When Ermir Dunga reflected on finishing in fifth place in the Sunday Million two weeks back, he didn’t mince words.
“It’s probably the best day of my life,” the 27-year-old said, days after the biggest score of his short poker career.
He streamed the last six hours of the tournament live on his Twitch channel from his home in Tirana, the capital of the southern European nation of Albania. It was a bare-bones production compared to a lot of the streams he watches, streaming an unedited 480p view of his laptop screen without any bells or whistles. But the content itself — a run to the final table of the largest weekly tournament on the internet — shone through and drew a significant audience.
“Everyone was gifting subs and gifting bits and the chat was so hot,” said Dunga, who plays on PokerStars as “MiryAlbania.” “I was feeling like Lex Veldhuis for a moment because the chat was going by so fast I wasn’t able to read it.”
The rush of new viewers and subscribers from around the world was exhilarating. But more importantly, the score he’d just streamed live was his third in the span of just a few weeks, and easily the largest of them. It gave him enough money to quit his job and kick off a quest to become the first full-time poker streamer from his country.
“Here the average for a good full-time job is about $300 a month. So you can make the calculations — the amount I won is a lot of money here,” he said. “It’s not $1,000 or something. With $28,000 you can really do something. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to chase something for myself.”
Twitch, sleep, repeat
Zynga’s play money games on Facebook got Dunga started in poker back in 2010. He started playing for real money on PokerStars in 2014, but he says he’s never made a deposit, and he’s only played live poker once.
“It was a cash game and I lost $20,” he said. Online, he was able to get comfortable with the game for free and then compete for more reasonable stakes when he wanted to play for real money. And once he found Twitch poker streams, his life settled into a pattern.
He took the first tentative steps toward streaming when he started using Twitch as a sort of personal video recorder back in 2017.
“I didn’t know how to make a video of my screen, to keep a record of my game, so I said, ‘I’ll stream it and I’ll have it there,'” he said. “So it’s not that I was streaming to have viewers or anything, just for myself. If there was an option to keep it private I would have done it, but there isn’t. I just did it for myself the first time.”
A move to Denmark for work temporarily drove gaming and Twitch to the wayside, but eventually Dunga returned to Albania. While he didn’t find work right away, he did find the Twitch poker community.
“It was just Twitch and sleep, that was my life for eight months,” he said. “I got to know a lot of people, a lot of streamers, a lot of people who chat in the streams, especially on the poker category. That’s what I based my game on.”
From small streams to big cashes
In his quest to learn more about the game, Dunga naturally gravitated toward streams with smaller audiences.
“I like streamers like Lex, but it’s hard to interact with him in chat — I can’t ask him questions about why he plays the way he does because he might miss my chat with 6,000 people watching.”
When an audience more on the scale of a few dozen people is watching a stream, interaction is considerably easier. A curious mind can pick up a lot about the game very quickly.
“With small streamers there’s a benefit, that you can ask the streamer ‘why did you do that?’ and ‘what do you think of this spot?’ A lot of streamers these days have a Discord channel, and I use that a lot to post my hands. They love it because they like to review hands from Twitch chat, and that’s helped me a lot.”
Beyond that, streamers and the people in chat end up getting to know each other. “We’ve exchanged Twitter and everything, and it gets a little more personal because you know more about these people’s life from social media. The next time you watch a stream [after interacting], you get closer to that streamer, you know?”
Dunga credits Twitch streamers unconquer3d from New Zealand and BensBenz from the United States for helping him to learn the game — and to BensBenz in particular for building his bankroll through stake giveaways on his stream.
“Everyone who gets a stake is freerolling — if we win we give him half, and if we lose it’s nothing. So he staked me into a $22 tournament with $80K guaranteed on another site, and I got a decent amount of cash, about $240, and sent him back half. So that was where my bankroll started, with that little amount of money.”
The next three weeks were filled with even more success. When he wasn’t working his day job as a cryptocurrency account manager, Dunga was making final tables in $5 and $10 tournaments — and building an audience as he streamed it all.
“One night I was deep in a tournament, almost to the final table, and I realized that nobody popular was streaming at that time. So maybe it’s a chance for me! I got about 40 or 50 viewers, which is a lot in my first stream. I couldn’t even get a subscribe button or anything because you have to stream for seven days first.
“And I really enjoyed it to talk with chat and they talked with me back, and they were making jokes and things like that, and I loved it. That’s where I first thought I might want to stream. And then the Sunday Million confirmed it because that day was crazy. I had like 450 viewers!”
“Even before the Sunday Million I got two decent cashes. I got second in a $20K guaranteed for $2,800, which is a lot for me, and then I got sixth in another $20K for about $600. From freerolling going to there, it’s pretty amazing.”
Buoyed by all his successes, he skipped the satellite path he’d taken to playing in the Sunday Million a few times before. This time he bought in directly — and cashed out in fifth place.
Launching the dream
Now that he’s adequately bankrolled to take a shot at his dream of playing poker and streaming full-time, Dunga is setting a multi-step plan into motion.
First up is a move. “I live in a good area of Tirana, and I’m not paying any rent because this is my house I’m living in right now. But I’m going to rent a bigger house after the big score.”
Next is a new streaming rig. “Well, not ‘new,'” he corrects. “I don’t really have an old one, but I will buy everything I need for a streaming setup. By the first days of December I plan to be a full-time streamer.”
He’s also planning to build on the strong foundation that his favorite Twitch streamers have given him. “I’ve been starting to do video calls with unconquer3d, he’s been coaching me,” he says. And in the tradition of BensBenz, Dunga has already been doing on-stream giveaways for his audience.
On top of it all, he says he’s keeping his sights aimed high. “My next dream is to win a Platinum Pass. I’m going to try five or 10 times a day to satellite in through the $2 Mega Path. That’s a dream for everyone, to play in the biggest tournament of the year. Who knows?”
“But if I win a Platinum Pass it will be very difficult for me,” he muses. “I don’t know how to tell when somebody has a hand when I play live poker! Even if I don’t win a Platinum Pass, I would love to come to Barcelona during the tournament and just spectate. Maybe I can work on commentary with Joe Stapleton. Or just shake Ramon Colillas’s hand and take a picture. If I have him on my table I will probably just pass out!”
Ready to go
Given how far Dunga has come in such a short time, and how much support he has from his online community, he’ll probably adapt quickly if he finds himself playing at the PSPC. But what he’s really hoping is that that his fellow Albanians might adapt their views about poker if he can show them what the game is really all about.
“People here like to play poker, but there are no tournaments here, not even in casinos or anything. Poker here is thought of as just gambling — people don’t have a good opinion of it. I don’t blame them, that’s just the way it is here. But hopefully I will change that.”
That change has already started at home. “Streaming poker here — you know, at first my brother was not OK with it,” he says. “Now that I have the big scores, he sees that I’m serious about it.”
That could be the most important ingredient of all. There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes from feeling secure like Ermir Dunga does now, one that goes a long way in a game where confident players reign supreme. And he has never felt more confident than he does right now.
“I’m feeling really good about my game right now,” he says. “And I can’t wait to play next month.”