Damian Salas is known for being the 2020 WSOP Main Event champion, but he is much more than that. If there was a Poker Hall of Fame for Argentina it would be the first inductee and if there were a Poker Hall of Fame for Latin America he would likely be one of the first elected. In particular, Damian Salas is considered a legend in online poker, where he is among the top 30 winningest players with profits of $14.2 million as of this publication.
We caught up with Damian to talk about his successful career, his final table in the 2017 WSOP Main Event, his triumph in the 2020 hybrid WSOP Main Event and what motivates him to continue playing today after 17 years.
Salas’ Journey: From law to poker
Damian lives in the city of Chascomus, located 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) from Buenos Aires. He was a lawyer when he watched Chris Moneymaker win the 2003 Main Event on ESPN. He became interested in the game and in 2006 he started playing poker online. When asked what he liked most about the game at the beginning, he replied: “There were several components of the game that seduced me almost immediately. Its dynamism, its versatility and the drama in the sudden changes in dynamics. But what I liked the most is that it seemed like a game that had a great capacity to influence the results through the enormous versatility of its processes”.
At what moment did Salas decide to change from law to poker to dedicate himself to the game 100%? “When I started playing online in 2006, law was my profession and poker was my hobby, but over time that was reversed as I dedicated more and more hours to poker. Having my profession gave me peace of mind when playing and leveling up. After two years of playing online, my income from poker was greater and it became unsustainable to do both, so law became a hobby and poker became my job”.
Salas’ First live results
In 2009 Damien Salas began playing the live circuit and his first result was a third place in a Main Event on the Latin American Poker Tour in Chile. What does he remember from that tournament? “The first thing I remember about that tournament is that when we were down to three players, Fabian Ortiz was left with less than half a blind, but he doubled up several times later and ended up becoming champion. It shows the dynamism that tournaments have and how everything can change, he left me a great lesson. It was bittersweet since I was chip leader for much of the final table, but it was an enriching experience in all aspects”.
During that year Salas traveled to Las Vegas for the first time and notched two cashes at the WSOP and a first place in a $1K tournament at the Bellagio. This is how he remembers that trip: “I was lucky enough to visit many places in the world, but I think Las Vegas is unique and even more so for poker players, since there is the largest offer of tournaments in the world. On my first trip, I was going to return every year to the World Series of Poker and that’s what I did, except for two or three editions that I couldn’t attend due to the birth of my children. I’m a primarily online player, but the WSOP is a must-see on my calendar”.
The 2017 WSOP Main Event
Damian made history with the 2017 edition of the WSOP Main Event, as he became the first player from Argentina to make the final table in the tournament. How did he live the experience? “It was something beautiful and left me with memories that I will always have in my heart. My relatives had to get a plane ticket overnight and they arrived the same day the final table began. I had my brothers, wife, my three children and many friends in the stands. It seemed like a great act of love that they accompanied me in that special moment for me”.
During the final table and being short stacked, he made an incredible fold with A-Q thinking that he was facing a stronger hand and he was right, since one of his opponents had A-A. What factors led him to fold that hand? “I think that hand had more significance because I had a final table without good cards. But when we play we must not let the past affect the perspective of the present. At that moment I thought the hand was very fair and that by ICM it was a fold. I think it is always better to analyze our level in relation to the opponents and there are situations where the ICM can be left aside. On the other hand, I thought I had a stack with several big blinds to play in a very special tournament. And finally I observed a tell from Bryan Piccioli who used to stop a lot to talk to his friends, but in this hand he stayed very still after seeing his cards. That finally convinced me to fold my cards”.
Salas was eliminated in seventh place and earned his best live result: $1.4M. We asked if he thought at the time that was his one chance to win a bracelet? “I am an optimistic person and I trust my abilities, so I was intimately confident that sooner or later I would win a bracelet at the WSOP. I also consider myself a lucky person and prepared to take advantage of good opportunities. I was confident that I would have new chances to win a bracelet”.
Glory in the 2020 WSOP Main Event with a very special bracelet
The 2020 edition of the WSOP Main Event was atypical due to the Coronavirus pandemic and had a hybrid format for the first time. There was an online edition for the United States and another online for the rest of the world. The two final tables were played live and then the two winners faced each other in a heads-up match to define the new world champion. Damian won the international final table in Rozvadov for $1.5M and then beat Joseph Hebert in the final duel to win an extra $1M. Thus, he became the first Latin American Main Event champion.
This is how he remembers the experience: “I had to travel alone to Rozvadov, since they wouldn’t let me bring companions due to the pandemic. But I took with me a photo of my family, the flag of my countries and a cardboard bracelet that my youngest daughter made for me and she told me that she was going to win a bracelet that year. I prepared a lot and studied my rivals before traveling, especially Bruno Butteon from Brazil. I felt like an elite competitor because of the conviction and character of how I played. And in moments of doubt I opened my backpack to see my family and I felt that they gave me strength from afar”.
In this photo you can see the diamond bracelet he won in Las Vegas and the bracelet his daughter made for him over the money bills:
What did he feel after winning his first bracelet? “The first thing I felt was enormous gratitude and then I felt very privileged to be able to win the Main Event. There are thousands of elite players who deserve to win it and will not be able to do so, since there are very few champions. I also felt a lot of pride in the previous years of work. I think luck is the moment when preparation meets opportunity and I was able to take advantage of my lucky moment by being prepared. Being able to celebrate with my friends and my children via video call was a wonderful moment in my life that I will always remember”.
The following year Salas had his banner hung in the halls of the 2021 WSOP. What was it like to see himself in that image? “Seeing the poster was a very strong feeling and I still don’t completely fall for it. It makes me very proud to have placed a Latin American flag in a place where Americans dominate. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s always going to be in the WSOP, but I’m still taking it in”.
Motivations and family
What motivates Salas to continue playing online and live after 17 years? “I think that essentially the challenge and being able to evolve with respect to the game motivates me a lot. It also motivates me to try to stay in the elite of this mental sport. I believe that there is a group of 100 players who are superior to the rest and it is quite a challenge to try to be in that group”.
Would he like one of his children to play poker and be able to share a poker tournament with them? “I always tell my children that they have to prepare with conviction for whatever they do and that attitude is not negotiable. I would like them to first study and go to university to have tools for their future. If poker ends up being their job in the future I will support them, but since it is something that has a lot of variance I would not like it to be their only plan. My oldest son is 17 years old and it is very likely that when he turns 18 you will see me playing a tournament with him”.
To end off our conversation, we asked Damian Salas what the nicest thing was that poker has given him. He replied: “I think the best thing it gave me were emotions galore, both good and bad, but that provide extraordinary experiences. I am very grateful for poker, since it allowed me to achieve a large number of personal goals and gave me a lot of joy”.
Salas intends to be at the WSOP Paradise in the Bahamas where he will seek to win his second bracelet, as well as at the 2023 WPT World Championship in Las Vegas. Good luck!
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