I haven’t felt much like writing or talking about it until today, but about five or six weeks ago I decided that effective early in 2012 I will stop playing poker as my primary source of income.
My chosen profession already poses serious challenges for both Janeen and I. I’m away from home between one-third and half of the days of the year and Janeen works full time. We can’t afford (and do not prefer) the kind of child care that will allow Janeen to relax when she gets home from work while I’m away. When baby number two graces our lives in February, a full poker schedule will become both unfeasible and undesirable. I expect that having two very small children will completely remove what remains of my desire to travel and “grind,” and I’m okay with that.
The best part about professional poker is the lifestyle. Playing poker for a living means no alarm clocks, no scheduled meetings, random vacation days and no one ever telling you where to be. Setting my own schedule has been the defining perk of this adventure that began about ten years ago in a home game on the Upper East Side. But now the script’s been flipped. As I’m sure you’re aware, a human child’s internal clock is not especially pliant. A baby’s timetable does not conform to the preferences of the adults raising him/her and children are not nocturnal creatures. They go to bed early in the evening and they arise with the sun, and I will soon be living with two such creatures. It turns out that many of parenthood’s finest moments take place early in the morning—it is not a coincidence that Barney and Sesame Street air on PBS at 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. respectively (and yes, I’m intimately familiar with these programs). A parent that sleeps through the daylight hours is a parent who is sacrificing time shared with his/her child. I don’t wish to be that kind of parent.
Still, I’m aware that there are millions of people who effectively balance demanding and/or nighttime occupations (including poker) with parenthood. All it takes is the requisite motivation. Which brings me to my next and most important issue: it has long been apparent that poker no longer motivates me.
When I discuss professional poker playing with outsiders, there are a lot of recurring questions that get asked. One of the least frequent but most insightful is “don’t you ever get bored?” For years, on the occasions that this query popped up, I was dismissive of of it—the answer was a legitimate “of course not.” However, in recent years I’ve realized that this question is a poignant one, and the current answer for me is “yes.” My passion for poker has dissipated substantially, and it’s been this way for a long time.
Five-plus years is a long time to travel the live tournament circuit, and I’ve officially had it. Most of my poker pro friends can probably tell how much I detest casino living: I’m usually in my car within five minutes of busting any tournament contested within three hours of my Brooklyn home. I’ve lost my tolerance for the repeated trips I once happily subjected myself to. The thrill of witnessing high stakes gambling is long gone. Sitting in the same spot at the same table for hours waiting for a great spot to materialize—this is practically the definition of efficient poker, by the way—now feels like a missed opportunity to do something else. And constantly having to walk through a casino floor to get wherever I’m going—this practice has gradually progressed from exciting to mundane to just plain deplorable. Starting sometime in 2009 I began to view the tournament circuit’s crusty old regulars less as interesting characters and more as sad case studies. I’d prefer not to end up becoming one of them.
The concept behind working the tournament circuit as a pro is to magnify your marginal edge over the field (and minimize variance) by playing a lot. The way this is accomplished is by carpet bombing the tournament schedule, turning up at almost every tourney stop and participating in as many tournaments as humanly possible. The monetary outlay is large and so is the amount of time invested. There are hundreds of fruitless days with a handful of glorious ones sprinkled in. When I was still enjoying poker, long dry runs were frustrating but tolerable. Although the droughts were annoying, I knew they were merely a natural byproduct of the game I had chosen. There was even a strange sort of dignity in defeat. In the pursuit of conquering variance, enduring cashless months was just part of the experience. But now I’m over it. Today, I cannot tolerate a game where I’m expected to bat .150. My time is too precious. With a growing family at home, the idea of spending a week busting tournament after tournament now seems pretty wasteful. I’m not trying to say that my time is any more valuable than anyone else’s, but in some respects poker has now become more stifling than liberating for me.
Thanks to the poker circuit I have adopted a truly sedentary lifestyle. I sit in my car for hours, then I sit at a felt-covered table for hours, and then I report to my hotel room. Eating lonely meals at fast food restaurants off the Garden State Parkway, chain-chugging Dunkin Donuts coffee from behind the wheel, chewing up highway miles whilst listening to countless hours of sports talk radio… these things once took on an almost romantic quality in my mind—I saw it as the life of a dedicated professional gambler. Today, sadly, this routine feels kind of ridiculous. I’m missing my family, I’m woefully out of shape, and I’m losing out on opportunities to do some of the things I really enjoy. At the tournament stops, social outings are usually meals of overrated quality with colleagues, punctuated by a game of credit card roulette. My life away from home can be summed up as follows: poker, a little suitcase crammed full of jeans and sweatshirts and a lot of time spent in a hotel bed staring at my laptop.
I’ve met some great people through poker, but I’m increasingly feeling like an outsider when it comes to the culture surrounding my profession. Most of the frequent topics discussed do not register with me at all: I honestly don’t give a shit who won the last EPT Event, I don’t wanna hear about the amazing laydown that someone made in the 10-25 game, and no, I’m not up on the latest drama from the 2+2 forums. I’m older and less obsessed than everyone around me. When I want to seek out my colleagues’ company, I have to report to whichever hotel room they’re smoking weed in and sit there listening to conversations about poker. These conversations bore me to tears. The best way to improve at poker is definitely to talk about it, and my indifference towards these conversations certainly hinders me, but I just don’t enjoy them. The next time I hear someone tell me that some upcoming tournament is “sick value,” I may kick them in the junk. I’ve been around long enough to know that there’s plenty more “sick value” just around the corner in some other venue next week.
Dedicated poker pros will read the miserable paragraphs above and completely misdiagnose the problem. That’s okay. Most of the poker playing world wears blinders. For what it’s worth, I’m not busto. Ours is a two-income household, my bad years are never that bad, I have lots of money in the bank and I’m far more resourceful than most of the other regs realize. My issue also isn’t that I’m simply sick of losing, although it’s certainly a factor—five years playing tournaments results in an astounding number of losing days. The primary issue is that my priorities have changed. Poker has become -LifeEV for me. Bouncing from casino to casino playing high stakes tournaments is a dream life for many guys, and it once was mine, but that time in my life has passed.
The fact is I’m not a poker lifer and I’m not a true grinder. I’ve been searching, to no avail, for my inner grinder for many years. He does not seem to exist. Since 2007 or so I’ve been making the same tired old resolutions: to learn a game besides no-limit, to put in X hours per week online, to play cash games after busting tournaments, to force myself to play cash games here in NYC. I always say that I will do these things because they’re precisely what the real grinders are doing. For me, they never happen because I’m only pretending. I’m simply not interested in doing them.
My approach to poker is quite expert both in terms of strategy and bankroll management, but my dedication to the game is lacking. My effort level is that of a recreational player, and I suppose that’s what I really am: a highly proficient recreational player. As a matter of fact, I personally know several guys who hold down full time jobs and still play more hours of poker per week than me. I have earned the same distinction in poker that I once held in the law: last in my department in billable hours.
To her everlasting credit and despite suffering so much hardship from my frequent travel, Janeen has never once suggested that I change career paths, and for this I will always be grateful. Janeen has always treated my profession with the utmost respect and been my biggest supporter. She understands that earning my living at the poker tables was first my dream and later my raison d’etre. Today it is neither of those things. The time for a change has come.
My recent trip to Chicago/Hammond crystallized the situation. The first WSOP Hammond Event was scheduled to be a three-day event with two starting days. It was a $350 buy in that drew a shitload of players, and first place was something along the lines of $150,000. I finished Day 1a—a Thursday—with a lot of chips and returned for Day 2—Saturday—two days later. It soon became apparent that the tournament would not be completed until Sunday, which of course I planned to spend watching football. Day 2 initially went very well but as the night wore on, it turned into the standard touch-and-go 10-20 big blind ordeal. As the field thinned to six, then five, then four tables, and the prospect of winning tens of thousands of dollars became realistic, here’s what I was thinking:
- Holy crap, I’m so tired that I can barely think straight. When can I go to sleep?
- I will murder someone if I have to come back tomorrow with a short stack and miss the football games.
At around 2:30 a.m. CST, I miscounted my stack and overshoved suited connectors in what I thought was a standard spot but was really a borderline spot and busted 31st.
Later in the series they ran a $200 Event that drew almost 900 players. It normally would be an iffy play for me, but the tournament served the dual purpose of allowing me to work and to introduce my father-in-law to the tournament circuit. I really enjoyed doing this, and he took the opportunity to play his first serious tournament that day. The structure of the tournament was what you’d expect for the buy-in, and I hung around in the event until the inevitable point where two-thirds of the field was gone and everyone had less than 20 big blinds.
At that time they moved my buddy Lippy to my table. This was a fun development because the silly banter between Lippy and I would alleviate the boredom of the event. As it happened, a larger tournament was also going to begin shortly, and our mutual friend Vinny was hanging around killing time before it began. During tournaments Vinny and Lippy are in the general habit of taking turns lurking over each other’s shoulders sweating each other’s hands, and thus Vinny was a spectator at our table.
I had about 15 big blinds UTG+2. Lippy covered me and was in the small blind. I had pockets eights and openshoved. With Vinny looking on, Lippy snapcalled with AQs, the board ran out four blanks and then a queen on the river, and I busted. In the heat of the moment I asked Lippy how he could snap call there (operative word “snap,” it’s a fine call), then wished him good luck and departed, ready to get on with the rest of my day.
Except the story didn’t end there. A very long series of text messages between Lippy and myself ensued, during which he apologized profusely for busting me, defended his decision to call and shared the impassioned opinions on the matter (of which there were no shortage) of both Vinny and a fourth party. Lippy stated that my range included a hand or two that he was dominating, and that he was flipping with the majority of my range. Vinny opined that Lippy ought to simply retire if he was going to fold there (Vinny’s texts were helpfully forwarded along by Lippy as added credible evidence). I agreed completely with these statements, but we nevertheless texted back and forth for probably a full hour, with Lippy giving me a long overwrought analysis of this very simple hand from every conceivable angle (including the impact of our 5% swap thereon and the impact of Vinny’s presence thereon), with me repeatedly reassuring him that it was no big deal. Which it wasn’t. On multiple levels.
While I appreciated Lippy’s genuine distress over busting his friend from the tournament, I felt the entire exercise was a ridiculous waste of time and bandwith. After the general annoyance of fielding and responding to the text messages faded, I thought about the whole thing and found it was emblematic of my current situation. It was I who busted the tournament on the hand at issue, I who should have been pondering the proper strategy for the hand and I who should have most acutely felt the sting of defeat. However, of the three people in my circle who had witnessed the hand, I was a very distant third on the give-a-shit-o-meter. I was perfectly happy to bust; it allowed me to leave the casino with my father-in-law at a reasonable hour. The hand itself was over as far as I was concerned, and the less it was discussed the happier I was. I have no interest in discussing poker strategy these days, and that creates a gulf that separates me from the real grinders (it could also be part of the reason why my results have been fairly stagnant in recent times). In retrospect my Lippy bustout hand didn’t arouse my interest whatsoever. Nothing registered except that I was now free to leave the awul Horseshoe Hammond. I obviously do not have a grinder’s mentality right now.
Although my decision had already been made before I departed for Chicago, upon returning to New York I decided (for the fiftieth time) to become more active in the local cash games. My friend Jeffrey has been insisting that I’m leaving money on the table by not sitting in these games, and now that I’ve spent some time playing in them, I’ve determined that he’s right. The games are soft.
The problem is that the games also bore me to death and occasionally drive me crazy. These cash games are populated by a handful of thinking players (most of whom are personal friends) and a cadre of really bad, loose players. Inevitably there will be a guy sitting there with only a couple of hundred dollars in front of him. He’s usually steaming from having lost a recent hand and he’s indiscriminately shoving all in preflop out of frustration. This is standard operating procedure in this cash game. The optimal strategy is thus very easy to figure out: you sit around waiting for one of the poor players to dump his stack to you. Sometimes such an opportunity arises many times over the course of a single hour, sometimes an entire night will pass without one. When one of the resident idiots tries dumping his money in your lap, you either stack the dummy or he sucks out/coolers you and stacks you. And that’s the game. When I leave the room, I’m either pissed off (because a dumbass stacked me) or bored (the game is not stimulating). It’s an easy way to earn money, but there’s no indication that I am going to start enjoying it any time soon. I could always go and play elsewhere for higher stakes against better players, but I don’t have the stomach for that either.
I’m aware that I may be confusing cause and effect when it comes to my current state of mind. Am I sick of poker and therefore changing careers? Or am I changing careers and therefore sick of poker? Quite the chicken/egg conundrum, huh? I think it probably cuts both ways. In the end, the reason why I’m ready to pursue something new isn’t too important, what counts is the fact that these feelings are real and that I’m making a genuine choice, of my own free will. The biggest challenge for me as I move forward is not to think of myself as a failure. On some level poker has been a failed venture for me: had I become one of the truly great players, the game would be too lucrative to quit. I almost certainly would not be shutting things down now, I’d have so much money that I’d just grant myself a six month paternity leave. I admittedly do not have that luxury. Still, surviving for almost six years on the tournament circuit—and really thriving for the majority of that span—is an accomplishment to be proud of, and I’ll need to keep that in mind.
What’s my next move? Well, like a folding sports franchise , I’m going to play out the string. There is an ongoing series at Borgata right now, then a December series at Harrah’s AC, and after that Borgata again in January. I’m going to do everything in my power to actually enjoy tournament poker during this stretch run—I’ve kind of lost the plot and don’t have much fun playing anymore. That’s gotta change. After that baby number two will be ready to pop out. And from that point forward, I am going to… work a regular job! For starters, I have an easy out. I have a father who runs a successful legal practice that I can jump straight into without having to explain the five year gap on my resume to anyone. I’m incredibly lucky to have this option; talk about running good. My father has always been supportive of my poker career, and if I give sufficient notice I’m pretty sure that he will permit me to play some tournaments here and there. Ultimately, I expect that spending time away will change my outlook and revive my interest in poker, and I’ll end up playing a lot of the tourneys on the east coast.
I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m returning to the same job that drove me to poker in the first place, but times have changed. I’m responsible for the happiness of people beside myself now. Helping to keep those people happy may become a satisfying endeavor. I’m choosing to view lawyering as a stepping stone to whatever comes next. Without having so much of my mental energy tied up with poker, new ideas and new ventures may materialize. Who knows. Ideally I will end up with some sort of mixed income situation, with poker becoming a fun and profitable diversion. My poker game might even improve with the burden of playing for a living lifted from my conscience. I may even return to playing full time if the right things happen. Some of the conceivable “right things” would be the return of online poker, my children advancing to school age and rediscovering my love of the game.
Before closing this blog post, I want to issue a quick apology. In the past several years I have been guilty of being very dismissive of people who work regular jobs. I’ve been a little militant on this topic. Poker players like to wear their self-reliance like a badge of honor, I have been no exception. Since Ivy’s birth I’ve come to appreciate the appeal in steady employment with a predictable schedule. I’ve even felt some pangs of jealousy watching the suits hustling around midtown lately. I know I’ve offended some people here and there by making my personal journey sound like the only kind of life worth aspiring to. To those people I’d like to say that I’ve changed my viewpoint and I’m sorry if I’ve ever ruffled your feathers. :-)
I’m off to submit my Attorney Secure Pass application. This will renew my long-expired card that once allowed me to enter our fine state’s courthouses without having to go through a metal detector or wait in line with the riff-raff. I’m sure that I will throw up in my mouth the first time I use it, but I am convinced the time has come for a change.