When Brainerd High School graduate Ryan Laplante won a big poker tournament on June 12, he knew he had the chance to make a difference.

Laplante won $190,328 for taking first place in a World Series of Poker pot-limit Omaha event, one of 69 annual events that make up the World Series of Poker. It was his first win at a World Series of Poker event.

Tragically, Laplante's victory coincided with Omar Mateen killing 49 people early that morning at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Laplante, an openly gay man, said the day was "incredibly bittersweet." He woke up early Sunday morning and saw the news on Reddit and "I was so shocked and surprised and saddened by it."

Years of playing poker taught Laplante how to separate his emotions from his playing, so it wasn't tough to separate his emotions about Orlando from his play in the tournament. If anything, playing helps him take his mind off of the things swirling around him.

"It gives me something to focus on that's not that stress, that sadness," Laplante said.

A lot of professionals, Laplante included, view poker as something that doesn't "necessarily add anything to the world." Playing poker has made him a better person, he said, in that he's learned to think logically and focus in stressful situations. Poker has a decent media following, he said, so when the opportunity comes when a player has a spotlight, using it correctly can have a small, positive impact on the world.

"I realized that I had one of those moments and I also genuinely felt the desire and need to say something," Laplante said.

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Before sitting down at the table that day, Laplante jotted down his thoughts in case he won and had the chance to say something. He wrote down his speech, he said, and practiced it 15-20 times beforehand. He wrote down what he was feeling, he said, and what he ended up saying was his first draft.

"I knew that when I was on the stage I was probably going to break down," Laplante said. "If I didn't have it memorized, it would not go well."

After Laplante's fiance Chris Katona presented him with his first World Series of Poker gold bracelet for winning the tournament, he took to the podium to give his speech. He said he wasn't planning on making a speech but the events in Orlando changed his mind.

Visibly emotional, Laplante thanked Katona and everyone else who has supported him over the years. He's proud to call himself a World Series of Poker champion, he said, "and I'm proud to call myself an openly gay man."

"I encourage all of you to be proud of who you are and be comfortable enough in yourself to be open with who you are," Laplante said.

Since giving his speech, Laplante's fellow poker pros have given him "completely and totally overwhelming support," he said.

Laplante didn't know he was going to win the event until he actually won it, he said. With about five players left, he said he started to let in a little bit of hope that he could win. But until then, he was expecting to bust out and go play in a different event. When the final table started playing on the third day of play, he had one of the smallest stacks of chips at the table.

"I even told my fiance he didn't have to watch me play," Laplante said.

Then Laplante started knocking out other players and hope started to creep in. But whenever he started thinking like that, he squashed it because he didn't want to get out of his element. It didn't get any easier to focus once there were two players left and officials brought out the gold bracelet given to the event winner and put it on the table.

"I tried my absolute best to just not look at it," Laplante said.

It helped that the final table featured multiple friends of Laplante's, which helped him relax. People were friendly, jovial and talkative, he said.

"The entire time, I was just talking and having fun and enjoying myself," Laplante said.

 

Background

Laplante, 26, is a 2008 BHS graduate. His mother, Rebecca Laplante, and stepfather, David Pueringer, live in Brainerd. It wasn't a bad experience growing up in Brainerd as a gay man, he said. Gay marriage wasn't legal throughout the country, he said, and being openly gay wasn't as accepted.

There were openly gay students at BHS, Laplante said, and "they weren't treated the best." They weren't bullied as much, but there were things said behind their backs, he said, and there were undertones of-as well as blatant-signs of homophobia. Because of the environment, Laplante waited until after high school to come out.

"With the atmosphere that was still around back then, and is still around to some degree now," Laplante said. "I just wasn't comfortable with coming out."

Thankfully, both of Laplante's parents have accepted him, he said. He also credited two former BHS teachers, Keith Peterson and David Devine, for giving him an appreciation for learning.

Many professional poker players are open-minded and have accepted Laplante, he said. The people who are attracted to playing poker professionally don't adhere as tightly to societal norms, he said, because the career they're pursuing isn't a normal career.

"They tend to not really care about that kind of stuff," Laplante said.

There have been instances where Laplante ran into homophobia at some tables, he said, but for the most part, the poker community has been a very accepting community.

 

Starting small

Laplante started playing poker for fun with his friends in junior high. At sleepovers, there would be a mixture of penny poker games and matches in the video game Halo. He was a competitive Halo player until his senior year of high school. When he turned 18, he started playing poker instead and really got into it.

Laplante "really enjoyed" those early years playing poker, he said. He saw the movie "Rounders," watched the World Series of Poker on TV and was hooked.

"I was really, really, really bad back then," Laplante said. "In fact, I was definitely losing money in those games."

After Laplante turned 18, he found Two Plus Two, an online poker forum. There, he was able to learn strategy and network with fellow poker lovers who also wanted to play professionally.

After graduating from BHS, he went to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for a year. In lieu of going to class and studying, he said, he played online poker 40-80 hours per week. He'd play online for six days a week and then hang out with friends and play live poker the other day.

"My year in college was me studying and playing poker, instead of studying actual stuff," Laplante said.

Laplante started playing poker full-time after he turned 19 in February 2009. Dropping out of school was a risky move, he said, but it was what he wanted to do.

"Oh it definitely was not the smarter decision, but it was what I wanted to do," Laplante said. "I decided at a pretty young age that when I found what I really loved in life, that that's what I was going to pursue."

Things like biology, writing, zoology, literature and teaching held Laplante's interest for a time, "but nothing really captivated me the way that poker did."

Laplante played online poker until April 15, 2011, known as Black Friday in the poker community. On that date, an indictment in a federal criminal case against three large online poker companies was unsealed, effectively ending real money online play for United States players. He was doing well playing online until then, he said, but after Black Friday, he was in limbo.

Laplante turned 21 in May of 2011, which meant he could then play live poker in Wisconsin, where he was living at the time, and Las Vegas. A friend persuaded him to come to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker.

Since then, Laplante and Katona have moved around frequently to accommodate Laplante's playing. They've spent time in Milwaukee, Toronto, Mexico and Las Vegas. Living outside the U.S. allows Laplante to play online poker for money on international sites. The two now live in Las Vegas, where Katona attends the College of Southern Nevada for computer networking. Laplante now travels for the bigger live and online poker events.

Playing poker professionally is attractive to Laplante because it's so "incredibly difficult," he said. It requires in-depth knowledge of mathematics, game theory and psychology. It also takes mental strength and self-control in order to handle the stress and swings of playing poker for hours at a time.

"I've slowly become better and better relative to other professionals," Laplante said. "At this point in my career, I'm finally at the point where I can really hold my own with some of the best players in the world."

 

World Series of Poker

There's 69 events this summer in the World Series of Poker at the Rio casino in Las Vegas. The buy-in, or cost to play, can range from a few hundred dollars up to more than $100,000. The pot-limit Omaha event Laplante won had a $565 buy-in and 2,482 players.

Laplante has played in eight World Series of Poker events so far this summer and is scheduled to play in 33 more events. It's the most events he's played in the series in one year. Events vary in length from three to five days, with most featuring 10 hours of play each day, he said.

A good number of professional poker players play in the World Series of Poker every year, Laplante said, so it's a good chance to meet a lot of people. It's fun to play with fellow professionals he knows and respects, he said. The series also brings out people from other walks of life, including professional athletes like Michael Phelps, billionaires and people from a wide variety of business backgrounds.

"There's lots you can learn from them if you are willing to be social and outgoing and ask them about things," Laplante said. It doesn't take Laplante very long to get a sense of a player's style, he said. He can identify a player's mistakes, figure out how skilled they are and adjust his play accordingly.

"It won't be perfect information, but will give me the framework to work off of," Laplante said.

Laplante has to shift his play as he learns more about the people he's playing with, which is something he loves about playing poker.

"The better I get and the more I understand about the game," Laplante said. "The more I realize my own game constantly has to be shifting to many different factors."

 

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett.