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The final table was set to be an exciting one. While other action was going on at the 2016 Aussie Millions, including the LK Boutique $250,000 Challenge, the Main Event was in its last day with a stacked final table, complete with Kitty Kuo, Tony Dunst, Sam Abernathy, and chip leader Ari Engel.

Engel eliminated Kuo in sixth place, then Alex Lynskey in fourth and Abernathy in third. Even so, Dunst took the chip lead into head-up action, but Engel fought a tough battle, pulling into the lead several times. After approximately five hours, Engel put his opponent at risk with top pair on a T-4-2-J-9 rainbow board. Dunst finally called with a pair of fours, and Engel became the champion.

This wasn’t Engel’s first poker tournament win by a longshot. His first victory on record came in 2007 when he won a WSOP Circuit event in Atlantic City for a gold ring and more than $63K. He won other titles as well, including a second Circuit ring in 2009, third in 2011… seven in total, while also grabbing a Empire State Poker Championship Main Event in 2012, high roller victories in the Philippines on the APT and APPT tours, and Heartland Poker Tour win in 2013.

But the 2016 Aussie Millions victory was the biggest in size and scope. He happily posed with the pile of $1.6 million in cash an ear-to-ear smile to show it.

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Serious Grinder

Engel has been a regular on the live tournament circuit for many years, but his online poker experience dates back even further. What started with a small deposit on Bodog during his college years – hence the longtime nickname BodogAri – turned into a long and fulfilling career, one that seems to still be gaining steam.

Since that time in his early 20s, he has amassed approximately $3 million in online poker winnings, not to mention another $3.3 million-plus in live tournaments. Engel has also become a poker coach and highly respected pro player, one who has put in the time without ever sacrificing his integrity or passion for the game.

Not one to stand alone, however, Engel always gives ample credit to friends and poker mentors who helped him along the way. Andrew Brown, known online as browndog19, was his college roommate who taught him the basics in the beginning. And his friendships in the world of poker have encouraged and pushed him to become the player he is today.

So when he faced the Aussie Millions final table, he knew he was ready. “I’ve played so much tournament poker that I know I’m fairly well prepared for a big spot like (this),” he told Poker Update. “I slept fairly well and was thinking mainly in terms of what I thought was optimal strategy rather than focusing on the moment. At the same time, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the stakes were scary/huge/out of my league. I try not to play heads-up matches for 300K each when possible, but given that I was forced to, the best thing to do was to try and focus on the match and leave behind all the things I couldn’t control.”

Born to Travel

According to Ari, he traveled quite extensively with his family in his youth. They lived in Canada, South Africa, Israel, and the United States, but the spent more than a few years in Australia – Melbourne, to be exact.

Even in his years of higher education, he studied in Israel and New York. He lived in Brooklyn after college, Las Vegas after that for poker, and Toronto after Black Friday so he count continue playing online poker.

As of 2014, he called himself a “global hobo,” as he was traveling to tournaments and visiting friends and family around the world. That is still the case today.

“I spent the latter half of 2015 doing many cross-Atlantic trips, but (Aussie Millions) was my first cross-Pacific trip in a while,” he said.

And that trip put him in Melbourne, where he still has numerous family members and friends. When he played out his final table, he not only had them on the rail, but his poker friends supported him as well. “Having a big/loud rail was great,” he noted. “At times during the tournament, it is easy to get down on yourself; my rail helped me stay positive and focused. Additionally, sharing the victory moment with so many friends and family made it that much sweeter.”

Engel also had a fun moment in Melbourne meeting one of his favorite sports figures. “I’m not much of a celebrity fan, but I spent hours as a kid watching (and listening) to cricket games while Shane Warne was at his peak as one of the best cricket players in the world,” he recalled. “It was certainly an exciting moment getting to play with Shane (both getting busted by him and knocking him out). I’m much more of a poker fan boy than a general one, though, so playing with the greats of poker is what I look forward to.”

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Scheduling for the Future

Some of Engel’s future travels will be determined by winning online poker satellites, but he also bases his plans upon the value of each tournament, the location itself, and the expense of getting there and finding accommodations. EPT Dublin is right around the corner, though, and he will be in Ireland for that series.

Meanwhile, he is constantly trying to improve his game and his life. “I respect Daniel Negreanu and have tried taking some of his approach (which seemed extremely foreign when I first heard about it) into my game. However, I haven’t jumped onto his goal-setting approach yet. I normally just focus on playing my A-game” 80% of the time or more (a goal I rarely accomplish, if I’m being self-honest) and leave the results to fall into place. Clearly, the fact that I’ve run very well in my poker life influences my thought process.”

The mere mention of Negreanu, as well as online poker satellites, prompted Poker Update to ask him about the recent changes at PokerStars to its VIP rewards program. Engel was very open about his feelings:

“I’m conflicted about (the changes). If a company promises something to its customers, it has an obligation to follow through on that. At the same time, the company isn’t in business as a charity; it has to make money for its owners. One of the things that bothers me is that I fully support PokerStars trying to maximize their profits. However, nowadays, some of the new PokerStars decisions seem to have such a short-term focus that I wonder whether management has the wrong incentives in place. Long-term thinking seems like it should be critical for a huge corporation like PokerStars.

“For example, I think it’s critical that new players don’t get eaten up alive too quickly and have a ‘chance.’ PokerStars seems to agree with this idea, but then the add games like $0.50/$1 with a $20 cap, and when two people each are all in for $20, the winner only comes out with $38.20. When you run games like that and complain about the winning players being the reason recreational players aren’t holding onto their deposits long enough, it makes one wonder about the level of honesty and transparency coming out of them. Having said that, most of the issues players are complaining about are easily defensible. Change is hard for everyone.”

Clearly, Engel sees both sides of the issue. It doesn’t affect him much at this point in time, and it is not changing the amount of time he will play poker online going forward.

And One More Thing…

When asked if Engel wanted to add anything else to conclude the interview, Engel was quick to extend his gratitude. “I want to thank my parents for being so supportive and all the hard work they put into my upbringing. Also, I’d like to thank my two best friends and great poker minds, Nachman Berlin and Kevin McColgan, for helping me to elevate my game to a point where I’m able to compete in these premiere international poker tournaments.”

Thank you, Ari, for your openness, honesty, and poker inspiration.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.