Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why I Quit Playing Poker for a Living, Pt. 2– from the Poker Chronicles

There is, that I know of, only one way to deal with the emotional roller coaster that is professional poker, and that is to love the game. In the beginning, I did. I had as close to a natural aptitude for poker as it is possible for one to have. I was an extremely mathematical, logical, emotionally stable young man. Like most in my situation, I was pretty optimistic.

Poker was less like a class and more like a standardized test, challenging you to solve an intricate puzzle quickly. I'd never taken one of those and not ranked in the top percentile, and poker was much the same. I read a couple books, got lucky and won big over my first couple weekends at the Vegas Nights, and by the time the cards caught up to me and I lost the profit back, I'd figured out all I needed to win consistently.

I was quickly broke, though technically still well in the black since I'd spent much of the money. Ironically enough the biggest expenditure was two new tires to replace the ones that were damaged when I parked on an errant nail at the Vegas Nights. I took a little time to reflect, rebuild the bankroll (i.e. wait for a paycheck that didn’t come in shortly after rent was due) and read a couple more books, and when I returned to the tables a couple weeks later it was as if I was an entirely new person.

Something had just clicked. All of a sudden I'd switched from the unsure newbie to a seasoned professional. Low limit Texas Hold'em just made sense. I felt like the poker equivalent of Robert Johnson, who disappeared for a short while and came back such a greatly improved guitarist that legends sprang up of him having sold his soul to the devil.

And maybe in some metaphorical sense that's what I'd done too, as that was without a doubt the most significant turning point in my life. It's when I knew for sure that the straight and narrow wasn’t for me. I still spent a few years struggling with that fact, pressured by friends and family to follow the traditional middle-class white male route through life. Get a degree, become a programmer or a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor, get married, have kids, settle down. Poker made me realize just how boring and unfulfilling that all seemed. And I mean no offense to those who went that route, it just wasn't for me.

When I came back from my hiatus I went on a tear, winning session after session. Each time out I learned a little more and got a little better. For weeks it was one big win after another. I cut through other people's bankrolls like a hot knife through butter, to the point where I'd sit down at a table and four players would leave. One of the guys who ran the game told me, on more than one occasion, to take it easy.

I was, for that short period of time, a juggernaut, a second rake, as inevitable as death and taxes for those who chose to play $3/$6 in Summit County. Of course, that was my first winning streak, the exact opposite of the losing ones I described in part one. It's the best time in a poker player's life.

The prolonged period in which every decision makes itself, every two pair holds up and every flush comes in, is the greatest feeling you'll ever get. You feel like you know more about poker than anyone else ever knew, even if you're really just beating plumbers out of their weekend money. And you must because you won every hand.

And that was it for me. From then on, I was to be a professional poker player. It was a couple years before I had the courage and bankroll management skills to make the jump. I even didn't play poker for nearly a year at one point in an attempt to focus on school. But in hindsight, it was inevitable.

After my amazing $3/$6 run settled down, I kept winning (though at a much more reasonable pace) and the game remained fun for a couple years. My two friends, John and Jason, started playing as much as I was, and were winning big (for the stakes) as well. If anything Jason was probably even better than me at those tables because of his totally unflappable demeanor.

Low stakes limit hold'em is, more than anything, about executing a fairly simple plan, almost mechanically, and the only real impediment to doing so is the emotional turmoil caused by the variance, which is magnified by a small bankroll. Jason was a really smart guy who rarely if ever tilted and had enough money saved up to deal with the swings, so he was pretty much as close to perfect as humanly possible.

The three of us would split our winnings/losses most of the time. That was good and bad. The good was that it reduced the variance to a manageable level and allowed us to play off of individual bankrolls that were much smaller than we would have needed otherwise without being under too much pressure. I learned how to work with John in very high-stress situations, which has really come in handy now that we're in a startup together. Startups are stressful relative to normal jobs but a joke compared to poker.

And it gave all three of us a group to review hands and bounce ideas off of, which was invaluable. In fact, I wish I had some of our late night dinners on tape. I still remember one night at a shitty little hole in the wall called Peg's (we frequented it since it was near the Barberton Armory, where most of the Nights were held before 9/11, and it was open 24/7) arguing over whether or not one should play King-Jack under the gun. I thought you should limp, John thought you should fold. Now we're both pretty sure we were both wrong. In hindsight, it's hilarious how little we knew.

We also tried to sit at different tables where possible, since it's obviously better to have a table of you and 10 suckers, rather than you, two people who are as good as you, and 8 suckers. (Though I discovered years later that it isn't anywhere near as much better as you might intuitively think. Really as you replace suckers with sharks, up to a certain limit, what happens is that for the most part the suckers just lose more, and the sharks' EV decreases only a small amount.) Unfortunately, though, in a brick and mortar poker room that has more customers than available seats, you really don't have much control over the arrangements, so we ended up together a lot of the time.

Another tough part was the accountability. If John decided to straddle or blind raise or do something else goofy just for fun, it would make me mad because it was my money. I wasn't there to have fun, I was there to make money. Any fun had was just a fringe benefit as far as I was concerned. If one person went on tilt, it cost the other two, causing you to wonder if you should say something, and maybe making you play badly too as you watched your money fly out the window. (On the other hand, though, if you were having a bad day and your partners were killing, it probably kept you from tilting. In the end it probably evens out, but the negative side of the equation sticks in your memory much more than the positive.)

In poker there's always a fine line between accepting the fact that everyone tilts or makes bad plays some times (which is true) and being overly accepting of individual instances, which leads to more. Even though you have to recognize your basic humanity, and that you will make mistakes because of it, you also have to be careful to never use that as an excuse. This was perhaps the most valuable life lesson I got from poker, which is that you must always hold yourself accountable and accept responsibility for your mistakes. And that's hard enough, but when splitting, you're accountable to others as well, and them to you.

Overall, I'm very glad we split. They were fun times. And we made a lot of money for people our age. I remember keeping track once for what came out to about 1,000 playing hours, and in the end I had made roughly $17 per hour. (I also kept track of splitting separately and made about $1 per hour off of it, so over that time John and Jason combined made a little more than I did.) That's almost three big bets per hour, or, given the pace of those games, roughly 9 big bets per 100 hands. And that was with a 10% up to $5 rake. Anywhere else results like that would seem to be an anomaly, but at the Vegas Nights they were sustainable.

And it was a pretty good chunk of change for a 19 year old to make from his hobby. All of my friends were broke, and I always had a wallet full of hundreds. While my coworkers were trying their damnd-est to get more scheduled hours, I'd routinely take a few days off of work, unpaid, to head up to Soaring Eagle, an Indian casino in Michigan that only required players to be 18.

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