Almost completely unknown before the 2016 WSOP Main Event began, Vancouver's Michael Niwinski gained the respect of fans, ESPN and his opponents as the tournament played out.
It was hard not to root for the self-admitted 'nerd' who was playing the event for the first time and seemed to thrive in the pressure-filled environment.
Niwinski took everything in stride and had a strikingly optimistic outlook, even when he was eliminated.
Niwinski: "Will Had Me Emotionally Tilted"
While Niwinski didn’t make the final table we caught up with the Vancouverite to get his thoughts on the upcoming November Nine, the Main Event in general, and of course the man-of-the-hour William Kassouf.
PokerListings: What have you been up to since the Main Event? Have you been playing much poker? You’re back in Vancouver, Canada?
Michael Niwinski: Yeah I'm back in Vancouver. Haven't been playing as much poker as I'd like.
The WSOP score has kinda thrown my life upside down in the sense that when I was on the online grind before this WSOP I felt the motivation to keep on the grind so I could continue the lifestyle I had.
You have to be making a certain amount of money to pay the bills. Not that I wasn’t doing well prior but with the WSOP score that pressure is kinda gone.
I’m not as worried about putting in a certain amount of hours. It’s something that I’m working on. I’m struggling with it.
Other than that everything’s been great. Having my family watch the WSOP has been awesome, hearing the feedback from everyone has mostly been kind words.
There has been some hate thrown around — mostly from not shaking Will’s hand at the end there. I’m trying to get back into the online grind.
PL: What’s it been like watching yourself on the ESPN broadcast and how are you feeling about the experience in general that it’s now a few months ago.
MN: That’s difficult to put into short words. Seeing myself on the program I’ve seen since I’ve been interested in poker has just been amazing. Especially being one of the prominent characters that was featured.
Michael Niwinski's final hand at the 2016 WSOP
I honestly didn’t expect to get nearly as much time as I did. ESPN was very, very generous to me as well as Norm, Lon and everyone else on the crew.
Looking back at it I do get a bit paranoid about how I come off on camera sometimes. I don’t think there are too many people that look at themselves on camera and are like, “Yeah that’s exactly how I expected myself to sound or act.”
I know that I was nervous on some of the days and some of stuff that I hear myself say I’m like, “Ugh, that sounds terrible” but other people tell me it’s alright.
I’m really glad they just focused on the moments where I was just having fun not the moments where I was in grind mode.
PL: After having watched the broadcast, do you have any regrets? How about your final hand with A-J into Gordon Vayo’s A-K?
MN: The ace-jack into ace-king … that one was so close that I’m not really going to have any regrets about that hand or any of the hands I played on Day 7.
The hands where I did make mistakes didn’t really make the broadcast. There was one I played against Tom Marchese on Day 6.
Long story short: He put in a large river bet for five million (the pot was six million) and he put me in an extremely tough spot. I thought that was going to make TV but I’ll never know what he had.
I assume he had it because they were always showing the bluffs. Barring that, no, I don’t have that many regrets. I had a ton of lucky spots.
PL: How would you explain the experience of going deep in the Main Event to someone that doesn’t play poker?
MN: Oh man, you can’t even describe the feeling. You’re just on a huge rush.
When I accumulated the chip lead on Day 5 and had the media inform me I was thinking, 'It’s Day 5 of the Main Event, there are 200 people left and I have the chip lead. Holy crap.'
I kept cycling through it in my head. Everyone wants to be in that position. But when you sit down at the table you have to tell yourself, 'OK, we have this stack. Let’s make use of it.'
There’s no point in savouring the moment if you’re not actually going to take advantage of the opportunity.
PL: Your parents made it down to the Main Event. What was it like getting that support?
Michael Niwinski's sister and father.
MN: It was my dad and my sister that flew down. My mom had to work while my brothers were underage otherwise they would have been there as well.
My dad and sister are two people who, if they had to pick a vacation spot, would pick some remote spot in Alaska and avoid people altogether.
They don’t like being around huge crowds. They don’t like the gambling aspect. They don’t like big city stuff. Vegas is the polar opposite of where they ever wanted to go.
The only reason I even extended the invitation is because I went deep in a pre-lim my dad said that had I made the final table that he would consider flying down.
When I got to the end of Day 6 I was like, 'I have to invite him out because there’s no way he’s not going ballistic at home reading the updates online.'
My sister randomly got on board, which I didn’t expect, but I was super happy she did. They actually enjoyed themselves, probably because of all the shenanigans with Will [Kassouf].
PL: How did you get started playing poker?
MN: Poker started at a very young age for me. It was probably around the Moneymaker era and I would have been 13 at that time.
Michael Niwinski started playing poker at a very young age.
I would watch every single program that I could. It was just fascinating to me that people could make that much money playing a card game. I’d grown up playing card games my entire life. Games like Hearts and Crazy 8s. All the basic stuff.
I started playing play money poker games with my family and once I turned 18 I put some money online and started building my bankroll from there.
Was fortunate enough to get a lot of connections online and got into a private forum where I got tons of advice when I was starting out. I quickly shot up from the micro-stakes to small stakes.
When I had to make the decision to pursue my degree or full-time poker I managed to make it into mid-stakes so I decided to take a shot. My results have grown ever since. At this point I see no point in stopping.
PL: It seemed that nearly every person in the tournament was really impressed with your play. Was that validating for you?
MN: Part of me has to keep my ego in check, I won’t lie [laughs]. But it’s very gratifying knowing that the work I put in over the last six or seven years has paid off.
Being in the online realm is tough. You really have to stay on top of a lot of theoretical play that a lot of the live players haven’t stayed in touch with.
It’s a good feeling knowing a lot of stuff that other players don’t.
Getting the comments from Griffin, Gordon and Cliff … those comments meant more than anything to me when it comes to evaluating my game.
PL: What are your thoughts on Will Kassouf and what was your experience in playing with him?
The most controversial player of the 2016 WSOP
MN: So there’s two things that I’ll address separately but at the same time are hard to separate.
Early on in the coverage it was mostly being focused on as talk. That was the first thing I noticed as well and honestly I didn’t have a problem with it. Even early on Day 7 I thought it was amusing.
I liked the guy. I thought it was really cool that you saw someone taking the opposite approach of everyone else in the tournament.
Everyone is usually trying to shell up and cover all their tells. This guy is laying it all out there. I thought it was really refreshing.
The problem is that when everyone said he was taking really long in hands that wasn’t an exaggeration to say the least.
In Level 2, one of the outer tables got 40 hands. Our table got 26. And that was mostly just from Will taking way longer hands.
There was a two-minute rule that one of the tournament directors was citing but I’m sorry when it’s your turn to face a bet you should not be taking two minutes to put out a bet. That should just not be the standard rule.
Stalling or strategy?
The fact he was taking this long on every single trivial decision, in my opinion, was showing incredible disrespect to everyone else at the table.
It’s Day 7 of the Main Event; everyone wants to see more hands in order to realize their edge.
It’s possible that Will thought he was one of the weaker players and therefore wanted to stall but I doubt that was his strategy because in my personal opinion I think he has a bit too big of any ego to take that angle.
The time that he was soaking up the entire day was what I had major issues with.
When he was talking you’d usually assume he wasn’t really thinking about his decision. It created a snowball effect where whenever he talked we thought he was wasting time.
PL: Do you think the tournament staff handled it correctly?
MN: At the time I thought the tournament staff was reasonable but when I saw the footage and really listened to what Jack and the other tournament directors were saying to Will I think they really handled the situation poorly. They were citing rules that were very wishy-washy.
Jack Effel giving Will Kassouf a penalty.
I honestly think that when Will was defending himself he was more in the right than the tournament directors were.
For example when they were telling him one player to a hand and that he wasn’t allowed to talk to other players. He was not breaking any single rule.
The only thing the TDs could have cited is disruption of play, which was never used.
I think the reason they were thrown off is they’d never really seen someone like Will before so they really didn’t know what rules to cite in order to correct what he was doing.
Giving him a one-round penalty on Day 5 I think was a bit of a stretch. I do think that telling him that he couldn’t say another word or he would get a two-round penalty was definitely out of line.
I think that Jack going over to talk to Will while another player was all-in, causing time to go off the clock, was very out of line.
I think the conversation should have taken place after the hand or during the break. I think they could have handled it a lot better.
PL: It seemed like they misunderstood the situation…
MN: It’s hard to fully grasp the situation without being at the table the entire time. Jack has to monitor all the tables at once.
I can’t really comment on the rest of the tournament directors. They are far from the only people that are not going to understand the situation because I knew that when it was going on that it would be so hard to explain to anyone unless you were actually there.
While nothing Will said was malicious, it was clear that his intent was malicious. In my personal opinion.
He was claiming his speech was friendly. Just to have a chat but it was very clear to me his chat was intended to either stall or tilt people.
PL: What are your thoughts on the eventual showdown between Kassouf and Griffin Benger? It got pretty heated.
MN: Griffin was way louder than what the mics picked up in person. You could hear him from a hundred feet away.
It was actually downplayed on TV if anything. I remember at the time that I fully agreed with Griffin but that was mostly because Will had me emotionally tilted.
Will Kassouf's explosive demise.
Not to the point where it was affecting my play but to the point where I definitely hated this guy and wanted him gone.
Looking back I don’t agree that Will is abusive. I don’t know the proper word to use for someone who uses speech play with an intention to tilt people. It’s definitely not good.
I do think he was being incredibly disrespectful to the table and I think that’s what Griffin was trying to say.
I do think he got under Griffin’s skin. He got under mine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Griffin said some things he didn’t mean.
I’m so torn on it. I really don’t know. I do think that Will got a lot of unnecessary abuse. Like when Cliff was calling him a clown.
I think Matt Moss was saying he had the IQ of a parrot. I thought all that stuff was out of line. I do think that some of the comments that Griffin made were probably out of line.
It’s hard for me to blame him. It’s hard for me to be unbiased because I consider Griffin a friend of mine. Same with Cliff and Gordon.
I guess if I’m being really objective I do think that some of the comments Griffin made were out of line.
PL: You didn’t shake Will Kassouf’s hand. Was that intentional?
MN: People have been asking about that. Yes, it was intentional.
If I was to replay that moment again I would probably take it back. Not because I don’t have my problems with Will but I’d much rather be the kinda guy that shrugs it off and takes the high road.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, as cheesy as that sounds. I should have just shaken his hand and still been happy he was out. I could have shown respect to him as a person.
PL: Do you think there will be more Will Kassoufs at the WSOP in the near future?
MN: Only time will tell. Honestly if more people try to incorporate more “Speech Play” I think that’s a good thing as long as the stalling stuff is not there.
It actually encouraged me to talk more at the table. I do enjoy table talk but there’s a lot of me that’s paranoid about giving stuff away but from the experience of playing the WSOP I’ve kinda noticed that not too many people really pick up on it.
Michael Niwinski said Will Kassouf inspired him to talk more at the table.
I think it makes it more enjoyable when you’re talking as much as you can while being respectful.
I just hope that people don’t also try and take as much as they possibly can during hands.
I have absolutely no idea if it will catch on. It all depends on how the fans picked up on it.
I definitely noticed poker pros are definitely a lot more skewed to the negative side of Will than the regular poker fans.
The viewers were more fans of Will.
PL: The fans didn't have to play against Will for 12+ hours a day...
MN: I would love to see how fans would react after playing constantly with this guy.
That said, I was surprised that the other first-timer Andrew Christoforou was very friendly with Will because I always thought that no amateur would enjoy playing with this guy.
I thought they would just see his banter as annoying. The way Andrew was interacting with Will that was clearly not the case. It was clear they were very good friends afterwards.
I was wrong on that front. There is a portion of the poker market that does appreciate what Will was doing, even if they do play with him
I don’t understand it but it’s the same way I don’t understand how the Kim Kardashian show is a thing. But I don’t have to. It can just be something that exists and I don’t get involved with it.
PL: Are you going to watch the November Nine? Will it be tough to watch considering you almost made it?
Mike Niwinski is going to the N9 as a spectator.
MN: Not tough at all! I’m flying down there on Saturday. Gordon is gonna get me a ticket in. If he makes Day 2 he’ll get me a stage pass too.
What wasn’t shown on camera was that when it got down to the final 10, and Josh Weiss was down to like three big blinds, and it was clear the N9 was very close I actually went back down to the table because I wanted to see Griffin and Gordon make the November Nine.
I didn’t feel bitter at all. I just wanted to share that moment with them.
Now I have someone to cheer for at the final table. I would not miss this.
PL: What’s next for you?
MN: I’m going to try and focus online but there’s a Deepstack/WPT in Calgary that has a $1m guarantee that I do want to play.
Any major tournament that’s being played in Canada I’ll probably check out due to tax implications and so few run that I’ll just play them. I think that I’m +EV but mainly I’ll go for the experience.
Other than that I’ll continue to grind and figure out what comes next.