I turned over to reveal two pair on the board and villain mucked. The dealer pushed the pot in my direction as I stacked the newly added chips to my stack. That was the very first pot I'd ever won in a real poker room. It felt amazing.
It's wasn't as if I had rolled craps and won, or placed it on black and hit for roulette, I had won by not just having a good hand by luck, but by extracting value out of worse. I also remember that being one of the very few pots I won my first night playing "for real." I had bought in short to the $1/$2 game at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, Florida for $60. I did not have to stop by the cashier's cage on my way out.
That was the very first pot I'd ever won in a real poker room. It felt amazing.
But that feeling of winning that pot sparked something in me. I didn't sleep at all that night as I went on a YouTube binge watching poker video after poker video. I went again the next week to the same casino; once again my chips left at the table and not the cage.
Working 40 hours a week and going to school at night 35 hours a week was a pretty grueling schedule, so I didn't have much time to focus on this fascinating game. My friend and classmate, who was more of a player than I was, then showed me the movie Rounders. Instantly I had the same dream as Mike McDermott, to build up a roll and go to Vegas.
And then reality hit. I was working full time. I was in aviation maintenance school and at the top of my class. Education and a "real job" obviously had to take precedence, and since I was very familiar with putting all my money in the middle and not having it come back, I decided this would be the safer option.
I did end up graduating with multiple job offers and highest honors.
And then reality hit.
My friends and I would still play some sit & go now and then, and if I had time, I would read a poker book from the library, but mostly it was school and work and looking for a job. I got hired as an avionics technician for a government contractor out in California after graduation, located in the desert about an hour north of L.A.
After getting settled in California at my new job I began to dive into poker more seriously in mid-2015. I would watch poker strategy videos for hours on end. On my hour-long commute the majority of what I listened to was poker podcasts and poker audio books. I discovered the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles and found I was able to beat the games on a pretty regular basis.
Well, Vegas was only a few hours drive east, and my friend who had showed me Rounders was also living in California, so on a three-day weekend we packed our bags, went to our respective bank ATM, and started the drive across the desert.
We got our hopes up as we came down the hill and saw city lights in the distance. Unfortunately, this was not Las Vegas, Nevada, this was Primm, Nevada. Mirage was more like it, and if you blinked or coughed, you would drive right by it and miss the one exit they have.
We got our hopes up as we came down the hill and saw city lights in the distance.
Thankfully though, after more mountains and passing a couple isolated casinos, the true skyline I had been waiting to see appeared on the horizon. Thankfully my friend was driving, as I was too busy trying to take in all the sights. We pulled up to the valet at the hotel after navigating through the terrible traffic, checked into our room, quickly changed and hit the streets.
Much like I'll never forget scooping my first pot, I'll also never forget my first five minutes witnessing the Las Vegas strip on a Friday night. As someone who had traveled quite a bit with several stamps in his passport, Vegas was it's own thing, 100 percent. I had often heard stories of people coming to Vegas and losing everything; some of them even the gas money or plane ticket back home.
I always wondered, if this happens so much how do people continue to do it? Now I understood. Vegas was overwhelming; it was overkill in every form. It was like the city itself was having a world-class party and you were invited.
Now before I continue my story, let me state that I am a poker player; I am not a reckless gambler.
"It's a skill game, Jo."
Vegas was overwhelming; it was overkill in every form.
I found slots to be absolutely pointless; they held no appeal to me. While something like craps or roulette might seem fun, a quick study of the odds on those showed me I shouldn't expect to win with any consistency, so if I did play, it was with money I didn't necessarily intend to lose with, but I didn't expect to win.
Every game in Vegas, even the games that were close to 50/50 odds, are always tilted toward the house. In poker, you pay the house rake, but you're not playing against the house, you're playing against other people in a skill/strategy game with elements of luck, but a significantly smaller percentage of luck that the rest of the table games.
So there we were, two young guys in Vegas for the weekend, ready to play some poker. We sat down at a Bellagio $5/$10 limit game. I was in awe as I peeked into Bobby's Room where I knew some of the biggest games and names sat down to play. My friend won a small amount, I lost some and we both retired after not that long to our room.
We had the whole weekend and poker was always running. The next day we again went to Bellagio. This time we sat down at the $1/$3 no limit. I did not buy in the minimum anymore. I had $200 to start and was pretty comfortable with that. We played for several hours, almost all day. My stack grew, then it shrank, than it began to build back up again.
So there we were, two young guys in Vegas for the weekend, ready to play some poker.
I was having a blast. I had already grown a love for poker and Vegas was quickly growing on me. Of course, it became a lot less fun when my aces were cracked. I got up without any of the chips I had sat down with. My friend too had lost. Vegas takes on a very different look when you're walking around without any money.
Everything costs, even taking a picture with a costume character. SpongeBob would be ready to throw you into the Bellagio fountains if you didn't tip him. My friend and I both told the stories of how we went broke to each other. We agreed we could still beat Vegas and the tourists here and win our money back plus some.
So after taking a night to simply eat some dinner and watch the Bellagio fountains show pretending we were in Ocean's 11, we walked back into the poker room on Sunday full of confidence. I don't remember how exactly we lost, but I know we did. Both of us left the poker room with nothing but crushed spirits. We were certain it was just bad beats, but that didn't make us feel any better. We checked out of the hotel and began the drive back across the desert, which for some reason when you lose seemingly doubles in length.
However, not every trip to Vegas was losing. Looking back at the trip, I was playing too much too often and didn't find a fold when I should have. My return trips had a sense of business about them. I still had a blast, but I went there with the intention of making money by playing smart poker, which I found to be a rarity in the majority of games.
Vegas takes on a very different look when you're walking around without any money.
I would look at the convention schedule and make it a point to visit when big conventions rolled in. I found these trips to be pretty profitable and began to really enjoy Vegas. I met quite a few cool people in the poker rooms that I continue to stay in touch with.
My life took a dramatic turn when I was riding my motorcycle home from work and a pickup pulled out in front of me while I was going 70, at least that's what the accident report states. I don't remember anything other than leaving work and waking up in the hospital. I had suffered a broken collarbone, a broken shoulder blade, multiple cracked ribs, three cracked vertebrae and lacerated spleen and liver. I lost a pint of blood on the way to the hospital. My parents flew out from Orlando the next day and it was a tense few days.
Through some sort of miracle, not only did my injuries heal on their own with no procedures or surgery, but I would also recover 100 percent after not being able to move my right arm. I was not able to work for a couple of months, but poker-wise, once I was well enough to drive, I would go down to the Commerce and play in the short-stacked cash games. I paid my bills that way.
Doing this felt pretty good; I was almost comfortable enough to continue this as a living. However, a couple of factors once again threw a wrench into things. One of my coworkers insisted I was forging his signature on documents.
This had no foundation; however, the supervisors took his senior word over mine, and rather than fighting a wrongful termination, I ended up stepping down. And then shortly after that, my roommates decided they no longer wanted to live in the same apartment. Staying would triple my monthly living expenses.
So with no job and now no apartment, with all of the craziness my life, I made the decision to move back home to Florida, at least temporarily. I packed up everything I could in my car, leaving what didn't by the dumpster and made the long drive back to my parents. If life had a reset button, this was me pushing it. I had been so excited to move to California with a new job and in a good place to play poker and all of that was now wiped away. My parents were very supportive and were ready to help in whatever way they could.
So with no job and now no apartment, with all of the craziness my life, I made the decision to move back home.
I spent a couple of weeks just recouping and thinking about what direction I wanted my life to go in from this point. I enjoyed aviation work and I sent out several applications, all in either California or Las Vegas. The West Coast had me hooked with the mountains, overall culture, and of course, the poker.
During this slow period, I did a lot of studying on poker strategy and I soon got into the world of online poker. This online thing seemed different, and in the U.S., it falls into sort of a gray area and can vary state by state. I did quite a bit of research before making an account with a site I felt safe on. A lot of books recommended starting out in Sit & Go, so that's what I grinded for the most part.
I did some small cash and a few low buy in tournaments as well, but the majority of the volume I put in was in Sit & Go. I blew through a few $50 deposits before I realized I really needed to take this seriously. I found it was so easy to treat the numbers on screen as points in a video game rather than actual money.
A lot of the players I played with were clearly bad, I just needed to exploit them. My next $50 deposit grew into a four-figure sum in just over two weeks. I was very excited, it occurred to me online play may also be a way at making a living at poker. I cashed out leaving $100 and proceeded to work at running it up again.
During this time of playing poker, I still had "real world" job applications out in the aviation market. I found it difficult, however, at a lot of places; I had only one year of experience doing fairly specialized work, and my leaving the company clearly hurt my career reputation when compared to other applicants.
I began to wonder as the weeks turned into months if I would find another job.
My inbox was filled with opening sentences such as "Thank you for you recent application, we regret to inform you at this time----." Career-wise this was pretty depressing and I began to wonder as the weeks turned into months if I would find another job.
During the night, I picked up a paper route which helped put some cash in my pocket. I continued to do fairly well online spinning up my balance a couple more times and really believed this was sustainable as a living. The closest poker room was in Daytona. I won a couple daily tournaments and did OK, but it was mostly a reg fest that wasn't anything like the West Coast games.
Then I was playing a $50,000 guaranteed tournament. It crushed the guarantee and I ended up taking second for just under $20k. This was the biggest score of my very short poker life thus far, and a big, bankroll-changing one at that.
At this point, I was really sick of Florida and was ready to move back west. I had a friend from high school who had bought a house in - where else - Las Vegas, and he needed a roommate. It didn't take me long to pack my Prius to the brim and set out West.
I'm now going on my third month of living here. I play about a 70 percent-30 percent mix of live to online. I'm averaging $24 an hour at the $1/$2 and $1/$3 games, I haven't really played much $2/$5, I would still be uncomfortable going on a prolonged downswing which will happen sooner or later as a pro, even in cash. I'm still looking at what hours and times will maximize my profit and I'm sure I've missed out on a lot of value in places, but I'm paying the bills and adding to the bankroll.
I'm paying the bills and adding to the bankroll.
Living as a poker pro in Vegas is not a new dream. If you've watched Rounders and enjoy poker you've probably had the same thought. Let me state clearly it's not all glitz and glamour. You're playing for a lot of hours, normally end up having a bad sleep schedule. Keeping a good diet is very challenging.
Soon you begin to see a lot of the same faces and all the regs are targeting the same couple of fish at the tables so you have to adjust to exploit both players. You have to study and review hands and situations that come up. Every dollar has to be accounted for: you tip a dealer, a waitress, a valet, play a blackjack hand - everything becomes plus or minus EV.
When you've lost your last five sessions, you still have to play your A-game and not let that stress affect your decision-making. Handling chips and being in so close proximity to people you're likely to get sick more often than normal, you've got to make sure your physical health doesn't subtract from your mental health.
All that to say, I love what I do.
All that to say, I love what I do. I'm still enthralled with this game and want to learn it more and become better and better at it. I can go anywhere to play or take a needed off day. The only thing I have to answer to is bills which haven't been a problem so far. Not having the 9-5 is freeing in a lot of ways; you get used to income fluctuating and you roll with it.
In Event #1 of the WSOP Circuit stop in Los Angeles, I took 35th out of 1,477. I played for hours with Bart Hanson on my left and David "odb" Baker on my right; I doubled up through both of them. Booking a cash like that really affirmed my desire to play. I knew I could play with these guys. I had done it.
"People always insist on calling it luck."
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