Arnold Spee understands the commitment it takes to be a professional poker player. Having won the 2005 World Poker Challenge in Reno, one of the World Poker Tour (WPT) main events, Spee is off to a good start by collecting the $663,880 first prize.
According to Spee, his love of cards is nothing new. "I always had a thing for cards. I used to play Canasta with my parents on holidays. When I went to Las Vegas with friends, I would sit in the poker room and play while they played slots."
Although he was often around the game, it wasn't until poker started having its breakthrough on U.S. television that he really caught the poker bug. "I really got hooked on it when the WPT started airing its tournaments. Some people talk to the TV during football. I talked to the TV while watching poker, often telling players what to do with their hands before they would act. I couldn't believe how much money they were winning."
After catching the poker action on the tube, it wasn't long before Spee was knee-deep into the world of poker, cutting his teeth at the Commerce Casino in L.A. "I was still learning the game when I began entering satellites at Commerce. I probably lost the first 15 I played, but I was kind of expecting it since I was still learning the game. After I won my first satellite, two and three came even easier. I ended up winning 22 in a four week period."
It took about three months for Spee to find his way to the WPT main events. He immediately found an environment that suited him. "I like the WPT more than any other tournament series because you get all of these nitwits from all over the world coming for the World Series of Poker. In essence, the WSOP is harder because there are more players. Although it makes for huge money, you have such reckless play during the WSOP. WPT events have much more of a limited field and a higher concentration of better players. I play better against skilled players than I do amateurs."
According to Spee, the better the competition, the better he plays. "I would rather sit with the best 10 players in the world than 10 no-names, because I can read the best players. I've played with them enough times to know what they are going to do."
It wasn't always this easy for Spee. He spent many years working sales before he decided to give poker a go full time and he had some rough times in the beginning. "The defining moment when I knew I was meant to play poker happened right around the time I quit my job. I was having a rough year, taking bad beat after bad beat. I was close to winning tournaments, often making the final tables but never winning. For whatever reason, I just kept getting knocked out of the tournaments."
It wasn't long before Spee made things work. "I knew I had the ability to win and that I just needed the luck factor to kick in. I made a couple of adjustments to tweak my game and about the same time I quit my job, I reached a pinnacle. From then on I decided to treat poker like a business. So I quit my job and dedicated myself to the game, knowing in the back of my mind I could always go back to sales."
Although a big fan of televised poker, Spee believes his game was more influenced by game play than by any particular player or book. "When I started playing, I didn't think I was going to be like any one player. I guess when I first got started I played pretty tight and conservative, almost like Dan Harrington. But my first year I only had moderate success. If you're getting close and not winning you have to realize there is something in your game that needs to be improved. This year I focused on trusting my gut instinct and taking a few more risks earlier in tournaments."
According to Spee, in today's game, always having premium cards is an illusion and he had to adjust his game to find success. "If you're going to play premium hands, you have to realize that they don't always come and in today's tournament environment this style doesn't always work. You have to take risks."
Just having good cards isn't enough to ensure victory, Spee noted. "I think what makes me a good player is my skills in math and psychology. Psychology is probably the most important part of the game. If you can't read people or look at a person and tell they are lying despite their efforts to tell you otherwise, then I don't think you can be a good player. The ability to look at a person and see that something is wrong comes naturally to me."
Spee, like many of today's winning players, has taken poker's explosive growth with a grain of salt. "Of course I like the fact that the game is so popular. Cash prizes are bigger and there is more television exposure as well. It's almost like reaching celebrity status when you win a big tournament. I don't want it to get to big because it's obviously easier to win a tournament with 400 players than say 1800. The odds of winning big tournaments are less, but if you're a really a good player, over the long run you should still rise to the top."
Despite being on the road three out of four weeks for most months, Spee works hard to keep his life balanced between his loving girlfriend and the game. "I'm blessed with a girlfriend that completely supports me. She was the one who said I should follow my dreams. She would say 'I miss you when you're away, but I want you to go because I know you want to and I know you can win.' Needless to say, we use a lot of calling cards."
A long-distance relationship and bad beats have made things tough for Spee, but he warns newcomers to the professional game that these are only two of the hurdles players face. According to Spee, it takes more than faith to make it. "Unless you have good math and psychology skills or are the luckiest person you have ever known, it takes a lot of money to play professional poker. The overhead from playing is enormous. You can easily spend $200,000 a year on tour. If you don't win, you're going to go broke."
One thing is for sure, Spee will probably be at the next WPT event, waiting for novice players to donkey off their chips.
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