by Rebecca Moran ’13
For most of us, it’s hard to even begin to comprehend the sum of $4.7 million, and for 2015 Penn State Altoona graduate Dan Ott, winning that amount of money has certainly taken some getting used to.
Ott, an Altoona native, came in second place at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in Las Vegas July 22–23, 2017, walking away with the $4.7 million. The event began with more than 7,200 players committing a $10,000 entry fee, and Ott was one of only nine left at the final table. “It’s surreal. The further and further I got and as the payouts increased, it was even harder to believe. It still hasn’t really hit me.”
Along with his identical twin brother, Dillon, also a Penn State Altoona alumnus, Ott started playing poker when he was only 12 years old after watching Chris Moneymaker win the 2003 WSOP Main Event. “It started as just playing around with our friends, and then I started playing online. I’ve been playing professionally since I was about 20.” Ott and his brother have always played together, whether with friends, online, or traveling to tournaments around the country. “We would always tease each other growing up about who was better.”
“As a kid, I watched poker on ESPN and saw that it was sort of random, that really anyone could win, and I thought, ‘I could do this one day.’ Every $50 I got, I’d put it toward poker.” The more he played, the more he strived to get better. He spent his time studying poker and watching training videos from professionals like Doug Polk.
Ott’s first taste of the WSOP was in 2014 when he was 22 years old. Although he lost early in the tournament, he traveled back to Las Vegas with his brother again the following year. “I was nowhere close to winning the first and second summers; I lost every tournament.” The Ott brothers did not play in the 2016 tournament, and when it came time to plan for this year’s WSOP, Dillon wasn’t sure he wanted to make the trip a third time. “Dillon and I had been out in Las Vegas for smaller tournaments with our friend, Andrew, but had come home before continuing on for the $10,000 main event. Dillon and Andrew didn’t want to lose more money. After some convincing, they decided to go. I wasn’t going to play without them. It would have been my first tournament without my brother.”
The tournament started like a repeat of the previous two stops at WSOP — losing over and over again. Dillon was out by day two, but by the end of day three, things started to look up for Dan, and he began winning money. “There are ups and downs of poker. You’re going to lose a lot, but you have to get used to it if you want to play. And once I made it to the final table, I knew I was guaranteed at least $1 million, so anything more was just gravy.” His friends; his mother, Leisha Ott; sister, Ceana Hoburn; and of course, his twin brother, Dillon, surrounded Dan throughout the end of the tournament. “My mom came early in the week, and I was worried by the time she made it I would already be out. She must have had high hopes for me.”
Ott has gained confidence from his big win. “I feel like I can handle any smaller tournament now. It was very helpful to have had that experience of photos and interviews and always being on camera. At first, the thought of being on television was difficult, but it was pretty easy for me to stay focused on the game. I formed a new network of friends. Once you make it to the final nine, you really form a bond with everyone at that table.”
Ott graduated from Penn State Altoona with a business degree. Admittedly, he was not crazy about attending college, and throughout his academic career, he would often consider dropping out. “It was important to my parents that I finish my degree. Penn State Altoona taught me hard work and dedication. I learned that you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough. And my degree definitely prepared me mentally for the stress of poker.”
Following graduation, Ott continued to play poker online and entered into more tournaments. Ott’s decision to play poker professionally was not without critics along the way who told him he needed to get a “real job” and that he couldn’t “just play poker.” As he continued to earn money, however, the skepticism, especially that of his parents, began to wear off. “It is very easy to get discouraged, and it takes a certain amount of mental toughness if you want to play seriously. No matter who you are, you’re going to lose a lot and often. I always tell people not to play with anything they can’t afford to lose.”
Ott continues to play both online and at tournaments and devotes up to 30 hours a week to poker. “Winning has definitely given me more freedom to do what I want for the time being. I’m going to play until I don’t think I can win anymore. The game is always evolving, and it’s really competitive, so you always need to be studying and getting better.” Although he placed second at the WSOP, he still prefers to play online.
Ott insists nothing has changed by becoming a millionaire. He very generously reimbursed Dillon’s and Andew’s $10,000 entry fees from this year, but, “I still feel like I’m the same person. I got a haircut and some nicer clothes, but I’m still the same person.”