Diary of a Card Shark
What does it take to make a living at poker? A Harvard degree doesn't help much.
By Bruce Shulman
AUGUST 10, 1998: It was 7 A.M. on Tuesday, my 20th straight hour at the poker table. I removed my green mesh baseball cap and orange-tinted sunglasses. The glasses were smudged and the inside of the cap ringed with a line of dirt. My eyes were bloodshot and my hair had been matted so far in one direction that it actually hurt.
I put the glasses and cap on the vast bed of chips in front of me. I had bought in for $300 and it looked like I now had 53 rows and change -- more than $5300, but I struggled to count them all, my mind dizzy from lack of sleep. A chip runner approached me, surveyed my pile, and said: "You are the king. You are the Hold 'Em king."
Benny the Jew stood up. "I'm out," he said, smiling at me. "You take about a grand from me every time I sit." Then, staring at my ripped jeans, he shook his head and added, "Do me a favor. Take my money and get some new jeans, for chrissake."
I had outlasted Benny the Jew, and Montana Jack had busted an hour ago. The table didn't look good anymore; several day pros had replaced the graveyard-shift gamblers I'd been beating. It was definitely time to cash out.
Later, as I drove up the highway back to San Francisco, I touched my front pocket and felt the enormous roll of hundreds. I started laughing to myself. How the hell did I end up here?
I am a 27-year-old cum laude Harvard graduate with a degree in economics. After leaving Cambridge, I worked for a store in New York, for a corporate law firm in Prague, and for an investment bank in New York.
After two years in banking, I realized I had worked three different jobs and had liked none of them, so I left for San Francisco with the vague idea of writing for a living. I was certain I was years away from making money as a writer, but I resolved not to take a job I knew I'd hate. Basically, I wanted to be a dilettante, but it's hard to be a dilettante without money.
I wanted the easy way out. I hatched a variety of get-rich-quick scams, each worse than the last. My cash started running out, while my writing skills continued to hover between those of a precocious seventh grader and a functionally illiterate senior. (E.g., I once wrote an in-depth probe of a house full of cats. Instructor comment: Some really nice work here, Bruce. I'm sensing you're growing as an essayist. Meow! C-)
What could I do? Turns out I really didn't have a skill to my name. Put all the Harvard degrees you want on my wall, and I still couldn't tie a slip knot. I had worked for a corporate law firm and an investment bank, and what had I learned? I learned that there seemed to be a direct correlation between how bald, fat, and pale you could make yourself and how massive your paycheck was. Maybe I could even deal with all that, but there also seemed to be a misery requirement that I wasn't so keen on.
Enter poker. When I came out to San Francisco, I wasn't even aware there was such a thing as a legal card room. But I'd seen a billboard for a place called Artichoke Joe's Casino that offered poker, and I decided to check it out. In high school, I'd been the best player in my group of friends. I hadn't played much since then, but I thought I'd still be good.
I wasn't. Well, I wasn't terrible, but I wasn't good, either.
Artichoke Joe's is a dump. Located on an access road near the airport, the place offers players bad air quality and worse Chinese food. It's tiny, and the card tables are jammed so close that if you lean back in your seat you're liable to head-butt a dealer at the next table.
Like most people who play poker with their friends, I had grown up playing games like seven-card stud, Anaconda, Baseball, and Chicago. At Artichoke Joe's, as at most other card rooms, most everyone plays a fast-paced game called Texas Hold 'Em. In Hold 'Em, you receive only two cards down, and then you share five up cards ("community cards," or "the board") with the other players.
The first few times I played, I was an enormous ATM machine for the other guys. And they weren't even any good. This was the lowest-stakes table -- a "$2-$4" table, which means all bets and raises in the first two rounds are $2, and in the second two rounds they're $4. The average player was about 80 years old and beat me consistently.
But I loved playing. What had seemed a simple, limited game was proving more complex than I'd imagined. Hold 'Em is like a puzzle -- you look at your cards, see the community cards and how people bet at each point, and attempt to solve the mystery of what each person is holding. And you have to do it in a matter of seconds.
Despite losing, I began playing more often. I'd write one day and play cards the next. Then I'd write one day and play two. Pretty soon, I was playing almost every day. Each morning, although I'd plan to wake up and write, I'd get coffee, switch on my laptop, stare at the screen, and find myself driving down Highway 101, back to Joe's.
After about three months of playing, I had stopped squandering my savings from New York and was making money. My friends got a kick out of my new "occupation" and followed my performance each day as if it were the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Up 200. Down 50. Unchanged. They bought me poker books and started referring to Artichoke Joe's as my "office."
It seemed I could make a living playing poker, but what kind of living was it? I loved the game, but the life was brutal. I'd often sit in a chair for 16 hours straight, drinking Diet Cokes and smoking cigarettes -- a diet that I'm fairly sure falls short of the USRDA for certain vitamins and minerals. I'd also require massages at least once a week, often at the poker table.
Socially, I found that enthusiasm for my poker skills was limited to my guy friends. Women weren't interested in dating a gambler, and who could blame them? It's an unstable business, and if a game is good, a player will disappear for days at a time, returning only to sleep away an entire day. I looked at the older, professional players, and there were few with happy families. Most just dated casino cocktail waitresses or other players. Is this what I wanted?
No. I had come to California to write. I finally bought a used car with some of my poker winnings and drove down to LA with a spec script for a sitcom.
I found an apartment, met some new friends, and succeeded in getting an agent, who then succeeded in ignoring me. I spent my days sitting in my sweltering apartment or fleeing to the Beverly Center for air conditioning and movies. It wasn't long before I got tired of the constant rejection and indifference facing a writer in LA. I realized I had finally acquired a skill, but it wasn't writing. I missed poker -- the game, the bizarre people, the excitement, even the late hours.
I decided to check out one of LA's famed card rooms, Hollywood Park. It was amazing. High ceilings, endless tables offering every type of poker and all stakes imaginable, TV monitors covering the walls, floor men in snazzy bright-blue blazers. Everything about it was better than Artichoke Joe's, including the players.
I couldn't beat these guys. At the end of each losing session, feeling desperate, I'd play a high-stakes game, hoping for a quick kill to get even. But these guys were the best; almost all were professionals with huge bankrolls, and I was just a nervous kid.
It was a brutal two months, and I lost almost everything I had won in San Francisco. When you win at poker, you feel in control of the world. You make your own hours, work when you want, banter insouciantly at the table, and chuckle to yourself about the idiocy of the other players as you count your winnings.
When you lose, you are the idiot. Everyone else works on stacking their chips in neat formations while you pull out more and more cash. You feel like the dateless guy at the prom. You curse the cards, the dealers, and the loud assholes chatting endlessly about the hand you just lost. It's humiliating.
I swore off playing until I knew I could win again. I read several books on Hold 'Em written by the best players in the world. I dealt myself hand after hand, thinking through how the pros in LA played certain cards in certain situations. I realized the critical errors I made, wondered how I ever won the way I played, and eventually re-engineered my game entirely.
That was more than a year ago. Since then, I've won consistently -- about 85 or 90 percent of the sessions I play. I returned to San Francisco, where I write five days a week with a partner and play several nights a week. The dealers and chip runners all tease me about how much I win. At first, the other players grumbled about how lucky "the Kid" was. This graduated to grudging respect. Now, many people approach me and tell me I'm one of the best players they've seen.
Recently, I have been drubbing two guys who played in the World Series of Poker (they both won satellite tournaments in the Bay Area that offered the $10,000 World Series entry fee as first prize). One of those guys heard I was going to Las Vegas to watch and offered to "buy a piece of me" if I wanted to enter the tournament. I was flattered, but declined. I am a very good player now, one of the best in the area. But the best players, the ones who win the World Series, I compare to chess masters, understanding every facet of the game, brilliant at understanding both mathematics and human nature. I'm not there yet.
I enjoy my life as a "rounder," though there are several drawbacks. For one, even the best players have to lose sometimes. As much as skill is involved in winning, there's still an inescapable short-term luck factor that the most ingenious play can't overcome. Even the best players don't win 100 percent of the sessions they play. This frustrates me, because I feel I now outplay almost every opponent and therefore should always prevail. But I can't.
Another drawback involves the nature of winning at poker. If I win, another player must lose; unlike traditional casino games, not everyone wins when the dealer busts or the shooter rolls a hard eight. The house cares little if I win or lose -- the house is only there to deal cards and collect a fee for my seat. The money I win comes straight from the rest of the players at the table.
I've played with an Egyptian guy named Charlie for the past couple of months. Aside from poker, he sings at Greek restaurants. He is one of the sweetest men I have ever met, extremely generous and kind. As a person, his only weak spot is a benevolent chauvinism -- he offers to fly every waitress and all her friends to Cairo.
As a player, however, his weak spots are innumerable. He plays high stakes, but his game lacks both the sophistication and the discipline to be successful. Over a few months, I have watched him lose about $30,000.
I won't bet against Charlie when we're the only two players left in a hand, but I still inadvertently soak him when we're in a hand with several other players. So a decent chunk of that $30K came to yours truly. I once considered having a talk with Charlie, encouraging him to quit poker altogether or play a lower-stakes game where he might fare better.
I asked an old college roommate, Alex, what I should do. Alex, a relaxed, noncompetitive guy, said that not only should I not have that talk with him, but I should hammer him when we go head to head.
I agreed. I am not a social worker. I am there to win, and I must seize any opportunity that presents itself. I never had that talk with Charlie.
It sounds ruthless, but poker, if you're good, is a generous game. Certainly more generous than other casino games. Blackjack is said to have the best odds among the traditional games, but there aren't a lot of lifetime winners at blackjack. Walk into the tournament room at the World Series of Poker and the opposite is true.
Only one person can win the World Series, and it's a difficult feat, but almost all the players in the tournament are lifetime winners. They aren't defying impossible odds; they merely have to compensate for the house fee, or "rake," with superior play. It only takes one bad player to balance that rake. Throw in another mediocre player and the table has some investment merit.
And that is exactly how I appraise each table -- as an investment. I look at each player and weigh my chances of a positive result. For me, poker isn't gambling, any more than investing in a stock that you've carefully researched and evaluated is gambling.
My friends wonder why people would ever play against me. I know I wouldn't do it. But many players look at the game no differently than craps or roulette -- if they hit a rush, then they'll win. But winning isn't even why some of them are there; they're gamblers and they are there for the action. For the risk. They are feeding an addiction.
I do not play for the risk. If I think the players at a table are good enough that I don't possess a clear advantage, I move tables or quit for the day. A guy I played against in LA actually typed information on each player into a hand-held computer. That's smart, because sometimes I forget how certain people play and have to study them all over again.
And sometimes players dramatically improve their games.
One night I was playing a fairly low-limit Hold 'Em game, $6-$12. I was having a big session and had a mountain of chips.
It was Christmas Eve, and as the evening wore on, the only players who remained were some Asian guys, another Jewish guy like me, and a guy wearing a beautiful cross who had drunk so much he forgot it was Christmas. The guy on my left, Henry, was a terrible player, and he looked scared. Wearing a cardigan and tortoiseshell glasses and slouching in his seat didn't help his table image either. People consistently "ran over" him in hands -- in other words, they bet aggressively until he folded a superior hand.
Henry knew I usually won and began asking my advice. He seemed nice enough, intelligent and soft-spoken, and something about him reminded me of myself when I started playing. This being the holiday season, I dispensed some pointers. (You don't really want to see someone drown, after all; let him swim around a while before we sharks devour him.) My advice only slowed the bloodletting, and Henry lost a bundle.
About two months later, I was playing $20-$40, a high-stakes game where you can win or lose $1000 in a few hands. Some guy in leather pants and jacket with slicked-back hair approached the table. He placed his motorcycle helmet beneath his seat, and the players all greeted him like he was Amarillo Slim. As he sat down at the table he nodded very coolly to me. I didn't know the guy, but maybe he knew me.
Within about an hour, this guy had taken over the table. I watched him closely. He was selective about the hands he played and was super-aggressive when he did play. This is a component of my strategy, except he employed it far better than I. No one could handle the heat he was bringing, and in three hours he had amassed about $2000. Every so often he'd look at me and smile. I kind of wanted to slug the guy, but I'd just nod back.
The hand of the night came down (I had folded at the outset), and there was more than $1000 in the pot. There were straight draws and flush draws, and everyone had a shot. But at the end, it was the same guy scooping and piling chips, and as he did he unleashed a huge grin at me.
The guy was now making me sick. Another component of my strategy is to avoid vendettas at the table; if someone outplays you, just say "Nice hand" and move on to the next one. If you focus on nailing one player, you neglect the fact that you must defeat seven others. So I handled it my way: I took a break and went to the bathroom.
While I was at the urinal, the guy walked right up next to me. I turned to him and gave him the awkward adjacent-urinal nod, but he was still smiling at me. "You don't recognize me, do you?"
"No," I said. And if he continued talking while I tried to piss, I'd never get anywhere. "I'm Henry. From Christmas Eve."
I stopped. It sure was Henry. "What the hell happened to you?"
"It's been a crazy couple of months. After that night we played, I went home and read four poker books cover-to-cover. I went to San Pablo, played $6-$12, and started winning. Then $15, then $20. And then I played no-limit, and I won $28,000 in one night. The first time I ever played the game. I bought a motorcycle and here I am."
"What about the glasses?"
"The hair gel?"
"I always had it."
The point here is not that anyone can read a book and become a great poker player. Henry and I both read books, but we also both possess the ability to read people, along with something called "card sense."
Card sense is an innate ability to understand all the possibilities contained in a deck of cards. As soon as the dealer turns over the first three cards (the "flop"), my mind starts churning through all the possible hands I could be up against. I then synthesize that information with how people bet and what cards they might play in what position. I am likely seeing something that mediocre players aren't. Sometimes I can fold my cards, watch a hand, and guess exactly what cards the remaining players hold. It might look like a magic trick to a novice, but all I've done is solved the puzzle of that hand. Henry could do the same -- and that is what he finally figured out.
The people in my life are supportive of my profession. My mother, when I told her what I was doing with the $200,000 private-school and college education she'd paid for, said, "You lead a neat life."
My friends seem to agree with my mother. Even the wildly successful ones -- investment bankers, vice presidents at Internet companies -- don't look down at what I do. They press me for stories about my conquests at the tables. I guess stories about Benny the Jew and Montana Jack are more interesting than those about that wacky Frank in accounting. I know. I remember Frank from accounting, and he's not that wacky.
And my friends love the cash. I can't remember when I last used a credit card, and I often carry a wad of hundreds that would make John Gotti proud.
But that's not really why I play. In the poker movie The Cincinnati Kid, Edward G. Robinson says that for the true player, it's not about the money. That's a strange thing to say about a game where money is the only measure of your success, but I agree. I had originally gravitated to poker as a way to make an easy buck, but I realized I enjoyed the challenge of outplaying people with only my intellect and guts. The feeling of controlling a table, of players who get nervous when you're in a pot with them. For the best players, when you sit at a poker table, you really are "the king." People defer to you, compliment you, secretly despise you, and ultimately pay tribute to you.
I make a decent living playing poker and I can beat most every player I encounter. So if you run into a young guy at the table with orange-tinted sunglasses, be warned. Even if you consider yourself a good player, even if you clean up when playing your friends in home games, I will separate you from your money over the course of an evening. I have to. It's my job.
Bruce Shulman is a freelance writer and rounder living in San Francisco. He is currently completing a screenplay about poker.
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