Rushing Through Thirty

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Las Vegas, Nevada

“If you never win one a WPT event, a WSOP event, or anything similar, what would that mean to you?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

It was then I knew I wasn’t a professional poker player anymore.

“Rushing…through 30…I’m getting older…every day…by two,” Anders Friden crooned to me when I was 18. I was working a security detail in Seattle. One of my duties was walking through a parking garage for an hour every day. This seemed like an awfully superfluous activity, especially when there were four cars there after closing.

I listened to In Flames on my iPod. The album Come Clarity is still one of my favorites.

I’m a fan of any Swedish melodic metal, but the way the Swedish frontman killed himself to produce the vocal tracks for that record was admirable. He really seemed at a crossroads in life, tortured by his every wrong move being perhaps the fatal blow.

At the time, I thought I knew what he was singing about. After all, I was not succeeding as a writer or poker player in Seattle. The girl I wanted desperately didn’t want me back.

I told myself she wanted a pretty boy, a rich boy, a man in college, a guy who was, “going places.” Then she fell for my friend, a junior college dropout. Sadly, this turn of events didn’t even leave me with my favored excuse.

I felt inferior. I felt too stupid to achieve my dreams. People literally laughed when I told them I wanted to be a professional poker player.

I never believe someone when they say, “high school was hard for me.” The 34,000th time I hear a celebrity say, “no one believed in me,” I stop believing them. It’s fashionable to defeat long odds. No model wants to tell you she woke up one day, looked in a mirror, and said, “I should be on a plane to Milan, damn it!” She’ll tell you that she was awkward in high school. All the boys were intimidated by her. She was taller than all the other girls.

Yet, I don’t believe I am being hyperbolic at all when I say no one believed I could do it. I don’t blame anyone for this. What would you tell an 18-year-old who said they wanted to be a professional poker player? That wasn’t even a profession when I was 18.

I don’t believe anyone said they believed in me. No one said I would pull it off. No one supported me.

I was living in an apartment complex in Seattle that had been converted from a motel. The reason given for its conversion was, “too many people were coming off of the freeway to kill themselves here.”

I drank often, frequently till unconsciousness. My parents and I went long periods without speaking.

If you told me then that I soon would travel the world, visit 40 countries, live on four continents, pick up a second language, be on the cover of magazines, write a #1 poker book for Amazon, and make $4,000,000 in earnings through WCOOP and SCOOP wins alongside EPT and WPT final tables I would have thought you an insane person.

Yet I did.

“If you knew how hard I had to work to attain my mastery it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all” – Michelangelo.

I lived with a good girlfriend in Seoul before realizing I was too calloused to keep living with her. The break-up was messy. I haven’t been back to South Korea since.

The interview I did for that magazine’s cover story blew up for all the wrong reasons. They twisted my words to make me deface a good friend of mine. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since.

I was in Marie Claire Brazil too. In that one, they made up even more things I didn’t say. In this one, they disrespected my father, and attached my name to it. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since.

The Amazon bestseller I wrote was a strategy manual on poker. None of my fiction novels have ever been picked up. They have all been resoundingly rejected. Years of work has amounted to nothing.

It took me ten years to write that poker book, when you consider all the research in it. It cost me a great deal of money in lost wages to get it done.

I left Costa Rica, the country I lived in for seven years, after a divorce. The settlement left me with four suitcases and a little cash. It was enough to get started again in life, but it didn’t amount to 1% of my total earnings from poker.

That said, my twenties have been incredible. I’ve seen a great deal of the world, founded successful businesses, read thousands of books, discovered love, and generally succeeded in my dreams. I feel as if I have a real-world education that I wouldn’t trader for a million dollars. I am very blessed.

Yet, when you’re a man approaching thirty, everyone wants to know:

  1. How much money do you have
  2. What is your job title?
  3. What is your education?

My answers are:

  1. Sigh
  2. Professional Poker Coach. Author.
  3. None

If we were to add a section D, it would be for divorce. I am divorced. Very few people my age are divorced.

My job title previously was “professional poker player.” However, I always felt that was a misnomer. Professional poker players receive the majority of their income from playing poker.

I have not done that years. There is a reason E-Sports players cap out at 27-years-of-age. I was primarily an online player, but as I’ve grown older I’ve found my ability to focus on 12 to 16 tables at a time to become increasingly difficult. Live poker is fun, but it has the obvious disadvantage of being only one table.

In professional poker, you are pressing very small edges repeatedly for small returns. The more hands you can play, the more money you make.

You add all of this up and create an hourly rate. The day my hourly rate dipped below what I could make teaching I seriously considered a career change. Then, a new influx of talent came into the game. Due to the number of skilled players infiltrating each table, my hourly suffered more.

One day, I did a little math and found I could be making twice the money a generic poker player makes in half the time. I also noticed more intelligent young men were flooding the tables every year, and nobody was trying to become a poker coach. I switched positions right then in the hopes that the free market would reward me.

This wasn’t an easy decision to make. I love playing poker. Playing poker is a much more relaxing job compared to coaching. Teaching someone is a very intense process. There are egos involved. Feelings get hurt. It also requires a great deal of work on the backend. I need to put together Powerpoints, articles, lesson plans, videos, and even a book to explain my points.

I love the process, but it is exhausting. It’s not nearly as fun as playing poker all day is. I also am never going to show up for work teaching and randomly make a large sum of money.

However, these are not luxuries I get to think about. I have a disabled mother to feed. I have bills. I can no longer delay my adolescence indefinitely.

Strangely, telling people I am a poker coach seems to garner far more groans than when I told people I played poker professionally. This is odd to me, because I know from personal experience that 90% of poker “pros” are actually kids living in their parent’s basement who don’t want to admit as much. You would think someone who is describing such a niche-driven position would have their head on straight when it comes to making a living wage in the free market, but oh no. They respected me more when I was a chip slinger.

I can’t say I’m an author either, because then they’ll ask what the book is about. When I say “poker strategy” then I have admitted I am a gambler. It seems to be more noble in their minds to publish a self-indulgent memoir which doesn’t clear its miniscule advance. At least then you’d be a, “real artist.”

Continuing, coming upon 30 has been daunting for me, because I feel as if I am 18 again. Many people doubt me. However, the circumstances have changed.

At 18, nobody asked me about my career. Now, they roll their eyes or stare absently when I say what I do.

At 18, nobody expected me to have an education. Now, my lack of one comes up frequently. I’m also at the age where’d I’d be the “old man on campus” if I chose to attend.

At 18, nobody inquired as to my relationship history. Now, people tell me I “hid something from them” when I don’t bring up my divorce in our first discussions.

At 18, nobody expected me to have money. Nobody expected me to have it figured out.

People seem offended now that I don’t have money. As if a Wall Street banker has not left a marriage in disarray before. My poker winnings were “ill-gotten gains” to begin with, so it is doubly offensive to them that I don’t have much money anymore. They feel as if they won the lottery they wouldn’t have been so idiotic with it.

I’m starting in the red with most friendships, especially when (God forbid) they Google me and find I have $4,000,000 in poker earnings. That’s more than what some well-known tennis professionals make!

What these people don’t understand is that I don’t enter poker tournaments for free. Of that $4,000,000 perhaps $1,000,000 of it is actual profit.

Still a million, right? Well, I’ve been doing this since 2006. That’s $100,000 a year. After taxes it’s $60,000. $70,000 if I’m lucky.

Of course, that’s still not chump change, but I’m hardly going to be retiring off of it. It’s also my responsibility to travel to live poker tournaments myself, so flights and hotels eat into my profits as well. And again, it’s not like my sister’s books for college were free to purchase.

Now, for full disclosure, I make a humble but comfortable living off of my consulting fees. Yet, this doesn’t change the fact I make a fairly middle-class salary, just like you most likely. Only, I have no education to fall back on. I have learned no other trade.

I recognize that I chose this lot in life and I am responsible for it, but I merely wished I wasn’t judged so frequently for it.

Recently, at a block party in Williamsburg (yes, I just blogged that), a 25-year-old guy and I got to talking.

He was nice enough. Exceedingly honest. Very drunk.

“So, what do you do?”

“I’m a professional poker player,” I responded, since anything other than a direct response gets more questions.

“Wow, really?”

“Yes.”

“Wow, so you must have like a million in the bank right?”

“No.”

“A hundred thousand?”

“No.”

“Well, at least you’re doing what you love.”

“I don’t love to play poker. I love the game. It is a great job. I love my job. But it’s just a job.”

I could have sugarcoated things more for the guy, surely, but I wasn’t in the mood. I’m done changing who I am simply to accommodate another person.

I didn’t mind this kid’s questions, honestly. Like I said, he was honest. At least he said what he was thinking. We later had a pretty honest discussion afterward, which I enjoyed.

It’s not my intention to deride people for their misconceptions. I find most people to be interesting and kind when I speak with them long enough. I assume we simply don’t get that opportunity when we leave things on a bad note, and I try not to hold that against them.

I just merely want to illustrate how people view me, and how it can be difficult to explain myself.

I get it too: These kids were sold a false bill of goods. They were told if they went to college, followed orders, and were good workers then they would find secure employment to provide them a good life. Instead, they have mounting college debt, a sluggish economy, and career instability. I’d be pissed too.

Then there is this white male who has seemingly been given everything in his life, and he blew it! He also says he doesn’t even love playing a game for a living!

I wouldn’t understand me either.

I turn 30 in a matter of months. At this time, I am in debt. I am divorced. I have no education to speak of. I also just retired from professional poker.

And I couldn’t be happier.

The Okinawans live longer than any other group of people on Earth. They eat a mostly plant-based diet, never retire, and use a word frequently called, “ikigai.” Ikigai translates to, “your reason for being” roughly. It is your purpose in life.

Recently, I have discovered mine.

I have also discovered drive.

I have found balance.

I am fairly certain there are billionaires on Earth who would trade everything they have just for an ikigai. They’d probably work a few more years too to have my age and health.

That makes me a very wealthy man.

I was never happy as a professional poker player.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of fun. There were incredibly exciting times when I was successful. It was an amazing ride travelling the world gambling for a living. It just wasn’t fulfilling to me.

The truth about living your life as a travelling tournament poker professional is that the majority of the time you are living out of a suitcase so you can lose. In your best years, you will 80% of the time. During a slump, you can go years without a meaningful win. The hotel rooms are lonely after a while. It becomes difficult to cultivate meaningful relationships. You’re constantly tired and jet lagged. When you’re not on the felt, you are staring at a screen all day.

Some people love that. I don’t. I love the game. It’s an incredible escape. It’s an absolute blast when you do it sparingly. It’s just not who I am.

I am a teacher.

I’ve realized this recently. I love helping people out. I came into a very difficult industry with few life skills and very average intelligence, and I found a way. I made my mark precisely through leveraging every little edge I could find, in life and in cards. I know for a fact that anyone can use my methods to become more successful and contented, because I had to drill them through my thick skull first.

The facet of teaching I like the most is writing. When I drink coffee and type the hours just seem to flow by. I am perfectly at peace.

I was at a Minor League Baseball game recently. During the game, a number of young men took the field who were on an upward trajectory. They were likely going to go on to make millions of dollars in The Show.

One gentleman, in particular, stood out. He was a true Adonis if I’d ever seen one. 6’3”, 220 pounds, all muscle. When he swung the bat you’d think he ripped the very air around him.

Yet, his face betrayed something different. Consternation and concern flowed through him. He seemed tired. He looked as if he felt broken down. I looked down at my program. His age was listed at 23.

Perhaps all this young man ever wanted to do was play the drums. Could you imagine if he told people he wanted to drum now? Oh, what about your training? What about the millions you could make? How could you do this to your family, after you won the genetic lottery? What about…what about…

His success would become his prison. He can turn on a ball. So what? Would we be flabbergasted if he didn’t want to do so trivial an activity for the rest of his life? What if you could make millions of dollars chopping wood every day, all day, obsessively, so you could become the best woodworker in the world? Would you love every minute of it? Would you love it even half of the time?

What we’re good at can seem so banal to us. Perhaps you’re an amazing plumber. Your dad did it, and so you can too. You eventually flew through a trade school to get some formal pointers.

A pipe bursts at a party, and you become the smartest guy in the room when you roll up your dress shirt’s sleeves and get to work.

People pay great plumbers very well. Yet, is that a profession you would want to enter? Would you expect the plumber to love every minute of his job?

You are not your day job. If what you love to do is drum, drum. Enter that flow state. Be lost in the rhythm.

If you love to write, write. If you want to sing, sing.

Perhaps you love teaching youth basketball down at the YMCA.

Maybe you love to bake.

Whatever it is, remember, no one needs to pay you. No one needs to see it. I’d hope for the world’s sake you’d share your passion, but that is completely up to you.

You should sleep 56 hours a week. Most people work 40 hours. That gives you 72 hours for your relationships and passions.

As you can see, work is the smallest part of this equation.

When I see someone sacrifice 40 hours from their “relationships” column for a job they don’t even purport to like, it confuses me.

You can meet a janitor who is happier than anyone, because she does karaoke four nights a week. Society will judge her for not having a great “career” but if she is truly happy and we’re not who are the real idiots?

Perhaps you do have a great job that is fulfilling and makes you money, so you spend 60 hours a week doing it. That doesn’t mean you’re any better than a person who is fulfilled with less money. In fact, who has greater mastery of themselves?

I’m not trying to downplay the importance of finances either. Money is an incredible tool when used effectively. I just fear for the number of people I know who think money will solve their life. It’s merely one part of the puzzle.

I am only 29, so it’s pretty sure bet I know very little at this point in my journey. However, thanks to some lessons I received from failures, I am feeling very confident about my thirties.

I was so confused when I was a teenager. I had given everything I had to poker. My every waking hour was spent pursuing mastery of the game.

I got the money I so desperately craved, growing up on food stamps, getting eviction notices on my sister’s birthday. I couldn’t figure out why I was so unhappy.

At 29, I feel I have this part of the puzzle figured out. Money is good to have. It’s wildly useful when spent wisely. It provides security.

Yet, it is not everything. It’s not close to everything. It’s a piece of a puzzle. I feel saddened for a society that believes it is most of the ending tile. For that reason, I’ve largely stopped caring about what others feel about me as a person progressing into my thirties.

My friends have their doctorates now. They have their children. They have good jobs, or they will soon have them.

I am happy for them and wish them all the best.

Soon, they’re going to start making real money, paying off mortgages, and start living their “adult” lives.

I’ve done that already, in my twenties. I know what lessons they are about to learn. Hopefully, they will handle it much better than I did, and they can find contentment on the other side of it.

From this side, however, I can say I wish someone had told me the money wasn’t important. My relationships were. I was supposed to invest in the right people, and foster those connections daily. I did neither of those things.

I wish someone had told me, “if you can find something you’d do for free, and find a way to support it, then you’re the richest person in the world.”

I am indifferent to success in poker. That is why I have bowed out of playing professionally. To survive in this market, you must be a shark who lives, breathes, and eats the game.

I have my decade-long career. I have more experience than almost anyone. I know what pitfalls every player is going to fall into. I can help them avoid them. I have thousands of hours of teaching under my belt. I can coach better than almost anyone, and I plan to cash that check in while I’m pursuing my dreams in writing.

I will always play poker for fun, because I truly love the game. It’s writing, however, that I truly love.

You could put me in any diner in any part of America with my $200 laptop and a cup of coffee. I’d be happy.

I’m a very lucky man. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.