Tuesday, September 28, 2010

AC Press: Professional poker players find careers in the cards at Atlantic City gaming tables

Before Joe Simmons sits in on a game at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, before he grabs his chips from the cashier, Simmons scouts out the poker room.

The 45-year-old Brigantine resident looks at chip stacks, pot sizes and familiar faces. He looks for known bad players, those he does not recognize and the least number of headphones. He wants that game.

Simmons doesn’t want to play against decent regulars. He’d rather hit up the tourists. He is one of dozens — possibly hundreds — of professional poker players in the resort.

Simmons doesn’t flaunt his job or talk about the daily grind at the table. Instead, he focuses on the players around him. He makes early assumptions based on a person’s demeanor and the amount of chips a player has.

Does he look mad? Did he just lose a big pot? Did she just say she’s getting sleepy? Did that player just tip the dealer extra money? She sure knows a lot of chip tricks. He played that hand tricky.

All of these thoughts add up as Simmons creates profiles for the other players in the game.

“You don’t know if someone is just lucky or good until you have played with them,” he said. “It’s better to assume they know what they’re doing until you find out they don’t. That’s when you go after them.”

Simmons wakes up never knowing whether he’s going to get paid that day. Unlike most people with “regular” jobs, Simmons and other professional poker players could lose money after a day of work.

“I saw all the money out there, and it seemed like people were just giving it away for awhile,” said Simmons, who has $828,164 in career tournament winnings. “The money can be very good at times, but people don‘t realize how hard it is to do this every day.”

The poker boom began in 2003, when Chris Moneymaker, a regular guy with no pro experience, won the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas. He became an instant celebrity and millionaire. His win gave legitimacy to poker as not just a shady back-room card game.

Poker became mainstream almost overnight. It brought housewives, lawyers and college students to the table looking for that same success.

Simmons, who created music and managed bands such as The Roots, got involved right away. He felt poker’s popularity was about to take off, and he didn’t want to miss it even if some family members didn’t agree.

“My mother never liked me playing poker,” Simmons said. “Even when I was making a lot of money, she never agreed with it.”

Poker involves psychology, skill and luck. It combines the rush of gambling with elements of strategy.

And then there’s the money.

“I saw how much money people were making on TV, and I wanted to try it out,” said poker pro Dwyte Pilgrim, 28, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who made his name playing tournaments in Atlantic City. “I saw I was good,” Pilgrim said. “I was the best out of my friends.”

To prove it, Pilgrim won $733,402 on Thursday at the Borgata Poker Open, a World Poker Tour event.

Atlantic City has been the proving ground for popular players such as Phil Ivey, 34, a Roselle, Union County, native who now lives in Las Vegas and is considered one of the best poker players of all time. He got his start at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, which was featured in the poker movie “Rounders.”

But the game also has chased away people who couldn’t handle the lifestyle. So many of them didn’t realize how big the ups and downs could be or how depressing losing feels.

Choosing poker as a career

Most area professional poker players say they started with a dream of winning a huge tournament like the ones they see on television. They all thought about what it would be like to be their own boss. It’s so easy to be caught in the spectacle of poker, with the money and freedom it can afford, but the leap is not easy to make.

Pilgrim made the move after testing his abilities for several months playing poker on the Internet and traveling to Atlantic City from Brooklyn on the weekends. Even though he was winning, he didn’t want to quit his job as a loan officer.

Pilgrim would leave guaranteed money and benefits to go to a world where he wouldn’t have either.

After months of talking to confidantes, he finally made the jump in 2007. He spent six days a week at the Taj Mahal, and on the seventh day he returned to New York. He earned comps and free rooms playing poker, and lived out of a suitcase.

Pilgrim switched to Harrah’s Resort in 2008, when he decided to focus on tournaments over cash games, where each player‘s own money is at stake as opposed to a tournament with a prize pool.

“I was looking for a bigger payday,” said Pilgrim in a phone interview from Indiana. “On a good day in a cash game, you can win a thousand, but in a tournament, if you get hot, you can win thousands.”

Those big scores in a cash game are rare in Atlantic City for most pros. There aren’t many big-stakes games. The resort is littered with $1-$2 and $2-$5 no-limit hold ’em games (the numbers represent the price of the small and big blinds, forced bets by the two players to the left of the dealer position). But the higher the blinds, the fewer games are available because casual players don’t want to put large amounts of money at stake.

If a person thinks about going pro, he or she has to think about losing. Sure, the money is good when you’re winning, but what happens when you’re not?

“The toughest part is the down swings,” Pilgrim said. “Anyone can handle winning, but it’s how you handle the losing that separates the good players.”

Dealing with down swings

Simmons knows about those swings probably better than most.

Since 2003, he has gone broke twice.

He lost his money the first time by playing too big. He sat in on a $150-$300 mixed game (where different games are played in a rotation) at Borgata. He had enough for a buy-in, but the other players just had more money in general.

Simmons played against those with millions of dollars behind them, while he had a bankroll worth a few hundred thousand.

It was easy for his opponents to call bets even if they didn’t have the right odds and Simmons had a favorable hand. Money wasn’t a problem for them.

“These guys were playing bad, and I knew it,” Simmons said. “But there is still some gambling going on. There is still luck, and there was a time when I was just unlucky for a long time. That happens.”

In early 2006, he went broke chasing his money. Eventually, he had to play smaller stakes and grind out another bankroll.

Simmons earned his money back cashing big in tournaments in 2007. He won more than $500,000 in a seven-month span, including $387,709 with a fourth-place finish in the Borgata Poker Open championship.

With all that money rushing into his bank account, he took advantage of the windfall.

He rented a $2,500-per-month apartment in Center City, Philadelphia, invested $50,000 each in two companies and went back to playing the bigger games.

Eventually, Simmons’ savings took a hit and dwindled. The two companies — a music studio and a salon — both failed. The rent ate away at his savings, and he once again hit a bad streak.

“You lose so much money, and you can’t even think straight,” Simmons said.

He was broke again.

“I’m not mad that I didn’t buy a house. So many people told me I should have done that,” Simmons said. “I wished I would have put money away for my kids and my parents.”

Simmons, who has a 13-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter in Philadelphia, moved to a cheaper place in Brigantine to be closer to the casinos. He then borrowed $2,000 each from 10 different poker regulars to get his bankroll back.

He played in smaller games, such as $2-$5 no-limit, and had to deal with questions about why he was playing lower limits.

“I was embarrassed,” he said. “I didn’t know what to tell people at the time. I hated when people asked me that.”

Simmons hit a big share of a bad-beat jackpot at Borgata earlier this year worth more than $80,000. He paid back his loans and is now working on making sure his money isn’t all in one place.

He’s working on a poker website (www.stuckfrompoker.com) and is back to creating music at his home studio.

“These kinds of swings could happen to anyone,” Simmons said. “So many people told me how that happened to them. I learned a lot and not how to do that again.”

Not enough for some

Depending on the stakes, a poker player can average $500 to several thousand dollars a week in cash. There are no tax forms on cash games because there is no way for casinos to determine how much a person won or lost in a single session. However, the casino informs the IRS of tournament winnings and bad-beat jackpots in cash games.

Most poker players go to work for an eight-hour shift and take a food break in the middle. But it’s not all-in moves and a constant barrage of betting throughout the night.

Jason Hague, 30, moved to Atlantic City from Trenton to play poker while he was between jobs. There were nights he sat in on games where he was bored out of his mind — because there are nights when the action is just not there.

Those nights, Hague listened to his iPod or chatted to the person next to him. However, he still had to pay attention or he would have watched his chips slide into someone else’s stack.

This is when he had the advantage.

“Boredom makes a lot of people make mistakes,” said Hague, who normally played after 7 p.m. “I noticed when people got tired, they didn’t think right. Those were times I waited for, to take advantage.”

Hague has a bachelor’s degree from The College of New Jersey and realized there was absolutely nothing he wanted to do with it.

Playing poker wasn’t the dream either, but he was good at it. He moved to Absecon and played poker until he got a job as a poker dealer at the Showboat Casino Hotel.

“It’s too scary to just play cards,” said Hague, who recently moved to Bethlehem, Pa., to take a job as a poker supervisor at the Sands Casino. “While there is a lot of skill involved, there’s just too much luck involved to feel comfortable.”

Hague remembers nights he played at Caesars Atlantic City before he got a job and hoped he would be able to make his rent. He watched chips shuffle between bad players and was frustrated when he couldn’t get a hand to hold up against them or just never got any cards he could play with. There were nights when he lost more than $300 in one hand.

He knew he wanted a steady job and didn’t want to make a living as a poker player. Although before he moved, he often played on his days off to supplement his income.

There was just too much luck involved for his liking.

Good players lose. Good players get unlucky and sometimes make mistakes worth hundreds of dollars. The daily grind of figuring out your next payday is too much for some.

“I’ve seen thousands of people say they want to be professional poker players,” said poker pro Gavin Smith, who was at Borgata for a tournament in June. “Most of them think they have what it takes, but most have no idea.”

The swings get to most players. One week, they may never lose a hand. However, over the next three weeks, the statistical odds go against them and all the money they made during the past two months is gone.

Those times separate the good players from the bad. The good ones are mentally tough enough to ride out a bad run of cards and know they will eventually get back to winning.

The bad ones give up or go broke and never come back.

“The swings are the hardest thing you’re ever going to deal with in poker,” Simmons said. “If people don’t have discipline and can’t handle their money, they aren’t going to make it. There aren’t many people I would tell them it’s a good idea to play poker.”


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