Benger is in Monte Carlo at the EPT Grand Final chasing his dream of winning a major live poker tournament.
PokerListings.com: We know you’ve got a background in gaming, and a ton of online poker results, but tell us a bit more about where you’re from and what your poker career’s all about.
Griffin Benger: Sure. I turned 27 today and I’m from Toronto. I used to be a professional gamer. I played Counter-Strike for a living, so I transitioned into poker because it has a lot of the same skills, mostly being able to sit in front of a computer for long periods of time.
But it’s a pretty natural transition and a lot of people were doing it. Once I got into poker I became really obsessed with it. It’s really one of those games where there’s always room to get better, and that was one of the problems with Counter-Strike, I got to a point where I couldn’t really get much better.
I started playing the low buy-in Sit and Gos on Full Tilt in about 2006 and it was a while before I started playing MTTs. But the first MTT I played was one of the $24+$2 massive field ones on Full Tilt and somehow luckboxed my way to fourth place which boosted my roll a bit.
But I didn’t really get into MTTs until I met Shyam Srinivasan, who is “s_dot111” on Full Tilt Poker and “g’s zee” on PokerStars, and he sort of took me under his wing and I started to blow up a bit.
PL: What was the development of your poker career like? Did you know right off the bat you were going to be able to do this for a living?
GB: It was definitely a gradual thing that developed as an idea as I started to get better.
I started getting into the poker during the tail-end of my Counter-Strike career and started making a bit of money on the side playing on Full Tilt.
After I stopped gaming I was supporting myself playing Sit and Gos, but I sort of hit a wall before meeting some of the better MTT players in Toronto and I was exposed to some strategy and the different ways you can play MTTs. That’s when I started being successful.
PL: Did it blow you away when you were exposed to what the best players were doing in tournaments?
GB: Yeah it definitely did. In Sit and Gos it was possible to be profitable just being a nit so I didn’t know much. I didn’t even know what a light three-bet was. So when I was shown things like light three-betting, ICM and bubble play it was really eye-opening.
I remember when I started if I opened A-Q and got three-bet you’d just be folding, but now sometimes you’re five-bet calling off with A-J for value. It’s just amazing how the game changes and how it’s getting more aggressive.
So it’s a game that’s always evolving and you have to adapt to stay successful.
I think one of the big problems people have is that they see the best players doing all this crazy stuff and they just don’t understand it, so they think it’s just hyper aggressive players getting lucky, but really there’s no perfect way to play a hand.
So a lot of people think you have to stick to some sort of system but really you need to think outside of the box.
You have to have an open mind because there’s always something you can learn from someone who’s playing well. Like, even if I’m better than someone at a lot of things, it doesn’t mean they’re not better than me at something.
PL: What’s it like coming from the Counter-Strike world into poker? There’s got to be a lot more money up for grabs in poker.
GB: In Counter-Strike first place for a tournament was usually between $20k and $50k for a team of five so it’s a lot different.
In poker you don’t have to be the best of the best to make money, whereas in Counter-Strike to win the money you had to beat all the best players in the world and be number one. And there was always someone training harder than you so it was very difficult.
In poker you can be a bit lazier and still make money but it’s the same because if you want to be the best, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to be, you have to put in the work.
PL: Were you the best in the Counter-Strike world?
GB: At one point or another I was probably considered one of the best players in the game, and I was definitely on the best team in the game.
Over the course of the five or six years I was playing professionally I was probably on the number one team half a dozen times so I was certainly one of the biggest players in the game.
PL: Coming from that world, what was it like when you sit down and win something like $110,000 from your home computer?
GB: Oh man it’s just huge. Winning that $110k, and then the $95k or whatever in the COOP was just an incredible feeling.
Ironically, I finished second and third in those tournaments, and there’s nothing like actually winning a tournament.
I think one of my favorite feelings in poker was just a few months ago when I won the BetFair 100 1R1A major for like $27k, which is like a quarter of either of those scores but I actually won. That’s just my competitive side. I’m not happy until I have every chip.
So I can’t even imagine what winning a tournament like this would feel like.
Really just winning any live poker tournament would be amazing. To have all the chips at the end and to take that picture is definitely a dream of mine.
PL: What are your passions and dreams outside of poker?
GB: I’m hugely into television and film. Actually my girlfriend and I might travel to Cannes to see The Avengers because it comes out a week earlier here and apparently there’s an English language theater there.
I went to school for sports broadcasting so that’s what I was doing before I met my backer.
I’m a huge hockey fan obviously, coming from Toronto, and a huge Blue Jays fan so basically sports, movies and television is where it’s at for me.