In my mind, it’s hard for me to call myself a poker player.
When I think of poker players I think of young guys walking around in flip flops and basketball shorts, unshaven, trying to keep their poker face on as they go take a leak.
I’ve never really thought about whether or not I was really a poker player. From the time I was a kid I just thought I was one. I couldn’t even beat half the people I played against. I lost often. I just always seemed to have money for the next buy-in or CD. A dollar for a Coke was much more readily available when I started playing cards. If I owed anybody anything I could direct them to any of the six or seven people who owed me money. It felt natural.
I never thought about “this guy kicks my ass all the time, how could I ever be a pro?” I probably should have asked what the hell was wrong with me when I thought I could go pro. I played tournaments and cash games at this friend’s house for years before I won a single tournament. I got my ass handed to me by all the adults.
I don’t know if I was delusional or just socially retarded. I just always thought I could make money from poker.
It all grew out of such an immense love for the game. I got crap from a lot of people at my high school because I always had a poker book. It was all I could talk about. I watched every single poker program on TV. I played every day at school and after school. The night I turned 18 I came home from the card room at 6:00 AM, finished a paper in an hour, and went to high school.
I was also just desperate. I went to a well-off school and guidance counselors and teachers seemed hell bent on convincing me if I didn’t go to the University of Washington I’d be useless. I was told kids who went to community college weren’t serious and rarely graduated to do anything.
That was a good strategy for the school. It was full of kids whose parents could afford to put them in a good college, and if they went to community college they were often just lazy. For a kid whose family really couldn´t afford it however that might not be the greatest approach. I should have been aspiring to transferring from a community college into a university, not being discouraged from it.
I just didn’t think there were many options for me going into the real world, and poker seemed so wide open. Pocketfives had all these stories about 18-year-olds becoming rich. I wanted to throw myself into it.
I quit my last job when I was 18 after putting six months of expenses in a savings account outside of my bankroll. I’d made $7,000 that month at poker and $1,200 at my real job. I was just out of high school and I was making that kind of money. I was cocky. I was ready. It was time to take the plunge.
And the first three months I didn’t make a cent. I lost a ton. I went nuts, drinking constantly, having nervous breakdowns. I had to move out of an apartment I was sharing with this girl, because she had a good reason to not feel safe around me.
Then I had a really cool roommate and a new place, and I started studying every day. Things started clicking. I made a couple grand the first month grinding SNGs. It was enough to get my confidence back. Months later I was playing most MTTs online and doing the APPTs. Then I went to Korea, then Malta, then Costa Rica, and on, and on…
But the whole time in my head I was wondering – how the hell did this happen? I just was playing in the school halls at lunch, then I’m travelling all over the world, and I was still a teenager.
I knew I should be grateful, dumbfounded at my luck. Instead I didn’t feel much of anything. I seemed to be socially retarded and emotionally stunted. Actually doctors later would tell me I had development problems in both areas. I think I’ve caught up a bit now, but at the time, I was very capable of being depressed, angry, emotional, and childish – but being grateful was way beyond me.
A lot of times I’d be in the place I had at 19 – executive desk, leather business chair, huge monitors, flat screen in the background…
And I’d be like, “who the hell’s house is this?”
Downswings came and nearly ruined me. I felt like a fraud.
I got back up again. Way high up, but I never trusted it.
We’d spend our money in my family before it was gone. We’d use the internet and cable till it got cut off. I’d spend my money before someone else could take it. I’d come home and find my things missing.
I didn’t grasp possession. Nothing in poker suggested permanence. I never knew if I wasn’t just super lucky. There were a lot of guys I looked up to who just disappeared. We were gambling after all.
When I tried to talk poker with the great players I realized they knew so much more than me, and often I’d embarrass myself with how little I knew. Landlords wouldn’t rent to me knowing what my job was. I wrote things on forums people ripped apart. A lot of people I used to play poker with laughed out loud when they heard I’d supposedly gone pro. I got up from so many tables after getting smoked, listening to the rest of the table go, “did he actually do that?”
I knew financially it was close to ending a number of times. I wasn’t wondering if I would go broke – I was wondering when. Which downswing would be the one to ruin me?
If I was really meant to be a poker player wouldn’t everybody know that was who I was supposed to be? Didn’t Doyle and Phil Hellmuth always win in their university games? How many years had I been obsessing over this and I still sucked at it?
It didn’t help I was on something pretty much every day. I felt like I had no control. I felt like I was in a dream. I felt like I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to actually stand the test of time. I felt like a tourist.
So I spent my money and saw as many countries as I could, because I was sure I’d lose it all one day anyway. I didn’t really care how much of a dumbass I came off as, because I was sure I’d be off it one day soon.
Then, a weird thing happened. The higher I got and the less I cared the more money I made. I had this amount…I thought I could never go broke. I thought I’d done it. Nobody had believed in me, I hadn’t believed in me, but I’d been natural enough and lucky enough to do it.
So I partied a ton, feeling invincible. I backed all my friends. I rented out mansions on the beach. It was awesome!
Until I ended up broke in a one bedroom apartment in San Jose, Costa Rica.
At some point I was convinced if I didn’t get sober for the first time since high school I’d probably become another poker burn out who disappeared. So I stopped doing anything chemical during the days at least. To pay my bills I took on some students.
I didn’t know if I’d ever been good. I’d been so high up, but my girlfriend had just loaned me money to buy a mattress. What the hell happened?
I sought to prove I actually knew something about this game by being the best teacher I could be. My students reported immediate results. A lot of cool people who’d been reading my blog for years showed up, helped me with money, and I coached them the best I could.
They all started winning and doing really well. I started doing really well, getting out of a long slump, and making my backer money. I started final tabling majors online and side events live. I started saving up money, but I stayed in the one bedroom to remind me where I’d gotten.
I studied more to get out of my head while I was withdrawing. Soon, I wanted to just prove everything I did in poker was mathematically and theoretically sound. I worked on hand histories with my students and in private. I wrote theory articles in Bluff magazine and waited for constructive criticism so I could formulate new ideas.
It became addicting, crunching everything, questioning every bet or check, looking through hand after hand.
I still was getting healthy again, and it took a good two years to quit every substance I was abusing, but the coaching/training business grew the whole time. People from all over the world signed up to study with me. I loved every minute. I loved discussing every hand. I loved their questions.
Out of no where I had this stable business. I had a manager helping me with the emails and scheduling. I had appointments every morning. There was more demand for my Pocketfives Training videos. I got offers to teach to training camps and for multiple backing houses.
More importantly to me, people kept refuting me. I loved nothing more than someone saying, “prove it.” I’d extend lessons for hours longer than they had to be just so I could prove one damn hand was sound. I’d debate my friends for hours. I loved it.
At some point I realized, I’d studied poker more in two years than anybody I’d known. I’d made my business studying I loved it so much. I only met a handful of people who had been through more hand histories than I had. I felt like I could contribute to every conversation now. Then I could finish most of them.
In the meantime I made money, and lost six figures when Full Tilt went under. I made more money, then blew it in business ventures. I didn’t sweat it really after a while because working in poker was paying me as much as my hours at the table.
Now I know I’m a poker professional through and through, but a poker player is something different to me. I see guys at live events who seem to savor pronouncing they’re poker players. They like discussing recent scores, hustling to the next game, and playing all hours. When they’re done with the tournament they are in the cash game. When they’re tired they go eat too much and talk poker the whole dinner with their poker playing friends.
They throw their cards down like they’re a gauntlet, they really enjoy the stare down and going into the tank, and they get really worked up when they win or lose.
I don’t enjoy the game like that anymore. I love it in the form of study, but I don’t have an ego like all these fake steely-eyed ringers have. I like how poker challenges you to think clearly in the face of uncontrollable variance. I think that teaches a very valuable life skill.
I consider myself an apprentice who is sharing what he’s learning. I still haven’t had a real major win, despite a number of large final tables. That happens for a reason. I evidently still have a lot to learn.
I know a lot of people who are really successful who don’t think that highly of themselves. Their perception is that they need to work to earn their place. They keep working because they know they are capable of it and its the hard work that’s really going to lead to success. They don’t think just showing up and looking the part does it. They’re not the best in their mind. They certainly don’t think shit talking one of their opponents is going to make them better.
I don’t know where Americans and other culture’s got the idea that giving your kids high self-esteem was going to lead to success. I know many guys in poker with high self-esteem. You don’t see much of many of them after a while, because often they do not need to earn that self-esteem. They’re entitled. They think they’re supposed to have it all already. They’re special.
I thank God I grew up the way I did. I have to earn my self-respect within myself. I need to know I’m honestly grinding. I need to know I’m working enough and doing it right. I can’t feel like a professional and like I earned my spot if all my money comes from playing poker, if all my time is invested in playing poker. There needs to be savings, outside income, and study to stay competitive. There needs to be accountability now. I have to stop being a kid whose done well at cards and become a real professional.
My Plugs: Check out my vids at Pocketfives Training, contact me for lessons at email@example.com, see other stuff I write with my friends at www.pokerheadrush.com, and follow my Twitter at TheAssassinato