I was originally born in Seoul, South Korea but our family immigrated to the United States when I was 6 years old in 1981. It was a bit of a culture shock to say the least when we first arrived as none of us really knew how to speak English and we were nearly broke. The first few years were very tough as we struggled financially, emotionally and even physically. The person that held us all together during this most difficult time was my father, who's unrelenting work ethic kept us all fed and led us to greener pastures. And while our current relationship is less than ideal, he remains the paradigm of how I conduct myself as an adult as our lives have eerily mirrored each other in more ways than either of us would like to admit.
As I only spent the first few years of my life in South Korea there is not much about it that I remember. I recall that we had a nice house, a nanny, chauffer and did not lack for anything. My father worked very hard as I hardly ever saw him and would come home many nights in the AM, drunk and carried home by his employees. I would come to learn later in life that my father attended Seoul University and had graduated with a law degree. Instead of becoming a lawyer though, he married my mother and started to work at a bank. He would eventually open his own construction company and built that to a successful enterprise. But sometime around my 5th year of life things started to change. We moved out of our house into a condominium complex and all of a sudden my father was home all the time. I remembered enjoying this time of my life a great deal as my father and I were able to enjoy much quality time together, something I sorely missed in earlier years. We did not spend too many months in that complex though as I was told that we would soon be moving to the United States. My grandparents on my mother's side resided in America and had sponsored us to come. But as they were only able to do so for a limited number of people we would have to leave our grandmother on my father's side behind. On our final day in South Korea, we all gathered in a room and made our tearful goodbyes as my parents, brother and I headed out to our new lives.
My grandmother whom we left behind played an integral role in the survival of our family. Both her and my father are actually from North Korea and lived through the war. My father was only 3 years old at the time and I have heard the story of how they both escaped countless times. The only way to escape from where my family was living in the North was via a train. But as there was limited space not everyone could board and there was a general understanding that only women and children would be allowed to board and escape. My father once told me that only cowardly men would try to board the train, but that his father refused and stayed behind as his wife and children were sent to safety. Once in South Korea my father had to assume the role as man of the house at the tender age of 3, both for my grandmother and his younger brother. He would never see his father again and had to become an adult entirely on his own. From these humble beginnings he worked as hard as one could and studied his way into the top university in the country.
While my father did work very hard to find initial success, the economy in South Korea turned and his company went bankrupt. Although I did not know this at the time, this was the reason for why he was all of a sudden home so much during our final year in Korea. He could not find work and was too proud to ask his friends for money. With no other options left, he accepted the help of my mother's parents and accepted their sponsorship of our family to move to the States. Our first apartment in Los Angeles was paid for entirely by my grandparents, a humble "one bedroom" but really just a studio that had a curtain down the middle of the room that separated the living quarters from the bedroom. My parents soon found work at the same photo processing company as office clerks as my father's law degree from Korea meant very little in the new country. Good meals were very hard to come by during this time and we often ate what we could. This meant eating a lot of Spam as a substitute for "real" meat and even cut up hot dogs, fried on a pan and eaten with rice. My parents worked 40 hours per week but took whatever overtime they could and whenever they got paid on Fridays they would still take me to my favorite restaurant. They did much to shield both my brother and I from these tough times as they bore most of the stress from life's struggles.
As hard as they worked it became apparent to my father that his current employment situation was not going to get our family very far. So he decided to take on a second job at night as a janitor that would ensure he would have 60-70 hour work weeks. He and my mother would go to their day jobs, be home by 6:00 PM to eat dinner with the family and then my father would be back out the door by 8:00 PM to literally clean toilets. My father worked so hard that he eventually developed a stomach ulcer and became so violently ill that he could not work for a month. As soon as he was better my father would return to both jobs and continue his monstrous work schedule. On top of all this he picked up an extra job on the weekend working once again as a janitor in a luxury condominium complex. He impressed enough in just the 2 days per week that he worked that he outperformed his boss and caught the attention of the facility's management office. They eventually gave my father the contract for the cleaning of the entire complex and with this he was able to quit both his day and night jobs. He would go on to form his own cleaning company and after picking up a few more contracts was able to move our family out and buy a proper home.
Around this time we used to spend Saturday evenings with my mother's sister and her family. I remember they had an apartment very much like the one we just moved out of and had been in the States as long as we had. I asked my father why they were not able to get ahead like he had and he gave me an answer that has weighed heavily in both my heart and mind since. My father told me that my aunt's husband was not able to find consistent work because he too had come from a prestigious university in Korea and that he found much of the work that he was able to find in the States beneath him. Then with all of the seriousness of the world my father looked at me and relayed to me words that I would never forget. He said that when your family has to eat, and more importantly if you want for them a better life, there is no such thing as a job that is beneath you. You have to do whatever you can to provide, even if that means working 70 hours per week and cleaning toilets to the point you become sick. My father was nearly the literal representation of working oneself to death because he knew that nothing short of that should stop one from working and providing for one's family.
Finally things were looking up for our family as we lived in a nice house, in a great neighborhood and my father was the head of a successful company. We were even able to sponsor my grandmother from South Korea so that she could finally join us in America. At this time we would receive news that both my father and grandmother thought would never come. A family friend who was also from North Korea headed back in search of his father, whom he had lost in a similar manner. While he was there he offered to look for my grandfather as well and after a few weeks sent word that while his own father was since deceased, that he had found my dad's father who was remarried but very much still alive. Upon hearing this news I recall thinking that I had never seen my father and grandmother so happy. She could honestly care less that my grandfather had remarried as she was just so happy to hear that he was still alive. My father also found out that he had step brothers and sisters and was excited at the prospect of at least speaking to them and his father through letters. While he and my grandmother were discussing the possibility of going out to North Korea themselves, they would receive a phone call that would immediately reverse all the happiness they were feeling. With all the sorrow and regret in the world, our family friend relayed to my father that a horrible mistake had occurred. The information he had received was incorrect and it was his father that was still alive and that my grandfather had passed away several years ago. My grandmother did not come out of her room for two weeks as she spent most of that time crying endlessly. We had to leave meals for her at the door, many of which went uneaten. To this day I cannot imagine what my father must have been going through but he carried on as he always had. He went to work every day and held things together during a most tragic time for our family.
Much of what remains in the history between my father and I is largely negative. This fact revolves mainly around two things, one my decision to be a poker player and pursue a career in this game and my decision to not only come to Cambodia but to start a family here with a Cambodian woman. When I first started playing poker the fact that I lived in Vegas was a well kept secret in my family. When I would return to Los Angeles for holidays my other family members would ask me where I had been, not having a single clue that I lived 5 hours away. After I had reached some level of success as a player I invited my parents for a visit after I started renting an 11th floor condo on the strip right behind the Wynn Hotel. When my mother and father entered my new home, they took a careful and long look around before uttering a sound. Then after a dramatic pause that seemed to last forever, my father finally said, "This is not your home. Whose home is this?" To be fair there was a lot right about why my father was thinking. I have mentioned in a previous blog post that the condo was much too expensive and that I had no business renting it. Not to mention that I would go broke within 12 months of that visit. Even though I eventually came to have more success and stability in poker, the reservations they had were completely understandable and justified. And I imagine that this is not what he exactly envisioned for his son when he moved the entire family to America for a better life.
What remains and brings us to the present day is even more complicated. Neither of my parents were thrilled with my decision to visit Cambodia. They had horrifying thoughts in their heads of me sleeping in a hammock outside, catching malaria and worst of all meeting a Cambodian woman. There is no delicate way of saying this, but it is largely true that 1st generation Asians in America can be racist. I have had many conversations with my father about whom I am allowed to marry in terms of race, with a sequential order no less. The list is as follows:
The following are strictly prohibited:
• Southeast Asians
My father's worst fears would come true as I did meet a Cambodian woman who would eventually become the mother of my first and only children. Neither of my parents have met nor spoken to any of my kids and we have not spoken to one another in nearly 6 years.
With all that is happening right now in Cambodia with covid-19, I have thought that this might be an opportune time for a visit to the States. It would allow me to get vaccinated and I can run my business there easily and send money back to the family. I have already emailed my mother with this possibility but have yet to get a response. It would be the first time in 5 years since I have been in America and perhaps may serve as an opportunity for a reunion with my parents. There is a lot that has remained unsaid regarding our relationship in this blog post. And I have done much as well to contribute to the current state of our relationship as I have not always played an innocent role. Therefore such a reunion remains unlikely and I am not getting my hopes up too high. I doubt that my children will ever get to meet their grandparents and I remain unsure whether I even want them to. I have resigned myself to the likelihood that I will not be around when my father passes. But in many ways my father will live on in certain ideals that I have adopted from him and hope to pass onto my own children.
Never in my near 7 years of living in Cambodia have I witnessed what we are all experiencing in this climate of covid-19. After more than a year of enjoying a relatively free lifestyle, the pandemic has finally hit home as Phnom Penh and other cities are either under curfew or under a complete lock down. In such a time it is tempting to become depressed and ponder on all the negatives. I admit that even the thought of going back home to the States has crossed my mind in these past few weeks. But perhaps this presents even a better opportunity to consider why I came here in the first place and in the end still love living in the Kingdom of Wonder. From my family to the great lifestyle I have been afforded here, it is clear to me now that this home is where I will continue to live my life.
Like so many others one of the chief reasons for why I came here was due to the low cost of living. But in my time here I have come to realize there are two ways to approach this. For some they simply choose to live the same or similar version of their life back home, but at a much lower cost. And for others they decide to live a better lifestyle, one they could not afford back home, affordably here in Cambodia. My first few years I was of the former camp but have moved squarely into the latter as the years have progressed. The truth is I did not like much my life back in the States and it was not something that I wanted to spend the rest of my life duplicating here. For certain I can write this blog highlighting the $1 meals and $0.75 draft beers, and I mean no disrespect to those who choose this path. But I wanted to improve my life, not recreate it. I have lived in the $100 studio room, but now much prefer living with my family in a spacious and modern apartment with an off duty police guard standing duty 24/7. And as I find it difficult to work at home I was able to rent a nearby condo, where I play poker and do my live Twitch streams from, at a fraction of the price of what it would cost back home. All this while being able to go to the gym, swim in a large pool and enjoy lightning fast internet speeds. My second child, and firstborn son, is about to enter this world in one month. Back in the States I could never imagine being able to afford having such a family. Here it is not only possible, but the prospect of sending all of my children to a decent school is one I will be able to do comfortably.
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh I was often found wanting in terms of quality food. As I stated previously I often did the $1 meals from street carts as that at least offered great value. But the food and restaurant scene has changed so much in these last few years that I often find myself struggling to decide where to eat. One would expect great Asian food in an Asian country but that has not always been true. As I am Korean-American, quality Korean cuisine was difficult to come by in my first few years. But currently I have a choice of nearly every type and regional type of food that my home country has to offer. There are is no shortage of great Western fare as well. From simple burgers to quality steaks, there are a plethora of restaurants vying for our dollars, constantly improving their menu and reducing their prices. Is it exactly the same as I enjoyed in the States? Of course not, but eating in such a way back home was cost prohibitive to the point that going out to certain types of restaurants was a luxury that could not be done often. Although going out with friends and enjoying a fine dining experience is a common occurrence here, one can also have that brought right to their door as well with a plethora of choices in delivery services throughout the city. And should I have a craving for local fare I can enjoy that as well whether that be the $1 variety from down the street or at the new restaurant that offers a premium and reimagined menu of traditional local food.
Much of this is of course due to poker and the fact that we are still allowed to play online here. Unlike America which offers the game only in a few States, players here are able to enjoy the fruits of their poker labor as most traditional sites and apps are available for real money play. And for those that prefer the live venue they exist as well from the Nagaworld casino here in Phnom Penh to games in other cities such as Sihanoukville and Kampot. If one cannot play poker there is very little reason for a player to come here, but fortunately the Kingdom offers a wide array of choices for those that play both professionally and recreationally. Personally I enjoy playing in the comfort of my own home on my desktop rig with games spread over two monitors. But everyone is different as a close friend takes 4 tablets over to his neighborhood 24 hour gastropub to play and drink cappuccinos all night. Others can play in the casino in games from $1/$2 to $5/$10 or take a holiday down to the beach and play in any one of their many casinos. It is ironic considering where I come from, but I had to come to a third world country to enjoy the freedoms of playing poker in all its forms.
The last reason for why I love living in Cambodia is no big secret, especially for those that follow me on social media or have hung out with me at night. The nightlife here in Phnom Penh is absolutely epic and while we can argue ad nauseum over other places that some might enjoy more, this city is just perfect for me personally. There is no shortage of bars, clubs, KTVs and the like that one can choose from when trying to decide where to spend one's night. The greatest nights I have enjoyed in my life have been those traversing the bars at night with friends, barely able to remember all the events the following morning but somehow still knowing we had an epic night. And here we can talk about the cheap drinks because alcohol here costs nothing compare to what we are used to paying back home. If beer is your poison of choice than just a few dollars will carry you a long way. Personally I like to drink whiskey and even those can be had for near $3 at some places. But why settle for a drink when bottles can be had under $100 at just about every bar and club. But more than the alcohol, the real reason we go out and keep coming back are the bevy of beautiful and young girls at the hostess bars and KTVs ready and willing to keep all their customers happy. Make no mistake when I say that I came here to be a much bigger fish in a very much smaller pond. Back home I could not get pretty girls to look at me twice let alone get the kind of attention I get here. The nightlife here is very much a stage and when we go out we are the stars of the production.
I write all this of course as Phnom Penh and neighboring areas are experiencing a full lockdown. Currently everyone has to stay home and we are not allowed to go out anywhere, let alone enjoy the nightlife. The streets are dark at night, the bars shut and all of the girls at home staring aimlessly at YouTube on their phones. But to all my fellow poker brothers I say that life is merely on pause. As difficult as things are currently, others that surround us are experiencing a much harsher time. So do not be afraid to give a little back when the opportunity presents itself because they are all around us. As the old saying goes, this too shall pass and pass it shall for all of us. Businesses will be back open, bars will be pouring drinks soon and girls will be at the ready to laugh at every unfunny word we utter that they can barely understand. Until that day comes keep your head up, keep grinding and be ready for that night when all things returns to normal.
Back when I lived in Las Vegas I remember a night of playing $1-$3 NLH at the Treasure Island Poker Room. I was on a table with a close friend and we happen to get into a fairly big pot heads up. I had bricked my draw by the river but when he checked I decided to put in a huge bet to try and take the pot anyway. He tanked for a minute and then made the call with top pair. Upon losing the hand another player at the table, who as it turned out was a poker coach, remarked that I had really polarized my range with the sizing on my river bet. When hearing this my friend immediately asked the floor for a table change. I asked him if he did not want to play on the same table as a friend to which he replied that he simply did not want to be in a $1-$3 game where players were talking about polarizing ranges. This was back in 2009 and it was the day I realized that it was the beginning of the end for No Limit Hold’em.
Back when I started playing in 2003 my friends and I were printing money. Online sites were filled with recreational players that never seemed to mind shipping it in constantly with marginal hands. When we moved out to Vegas in 2005, live games were just as easy as I would often joke that I could walk through a poker room blindfolded and come out with at least a few hundred dollars. But as the game grew, especially online, data collection and the proliferation of software made the game increasingly difficult to play as players were constantly improving and even recreational players became familiar with advanced principles. All one has to do is look at the list of the winners at the Main Event of the World Series of Poker since the boom in 2003. Names like Chris Moneymaker, Jerry Gold and Jerry Yang represented the “every-man”, making many believe that truly anyone can win at the game of poker. But since Joe Cada’s win in 2009, the list of winners has been filled with younger players in their 20’s who all made their way up in the poker world through online sites. And if one does decide to jump online now to try and fulfill their poker dream, they will be faced with players who have played at least a million hands in their lifetime, all using software and many who study daily. And even lower stakes live games are now populated by those with much experience that used to play bigger, now playing smaller in order to survive.
All poker rooms, both live and online, are now riddled with promotions in order to attract players. But all that everyone is doing is recycling the same old players and what most are failing to do is the one thing that might save the game, namely the creation of new players. I see it all the time on my Facebook feed as agents for online poker clubs travel the world over to sign up this player and that player. But these guys were just playing on a different site previously and now they are just going to make the games on some other network much tougher. But creating new players for no limit hold’em is very difficult to do as the game is no longer as attractive as it once was. It is not as ubiquitous on television as before and the lack of participation by huge markets such as North America has depleted the player base of new players. And it does not take even recreational players long to realize that they are completely dominated once they sit down at most tables. Not only are they facing much tougher players with every resource available to them, but hold’em is not a game that lends itself well to newer players. When most of the money gets in the pot for big hands, equity does not run all that close in this game and recreational players often find themselves on the bad side of domination.
The more established players do not help their own cause in this regard. No Limit Hold’em is a game that has become increasingly more difficult to play over the years and the tables are filled with those that are losing more, not winning as much and those that are barely surviving. My friend used to comment about one particular room here in Phnom Pehn that it was such a depressing place to be compared to years prior. The online environment has not proven to be any better as players using software and playing for massive amounts of rakeback have not made for great games. In addition, the online side of things creates its own unique set of problems such as the presence of bots that can now be programmed to beat games at most levels. And the presence of massive promotions that benefit regular players do keep the rooms busy, but in the long run will be the downfall of the game. Recreational players are not attracted by such promotions as it unfairly punishes them for being passers by. Poker is a game that is fed by tourists and those that do not play regularly in any one location. These promotions are always paid for by taking additional money to the rake and recs often figure out that they are being taxed for something that they rarely can benefit from as promotions such as freerolls and bad beat jackpots give a higher chance of hitting for those that play more regularly in one room. And if nothing else, the extra money being taken depletes the money of those that are already losing.
As regular players we have all noticed the proliferation or gaining popularity in recent years of different games apart from no limit hold’em. Games like pot limit omaha have steadily grew over the past decade and even newer games are proving to be popular in parts of Asia such as short deck poker. And while recreational players may not necessarily be conscious of why these games are growing, it is no accident why they are drawn to these tables. I won’t get into the technical intricacies of each game, but the fact remains that in a game with more cards such as omaha the equity runs much closer and bad players do not get their money in as often being dominated, as is the case in a game like no limit hold’em. We see this evolution on a micro level within omaha itself as 5 and 6 card versions are now gaining in popularity as the equities run even closer with the additional cards. Short deck poker produces similar results, although for the opposite reason as cards are now removed from the deck. In either case, the high variance that is created by the equities running closer is also a more attractive feature of the game for newer players. Whether online or on a live table, there is perhaps nothing more boring than sitting in a no limit hold’em game with tight players, most of them chasing some promo offered by the room. These newer games provide a much more conducive environment for gamblers, those that want to play the game for every right reason.
I doubt there will ever be anything like the poker boom again, but it does appear that these newer games represent the future of poker. Fewer players are being attracted to poker today and the price to pay for getting them in very well may be adjusting to play these games. After all there has to be some give and compromise as we cannot expect recreational players to just hand over their money in an environment where regulars have most of the edge. I made the adjustment to omaha myself about a year ago and recently switched to 5-card games. As 6-card variants are now being offered I will probably have to adjust and switch to that game as well eventually. The numbers never lie and the point that I am making here can easily be seen on the tables. When playing these different games, those that have a high VP$IP can regularly be spotted whereas they are rare specimens on the hold’em tables. I do not see anything in the near future that can possibly change this trend. I know many point to the popularity of poker in parts of China as a sign of hope, but I have already covered in previous articles how the way in which the Chinese run their poker rooms is not conducive to the game’s growth. And it just so happens to be that the game of short deck was born out of games in Macau and is already quite popular there. Perhaps if America were to legalize the game again on a federal level and everyone had easy access the market can see an upward spike. But given how legistlation has been slow to be enacted even on a state level, I cannot see that happening any time soon.
There is a phrase that poker players love to use, namely “GTO” which stands for game theory optimal. I absolutely hate this saying as it represents everything wrong with poker culture today. I understand that players want every possible edge and advantage, but without other players to provide that edge there will be no game and more importantly no money to be had. Poker has become a game in which 2% of the playing population win 98% of the money. How long can such an ecosystem be sustained? As players we have to give up some equity on the table itself in order to meet others at some sort of half way point to ensure the survival of the game.
To catch everyone up I have been in quarantine for nearly two weeks in my condominium as a few residents here have tested positive for covid-19. At the time of this posting I only have two more days to go in this two week quarantine and so I thought this would be an opportune moment to describe both the events that led up to this and how life has been trapped alone in my own home. For the better part of a year covid-19 has not hit Cambodia as hard as other countries in the world with cases hovering around 300. But with a recent outbreak that number now nears 1,000 and life has changed quite drastically. While the change in my own life during this period has largely been forced, I anticipate that I will voluntarily enact many changes moving forward, even after the quarantine is over.
Until recently most cases of covid-19 in Cambodia were of the imported variety. But it has not affected the local population as much as those testing positive upon entry have been effectively quarantined. While there have been intermittent periods in which certain businesses and schools have closed, life here has largely remained normal. Live poker has run nearly continuously through the past year with the casino Nagaworld continuing to operate. Restaurants and bars continued to operate, even though their revenue streams were immensely reduced by the lack of tourists in the country. This all changed a few weeks ago when four women who were in travel quarantine bribed a guard to escape the hotel in which they were placed. These four then visited several friends throughout multiple condominiums infecting their friends, who in turn infected others in their daily routine. Then when the city of Phnom Penh started to lock down a bit, a group of people went to the city of Sihanoukville and infected even more people in the beach city. The current number of infections has now grown to 953 individuals, with more than half of that number coming in the last few weeks alone. 95 of these cases are from Sihanoukville, all of which being discovered in just the last few days. In fact the government has ordered the entire town closed off to the outside and no one is not allowed in or out of the city.
At last count over 70 locations and businesses have been locked down in quarantine by the government here in Phnom Penh, many of these being condominiums. Unfortunately the condo that is my second residence is one such location and locked down two Wednesdays ago on February 24th. I went out drinking on Tuesday night with some friends, came home around 4:00 AM, went to sleep and when I awoke I was informed that I could not leave the premises. The police and military have stood guard outside of the condo every day and night, making sure everyone stays inside their residence. Not only are the residents trapped inside, but the entire staff have had to be quarantined as well sleeping in make shift beds and sleeping bags inside various offices throughout the building. The residents who initially tested positive to trigger the lockdown in the first place were of course removed immediately. They tested every remaining resident by the second day of quarantine and quickly informed residents of their result, my negative test coming back the very next day. Since then I have received several calls from the Ministry of Health keeping track of my progress. They have not limited us to food issued or purchased by the government, instead leaving every resident to order delivery from the outside from markets and restaurants of their own choosing.
I have tried to stay productive and busy during this quarantine period, playing poker online and getting work done for my agency. As such I have decided to reinstate the blog portion of my website, this being the very first new entry. As this is my second residence my family does not stay here and so fortunately they were nowhere near when the lockdown occurred. I miss them dearly and being alone has been the most difficult aspect of this time. But they have been great in trying to keep my spirits up by video calling me several times every day and sending me photos of the most mundane aspects of life that I now find so fascinating. It has been difficult to explain to my daughters why it is I have not been home as they are much too young to understand. Friends will often text me to catch me up on what is going on in the outside world. The first week was the most difficult and I admit that I had some difficulty coping. My trouble culminated in a live Twitch stream I aired a few days ago when I basically had a meltdown on screen. I was attempting to play a few tables of PLO5 when several players related to my agency started to text me. I grew a bit frustrated and completely overreacted by slamming my desk with my fists. It goes without saying that I decided not to keep that video up on Twitch nor did I upload it to YouTube. Fortunately there were not that many people watching and so the only memory of the event will probably solely lie in this recounting.
The first days of this second week have gone much better as my life has developed somewhat of a quarantine routine. My sleeping schedule has radically changed during this time as common distinctions during the day that we are all used to do not seem to matter as much when you are spending 100% of your time in one room. I wake up around 5:00 PM these days and will spend my first waking moments calling and speaking with my family. After that I will order some dinner, or breakfast I suppose, and once that is finished I will start playing poker online. I'll speak to my family one more time during my session, in time to say goodnight to everyone. I will end the session to eat one more time around midnight and then spend the remainder of the evening either playing more poker or doing work for the agency. There is not much to do during down time once I am done working and playing poker. My life in quarantine has become the definition of Netflix and chill. I will stay up to receive the call from the Ministry of Health, which comes daily around 10:00 AM. Around 11:00 AM I will finally get some sleep and check off one more day from the two week quarantine. None of this is very exciting I admit but it actually resembles my previous life in the States before I arrived in Phnom Penh quite a bit. I have saved a lot of money as I am not able to go out at night. Most of the money that I have used has gone to great restaurant delivery and whatever my wife needs on a daily basis.
As mentioned previously, by the time this blog is posted I will have only two more days left in quarantine. The fact that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel has helped immensely. The very first thing I will do once out will of course be to see my family. But after that the temptation to go out and get a bit crazy will be great. If I am going to speak truthfully that will probably happen but I am hoping I can reign it in a bit after that. Even if I chose to not have such resolve I may not end up having a choice in the matter. The city that awaits me on the outside has changed quite a bit in these last few weeks and no one's life seems like business as usual. Many establishments have been forced to close, other have done so by choice and of the ones that remain open fewer customers seem willing to go outside. Even the casino has decided to shutter its doors as they too had a positive test within their walls. They say that those of us in the third world are always behind other nations. The sentiment seems appropriate here as just as other parts of the world are opening back up, we are just starting to shut down.
It is often said that every poker player will go broke at some point. This sentiment is taken for granted to such an extent that it is often said as a given without further discussion. I find the statement to be a stereotype based on a general truth for not every single player has gone broke in their playing careers. I also find it interesting that this is often said by those who do not play for a living and have never gone broke playing, often to console those who do and have. As someone who has gone broke during my career, I can emphatically state that this is not something to be taken for granted and something that definitely requires further discussion. While I appreciate my past friends who expressed this idea to me in an attempt to make me feel better, I doubt that the impact of such an experience is something they can truly grasp. That having been said, the purpose of this blog post is to give a sort of non-playbook, a list of things not to do in one's poker playing life.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT
I lived and played poker in the city of Las Vegas for five years. This was the culmination of a dream, one that most players in the States have. I spent a total of five years there and while the first three years were great, things would come to a crashing halt during the final two years. My success during the initial stage of my play in Sin City can be attributed to one simple concept, volume. I was a new player in town and did not really know anyone nor have any friends. I spent most of my free time either in a casino playing live or sat in front of my computer multi-tabling cash games online. It was not uncommon for me to put in a sixty hour week across both live and online. I played $2-$5 NLH live and while there were not many promotions to take advantage of at that blind level, the rake was low enough that such was not necessary. Most that play at this level and above will tell you that for the most part they prefer low rake with no promotions rather than having promotions with an extra rake that they cannot beat. Online was a different story of course as there are promotions in the form of rakeback, without an extra drop. I was able to grind lower at $100 NLH as I played up to twelve tables and made enough in rakeback to compliment my winnings. Although unconventional, my days and nights would have a set routine. I would wake up nightly around 8:30 PM at which point I would watch TV for a couple of hours to give myself time to wake up. I would then shower and head out to the casino to eat; nothing fancy as I usually just grabbed something from the food court. I would probably enter the poker room of whatever casino I was playing in that night around midnight. I would then play until about 6:00 AM at which point I would head to the local Mimi's Cafe for breakfast before going home to play online. I would play online until about 1:00 PM, go to sleep and then repeat the whole process all over again. My life was certainly not exciting and nothing like the Sin City ads one would see on television. But if nothing else it was effective in bringing routine and structure to my life, one that was optimal for playing poker and winning.
THE DREADED "F" WORD
As much as I played live in various casinos throughout the strip, I eventually became familiar with various staff members such as dealers and floor managers. While I also did meet other players on the table, players at $2-$5 and above are not exactly the friendliest people on earth. As I was a good tipper I became friendly with many dealers and managers and by my third year in the city they comprised the majority of my friend's network. Having a burgeoning social life certainly did cut into my poker time, but truthfully I was glad to make what I thought at the time were a few sacrifices after basically being a loner for three years. The first aspect of my life to suffer was of course my time playing poker online. It certainly was not going to be live poker as that was where I got to see my new friends after all. This meant that I now had to make the entirety of my livelihood from playing $2-$5 NLH live, which proved to be a very difficult task. In the end the math just did not add up as I was faced with a situation in which I had to increase my win rate in the same amount of time to compensate for what I was not winning from playing online. And the situation only got worse as many of my new friends often wanted to play poker when we socialized but could not afford to play $2-$5 on a daily basis. While at times we were able to play in a room that had both $1-$2 and $2-$5 and I would simply just sit at another table, the truth is very few rooms in Vegas had both games at that time. In fact I can recount only five rooms at the time having both games:
• MGM Grand
Caesar's had a $2-$5 game when I initially came to town, but it was a game they could not sustain as they changed the business model for their room and their customers would go elsewhere. There were two other casinos off strip that catered to locals that offered $2-$5 NLH, namely Red Rock and Green Valley Ranch. But as they were locals' casinos the quality of the games could not match those on the strip. So if my friends and I ended up playing in any other room besides those listed above, which was most of the time, it meant that I had to play $1-$2 and now faced a situation where I had to win more money playing a smaller game.
As I mentioned earlier I was a very good tipper during my time in Vegas. America of course has a tipping culture at large and when I was growing up in Los Angeles it was very typical to tip 15%-20% when dining out. As this mentality looms much larger in a city like Vegas, 20%-25% was more typical for meals out in Sin City. But restaurants were not the only establishments in which many players felt compelled to tip. To valet one's car was anywhere from $1 to $5 and of course this mentality applied to the poker tables as well. First of all I tipped at least $1 on every pot that I won. But it was common for me to tip more should the pot be bigger. Dealers were not unfamiliar with getting $10 to $15 tokes from me whenever they pushed a pot to me larger than $1K. While this may seem egregious there are even worse examples. I would often tip on a chopped pot and in the most extreme cases would throw the dealer my small blind should I chop with the big. On a losing night I might be down $1K but still have tipped out the dealers $65-$75 throughout my session. My thinking on the practice of tipping has changed over the years and it is one of the reasons I do not play live anymore. It could be argued that I can still play live and just simply not tip. But the following paragraph will illustrate why that was so difficult to do.
When I first arrived in Cambodia back in 2014 and played in the casino, tipping was a not a common practice. So when I returned to Vegas after a year and sat at a table at the Mirage, my mind was still in that mode and I had forgotten completely about the tipping culture. The first three pots that I won I did not throw any of the dealers a single chip. By the fourth pot the same dealer that was in the box when I first sat down returned and he gave me such a glaring look that I felt compelled to tip him something. I felt his hatred so much that I threw him a redbird (a $5 chip) and actually told him that I had just arrived from Southeast Asia and had forgotten about the whole tipping practice. As many of my friends were dealers I often had the opportunity to hear them voice their opinions about players who did not tip. Simply put, such players were absolutely hated and this was not something that was hidden all that well on the table as they dealt. I had one friend who was a dealer at the South Point Poker Room and whenever he got a tip he would take the chip, bang it as hard as he could on the top of the card shuffler then say "Thank you!" in the most sarcastic voice possible while looking at another player on the table who was not tipping him. And if anyone reading this has ever belonged to a poker Facebook group inhabited by dealers, this issue comes up quite often and they are usually not shy about voicing their opinions.
None of this is to disparage my friends who were dealers at the time as I still keep in contact with many of them and still consider them good friends. But this can be a contentious topic, even among friends. I once posted about this issue many years back on a blog I use to write for a local Vegas poker site and it received many heated reactions. One friend even posted that the reason I went broke was not because I tipped too much, insinuating that it was a result of my poor play. There is a lot of truth to that statement of course and I will address that later in this blog. But it still did not take anything away from the point I was trying to make, namely that a player cannot be giving away 15 big blinds a night, on every night and hope to win anything significant enough to provide a living. I certainly understand their point as we are talking about their livelihood and they are merely trying to protect it. In the end this is a battle of competing interests as someone playing for a living has their own expenses to consider and cannot worry themselves with whether or not the dealer is being tipped enough. Of course the casino could solve this issue by simply paying their dealers more. But in truth with what some of these dealers are used to making, if the casino had to cover that themselves poker rooms would be rendered unprofitable to the point that most would have to close down. The few times that I do play live in a casino these days I will not tip. But I tell myself that there are still enough recreational players and tourists who do tip the dealers. But then again tipping, or the lack thereof, is a contagious thing and if someone new on the table sees others not sending tokes the dealer's way they will often follow suit. Personally speaking, this issue for me represents for me a big enough conundrum that it contributes to why I simply do not play live anymore.
IN THE END, I SIMPLY SUCKED
In the previous list of my daily routine there is something glaringly missing that many readers may have already noticed it's absence. One thing that I rarely did back in those days was study the game. I did not come to the game after having read many books and analyzed the intricacies of poker. Instead like many others, I came to the game off of the high of Chris Moneymaker winning the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event and thinking that I could also easily become a millionaire through this game. And for a while that seemed very possible as poker was incredibly easy in the immediate aftermath of the "boom." If anywhere, I cut my poker teeth playing in the $3-$5 and $5-$5 NLH games at Hollywood Park and at the Bike in the Los Angeles area. And in those games it was common to call down big river bets with ace high and win and to face a plethora of opponents who often got their entire stacks in the middle with close to nothing. The situation did not change much when I first arrived in Las Vegas as the games there were also incredibly soft. It felt as if there was no compelling reason to study and the big mistake that I and many other players made was to become complacent and fall behind. I like to tell a story that illustrates this point perfectly. One evening I was playing $1-$3 NLH at the Treasure Island Casino when I found myself heads up in a pot with my friend Dave. He checked the river at which point I made a sizable bet with absolute air. He tanked for a bit then called me down with middle and bottom two pair to win the pot. As the dealer was pushing the chips to my friend, another player on the table remarked, "Wow, you really polarized your range with the sizing of your bet." At this point my friend immediately asked for a table change and when I asked him why, he simply remarked that he did not want to play in any $1-$3 game in which players were talking about concepts such as polarizing ranges.
The game was changing and I did not change with it. The story directly above occurred in 2009 and I was not even using a HUD then when playing online. I took it for granted that the game would always be easy to play and that others would not get any better. Of course what ended up happening was the exact opposite and I would go from printing, to not winning enough to simply losing. From there I lost my condo, had to sell my car and everything else just about unraveled from there. But before everything had come to an end, I did find myself at a bit of a crossroad that could have saved me had I made the correct choice. Even as things were beginning to fall apart, I still had a roll online. But as I mentioned I was not playing all that much there and I was running out of money to play live. I had a choice between taking what was left of my live roll and to use it to bolster my balance online or to completely clear out my online accounts and continue to play live. I remember agonizing over this decision one night in the parking lot of an Olive Garden after having dinner with friends. But hindsight is 20/20 and looking back on it now I clearly made the wrong choice in deciding to play live. Playing online would have allowed me to play smaller, make rakeback and I could have used the time not playing live to study. I cannot be sure that this would have reversed everything, but regardless of what the result might have been it was clearly the more correct choice.
TOO MANY EXPENSES
I mentioned that I lost my condo when I went broke. I should clarify that it was a three bedroom baller pad at a place called Country Club Towers, on the 11th floor right behind the Wynn Resort. Fully furnished, the place cost me $2,400 per month and I had no business living there, even when I was winning let alone when I started to win less and eventually lose. There is much that I could have done to mitigate for the fact that my financial situation was not the same. But I stubbornly tried to hang on to my lifestyle in an attempt to save face with others and to not admit to myself that I was heading for catastrophe. By the time I lost the condo I could no longer afford to get even a cheaper place as I did not have enough to pay a month’s rent and a deposit to secure a place. And as my credit rating was quite bad I probably would have had to pay more than that. Instead I had to rent hotel rooms by the night which ended up costing me much more per month than a regular apartment would have been. On weeknights I was usually able to get a room on the strip for $25 a night at the Imperial Palace. But on weekends those rooms were either booked or cost much more so I had to rent a room at those monthly places off the strip for around $75 per night. Had I faced up to my situation sooner, I still would have had enough money to ditch the condo unit and get a cheap studio place for around $400 per month. As I previously stated there were many factors that contributed towards going broke. But in the day to day moment, my living situation exacerbated matters more than anything else. Whatever I could win on a given day I had to take a significant portion out of it to pay for these rooms. And if I did not win, I had to take from the previous day’s winnings, or perhaps the day before and so on and so on. It placed an excruciating amount of pressure on me as I played and created a situation in which it was virtually impossible to win. I began this blog post by placing some of the blame on circumstances outside of myself. But as time passed it became evident that I made literally every wrong decision possible.
My life now is far different than what it used to be. I am fortunate to be in a place where I no longer have to play for my entire living, although I still do enjoy playing. And while I do so more now, I probably do not study as much as I should. But I do not bemoan the fact that time for such things now get rerouted to my family and business. Still I do very much miss playing poker for a living as it was just about the coolest thing I ever did in my life. In the back of my mind, I probably still wish I could return to that life. And even though I do not play for a living anymore, I still surround myself in my social circle with other poker players. Two of the biggest winners in the country are probably in my inner circle, those that understand what it is like to play and do so for their livelihood. And while I do have a fairly active social life here, my friends are the epitome of discipline and understand that all of that comes after we play. And on nights they need to put in more volume, we simply do not go out as there is always the next night.
I had written previously that it seemed as if everyone you speak to these days in a poker room is a pro. But seeing as how that is statistically impossible, I thought it may be cogent to discuss what it actually takes to be a professional in this game. The obvious disclaimer is that I myself am not a pro. But I still put in a significant amount of volume each year, have a positive win rate and have discussed this issue with a myriad of others who do play for a living. And I fully admit that I do not do everything that I am about to list off here in this article. But the best advice often comes from those who do not follow it themselves and perhaps this is one of those situations. I have played this game for 17 years, many of them for a living, and I have seen just about everything one can see in this game. Becoming a professional is not something I advise anyone to try normally, but let us forge ahead since this topic seems to be the obsession of even the most recreational of poker players.
ABSOLUTELY NO BOOKING WINS!
If it is one thing I hate hearing is when players tell me they only played a short session in order to "book a win." I would go on to define what this phrase means but I am still not exactly sure myself. You often hear this term from live players and this is the one area in which they are completely different from online players. In the mind of the online player there is no such thing as today, tomorrow, this week, month or year. This is just one long game that goes on seemingly forever until the day we die or go broke. For live players it seems to be all about this day, this session or this hand. The thought of losing even one big hand repulses them to the core, even if the truth is that they played it correctly. Just ask a live player to tell you a story about any time his aces got cracked and you will know exactly what I mean. Any online player who multi-tables has aces cracked multiple times in a session and for us it is no big deal because it is simply supposed to happen. There is no such thing as a hand that has 100% equity preflop and that includes aces. If you are a losing player and book a win, all that means is that you are delaying your losing by one day. If you are a winning player and heaven forbid you book a win, all you are doing is missing out on a chance to win more that day and delaying such winnings for one day. If you win you play and if you lose you play. The whole point of beginning an endeavor to play poker for a living is to find out if you can actually do it, to know whether or not if you are truly a winning player. And if you are one of the lucky few who knows that you are a winning player you should take every possible opportunity to play and continue on in games where you have an edge.
BUM HUNT UNTIL EVERYONE HATES YOU
There is so much hatred centered around this word and I have never understood it. If you are reading this article and are considering becoming a poker pro but do not know this term, perhaps you should reconsider. Bum hunting is the practice of following terrible players and only playing in tables they are on for the purposes of winning their money. It mostly applies to heads up matches online in which those who practice this refuse to play anyone not weaker than then they are but I think it could easily apply to those who play in regular 6-max games as well. The entire purpose of this game for those who endeavor to play it professionally is to win money and to win as much of it as possible in the shortest amount of time. The notion that one should play stronger opponents as a regular practice sounds rather ridiculous when said aloud, but there remains an immense amount of vitriol surrounding this practice. Much of it has to do with some sense of machismo I suppose, a belief in the idea that you are only the best if you beat the best. I could care less about being the best player in poker and while there is a certain amount of arrogance and confidence needed to play this game, the end goal simply remains to win as much money as easily as one can. Poker is a predatory game and concepts that include the word "hunt" or "hunting" should be entirely appropriate towards how one approaches this game. If we consider the world of actual predators in the wild, a pack of lions after killing their prey will not then turn on one another. They will simply wait for the next opportunity to hunt another weaker prey. In much the same way the notion that good players on a table should battle it out against one another after a mark has left seems ill advised at best.
This is a word often used when discussing this game, but one that is hardly practiced. People underestimate just how much discipline is needed to play this game, especially for a living. If you are reading this article and are the type of person who already has their life in order and practices a great amount of discipline in areas of life, health and love then playing poker for a living is probably the furthest thing from your mind. The truth is one has to be at least a little "off" in order to consider doing this for a living. Those attracted to this notion are usually those that are more attracted to the lifestyle more than anything else; the late nights, the money, baller lifestyle, hookers and blow and all that. And in truth those elements do and should exist in the poker lifestyle to a certain extent. After all, what is the point of doing this for a living if you cannot enjoy it like a true baller. But all of that should come after your session and only up to a point that it does not bleed into your session the following day. However f'ed up your life is for the majority of the time, everything better come together in the right way for those 6-8 hours that you are seated in front of your computer to play because if it doesn't there are plenty that will gladly be on the other side of the table waiting to relieve you of your funds.
MAKE TOUGH CHOICES
This leads to my next point which is that sacrifices need to be made if one is to pursue poker as a profession. The truth of the matter is that poker takes up a lot of time, both in the amount of time actually seated on a table and also the devotion towards studying the game in order to constantly improve. I have already discussed limiting one's baller lifestyle and practicing a certain modicum of moderation in one's social life. But apart from having fun and enjoying one's "poker life", sometimes other realities and responsibilities of life may intrude upon one's ability to focus on poker. I would like nothing more than to spend every waking moment of my daughter's life playing with her and enjoying her company. But I also realize that in two years I will have to put her in a private school and that she requires food, milk and a suitable place to live. I try to confine my playing hours to ones in which both my wife and daughter are asleep. And if I have to play during hours they are awake I will tell my wife that I absolutely cannot be disturbed and will lock the door. If she cannot follow these guidelines, I will simply leave and play somewhere else on my tablet. In the end the actual responsible thing to do is to sacrifice time with loved ones in order to devote yourself to a game that can potentially pay for all the things that they need. Or perhaps the toughest choice of all is the decision to leave the game altogether if it cannot provide for those that are in your care. I cannot think of anything more irresponsible than continuing to play a game in which one constantly loses when they have mouths to feed at home.
THAT DREADED WORD "BANKROLL"
During my time in Las Vegas I had a bankroll of about $70,000 during my peak. I divided this in several ways:
• $3,000 per month living expenses * 6 months = $18,000
• $12,000 in online poker accounts
• $40,000 to play live $2-$5
Regarding the last point I usually bought in for $500 for the $2-$5 game at the Venetian, meaning that I had 80 buy-ins for that level. I will readily admit though that is the last time I practiced such bankroll management and in truth most players I know are exactly the same. But this sort of strict management is exactly what is required and perhaps this is the primary reason that I do not play for a living anymore. To play your best game, one needs absolute freedom from the worries of life in order to make every right decision during a session. If you cannot stick in that 4-bet because you have to pay rent the next week or cannot shove all-in with air against a player that you have proper fold equity against, then you should not be pursuing this game as a profession. This sort of idea also applies in-game as well as one should be mindful of what stakes they play against the amount of money they actually have. I realize it is more impressive to tell others that you play $2-$5 live or $2-$4 online, but to play above one's means is a recipe for disaster. Poker is a game of mistakes and I can guarantee that your game will be riddled with them if you play above your means. There are those that actually play for a living who will be waiting on the other side to capitalize on every single mistake you make. If you cannot make the correct decisions in a game due to money concerns, then the proper thing would be to step down in stakes or have another revenue stream until playing higher is more comfortable.
KNOW YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Studying the game of poker does not have to be confined to strategies. One should also be aware of where they are playing and the conditions of their environment; how much rake does the room charge, how much are they dropping for the bad beat jackpot, how much do I spend tipping dealers, etc. It is the popular thing to say that only nits care about such things or as I like to call them, winning players. To be mindful of all these things means that one needs choice and options on where to play. If you are playing live then you should be living in a city where there are a multitude of rooms and tables at every stake level. And if you are playing online then you should belong to a high traffic site or belong to several sites and/or clubs in order for you to table select. I have players in my online agency that have an account and money in each and every one of the 29 clubs I offer. Every day they simply open up each app, look for the softest games and then commence printing. There is no point to pursuing this if you are going to play the same 10-15 people every single day as even the most terrible of players get better over time. And if you are to play online be sure to get a good rakeback deal, but do not sacrifice the quality of the games just to get a slightly higher percentage. I cannot overstate the importance of rakeback when going through a bad down swing.
I am sure there is much more that can be said regarding this topic, especially concerning the actual play of the game. But for this article I only wanted to cover overarching principles and issues of mindset rather than strategy. I realize that I am knee deep in a sea of hypocrisy in discussing this topic as there are many points that I just wrote about that I do not follow myself. But then again that is why I made the choice to no longer to play for a living and gain other modes of making money. A better way to state it may be to say that the game made the choice for me. I am still in the field of the poker industry, but I no longer rely on having to win in order to survive. Having said all this, I will admit that I do miss solely playing poker for a living as there is no other better feeling in the world. I may sound as if I am overstating it a bit, but there is something to knowing that you can successfully do something that so few can. For those that come across this article, I wish you good fortune whichever road you may choose.