Monday, January 21, 2008
Click. Cole Robinson has just entered a third game.
In heads-up no-limit Texas hold 'em online poker, where a card or a bet comes every few seconds, three games at once is about all Robinson can handle when he's feeling sharp. And today he isn't.
"Too much caffeine," he says distractedly over a drone of rapid-fire mouse clicks. "And I kind of need to eat something."
There have been days when he's lost big money playing like this. But so far this afternoon, despite drinking too much coffee, not eating anything except a banana and some yogurt, and tolerating my millions of questions about his odd way of making a living, he's done pretty well. I just watched him win $2,400 off somebody in 21 minutes.
But now he's entered a third simultaneous game and he's worried about his ability to keep things straight. He's playing three different people, he explains, with three different tendencies, in three different contexts.
Maybe the first one's pissed because Robinson just won a lucky hand, the second one's overconfident because Robinson's been folding a lot, and the third is simply playing like an idiot, raising and folding with no rhyme or reason.
Thousands of dollars are on the line in each game.
"It's such a good situation, against such weak players," he says, his eyes darting between the little cartoon tables holding down three corners of the computer screen. "I really can't make myself quit."
Four-and-a-half years ago, before Robinson became a professional online poker player, he lived across the hall from me at Battenfeld Scholarship Hall at KU. He got into poker the year I met him. At the time it seemed like the majority of the hall, and much of KU, was getting hooked.
It was 2003, the year ESPN expanded its broadcast of poker's prime event, the World Series of Poker. The "hole cam," which allows viewers to see what cards the players are holding, had recently been introduced, exponentially improving the fun of watching the game, and ratings took off.
That year, a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee with the God-given name of Chris Moneymaker, who had never entered a live tournament in his life, qualified by winning a $39 buy-in tournament at PokerStars.com and ended up winning the whole $2.5 million shebang in Las Vegas. Online poker boomed.
A guy in Battenfeld named Drunk Dave, a funny and boisterous dude known for his taste for cheap vodka, would come into the hall after work and announce that he'd just won $50 playing online poker. He would only brag when he won, Robinson remembers, but it seemed like he won a lot.
"So I was like, 'Hell, if he can do it, I can do it,'" he says.
The following year, guys at Battenfeld were playing poker constantly in the kitchen for a few bucks, and when they weren't betting each other they were playing online.
Most of them were like my roommate. He would sometimes stay up all night in a tournament, occasionally win a few hundred dollars, and then lose it pretty quick, about like you'd expect.
Robinson seemed to play more than anybody. And he won more than anybody. Every now and then I'd look across the hall and see a few guys huddled over his shoulder, watching in tense silence as he went deep in a tournament or got on a roll in a cash game.
One night, over a few beers, he and another guy from the hall ponied up $20 to enter an online tournament. They decided that if they won they'd use the money to go to Arizona for the Royals' spring training. They finished in second, winning about $800. And then they went to spring training.
For a while, Robinson's Peruvian roommate played in cash games, trying to raise enough money to fly back home for a visit. He was up for a while but then lost. So Robinson stayed up late one night in the Battenfeld attic, fighting to get the money back. His roommate found a note in their room the next morning. They were going to Peru. And then they went. It was unbelievable.
Beware of Shark
As good as I thought Robinson was, he says he didn't really get good until last January, eight months after graduating from KU with a business degree. He won $20,000 that month, the first time he won that much and felt like he knew what he was doing.
In February he won about $400. And then he went on a run. One day he won $44,000. By the end of the year he was well into six figures in net winnings.
He usually plays at $2,000 buy-in tables (meaning the most chips a player can buy at a time is $2,000). Sometimes he'll play $5,000 tables. His strategy is simple: Find a bad player, a "fish," invite him to a heads-up table (one-on-one), and let him waste away his money on boneheaded mistakes.
He takes notes on players to keep track of who's good and who's bad. His note on the player he just won $2,400 from says that he plays very aggressive and when you pretend you're weak he'll take the bait. Robinson usually won't play people who know what they're doing.
Heads-up is a different beast from normal poker where you're sitting at a table with a group of players. There are a lot more hands, meaning a lot more decisions (and bets) to make. And since there are only two of you, odds are neither of you usually has a good hand.
"So you're going to have lots of bluffing," Robinson says. "It's more interesting. You also can win or lose a lot more money a lot faster. It's probably the hardest form of poker to play."
* * *
It's about 1:30 p.m. Robinson is playing at two $2,000 tables and one $5,000 table. One of the $2,000 players seems pretty good. The other two players are definitely fish.
On the $5,000 table, both Robinson and the fish have a little more than $5,000 in chips, with the fish a few hundred ahead.
Before the hand is dealt it's Robinson's turn to post the $25 small blind. The fish posts the big blind of $50. (Blinds are a set amount players put on the table before each hand. The small blind, in this case $25, and the big blind, $50, alternate between the players).
Robinson is dealt a three of diamonds and a five of diamonds. He bets $125. The fish calls (matches the bet).
Here comes the flop (three cards in the middle, face up): six of diamonds, four of spades, king of diamonds. (Each player will use his two cards in combination with the communal cards in the middle to form a hand.) Robinson needs one more diamond for a flush (five cards of the same suit), and a seven or a two for a straight (five cards in numerical order).
The fish checks, passing the decision to Robinson. He bets $250. The fish calls. Now the turn (one more card face up): eight of spades. The fish checks. Robinson bets $600. The fish calls.
Finally, the river (the final communal card): nine of spades. Robinson doesn't catch his flush or his straight. The fish bets $200. Robinson bluffs, betting $1,111. The fish calls.
The cards are shown. The fish has a queen of clubs and a king of clubs, making a pair of kings. The fish wins $2,110 off Robinson.
A more common way to play is to enter tournaments. That way, you can win tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if you lose you only lose the entrance fee. This is how Garrett Beckman makes his money.
Instead of exiling himself to the netherworld of heads-up cash table poker, he's closer to the world of Chris Moneymaker. With tournaments there are big cash prizes, tough competition, online rankings and berths in prestigious live tournaments. In other words, there's more glory in it.
In 2006 Beckman won his first big online tournament for $53,000 at PartyPoker.com. With that little cushion in his bankroll, he quit playing cash games regularly and started entering several tournaments every day, ranging from $50 to $1,000 buy-ins.
Last spring he won three tournaments in 24 hours on three sites-PokerStars, UltimateBet and Full Tilt Poker-winning a Triple Crown award from poker website PocketFives.com. And he cracked the top 100 on the site's world online poker rankings.
Over the summer he sat in five World Series of Poker events in Vegas. In August he won $102,000 in an online tournament. He estimates he's netted more than $400,000 in the past three years.
Beckman is a year younger than Robinson at 23 and got into poker at about the same time while living in the dorms at KU. He started off playing at $25 buy-in tables. Within a month he was playing $200 no-limit games and sitting at four to six tables at a time.
He stopped attending class. And then he dropped out of KU altogether as a sophomore. Imagine telling your parents you're quitting college to become a gambler. Eventually they came around, but it was a tough sell at first.
"They kind of had a sit-down with me and asked what was going on at school," he says. "I told them I hadn't been going for a while-and you can't tell your parents you haven't been going to school. That'll break their heart pretty quick."
Living in the house he bought a couple months ago in Gardner (25 miles southeast of Lawrence), he now plays six days a week, normally entering the same eight or 10 multi-table tournaments every day and playing four to 12 tables at once. He pays about $1,500 in buy-ins every day, and on average makes about $2,000 profit.
Most days he starts playing when people get off work and quits at 4 a.m. or so. On weekends, when more people are playing, he signs in early in the afternoon and plays for 14 hours or more. Fields range from 150 to several thousand players. His goal in every tournament is to place in the top three.
"You can't really get anywhere in multi-table tournaments if you're consistently getting eighth and 10th and 12th place," he says. "Yeah, you're beating out huge fields and you're getting really deep in the tournament, but you're never going to make money unless you're getting top three consistently."
The night before I interviewed him he took first place in a Full Tilt tournament for $22,000. A few days earlier he placed second for $12,000. He's currently ranked 23rd in the world.
"I'm off to a good start this year," he says. "I think I'm up $35,000. It's only been eight or nine days."
Most players, of course, are not like Robinson and Beckman. For every winner, there are millions of casual players who pop in every now and then and blow some cash, and thousands more who make a habit of feeding money to the guys on top.
Most are like my old roommate-win a little, lose a little more. Like Mark Hillix, a guy from Kansas City in his early 20s. He says he played online poker casually for about two or three years, starting out playing for $25 at cash tables and entering $10 tournaments, then playing for $200 at a time. He says he probably lost a couple hundred overall.
"I never got too into it," he says. ":You go into it and it seems like you'll win because you have a good hand, but someone always trumps your hand. Someone always gets a hand that's just a little better than yours."
Some are like Brad Feldman, a pretty decent player who prefers the live game. The KU senior started playing in high school at a card room near his house in Lakeville, Minn., a suburb south of St. Paul.
He's won a few thousand dollars in live poker and recently got into playing online. He plays a few hours each day when he comes home from class, totaling about 15-20 hours a week.
"You lose as much as you win, sometimes more," he says. ":It's taken me a while to adjust to online play. I just like having the chips in front of me, having my cards in my hands, being able to look at somebody, versus looking at a screen."
* * *
It's been a couple more hands, and the fish is still ahead of Robinson. Maybe he'll get overconfident. The decent player at one of the $2,000 tables quit, so Robinson now has only two games to concentrate on.
He posts the $25 small blind. The fish posts the $50 big blind. Robinson is dealt two aces, one a diamond and the other a spade.
Earlier, Robinson told me, "Pocket aces is the best hand in poker. If you're playing heads-up, it's very unlikely that someone will have pocket aces."
Robinson bets $125. The fish calls. Here comes the flop: king of diamonds, four of clubs, seven of hearts. The fish checks. Robinson bets $300. The fish bets $600. Robinson bets $1,500. The fish bets all the money Robinson has. Robinson calls, going all in.
"Fireworks time," Robinson says. "God, please, do not have me beat."
The cards are shown. The fish has a king of hearts and a four of spades. Now the turn: seven of diamonds. And the river: two of hearts.
Robinson has a pair of aces. The fish has kings. Robinson wins an $11,647 pot, netting $5,823. He is ecstatic.
Boom to Bust?
The online poker boom is a few years old now, and no one knows how long it will last.
In October 2006 President Bush signed into law the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, a provision tacked onto the SAFE Port Act that prohibited the transfer of money from banks to online gambling sites (with some exceptions, such as horse racing).
Since then several large poker websites and Neteller, the biggest money transfer service, have closed to U.S. players.
Other money transfer services, like ePassporte, still exist and some poker sites are still open to U.S. players. While there are enough bad players on the remaining sites for the best players to make a profit, smaller player pools mean fewer fish.
"Poker's kind of cannibalistic in nature," Robinson explains. "The good players just keep winning, winning, winning, winning, and you have to keep having bad players coming in to donate. If not, then the good players are stuck playing just against the good players. : Three or four years ago, when everyone was playing poker on the internet, it was great for people who already knew how to play poker because poker had a ton of money coming in.
":If I had known what I know now three or four years ago, when that poker boom happened, I'd be sitting here with a lot more money. Like in the millions."
Beckman says his winnings in cash games were sliced in half after the biggest site, PartyPoker.com, closed to U.S. customers. This was part of the reason he decided to concentrate on the big money tournaments instead.
"It turned into mostly semi-professional players who kept a consistent bankroll on the site," he says. "Those were the kind of guys I was playing with. I was no longer playing with two or three guys that were just taking a shot at the game."
Three years ago, on that trip to Peru, Robinson came home drunk after a night out and lost $4,000.
Although today he'll regularly win or lose several thousand on a single hand, this was a lot of cash then, about half the money he was planning to take to Spain to study abroad the following semester. So he swore off playing while drinking.
And then, three months ago, he took a trip to Europe and played drunk again. This time he lost $30,000, playing at a $10,000 table against a good player who had created a new name.
"I'm pretty disciplined normally, and I've gotten a lot better now that that happened," he says. "It just sucks because as you play for more and more money, the lessons get more and more expensive."
Despite the occasional slip-up, Robinson normally keeps an even schedule, playing from roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If he's sick or tired, he'll take a break. If one player's thinking clearly and one's not, it's a safe bet which one's going to win.
"I think there are a lot of good players, but a lot of them play when they're drunk, or play when they're high, or play tired, or play too much," he says, "and make lots of mistakes against people who are too good."
People say the difference between a professional gambler and an addicted gambler is that professionals win. It's not easy to keep poker from becoming an all-consuming activity.
Robinson says there used be nights when he'd cancel plans with friends to stay home and play poker. His girlfriend has gotten used to him running late when he's in the middle of a game with a really bad fish.
Lots of times after a long day he'll go for a run or play "Rock Band" on Xbox. He's had to train himself to disconnect from the screen.
"When I win, like right now, I'm fine," he says. "But if I lost a couple of those matches, it would take a little bit of time to get out of it."
Beckman says his mentality toward the game changed when he started playing professionally. If you're playing for hobby, maybe you'll be a little careless with your money. But when it's your job, everything must be calculated.
"When I decided I was going to play full-time, I realized that it's not something you can take for granted," he says. "You can't just wake up on any given day and sign into your account and start playing. You really have to be focused and treat it like a job, not like a game anymore. Once I decided to start taking it more serious, it seemed to be easier."
Neither Beckman nor Robinson wants to play professional poker forever. Both, in fact, say they want to play for a couple more years or so and then start their own businesses.
Beckman bought his new house, while Robinson, who splits time between the Lawrence apartment he shares with his younger brother and the basement of his parents' Prairie Village home, spent a little time in Europe last fall. Some days each of them will buy their friends drinks. But the majority of their money goes into savings.
* * *
Half an hour later, the fish at the $2,000 table has had enough of Robinson and it's down to the fish at the $5,000 table.
Robinson posts the $25 blind. The fish posts the $50. Robinson is dealt a queen of spades and a five of spades. He bets $125. The fish bets $300. Robinson calls.
Here comes the flop: six of spades, two of spades, five of clubs. Robinson has a pair of fives and needs one more spade for a flush. The fish checks. Robinson bets $400. The fish goes all in. Robinson calls.
The cards are shown. The fish has a five of hearts and a seven of diamonds. Unless the fish gets a seven, Robinson probably has him beat. They each have a pair of fives, but Robinson's queen beats the fish's seven. The turn: nine of clubs. The river: jack of diamonds.
Robinson takes the last $3,131.20 the fish had on the table and the fish quits. Robinson is done too, for now. He's played for less than two hours and won $7,100. Damn.