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UB graduates Kevin Mathias, Thomas Hawthorne win more than $35,000

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Kevin Mathias was two cards away from winning $6,514 at the first event of the Western New York Poker Challenge. The only person in his way was his friend and classmate, Thomas Hawthorne.

When the dealer flipped over a five of diamonds, the two shared the same nine-high straight and Mathias’ first place prize was temporarily put on hold.

The following turn card was revealed, an ace, and his victory was sealed.

Out of 144 players, Mathias earned first place over Hawthorne, his best friend. And Hawthorne, who earned $4,023 for second, was admittedly drunk for a large portion of the tournament.

But how the recent University at Buffalo graduates wound up in this situation is proof that good things can happen after 2 a.m. During a night of drinking, Mathias stumbled over to Hawthorne with a slurred proposal at about 2 a.m. on March 28 – the morning of the tournament.

“Kev comes up to me and says, ‘I’m thinking about this $200 buy-in tomorrow,’ Hawthorne explained. “I had about 12 beers; I think [Kevin] had more than I did. He said it starts at 11 a.m., so we should probably stop drinking. That night I slept on Kevin’s floor. We woke up at about 10 or so, I didn’t even shower or brush my teeth.”

Hung over and exhausted, Mathias and Hawthorne showed up to Seneca Falls Casino 30 minutes late. But this didn’t stop the two.

After paying the $200 buy in, Mathias and Hawthorne each received their $15,000 worth of chips.

After two hours, however, Hawthorne was eliminated.

Noticing his friend was missing, Mathias sent Hawthorne a text message. Hawthorne told Mathias he lost and only had $100 on him. Mathias agreed to stake him the other $100 so Hawthorne could continue playing, rather than just stand and watch the 12-hour tournament. Hawthorne agreed to pay Mathias half if he won.

Hawthorne once again received 15,000 chips - he was back in the game.

But with about 25 people remaining, Hawthorne and Mathias were low on chips. So low that Hawthorne had about a third of the average chip stack and was ranked 25th out of the remaining competition.

If the two wanted to crack the final 15 – the positions with prizes –they would have to be on top of their game.

“I thought for sure neither of us were going to get cash,” Hawthorne said. “But I’ve been in this situation before, mostly [playing poker] online. I knew I needed a few double ups; I went all-in five or six times. We were aggressive, which is a big principle that I’m a fan of. We basically got the right cards at the right time.”

Once the two clinched the final 15, it was time to “turn up” and get focused, which meant no more drinking for Hawthorne.

Opposing players even offered to buy Hawthorne beers in order to get him more drunk. But Mathias was there as a voice of reason.

“Tom had been drinking for a while; he was getting really fatigued,” Mathias said. “We were on a 10-minute break and I could tell he was almost giving up because he was so tired. I told him to calm down and put in perspective how much money we were playing for - told him to stay level headed and play your best game. I said to him, ‘Do me a favor, when you go back to the table, order yourself a water.’ He said OK.”

Hawthorne made a 180-degree turn and immediately became more focused, according to Mathias.

They advanced as two of the final eight players to the final table and the opportunity to win $6,514.

Neither of them mentioned the chances of going head-to-head for first place. They didn’t want to jinx themselves.

But with only six players left, the odds began to stack in Mathias’ and Hawthorne’s favor. Hawthorne now led the table in chips while Mathias was second.

“We both had a lot of chips,” Hawthorne said. “General poker rule: When you’re playing against someone who has a large stack – don’t get involved with them. Really big hands can hurt you. Kevin had the only stack to cripple me. We weren’t working together because that’s colluding, which is illegal. However, it would make more sense because the two large stacks at the final table should always avoid pots with each other.”

A few hours later, three more opponents were eliminated and the boys cracked the final three.

Jason Nablo, the third-place winner, was no match for the large chip stack of Mathias, who went all in with one another. Mathias won after Nablo folded sevens preflop.

Mathias and Hawthorne were in disbelief.

“Once we got to the final table, I never expected us to be heads up for the title,” Mathias said. “Once [Nablo] got knocked out we started laughing at how ridiculous the situation was, but then it was down to business.”

About five minutes into the head-to-head match on the third hand, Mathias and Hawthorne went all in.

It was Mathias that was dealt the right cards at the right time.

“I’ve played thousands of hands with Kevin,” Hawthorne said. “I’m competitive with everything I do. I get upset if I lose a game of rock-paper-scissors. We’re competitive when we play. Kevin is a better poker player than I am, I’ll admit that. But if I’m going to lose to anybody, I’m going to lose to him. I remember getting up and shaking his hand. I said, ‘Dude, this is insane, I can’t believe this happened.’ He responded something to the same effect.”

Mathias not only won $6,514 for first place, but also half of Thomas’ $4,023 second place prize, totaling $8,525 on the night.

“I was so [explicit] happy when it was finally over,” Mathias said. “It didn’t sink in for a little that not only did I win $6,514 for first place, but also half of second. The day could not have gone any better for me.”

Mathias was handed the first place trophy and received the $2,000 from Hawthorne after their trip home.

The celebration was put on hold as they finally got some sleep from their long two previous nights.

The next day, Kevin celebrated with his older brother and poker mentor, Jemermie Mathias.

How it all started

Mathias said he’s won approximately $15,000 through online poker and $10,000 from ‘live,’ or person-person poker.

Before poker, he was a varsity soccer player as a freshman at Sutherland High School in Pittsford, New York – a small suburb near Rochester.

He first got into gambling when he was 16.

“My brother [Jeremie] would play online, I knew his password so I’d go on his account and play on it for money,” Mathias said. “I mostly got serious when I was 17 – I read about six poker books – one of them was Doyle Brunson’s, Super System. When I first started studying the game, within the next few years I made about five figures – pretty much always online.”

Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, owned by Isai Scheinberg, were Mathias’ main websites. By the time he was a freshman at UB, he had accumulated $10,000 through online gambling.

But the U.S. Attorney Office deemed Full Tilt’s legitimacy a “Ponzi scheme.” A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investing scam promising high rates of return with little risk to investors, according to Investopedia.

And during 2011’s the United States v. Scheinberg, the Southern District of New York seized and shut down Full Tilt Poker and several of its competitors, alleging that the sites were violating federal bank fraud and money laundering laws.

Existing customers could no longer withdraw funds held in their accounts.

Mathias was crushed.

“It was heart breaking because I realized I just lost $10,000,” he said. “I never expected to get any of [that money] back.”

But in July of 2012, the U.S. government dismissed all civil complaints after coming to a settlement with PokerStars, which included the purchase of Full Tilt.

PokerStars paid $225 million to the U.S. Department of Justice on Aug. 9, completing the asset transfer of Full Tilt Poker.

Two years later around February of 2014, players from Full Tilt Poker began reporting reimbursements. During his final semester at UB, Mathias awoke to find himself $10,000 richer.

“I woke up and checked my bank account on my phone,” Mathias said. “I heard [PokerStars] was reimbursing the players. I got my hopes up, but it didn’t really hit me until I saw $10,000 in my account. The previous day I had about $30, the next day I have $10,000. I was pretty happy.”

Like Mathias, Hawthorne recently graduated from UB with a bachelor’s of science in accounting. Hawthorne will attend graduate school in the fall of 2014 in search of his master’s degree and is currently taking classes toward his Certified Public Accountant exam.

The Watertown, New York native became involved with poker around 11 years old. He’s won about $15,000 since.

The two met during summer of 2010 as incoming freshman in the most fitting place possible – Seneca Falls Casino.

“It was orientation week, I was wearing a UB string backpack,” Mathias said. “He saw my backpack and asked if I was going to UB. I said yeah and we exchanged phone numbers. That’s pretty much how I met all my friends at Buffalo, because after that I started hanging out with people that I met through Kevin.”

Mathias’ and Hawthorne’s friendship revolves around the way the two first met – playing poker and drinking.

When they’re not pounding back Genny Lights, the two like to keep it simple: playing Super Smash Brothers on the Nintendo 64. But they admit even this usually involves drinking.

“Money hasn’t changed my personality at all, if anything I’m a more generous guy now,” Mathias said. “A couple nights ago I left my wallet in a cab and I had way too much money in my wallet, I was freaking out. Eventually I got a hold of [the driver]. I was so grateful that he came back and gave me my wallet without anything taken. I tipped him $100. I’m grateful that I’m capable of this and that I can reward people for their good actions.”

Mathias isn’t just generous with his money. He’s smart, too.

He has already put $3,000 into an online fidelity account. He plans on putting $10,000 into stocks and use the rest of his earnings towards poker.

Where they are now

Since graduating, Mathias has obtained a pizza delivery position in Rochester, and is still in search of a full time job.

He’s competed in several tournaments thus far, but hasn’t won anything nearly as close to his $6,514 cash prize from March.

His dream is to someday compete in the World Series of Poker.

Hawthorne is currently working in the finance department at New York Air Break in Watertown, where he serves as a financial analyst.

Hawthorne’s father, Mike, told his son to repeat this each night before he went to sleep as a kid: “Poker is a hobby – accounting is a profession.”

But Mathias doesn’t agree with Hawthorne’s fathers philosophies.

“I question how much his dad knows about the game,” Mathias said. “I feel poker can be a legitimate source of income – it’s not as luck based as everyone thinks. It’s a skill game in the long run - luck and skill always even out. I consider poker to be very different than any other game at the casino, because you play against other players – not the house. If you know more knowledge and experience than the other players, you can beat them.”

Mathias and Hawthorne might be parting ways now that classes are over, but their friendship will live on, one deck at a time.

email: features@ubspectrum.com