Some people have the idea that poker is played in the back of bowling alleys, in dark smoky rooms full of degenerate gamblers. While that may have been true once, the environment has changed somewhat.
The degenerate gamblers still exist, but a new archetype of player has emerged: the young college professional. Ever since amateur Chris Moneymaker came out of nowhere to win the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2004, young college-age kids just old enough to gamble online have been borrowing their parents’ credit cards to play online poker. This article is not concerned with the degenerates out there who are still paying creditors back on top of an expensive tuition (of whom there are many), but rather the big winners out there who have not only been able to make a living from poker but even to live extravagantly.
John, a pseudonym for anonymity, is a gambler by profession. He plays online poker, but to him there’s a clear distinction between poker and general forms of gambling. “In poker, you are playing a game of skill in which your opponents are other players and not the ‘house’. Whereas in other forms of gambling, where your odds are completely controlled by the house (where they are obviously always giving you a bet with negative expected value), in poker it’s all determined by your opponents and how you play against them.”
It’s unclear how much money he has won in total from online poker; he isn’t keen on sharing such personal figures, but does admit that he won $30,000 in one month from online poker during college—that’s when school started sliding down the priority scale.
“When I first started winning really big I completely neglected school. I would sleep until like 3 or 4 p.m. every day and just grind hard. I was playing $5/$10 NL and just made $30,000 in a month. How could I possible care about school?”
John was a good student in high school and was taking a computer science major at UC Irvine, but success came early on and naturally school didn’t seem all that important anymore. For the record, it would take 2,500 hours making $12 per hour to earn $30,000.
Because of the income disparity between John and his friends, he was the one who bought all the alcohol in order to make a party reach its maximum potential. He was generous to his friends, but they weren’t always fair to him in return.
“One thing that is unfortunate to deal with is friends wanting to borrow money. I’ve gotten paid back overall, but still have debts coming on a year old. It’s amazing how even your best friends will give a really convincing reason why they need to borrow money, but then take way longer than they said to pay you back. When people see you have a lot of money, your money means less to them. They decide an amount doesn’t mean much to you, and take their sweet time to pay you back. It’s pretty hurtful to be owed money for a long time from a friend and watch him spend money on different things in front of you,” said John. For John, making money had its downside, and that was finding out early in life the selfish side of some of his friends. Making huge sums of money created tension, but it wasn’t anything new. Tension between friends and family is common for young poker players who hit it relatively big.
Another poker professional, Syous, had a similar experience. For him, it was not an experience drifting away from his best friend and having to tell his dad, who is a doctor, that he dropped out of school to play poker full-time.
“Me and my best friend, we almost stopped talking because of that. He was severely against it. He thought I was a dumbass for trying to make a living out of poker. He didn’t think it was profitable. When it would come to poker he would say ‘Mike. I can’t win at poker. I’m just unlucky’, which was totally illogical. It’s weird that people think like that,” said Syous.
“My parents were always against it. At one time I was Korean with red hair, which is pretty rare. After I came home from the casino, my dad asked me if I went to the casino, and I said ‘No, of course not.’ Then he said that a church friend saw a Korean boy with red hair in the poker room. Then there was no hiding it. He asked me if I won and I was all proud about it and said ‘Yeah, I won,’ and he said, ‘That’s a shame.’ Back then, he was never happy about me playing poker. His logic was that if I won I would play more.”
Meanwhile, one good thing about being a professional poker player is that all you need for your job is an Internet connection. Syous, a 23-year-old Korean-American, has taken advantage of that fact. He was born in San Diego, California, and currently resides in South Korea. After taking a two-and–a-half year sabbatical for school, he visited South Korea, China, India, and Cambodia, and has toured Thailand extensively.
“When you’re really relying on yourself for a month, you grow. When you’re out there, you’re forced to find what you like and don’t like. If you really like travelling, it’ll hit you hard.
Life here in NYC (only been here five or six days so far) just isn’t the same. The vibe and energy isn’t there, since it’s too familiar, I think. Go out and see how different societies and cultures live their daily life. See what’s standard to them. Some of the things they do I disagree with—however, other things they do I wish we did,” Syous commented.
John recently graduated from UC Irvine with a degree in computer science. It took him five and a half years to finish and he plans to travel as well.
“I travel to Vegas frequently and have friends who live out there. I’d like to travel a lot more in this coming year, but for fun, not poker. However, I am very motivated to do well in poker and make money, so it’s hard for me to pick a time to give myself a vacation. However, I imagine I’d be bringing a laptop to play no matter what.”
One of the things I find impressive about these young professionals is that they are both incredibly hardworking. It’s easy to write these guys off as lucky because gambling and luck are intertwined, but you’d be wrong. Both of them have dedicated hundreds of hours away from the table analyzing hands, discussing various lines to take against different opponents, and even getting tilt management coaching. In turn they themselves have become coaches, but their services are not cheap: Syous charges $325 an hour.
Though things don’t always go perfectly, both of these guys have shown perseverance. And after five years as a pro for John and two and a half years for Syous, it’s safe to say these guys are for real. They have made it. And there is even a happy ending for Syous.
“My dad is a lot cooler with it now that he sees how I run it like a business. It piqued his interest a little. My mom is okay with it. She’s not thrilled; she’d be much happier if I became a doctor or some other respected occupation. And it’s not something they would tell others, really. They’ll say I dropped out to run a business project, but they won’t say poker,” he laughed.
As for John, his parents have always been supportive.
“My parents are very supportive of me playing and always have been. They expected me to finish school, and I did. I’m not sure how they would have reacted to me dropping out. Probably bad, but I don’t know for sure. I think they would kind of like to see me get a job, but they don’t have a problem going for it in poker like I am.”
Online poker is growing bigger every day, and few people have success stories like John and Syous. The failure stories don’t get as much attention. People have been known to take out second mortgages on their homes to feed their gambling addiction, which is why it’s important to play within your limit.