The Card Player Online Player of the Year ( OPOY ) award honors the best tournament player across the major online sites in a given calendar year. Previous winners have included greats such as Isaac “westmenloAA” Baron , Alexander “AJKHoosier1” Kamberis and Steve “gboro780” Gross . Here, we take a look at one of the current top contenders.Alex “ags104” Santiago has had a breakout year online and made headlines during the PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker ( SCOOP ) in May when he took down event no. 2, a $2,000 no-limit hold’em event, for $387,720. He followed that up with another final table appearance in event no. 8 two days later and narrowly missed another the next week.All told, Santiago has 30 OPOY -qualifying cashes on the year with 16 final table appearances and three outright wins. Though he had considerable success in 2009, this has been his most profitable year of his career having banked over $780,000.In this interview, Santiago explains how he got into poker and why stack sizes are so crucial to tournament success.Julio Rodriguez: You were a bit ahead of the poker boom right?Alex Santiago: Towards the end of high school, my buddies and I would play small $5 or $10 games. It wasn’t long before we graduated to a weekly $50 cash game. It sounds small, but that was a lot of money to a young kid. When I got to college, the poker boom was just hitting and I was already ahead of the curve. I spent a few semesters just winning some spending money on the side before I decided to take it seriously and try my luck online.JR: How did poker affect your time at the University of Maryland?AS: I switched to history from a degree in business administration just for the joy of studying history. I found myself actually enjoying the classes and doing the assigned reading. Of course, I’m not planning on doing anything with that degree as of now, but poker allowed me the freedom to study what I loved when I was in school. Who knows? Maybe someday it will come in handy, but I’m going to stick with poker for the time being.JR: What did your parents think of your career choice?AS: My dad definitely gave me a talk. At the time I had only made about $10,000 to $20,000 and he obviously had his concerns. Poker had kind of caused me to slip a little in my grades and as a result I had to stay an extra semester to get my degree. Being a lawyer, he definitely had some issues with the legal side of online poker. But you go and win SCOOP event online and a live tournament at the Borgata and they start to come around. I can say that he’s very supportive now. I guess you can say I turned my parents over to the dark side.JR: What else won your parents over?AS: I’m a pretty responsible guy. The thing I really understood from day one was bankroll management. Usually it takes players a couple reloads before the get it in their heads, but I got it right away. Some players out there may have more skill than I do, but they might not necessarily manage their money as well. As a poker player, I know how important it is to really pick your spots well and do everything you can to stay on top of your finances. In the long run, that’s more important to a professional than skill level. Remember, you don’t have to be the best, you just have to be the best at your table.JR: You had a pretty nice four-day stretch in May where you made an FTOPS final table and two SCOOP final tables, including a win in event no. 2 for $387,720. That week alone you pocketed over $500,000.AS: Someone who wrote an article at the time called it one of the best runs in online poker history. Well, you know how much I like history. The money was obviously great and it changed my life, but looking back, I also really enjoy how I was the story for that week in online poker news. I was the guy everyone was talking about, at least for a little while until the main event rolled around.JR: What did you do with the money?AS: I’m not a “thing” guy. I don’t need much to be happy. The only real purchase I’ve made with my winnings is a condo that I bought this September in Brookline, Massachusetts and even that is more of an investment. I’ll probably still be rolling around in my 2002 Toyota Camry for the next few years.JR: Speaking of investments, you’ve been known to stake a few players. How does that fit in with your ideas of bankroll management?AS: My recommendation for anyone in a position to stake other players is to stay away from the higher buy-in events. Nowadays, I look around the final tables of the bigger buy-in tournaments online and they are filled with nothing but solid pros. I’m not sure there is a lot of money to be made down that road. Then again, if you know a few solid players who are willing to grind it out at lower stakes against softer competition, then it just makes sense to make that investment. You have to make sure you are right on top of your players as well. There’s a reason why these guys need to be staked in the first place and that’s usually because they don’t have the best bankroll management. So it’s important to give them a short leash and a detailed list of assignments and expectations.JR: Any tips for our novice readers?AS: This isn’t going to be groundbreaking advice, but it’s so important to recognize the other stack sizes at the table. I think beginners do a decent to good job of recognizing what to do against the person who has limped or raised in front of them, but they tend to ignore the stack sizes of the players behind them who have yet to act.A lot of times you’ll see someone on the button three-bet a middle position raiser with junk. That’s fine, depending on the situation, but all of a sudden, a short stack in the blinds moves in and now the button is priced in to call in a spot where he’s almost assuredly way behind. If you want to be a winning player, you can’t consistently put yourself in these situations where you’re just throwing chips away. Always think about not only your stack size, but what it means to everyone else who is still holding cards.JR: Keeping with the theme of stack sizes, what do you say to beginning players who have trouble playing with a chip lead?AS: Some beginners have a hard time playing a big stack early on in a tournament. They feel the need to abuse every player at the table and try to take down every pot. There are obviously times when this is the appropriate strategy, but more often than not, there are going to be savvy players at the table who will recognize what you are doing and play back at you.Think of a big stack as just a free pass to the later stages of the tournament. Obviously, you shouldn’t be playing passively, but you don’t want to throw away chips needlessly just because you can afford it. It’s not your job to bust everyone at the table, you just need to survive. Players should be using their bigger stacks to take advantage of certain situations at the table. A passive player to your left, for instance. But the ultimate sin is getting hold of a lot of chips only to give them away a short time later in a hand you had no business being in. I don’t want to advocate letting the rest of the field catch up to you, but I don’t think it’s the worst strategy for a beginning player who has trouble playing with more than 100 big blinds.
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