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No-Limit Assassins

While not household names on the gambling circuit, several young poker pros have made a killing playing the game online.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, July/August 2008

It is a Wednesday night in Las Vegas, and good poker games abound. Just stroll into the Bellagio or the Venetian Hotel Resort Casino or Caesars Palace, Vegas's two reigning hubs of Texas Hold'em, and head for the card room. But Andrew Robl is not interested in those kinds of poker games. He's a high—stakes pro and, at the age of 23, has just crossed the million—dollar mark in poker profits. But he's no Daniel Negreanu or Chris Ferguson, swanning around the scene, flaunting a catchy nickname, decked out in a sponsor's colors. If you know Robl at all, it's probably by his innocuous online handle: good2cu.

Blond, compactly built, muscled up from regular workouts at the gym in his condo near the Strip, Robl is among an elite group of poker professionals who've found significant edges on the Internet. Offline, he's got a booming laugh and the recklessness of a college kid with money. Online, he's a no—limit assassin, carefully picking his targets, researching them on the fly, outthinking them and taking their money.

Robl maximizes profits by playing up to 10 tables simultaneously. This makes a $25/$50 no—limit Texas Hold'em game potentially much more profitable than it initially sounds. Robl puts through the volume of a $250/$500 no—limit player—and, because the fields are softer at lower levels, his expected value is higher than what the numbers indicate. "I am very selective in the games I play," he says, sitting on a deck chair alongside his apartment building's swimming pool, explaining that selective refers to the level of competition, not the size of the stakes. "If there are no good players at $100/$200, I'll play that. The buy—in is $20,000, and I can lose 20 of those and still have plenty of money. The other day, I played a guy heads—up [at $100/$200 no limit] and took $80,000 from him. But I would never play another professional at those stakes."

With six tables spread across a pair of his oversized computer monitors, Robl seems more like an air traffic controller than a gambler. He jumps from game to game, simultaneously making moves and looking up stats on his opponents. If he sees that somebody has a tendency to, say, over—raise in certain situations, he devises the perfect strategy with which to exploit that shortcoming. At the same time, he keeps his eyes out for favored softies, those who are particularly inferior and have loads of money. The fish de jour is a Russian who goes by the name of Scout. He typically has no trouble dropping six figures during a casual session of play. It happens that he's online and looking for a game. More than a dozen pros sit at single tables, in the manner of hookers occupying red—light—district doorways, each one hoping to be picked by Scout.

Robl's evolution was speedy. He started playing poker with friends during his high school days in Okemos, Michigan. Upon entering the University of Michigan as an economics major he was already earning several thousand dollars per month online. By the second semester of his freshman year, he decided that finishing college to get a job with a starting salary of $30,000 or $40,000 didn't make sense. He stayed in school for the rest of the term but rarely attended classes. The games were just too good and the money too easy. "I was making $100 to $200 per hour," remembers Robl, who celebrated his success by throwing the most elaborate keggers in university history. "It became weird and awkward. I couldn't enjoy my money unless I paid for everyone, and that gets old after a while. So I'd fly to Vegas for weekends, go to strip clubs, play poker and then head back home to Michigan."

In short order, residing in Las Vegas seemed like the only viable option. He found a nice apartment in a new, luxury high—rise building and began plying his trade without having to deal with casinos. He's fallen in with a crowd of other young online pros, all experiencing the thrill of sudden affluence in which cool cars, cases of Cristal and wads of hundreds are de rigueur. Young enough that life is unencumbered by very much outside of poker, they thrive on high—stakes excesses and outrages. One entertaining story centers around a twenty—something Internet pro beating a rich kid who plays under the name perkyschmerky (in honor of his favorite pharmaceutical). The pro had taken him for six figures over the course of a weekday morning. They wrapped the game and the pro thanked his opponent, promising to use his winnings to buy a new M—Series BMW. A little later in the day, he did just that, adorning his car with a vanity plate in honor of his opponent: THXPERKY.

The pro took a snapshot and e—mailed it to the beleaguered perkyschmerky.

While the general public may still view Internet poker as a dicey proposition, doubters in the mainstream poker world (many of whom have long regarded online players with some derision) are coming around. Proof of evolving attitudes recently became apparent when the producers of "Poker After Dark"—a nightly show on NBC, in which superstar players compete in what is essentially a weeklong single—table freeze—out with a $25,000 buy—in—approached a group of online players (including Robl) to sit down with a trio of veteran pros (Doyle Brunson and Huck Seed among them). The game is being billed as Nets vs. Vets, and the significance of the moment is not lost on Robl. A day before the match, he gets a manicure, plots his wardrobe (he opts for a suit without a tie) and comes up with a plan for respectfully challenging one of the vets to play him online for $1 million.

When poker deity Doyle Brunson talks about the online kids, he does it with a sense of wonder, acknowledging that in their short lives many of them have played more hands of no—limit Texas Hold'em (at least in the tournament form) than he has. He's not exaggerating. In live poker, approximately 35 hands get dealt per hour. Online, the number is 100. Play 10 tables at a time and you are seeing 1,000 hands per hour. Put in a month's worth of 50—hour weeks (which is a lot more viable online than live) and you've seen approximately 200,000 hands of poker. It would take nearly 6,000 hours (or 120 of those 50—hour weeks) to do it the old—fashioned way. So the learning curve works itself out in warp speed. That said, simply getting good is not enough. Once the best online players figure out the game, that is when the real work begins.

Poker has always been an enterprise of education and information. Pros once spent weeks looking for opponents' tells, doping out their games, figuring what would induce them to call a bet or fold unwisely. The top online practitioners do the same thing, but they use technology to streamline the process, taking advantage of readily available statistics to vet opponents as vulnerable and, more importantly, to dissect their games. "I won't play anyone if I have no stats on him," declares Robl. "But if I have stats, and see him doing something wrong, I'll play him."

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