The ball player-turned-TV analyst moved to Las Vegas not long ago and has been a regular at the Red Rock poker room ever since. He recently inked a small sponsorship deal with PokerStars and managed to get himself invited to the 2008 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship.
Most would have expected the story to end there, but it turns out Orel can really play. He somehow managed to beat the 2006 champion of this event, Ted Forrest, on Day 1. Then on Day 2 he took out top pros Allen Cunningham and Freddy Deeb to advance to the final eight.
PL.com chatted with the baseball legend-turned-rounder on a break today to find out his history with the game and whether he sees a future in it for himself.
Looks like you are pretty good at this poker thing Orel?
I've been an avid poker player for the past three years, but since I moved to Vegas it's gotten a lot more serious, because I get more reps. When you get more reps you get better.
Reps huh? Spoken like a true ball player...
Yes. But the best thing that happened is I befriended a few pros and they've given me a few tips to kind of experiment with and figure out what the game is all about.
As far as this heads-up is concerned I have zero reps at this so it was a crash course. Bill Edler, Gavin Smith and Mark Gregorich helped me out a lot.
How did you get hooked up with them?
I met Mark through watching a poker video he was on. I said OK, here's an ex-schoolteacher that is now a professional poker player that looks like me and has the same mannerisms as me; if anybody can teach me to play poker it's him. So when I came here to Vegas I was at the Bellagio playing and I saw him there and walked up and introduced myself.
I said you're Mark Gregorich, I'm Orel Hershiser and I sure would like to get to know you, maybe go to dinner, because I think you could really help me play this game and I think I'm going to be here for a while. We became friends and we've traveled through wine country together in Napa; we go over to their house on Sundays during football season and hang out. He's introduced me to some other pros as well and then the people over at PokerStars.net, when I signed with them, they started introducing me to people too. They really helped me out and I've been on kind of a fast track ever since.
I think it's fun for people to help out an ex-athlete and it's real fun for me to be helped out by the guys I see on TV.
You must be picking it up because you managed to take out a few of those guys you see on TV already?
I've been very lucky. These guys are like North Carolina and Duke and I'm the 64th seed. Right now I'm the Cinderella story.
You've faced the pressure of pitching in a World Series before. How do you find the pressure of playing poker under the lights on the NBC Heads-Up set compares?
I'll tell you, I was really nervous yesterday. It was my first time playing heads-up poker and it was against Ted (Forrest). Today I was really more relaxed and able to talk with Allen (Cunningham) a little. We talked baseball. I was able to actually converse and not count chips and where I am and what the cards are and what is the situation all the time. More things came natural whereas yesterday it was more mechanical. It felt like every move I made I was being analyzed by them and I needed to watch out, where as today I was kind of more myself - I was having conversations and talking to Gavin Smith when he walked by; I saw T.J. Cloutier come in and I said "Hey T.J." I was just more myself.
Sounds like you are developing some more confidence out there, especially after a couple of big wins?
No I don't think it gives you any more confidence because what I know about this game other people have taught me. It's not my own yet and I think confidence comes when you possess it yourself. I have confidence in the other games that I play in around town. I don't like to sit at a table I don't feel confident at. But these tables right here, you are forced to sit at with your opponent. It doesn't matter whether you are confident or comfortable or not.
So what do you play around town?
I play $2/$5 No-Limit and I really just play for entertainment. The money is just a way of keeping score. It's not at a level that's going to make or break my life. It's just keeping score and keeping track of whether you are a winning or losing player.
Do you plan on trying to make a name for yourself in the poker world and playing some of the big tournaments like the WPT or WSOP?
I think what you do all depends on what the poker world thinks of you, not what you think of yourself. If you are willing to keep putting up the entry fees out of your own pocket, then you can decide if you are a good player or a bad player and lose a whole lot of money in the process. I'd rather not do that. I'd rather the poker world decide if I'm worth investing in and then go from there.
The people at PokerStars.net got behind me because they heard I won a tournament at Bellagio on a freeroll. They brought in a lot of their VIPs and 20 baseball people in an 80-person tournament and I won that. Then they heard that I was playing at Red Rock and I think rumor has gotten around that I've gotten a lot better since I moved here. So with the name and living here, maybe there will be a shot at doing more things.
Sounds like you are willing to earn it though, rather than try to get by on name recognition alone.
Yes, because I think it's embarrassing to just get a free ride and then go out there and embarrass the company.
Well Orel, you certainly haven't embarrassed anybody this week, except maybe those pros who took you a little lightly. Good luck in the next round.
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Orel danced his way into Sunday's top eight with a victory over Freddy Deeb in his last match of the night and will face Andy Bloch in the elite eight. No matter what happens, his deep run here at Caesars has been impressive and there's no doubt this won't be the last time we see this baseball great on the felt.