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The Exalted Amateurs

Poker is one of the few arenas where money can buy an amateur the chance to bust a pro
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, July/August 2010

(continued from page 2)

Looking back, he says, "It was a good lesson."

Since then, Meltzer has improved markedly. Though he's lost plenty of cash along the way, Meltzer views the cost of his poker education as tuition. Eventually, he believes, it will pay off solidly. "When I first met Alan, I thought he was the juiciest guy in the game; I thought he was the worst player ever," says Erik Boneta, a 29-year-old watch dealer who enjoys nipping at the pros. "Now, though, he is probably the most improved player I have ever met."

Unlike Meltzer and some of the others, Boneta does not seek out professional competition. But, as a consequence of the stakes he likes to play, he invariably comes up against guys like David Williams, Nick Shulman and David "Viffer" Peat. Considering the high standard of competition, he's not expecting to be the best player in the game, but he won't sit down if he's the worst either. Driving home the delineations between high-stakes professionals, serious amateurs like him and Meltzer, and the very best, Boneta remembers the night that Tom "durrrr" Dwan showed up at Boneta's regular game.

Dwan had a pair of friends with him and there were only two seats available at the table. Considering that Boneta's standard $25/$50 or $50/$100 stakes were not sufficiently nosebleed for Dwan, he suggested that his friends buy in. While they sat down, Dwan slipped into a spare bedroom. "Like 28 minutes later," remembers Boneta, "he came out with a big grin on his face and said, ‘I just won a quarter.' "

The word was shorthand, of course, for a quarter of a million-dollars. That casually stated sum underscores the ambitions, skills and desires that separate the true elite professional poker players and the exalted amateurs. For the former, it's a handsome living. For the latter, it's a gut check, a challenge and a potentially pricy kick. There's an element of fantasy attached to it and the knowledge that on any given day, a pro might be taken down. Additionally, considering how smart these guys are, you never know when someone who does it as a serious avocation will step up and actually turn into a consistent chip vacuum at the table.

In talking to Meltzer, who's devoting as much time to playing poker as any of the amateurs I've spoken with, a question is begged. As he competes at a tough level, going up against guys who think about little more than the game, has he yet crossed over to the point where poker is a profit center? "I'm not going to boast that I'm a winning player," Meltzer replies, sounding a little cryptic. "What I will say is that I can comfortably play poker against anybody."
And, as Jerry Buss attests, for the exalted amateur, being able to pull off that feat is enough.

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


Lou Russo is doing the very thing that a lot of people fantasize about. Russo, who's worked as an attorney and experienced success in the futures market, has taken the plunge and become a professional poker player. That happened in 2006, three years after he began playing the game seriously, and closely following a tournament windfall of more than $200,000 at the Borgata in Atlantic City.

He's won World Series of Poker seats and has come up against his share of seasoned, professional players. Sometimes they intimidated him, sometimes they inspired him, and at least one pro turned into a friend who willingly offered valuable advice. The pro in question is Andy "The Monk" Black, an Irishman who is highly respected on the European tournament circuit.

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