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.