Going Pro As A Poker Player

Bobby Curran
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Friday - June 03, 2005
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The author, dressed for success at
a Honolulu poker game

I’ve made the decision. I’m going pro. Yup, I’m going to become a professional athlete. World Series of Poker, here I come!

I know, I know. You’re going to tell me poker is not a sport. But can hundreds of hours of programming on ESPN and a feature story in Sports Illustrated be wrong?

According to the American Oxford Dictionary, the primary definition of sport is “an activity involving physical exercise and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” The hang up here is in the phrase “physical exercise.” At the risk of parsing like Bill Clinton, the mere raising of an eyebrow or one-handed shuffling of chips could satisfy the technical construct for exercise. And clearly, poker is competitive and entertaining.

The explosion in the popularity of poker, in particular Texas Hold ’Em, is mind-boggling. A recent graphic during a WSOP event informs us that 50 million Americans play poker. According to the tracking service PokerPulse.com, players put an estimated $197.7 million into online ring-game pots each day.

With the boom there are now bona fide poker superstars who market books and videos, and grant interviews about their unique approaches to the game. And while they may consider themselves athletes, the vast majority do not look the part. 2004 WSOP No Limit Texas Hold ’Em (the Super Bowl of poker) champion Greg Raymer has a stomach so ponderous that it renders his reproductive organs a mere rumor. And 2003 champion Chris Moneymaker (really, that’s his name) prepared to defend his title by “slamming beers ’til 6 a.m.” the day of the tournament. Makes you wonder. Had he been tapering off, down from a case of beer, two bags of pork rinds, a case of peanuts and a pound of beef jerky at the apex of his workouts?


Now that’s what I call a training regimen.

A glance around the table at one of these professional events is reminiscent of the bar scene in Star Wars. From the merely scruffy to the dissolute, many players look like they arrived via shopping cart. Sunglasses, hooded shirts and pulled-down caps are worn by a number of contestants, ostensibly to prevent conveying a “tell,” a tip-off that allows an opponent to suss out the strength of their hand.

There are the brash young guns, twentysomethings wellversed in game theory, spouting the theorems of David Sklansky and gaining much of their expertise from countless hours in front of their computer monitors. And there are the oldschoolers, like T.J. Cloutier and Doyle Brunson, veterans of the old roadhouse games where an ability with your fists was as important as making calculations.

Brunson is a man who admits to 72 years, a man so weathered that the lines in his face appear to be painted and laminated. He won the WSOP titles in 1976 and 1977 and has written the tome called Super/System, the bible for many aspiring professionals. Brunson doesn’t say much, and doesn’t fidget. He occasionally utters a phrase such as “Let’s rock ’n’ roll.” Pithy, no?

The real hilarity though, comes from the announcers, almost all of whom get to the outer edge with hyperbole and metaphor. Mike Sexton, a professional player himself, is the John Madden of TV analysts. “These are two giants of the game, two Goliaths ripping and tearing at each other ’til one of them is dead and buried,” Sexton intones. What actually transpires is that two grossly overweight men are squirming in their seats desperately trying to put off a bathroom break, sneaking furtive glances at their opponent, hoping for the flop of their dreams.

Yeah, this is the sport for me. And I’m going to take it to the next level.

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