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Beware the Squid: A Chat With Rising UK Star Sam Grafton

The UK produces some of the greatest poker players in the world, but it also produces unity. There is something about the conveyor belt that makes the quality stick. These guys travel together, they share learning experiences together and they party together. They are the toughest of opponents and the very best of friends.

Sam ‘SamSquid’ Grafton is one of those lads. The man is an online and live-game grinder who has found some rather large pockets of success during 2012 -- his best year to date. The Squid has won majors, both online and live, with a SCOOP and GUKPT Main Event title finding their way into his suckers. The rest of the poker world had better watch out, because he has another six hands available and he wants them holding trophies sooner rather than later.

Who is Sam "The Squid" Grafton?

LD: Who are you, Sammy Grafton?

SG: I live alone in East London, although I will be moving in with my girlfriend in February or March.

I’ve been playing professionally for 3 ½ years, although at first it doesn’t feel like you are doing it professionally.

I would class myself as a professional MTT player, although I do play cash games as well. But MTTs are essentially my bread and butter.

LD: How did poker lure you into her fold?

SG: I finished my Masters and there wasn’t much going on. My brothers were going to a poker game at a snooker hall and so I went along and enjoyed it right away.

I need intellectual stimulation, and after I finished my Masters this was somewhat lacking in my life. Then along came poker and it was the perfect foil.

Sam Grafton
Poker the perfect foil after his Masters.

After the games, walking home with my brothers, we would discuss the hands from an intellectual standpoint. Essentially, these days I am doing pretty much what I did then, but on a much higher level.

The games in the snooker hall were good and I started making some money. I then moved to London and became a teaching assistant.

I would do pretty much anything for money back then. During the summer I would be chugging (stopping people and asking them to sign up for charities). I worked on the door in my aunt’s club and done my own things to earn extra money.

I kept playing the odd game though and I would win here and there. When you cash for something like £500 you would feel like, “Oh my God this is so much money!” I started earning a bit from poker - through cash games - and took an internship with a small Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) called The World Development Movement, as I have always been interested in politics and environmental issues.

Then during the credit crunch they told me they were laying off staff. My week was cut down to three days, so I thought that maybe I could earn enough money through the other four days playing poker to pay my rent.

That’s when it took off really - right above my expectation. I started to earn quite a bit of money from cash games and tournaments and soon I wasn’t thinking of the NGO. I was going in and doing whatever in the day and couldn’t wait to be in the casinos in the evenings.

One of the first times I ever played online I won a tournament straight away and it picked up pace from there.

LD: What stakes do you play?

SG: I used to describe myself as a mid-stakes player, but these days I play high-stakes as well. So I guess I flit in between the two.

Before I was backed I used to have to manage my own roll and found a lot of value in the mid- to low-stakes tournaments. Your variance is also a lot lower in mid- to low-stakes tournaments, so I still grind stuff that the other big guns don’t.

I am also really happy grinding satellite tournaments. There are so many players who just cannot adjust to the strategy needed to win seats and so I find a lot of value in them.

I also find more value by playing a range of tournaments and grinding some weeknights when the fields are smaller. If you can get results in the week, then you are essentially freerolling Sundays.

Jake Cody
The right peer group can do wonders.

If you only play a Super Tuesday and then the big ones on a Sunday - although some guys are incredibly good at poker - they are going to win less and their variance is going to be that much higher.

It’s so easy to get deep into make up if you are not smart about spreading out your variance. I think it’s a really important principle.

LD: Surely playing 15-20 tables is sub-optimal?

SG: Intuitively, you want to be playing your best because everyone cares about their ‘A’ game, so in a way I would love to be concentrating on three tables of six-max against other good regs who I know and admire.

But it’s a balancing act to find where your hourly rate is best. If I played 50 tables I would be playing so badly on all of them that my ROI would drop to a point where it is not profitable.

But say I am playing 16 tables as opposed to four, my ROI has to be quartered as I am playing four times as many tables. You have to think about your hourly rate and how much your hourly rate increases by playing more tables.

It’s not something you should be jumping into. I am not advising that people should just sit down and fire up 20 tournaments. I did it very, very gradually.

I used to sit in The International with my laptop in front of me and I would play three tables and one day I thought “I’m just going to add in a Turbo as it won’t require much concentration.” Then I went from four to six, then to eight and then to 12 and so forth.

I also try and balance the type of tournaments I am playing. So, for example, playing 18 well-structured six-max tournaments is not optimal because there are a lot of complex decisions in well-structured, deep-stacked, reg-heavy six-max tournaments.

But the extra decisions I have to make by adding in three $50 Turbos is not that much because the majority of time I am going to have 8-20 big blinds and I know exactly what to do in every single spot.

Very rarely are decisions going to take more than a few seconds.

LD: You talk about the 8-10 big blind game being automatic. Was there a time when you used to sit in front of the screen with an excel spreadsheet in front of you?

SG: Jono Crute is a very good Turbo player and he gave me an excellent piece of advice once. He said, as an experiment, for one day, have the M number shown on your HUD and use the push/fold chart.

It’s not like you have to use the push/fold chart forever, but by using it there will be certain spots coming up and you will think, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of shoving that many,” or in my case, “I thought this was a shove under the gun but the chart says no.”

Grafton and his GUKPT title.

See what it does to your game. By just for doing that for a couple of days you learn so much about what the math says you should be doing.

Then if your table is on the tight side, be looser than the chart, and if your table is full of laggy guys who don’t care about their tournament very much because it is only a cheap buy in, play tighter.

But it is interesting to see what the chart does say and how you can adapt it situationally.

LD: Is there a danger that the chart and playing more tables makes you a lazy poker player? Do you stop thinking?

SG: There is increasing discussion about the number of tables we should be playing.  As edges get smaller the amount of money to be made when you are on autopilot is obviously less.

I guess a few years ago people could autopilot even full ring non-Turbos and make a really good living. Now, everyone is thinking of how they can increase their edge and lower their variance as the game has increasingly gotten more competitive.

So there definitely is discussion about it. Pre-ante in the Sunday Million I play very straight forwardly.

I’m not doing anything incredibly complex. I’m just calling with a pair and trying to flop a set and take it from there, and I think by the time I am deep … so last night I got 34th in the FTOP six-max so this is one of the two FTOPS of the day, so part from the Sunday Million this is the second biggest tournament I am playing for the day in terms of prestige, etc. 

So when I get to 100 left in that tournament I have already busted from the Warm Up, the Party major and this is quite late in the night so now I am deep I won’t be firing up any more tournaments to try and make sure I got 20.

I got nine tables at that point and the main table is at the bottom and center stage. You need to be aware of the exact game flow; you want to get a sense of who is playing well and doing some research on the remaining players.

By this time I am super focused on this table and I’m not going to be looking to add any random $27 Turbos onto my screen just to increase my hourly.

Dan Kelly
The days when Dan Kelly would give away strategy are gone.

LD: Does your strategy for the numbers of tables you play change each week?

SG: It changes each day - not just each week - and it depends on a variety of different factors.

How much I am enjoying myself, what I am doing the next day, whether I am seeing someone and have to wake up on time and of course my appetite for the game. Am I really enjoying it? Am I really hungry to play?

If I’m deep in a couple of competitions I’ll carry on firing them up. If the session is fizzling out and I don’t seem to be getting anywhere I just concentrate on two or three tables, put on a YouTube video of a lecture, or a talk, just to keep myself occupied while I finish off.

It also depends on my body clock. A lot of the time I just can’t sleep. I am regularly meeting up with Craig McCorkell in a late-night restaurant, for example. When you win a tournament at midnight - even for a small amount of money - you can’t just go to bed.

You’re excited and have a sense of achievement.

LD: You talk a lot of high-stakes poker strategy with a pretty elite group of players. Do you lose an edge to these players by sharing your strategies?

SG: Poker is changing. The days when Dan Kelly would go onto 2+2 and openly discuss his work on push/fold strategies - which completely revolutionized the game - are well gone.

I talk to a core of around 20 players and I guess you do give away a lot of information, but I get so much more back in return.

Poker is a very small community and outside of it hardly anybody understands what we are doing, and how life is as a poker player, so you get quite close. I don’t worry about Brammer having an edge on me, for example, and it does make for really interesting hands.

There were times during my GUKPT win when I looked around the table and saw Jon Spinks, Jake Cody and John Eames all playing with me. I have spoken strategies with all three of those, especially Spinks and Jake.

Sure, it makes it more difficult as there is a certain amount of leveling going on, but those situations are rare.

Poker players are quite generous people. It seems to be in their nature. I am also a great believer that when you’re riding high you ought to be nice to people because you never know how things may change.

That guy whom you are friendly with - and nice to - he might be the best player in the world in a few years from now. Things come up, overnight, and suddenly you want that person to buy percentages, and swap information, and that creates incredible opportunities.

An activist at heart. (Photo: Neil Stoddart, PokerStars Blog)

LD: I believe you are heavily into politics?

SG: I think my political sensibility has a lot to do with my parents’ background – they were both teachers. Also, the comprehensive I went to and seeing how things worked out for various people of differing backgrounds and differing classes.

Then I was at University at quite a political time with the Bush presidency. I remember being politically active on campus trying to get Nestle banned from the University and such like.

Then I was travelling in Cuba when Sept. 11 happened, came back and it was the Afghan War and then the Iraq war. I campaigned a lot about the Iraq war and I was arrested a few times.

I broke into an American Airbase in Gloucestershire and was on bail for nine months. I was charged with criminal damage and aggravated trespass. I pleaded not guilty on the grounds I was upholding international law.

I hired a good legal team and the trial eventually ran to a month. When you are taking direct action, and to some extent breaking the law of your country, or possibly going to be accused of breaking the laws of your country, you obviously have to back it up with good strong political research.

Certainly a political justification for the actions you are going to take, so at that time I read a great deal about the politics in the Middle East, the politics of American involvement in the Middle East then got into the relationship between Britain and America, etc., etc.

One thing leads to another, which led me to spending time in Palestine doing anti-arms trade work and that was a massive part of my life for a long period and hopefully something I can return to in the future.

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