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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

(continued from page 1)

Alan Sass, a buddy of Robl's who lives in Vegas's luxurious Turnberry Towers (it boasts a private club, restaurant and cigar lounge), has been known to spend more time researching opponents than actually playing them. It's a cautious approach that has clearly paid off: at the door of his well—appointed apartment, 25—year—old Sass greets me in a finely tailored Hugo Boss suit. Once inside, he offers me a Fuente Fuente OpusX Forbidden and pours cocktails from the kind of liquor selection any bartender would be proud to have on his top shelf. Asked how profitable poker is for him, Sass lowballs his hourly take as being in the $1,000 range.

Clearly, he views poker as a game that is best played with as little gamble in it as possible. One way of achieving this is by utilizing data systems such as Hold'em Manager. It is a piece of software that "shows three—bet stats, how often someone raises, how aggressive someone is, how often they fold to a three—bet," says Sass, who then goes on to reveal a bit of the thinking that this information can trigger. "Let's say I find out that you open under the gun 2 percent of the time; this means that you only open if you have aces. If you open under the gun 50 percent of the time, I know you open with anything. I can three—bet you and you will fold. Then I look at how many times you fold against three—bets; if you do it 80 percent of the time, I will three—bet you constantly." Though the information is clearly invaluable and available to anyone who plays online, Sass says, "Hardly anybody uses it. They're lazy or else they think it doesn't matter."

Sass approaches everything with insatiable gusto. He loves doing research and finding out as much as possible about whatever he chooses to pursue—whether it's handguns or whiskey or coin collecting. Poker is no exception. Before playing his first hand, live at the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, he devoured 20 books on the subject and became a winning player immediately.

In his evolution as an online professional, Sass benefited from what old—school pro Howard Lederer has called "the power of the collective." Or, simply put, discussing the game with other players. In Lederer's day, the collective was a half dozen precocious talents who happened to be gambling at an underground Manhattan club called the Mayfair. In the case of Sass and company, the power of the collective is steroidal. His group, which includes Robl and a couple dozen others, is culled from the ranks of the top online players. They discuss hands and, more importantly, opponents over elaborate dinners in Vegas (Sass has a habit of ordering every appetizer on the menu, then nibbling canapé—size helpings from each one).

For the most part, they assiduously avoid the perils of gambling in the pit and view poker as a highly profitable business. The super—successful online pros don't expect to spend the rest of their lives playing this game. They view it as a means to an end, aspiring to make lots of money, get out, and move into various forms of investing. In that regard, they are very different from the Brunsons of the world who failed to see a meaningful professional life away from the table. I figure that their thinking is sound, as the history of poker is littered with great players who've gone broke when confronted with even better players who've advanced the game and figured out new ways of approaching it. This happens all the time and seems integral to poker's Darwinian evolution.

I bring up this issue with Robl, Sass and the others. Most of them blow off the notion of losing to newbies. They maintain that their games will keep evolving. I conclude that they've got too much hubris to glean the point that I am trying to subtly make. It turns out, however, that they're answering me in shorthand—I am the one who isn't getting it.

As Sass explains it, the very approach that keeps them competitive will prevent them from getting run over by smarter kids with fresher approaches. "If I get hand histories from a site, I can keep track of who's doing well and who's doing badly," Sass explains. "By picking apart the stats of winning players, I can see what they are doing. Let's say someone is having a lot of success by check—raising certain situations on the river. Well, then, OK, if I incorporate that into my game maybe I will have more success as well. You see that a guy is up a million dollars in a couple months, and maybe it makes sense to see what he's doing to achieve that." In live games it's virtually impossible to dissect a player's strategy; online, it's a matter of taking the time and having the focus to do it.

Sass estimates that his game changes every few sessions. Right now he's finding more spots for himself, playing more aggressively, focusing more on mathematics. In terms of what it's done for him, he points to his $10,000 TV, recounts a $12,000 Bed Bath & Beyond shopping spree and talks about sharing his wealth with his mom and aunt. It also provides him with a kind of freedom that few 25—year—olds can enjoy. Last year, Sass was visiting his friend and fellow online pro Tom Dwan in Texas. On the spur of the moment, they decided to visit Europe. They packed light and headed to the airport. Laptops in hand, they barnstormed through London, Amsterdam and Rome, checking into the best hotels, doing a bit of touring and enjoying lots of online poker. Despite massive room service bills, the trip was quite profitable, and they split each other's action.

Their deal, on certain sites, remained in effect after they returned to the States, but Sass wasn't thinking about it a whole lot. Then a late—night call came to a house that Sass and some friends had rented for the 2007 World Series of Poker. A friend answered and told the caller that Sass was asleep.

"Kick him awake," said the caller, who turned out to be Dwan.

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