While not household names on the gambling circuit, several young poker pros have made a killing playing the game online.
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."
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.
As Sass remembers it, "In five or six hours, Tom had run $7,000 on one of our accounts up to 675K. I had just won like $350,000. To me that was a shitload. I had slept for six hours that night and figured out that for every minute I slept I earned around $1,000. At the end of the Series, Tom gave me a pile of cash. I didn't even know what to do with all of it. I kept a bunch and spent almost 100K on furnishing my apartment."
Even among the Internet kids, who are unfazed by six—figure sessions, Dwan is a legendary character. He's just 21 and competes as high online as anyone in the world, often against big—name players who are widely regarded as the best in the game. On the afternoon I meet him, he is fresh from an all—night online session that yielded nearly half—a—million dollars. Even more astounding, according to statistics from highstakesdb.com, between January 1 and April 16 of this year, Dwan won more than $1.7 million playing pot—limit Omaha and no—limit Texas Hold'em on FullTilt.com.
Impressive as that stat is, he insists that single numbers can be deceiving. "The amounts of money that change hands day to day are ridiculous," acknowledges Dwan, tall and slender and always meticulously groomed. "Recently a friend's girlfriend congratulated me on a big win. I asked her which win she was referring to. She was talking about $200,000 that I had won in a live game at Bellagio. But, I explained, since then, over a two—week period, I had made $200,000 four times—and I was down $25,000, all told, for the period." He smiles tightly and shakes his head. "The swings are just insane."
Overall, Dwan (who plays under the name Durrrr) is way on the upside of those swings. He started with a $50 investment, never needed to replenish his bankroll and ran it up to millions. Like Robl, he had a short stint in college, at Boston University, and dropped out because it just made no sense in light of his online riches. Nevertheless, Dwan is quick to point out that negative variance, at his stratospheric level, can be brutal. During one awful period, not long ago, he lost more than half of his seven—figure bankroll. The nearly devastating beating came about through a bad streak online and rotten investments in backing other players. "I cared a ton about that," he says. "It really bothered me and made me question playing poker."
But he didn't question it for long. Instead, he did what every long—term winner does: hunker down and grind it out. Because he plays online, Dwan was able to quickly get back to where he needed to be. Possessing less ego than a lot of live—game players—who have a hard time dropping down to lower levels when they are getting killed at the bigger games—he worked his way back up, making it sound as if it's virtually impossible for him to lose at stakes that seem astonishingly high to the rest of us. "In three weeks of playing $10/$20 no—limit, I would be a huge favorite to make $90,000," he says, looking incredulous when I ask him why he doesn't do it all the time. "In order to do that, I would require a large bet; somebody would have to bet me $500,000 that I couldn't do it." He considers this, then says, "Actually, the bet would need to be higher. It would need to be for $1 million. It would be a shitty three weeks, with me putting in like 200 hours. But I could definitely win 90K." Unfortunately, he says, "Nobody I know is willing to make the bet."
Understanding that he means he'd need some extra motivation to put in all those hours of play, I tell him that for most people the simple opportunity to make $30,000 in a week would be motivation enough. "Yeah," replies Dwan, "but those people, who so badly want to make $120,000 per month, might lose $10,000 in a pot and flip out. Or else they'd go on tilt and stop playing even though they're up against a bunch of fish."
It's one thing to drop out of college because the poker's too good to ignore, but it's quite another to finish college, land a corporate job and quit that for the life of an online grinder. Such is the case with 28—year—old Luke Kim, who graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002. He spent two years working as a business consultant, but his true passion was poker. Many weekends and holidays were spent in Atlantic City where he clawed his way up to the biggest games that A.C. had to offer.
The rational Kim weighed his options before deciding that poker would not only pay better than consulting but would also provide a more appealing lifestyle. Following a short stint in Atlantic City, he relocated to Las Vegas in December of 2004. Last December, he moved into an apartment down the hall from Andrew Robl's place and, like Robl, transformed into an online specialist. "The live games seemed different in Vegas; they're tougher," says Kim, who is slim, hard—angled and intense. "Plus, I got lazy about driving to the casinos, and I don't mind being in the house all day." His place is sparsely furnished, although he now owns one of Philippe Starck's clear plastic chairs and hopes to one day acquire pieces by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.
In terms of poker, Kim has found his comfort zone by deploying a low—risk, high—reward strategy. He plays multiple tables of up to $5/$10 no—limit Hold'em and earns a steady low six—figure income while keeping things mellow enough that he's been able to partner up on a poker—related business (chipwalkers.com, which facilitates players' money transfers from one site to another). "I play off of margins and have very moderate swings," says Kim, who displays little interest in bona fide gambling. "I play close to the vest and most of my days are within $2,000, plus or minus. Though I've cleared as much as $4,000 in a day, I usually shoot for $1,000 on average, but I don't force it."
Still, despite his success, you can't help but wonder if Kim, a guy who seems to have been on a business—world fast track, misses some of the intellectual repartee that came with his old life among the MBAs and well—bred suits. "People think poker players are a bunch of degenerates, but I find no shortage of brilliant minds in my crowd," he says without hesitation. "These guys read more books than a lot of the people I went to school with. Sometimes I feel illiterate compared to them, and I'm not dumb. In terms of pure analytical power, the same ability required for figuring out a complex logic solution applies to poker. I totally buy the idea that a lot of people who get good at poker can do a lot of other things as well." He pauses momentarily, then adds, "If they feel like it."
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