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Poker's New Jet Setters

The next generation of poker stars traverse the globe in high style
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Liev Schreiber, November/December 2013

(continued from page 1)

Ttired-looking 20-somethings amble through an array of international airports carrying little more than duffle bags and backpacks. Casual clothes and long hours on airplanes make them look like burnt-out travelers wrapping up a long tour. While they don’t resemble anyone’s traditional idea of world-weary jet-setters, these underdressed Millennials are indeed hitting some of the most stylish locales on the planet: Barcelona, Rome, Monte Carlo, San Remo, London, L.A. and Macau. Often, awaiting them upon arrival is the opportunity to realize a six- or seven-figure payday that would bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded international citizen. The more successful of these high-living itinerants stay in the best hotels, dine at the poshest restaurants and have grown accustomed to flying business class or first.

We’re not talking about jewel smugglers or dealers in shady financial instruments or indy rock stars. These young men, all in their 20s, comprise the new generation of successful poker players. They transport in high style around the world through a circuit of big-money tournaments and cash games. Comparing this enlightened mode of travel to the old, game-to-game car trips of their forebears—guys like Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim—is like comparing high-definition television to a boxy black-and-white tabletop TV with antennas.

Evolved into travel snobs and unrepentant foodies—one guy brags, “After Italy, I can’t even eat pasta in the United States anymore”—this group of young poker pros simply follows the money. “I could go to Las Vegas and beat live poker; there are always lots of tourists and live pros with less experience,” says Alec Torelli, who won his first online million before turning 21 and now spends enough time in Italy that he is sponsored by PokerStars there. “But the win rate of the Vegas pro has gone down because the ability of the average player has gone up dramatically. The market has become more efficient.” He finds better opportunities online and via live games in places like Macau, where, he acknowledges, the action is already drying up. “Public opinion is that you can go to Macau and crush people. But once everybody knows about the good games, they’re not that good anymore.”

Where is the next good place? “If I knew,” says Torelli, “I wouldn’t tell you.”

For one weekend in late August, a clutch of young players agrees that the good place is Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Promises of lofty sums bring them to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino there. The locale may not brim with alluring exoticism, but a $5,000 rebuy tournament, with a guaranteed prize-pool of $10 million, coupled with the so-called Alpha8 (a $100,000 buy-in event that the World Poker Tour will be shooting for TV), provide plenty of inducement. “A big cash in one of the high-roller events is significant for me,” says Isaac Haxton, an online pro who plays the Internet’s biggest games, coolly enduring six- and seven-figure swings. “Besides, coming here and seeing some of my friends is part of the appeal. There is a social component to this.”

Poker players who once lived in Las Vegas have become globally scattered. For Haxton, a visit to America now stands as a bit of a novelty. After his world was rocked by Black Friday—the night of April 15, 2011, when online poker was shut down in the United States—Haxton briefly considered getting a straight job. After all, he has a degree in computer science and is widely regarded as one of the game’s brainiest players. But then he thought better of it and realized that if he wanted to continue earning massive sums of money as a poker player, he’d have to leave America and be where online poker is legal or at least tolerated. Live games were simply not his forte. Sometimes it means coming up with jerryrigged solutions, like the time he intentionally laid over in Vienna, checked into the airport hotel and stayed there long enough to play PokerStars’ World Championship of Online Poker.

His wife scoped out the Mediterranean island of Malta, and surprised herself by actually liking the place. Best of all, for Haxton and his wife, there were no restrictions on how many days in a row you stayed there without being a full-fledged citizen. “Then the day we got there, they changed the permanent residence rule; you needed to give the government half-a-million Euros,” he recounts. “Now we stay there for 90 out of every 180 days and spend a lot of our time in Hong Kong and Vancouver”—locales where Haxton can play all the online poker he wants. Nevertheless, Haxton acknowledges that leaving the poker cocoon of Vegas and living in a strange land overseas has not been completely seamless: “I can’t just find someone to hang out with whenever I want, I eat more meals alone, I spend more time reading and playing games on my computer. There’s not all that much to do in Malta…” His voice trails off before he shrugs and brightly adds, “But I’m a pretty boring guy anyway.”

While he enjoys the traveling and acknowledges that it’s something he never would have done if not for Black Friday, Haxton says that it takes something of a toll on him. He spends too much time playing highest stakes online poker in hotel rooms, setting his laptop computer on crummy desks, sitting on chairs that are not designed for 12-hour sessions of grinding and missing the giant computer screen that he uses at home. “I’ve already bought a big monitor that I am keeping at a friend’s house in Vancouver and will move it to the hotel room,” he says. “I probably will do the same with a good desk chair. Bad ergonomics wear on you after a while.”

Joseph Cheong, the diminutive poker pro, looks too young to smoke after he busts out of the $100,000 buy-in tournament. He seems basically emotionless, shrugging off his loss by saying, “At least I got my money in good.” He’s barely left his seat before being handed a cigarette and whipping out his iPhone. Cheong scans the small screen, looking for a flight he can catch that night, hoping to leave Lauderdale and head to Los Angeles where the Legends of Poker Main Event will soon take place. The only remaining flight leaves in 80 minutes, and he realizes he’ll never make it. So, instead, Cheong arranges to join a German pro, who also busted out, for dinner at Market 17. “It’s the best restaurant in Fort Lauderdale,” says Cheong. “Everything is organic and local.”

He acknowledges that eating well is one perk of traveling the circuit—which can easily run $200,000 a year in expenses alone, before even factoring in tournament entry fees—but he can’t come up with any place where he has particularly enjoyed dining. Nor does he name a favorite city and offers Hotel Arts Barcelona only after being pressed for a favorite place to stay. Cheong makes the whole thing sound like a blur of casinos, random hotel rooms, nights of partying and gambling in the pit. Lately Cheong has been partial to baccarat for $1,000 per hand. He admits that it is an expensive habit, but it’s all helped along by the fact that he finished third in the 2010 World Series of Poker Main Event for $4.13 million. Since then, he’s won an additional $4.5 million or so.

It puts him in fairly elevated company. Unlike most players on the tour, he says, “I [rarely] have backers. For any tournament below $100,000, I put in my own money. It wouldn’t feel good winning and having to give it away.” Furthermore, he adds, most poker players on the road don’t exactly live it up for a simple reason: a lot of them are struggling financially. “They can’t afford to take a day off,” Cheong says. “They keep playing, hoping to get lucky. They go out for big dinners they can’t afford and pray that they don’t lose at credit card roulette”—a post-meal wager in which players put all their credit cards in a pile, have the waiter draw the cards one at a time and whoever’s card is left has to pay the entire tab. “At the tournament in the Bahamas, I probably lost $10,000 at credit card roulette.” He smiles crookedly, and suddenly looks a little sick before adding, “But I lost a total of $300,000 on that trip. So the 10K didn’t seem like much.”

While Cheong points out that he’s not one for sight-seeing or making the most of his globe-trotting, others do it differently. The platinum-haired French pro Bertrand “Elky” Grospellier travels with his own trainer. Phil Ivey has been known to finagle private jets from casinos where he gambles for astronomical stakes. And Jason Koon forgoes hotels altogether, opting to stay in houses. A bit of a fitness freak, the bulked-up Koon likes to be away from the smoke and the room service carts; he prefers to do his own cooking and laundry. “I don’t need a baller house,” he tells me in the kitchen of a decent but not extravagant place that he and a few fellow pros are renting in Fort Lauderdale. “As long as there is a backyard and a pool, I am happy.”
If there are locals to meet and converse with, Koon is even happier. During a recent trip to Australia, where he played the Aussie Millions in Melbourne, he made friends at the local day-market and joined in a pickup basketball game. “I drank local wine with one group and had a barbecue with another,” says Koon. “That’s where I discovered that the Australians like to put beets on their hamburgers.”

Being forced to travel in the wake of Black Friday (he had a less than pleasant experience in Cypress and online-friendly Vancouver is his closest thing to a home base) Koon opened his mind to the possibilities of wanderlust. At last year’s Bay 101 tournament, in San Jose, California, Koon decided that he “wasn’t feeling comfortable.” So rather than blow his money, he bailed from poker and hopped a plane to Oahu. Quickly settling into the Hawaiian island, he decided to make good on a lifetime ambition. “I always wanted to surf,” he says. “I decided that I would stay there and not leave until I got up on a wave. I finally did, managing to earn some street cred from the locals. I went home like a new man and won a tournament on the day that I got back.”

Beyond all that, traveling has imbued Koon with a different attitude about failing to make the money in tournaments. Back when he lived in Vegas, he says, he’d deal with bust-outs by going from the casino to the gym to his bedroom and sleeping it off until morning. In Fort Lauderdale, though, following multiple rebuys to the tune of $27,000 in the Main Event, he found a better solution. “Things did not go optimally,” says Koon evenly. “So I went to the beach, hung out, read a book and felt better.”

A day later, when the $100,000 buy-in tournament comes to naught, he leaves the poker room without looking the least bit bothered. In fact, he has the what-the-hell demeanor of a guy who’s about to go home, spin a globe and decide where to go next.

Slim and trim, looking casually dapper in a sport jacket and tee shirt, Jeff Gross is the globe-trotting personification of a wager. He says he’s keeping in shape via a pair of five-figure bets he’s got going—one that forbids him from eating flour and another that keeps him from consuming alcohol—and that below his stylish garb is the sort of thing few men would want: a tattoo of a very feminine looking Easter egg on his shoulder. “We were in Amsterdam last week and talking about a price for this tattoo,” he says, referring to himself and one of his backers. “We came to agree that the price was in the six-figures, and I didn’t get to choose the tattoo.”

Girlish tattoos aside, Gross maintains that the shuttering of online poker pretty much saved his life. Prior to Black Friday, he had been living in Baltimore, rooming with his friend, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps (himself, no stranger to poker), and playing continually. Phelps would be back from his morning workout, getting ready for his second of the day, while Gross would be wiping the bleariness from his eyes and logging on for another long session of Internet action. “I assumed I’d never be out of shape,” says Gross who had been a serious soccer player through high school and into college. “Then, from just sitting there and grinding online, I got chubby without noticing how it happened.” Hotel gyms and food bets have helped Gross to become healthy again.

Besides traveling to tournaments—Gross says that he’s been home for no more than 30 days between January and August of this year—he’s managed to get himself invited to lucrative high-stakes home games. They allow him to play with wealthy amateurs and, as Gross puts it, “You get into a good cash game, and you only have to play five or six times a year, potentially, to do well. Home games are the most lucrative and the most fun to play. They don’t want pros, per se, in the game. But they know you’re up and coming and these guys have a lot of money. They can hurt you.”

He flew to Macau on four or five days notice upon hearing that a good game would be going there and is not bothered by the rigors of living on the road to chase down opportunities. “Being single with no kids, it’s a perfect time,” says Gross. “I had one serious girlfriend when I was in college, and I had to stop playing online; a serious girlfriend takes a lot of time. Now I enjoy being single and want to get in as much traveling as I can.”

He ticks off recent jaunts to Monaco, Barcelona, Ibiza, L.A. and Vegas. On the last of these, Gross, who suffers from acrophobia, won a bet by leaping off of the Stratosphere roof—the jump is controlled by a sort of vertical zip line—and is reconsidering PokerStars’ annual tournament in the Bahamas: “It’s getting a little old,” he says. Besides, he’s trying to fit in some non-poker travel as well. For example, there was a trip to the Maldives, in the company of pros Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak plus Michael Phelps. That visit had to be poker free. “We brought a set of chips with us—regular poker chips, which weren’t worth anything in a casino—and they got confiscated at the airport [by customs],” says Gross. “I’ve never heard of that before.”

The nice thing about traveling the circuit, Gross points out, is that it pretty much defines your schedule for the year. Certain tournaments take place in certain cities and if you are a certain caliber of poker player, you definitely need to be there. You also want to be somewhere you can play via the Internet for the big online tournaments and June/July generally gets eaten up by the World Series of Poker. It’s a kind of predictability in an unpredictable business that a lot of the young pros can appreciate.

In the case of Jason Mercier, he knows that he’ll spend six months per year on the road. It’s been going that way for him ever since 2008, when he won a seat in the European Poker Tour’s Main Event in San Remo and finished first for a cash prize of $1.37 million. Nevertheless, despite the set schedule, he still budgets for last-minute tickets and quick escapes. “Getting knocked out of a tournament makes me want to board a flight and get the heck out,” he says. “One day, I will look at how much I spend on change-fees and have a heart attack.”

If Mercier gets blasted from the Alpha8, though, he will not be heading to the airport immediately. In a couple of days he leaves for Barcelona, but Fort Lauderdale is his hometown and he insists that if he burns through his $100,000 entry fee with no remuneration, “I’ll drive to my house and be playing basketball in 15 minutes. The highs and lows don’t impact me.” Or maybe it’ll be racquetball. He also happens to have a racquetball court.

It’s the sort of extravagance Mercier can afford because he is relatively conservative in his poker life. We do this interview over dinner at the Seminole Hard Rock’s steakhouse, during a break in the tournament, and his parents have joined us. His father is quick to point out that Jason has enough money salted away in safe investments that he is financially covered for life. Jason himself is equally quick to tell me that he’s got $2.2 million in cashes this year and is the number-one ranked tournament player by Global Poker Index. On top of all that, he’s currently the chip leader in the $100,000 buy-in tournament and seems particularly motivated to win it in the place where he grew up.

On some level, he seems destined to take the whole thing down. But then, as often happens in tournament poker, things crumble quickly. Mercier bombs out in eighth place. But there is an upside: He has baskets to shoot, no flights to rejigger and an impending trip to Barcelona for what he and his crowd views as an endless, globe-spanning game of poker.

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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