At 11 p.m. on Sunday night, a sophomore invited me to his fraternity house to watch him play cards. As his computer woke up, we talked poker strategy, and he asked about the tournament in Broadway’s lounge that I had just left. As I told him about the $10 buy-in, it took me a minute to realize that on his screen, he had just put $2,000 into play: $500 each at four simultaneous tables.
A poker trend that has been spreading for years across Columbia’s campus—and nationwide—has developed to the point that casual games are ubiquitous, official clubs are grooming novices, and high rollers like Richard, the sophomore, are earning significant sums.
The great bulk of players, of course, don’t bet at his altitude—for them, Texas Hold ’Em remains just a game. Richard, a varsity athlete who asked that his real name not be used because of NCAA gambling regulations, is best described as a semi-pro—he is among the few on campus to craft his game to the point that he can rely on regular profit.
We spoke for more than an hour, and only rarely, for perhaps a few seconds at a time, did Richard stop moving his mouse between the four simultaneous games on his screen. Click. Click. Click. Click. Bet. Fold. Raise. Raise. Raise. Five dollars and $10 at a time, the money—real money—leaked out and came rushing back.
Although I play online poker almost an hour a day, I am totally unable to keep up with Richard’s betting at any one of his four tables. At one of them, he starts with pocket jacks, a great hand. “Look at this, I think I’m gonna win this one,” he says, but another player shows pocket kings. “Eh,” he shrugs, as the money is digitally routed to his opponent.
At 11 p.m., I check his chip stacks: $510, $450, $443, $574. Overall, he’s down $23, or one percent off his initial total of $2,000.
Richard is just getting started.
“Here’s something interesting,” Richard says as he calls up a program called Poker Tracker. His screen fills with data—a breakdown, in every conceivable way, of all 68,539 hands he has played in the last four months. “It can show me all my aces—my win percentage with aces, how much I’ve won with ’em. I can click on this here to play back the hand—it’ll reanimate exactly what happened, who bet when. Or here, look at this guy,” he says, moving to one of the tables and clicking on a player with the handle “INeedRunners.”
Poker Tracker reports that they’ve met before—a window pops up with a complete record of their shared hands. Richard ticks off the statistics. “Attempted to steal the blinds: 14 percent of the time. Folded the river bet: 50 percent of the time. His aggression factor: looks like this guy is pretty aggressive. All that helps me make decisions. When you’re playing four tables at a time, you don’t have time to just sit there and watch people.” The $55 program tells Richard practically everything except what cards the other guys are holding.
Richard doesn’t even have to win to make money. In poker, players compete against each other and not the house, so to make a profit, casinos take a “rake”—a small percentage of the pot. Empire Poker has offered Richard a deal—because he plays at such a volume, he gets 25 percent of the rake back. If he simply breaks even, that works out to an average of $12 an hour.
Richard also gets paid to promote the site—if he recruits new customers, he gets 10 percent of their rake back, too. A typical day nets $60, but the figure can go a lot higher.
“I went to Atlantic City on Friday and played in some $20/$40 games. Broke even, I guess,” he says. “But then I got back and checked what my friends had done online. I made $323 that day, without even sitting down at a computer.”
Casual Games, Moderate Pots
A far more common—and modest—incarnation of poker at Columbia is the casual game, often found in floor lounges or larger suites’ kitchen tables. A standard buy-in is $10 to $20; multiplied by six to eight players, it’s a big payoff to the winner and not much of a sting to the losers.
Jonathan Treitel, CC ’05, sends out a weekly e-mail to a private list announcing games and helping players link up.
“We started out playing $5 games—now it’s up to $10,” Treitel said. “I like to have a little money in it—otherwise people don’t take it seriously; they’ll go in with anything. We like to keep it low stakes, tournament-style, so no one really gets hurt. Other times, when we’ve had a ring game where you can buy back in, we’ve had people really plow themselves under. Or we’ve had people buy in with $10 and walk away with $100.” Anything can happen, especially with new players coming and going.
While most skilled players ante in for only 10 to 20 percent of hands, TV programs like Celebrity Poker Showdown and ESPN’s World Series of Poker can make every deal seem like a blockbuster. “They only show the real big-action hands, so it doesn’t really teach you how to play,” Treitel said. “You only see when someone has ace-king going against someone with pocket jacks. It doesn’t show you the hand after hand that these guys are folding.”
Poker can be like pick-up basketball—play the same people over and over again and you’ll get good at exploiting their weaknesses. But when a newcomer with a different set of skills shows up, you might lose big.
The Columbia University Poker Society, which had its first meeting last week, aims to link aspiring players currently isolated in pockets across campus.
“A lot of the excitement of bandarqq poker is playing against new people, learning their strategies and techniques,” said Michael “Chester” Curtis, CC ’05, a co-founder. “It’s a social game, so what we’re trying to do is add some variety and get people to reach outside their small social circles and use poker as a device to meet new people and expand their own poker-playing potential at the same time.”
Curtis was not surprised to learn that Richard, the high roller, is able to make a significant amount of money online.
“The thing about poker is that you’ll find—especially in a game like Texas Hold ’Em—there’s a trade-off between the entertainment value and the cash payoff value,” Curtis said. Some players just like the thrill of going all-in, even with mediocre hands. A common scenario is a student blowing his entire stack toward the end of a tournament. Sure, he walks away with nothing—but it took him two or three hours to lose the $10 to $20, about what he might have spent at a movie or a bar anyway.
“There’s those people, and then there’s the ones who are playing ultraconservative, especially online, clicking the button maybe once a minute, only playing when they’ve got the right hand,” he says. “If you’re willing to just sit there and let the money trickle in, you can make a lot of money.”
By 11:30 p.m., Richard is doing worse—down $176. If this was my money, I would have been spooked off the tables long ago. Richard doesn’t seem nearly as nervous as I am. As if to prove him right, as I look at his weakest stack, a big pot jumps him from $392 to $474. He shrugs, giving about the same reaction as to an earlier bad beat. In the hour or so that I observe his play, not once did he curse in anger or pump a fist or otherwise display emotion.
Despite the tremendous amount of money changing hands, Richard really does seem to keep a cool head—so when he says he has a handle on his gambling, I believe him.
“People tell me I have a gambling problem all the time,” he says. “I don’t see it as a problem whatsoever. It’s more of a statistical analysis of a situation than anything. In the long run, it’s a positive output, as opposed to me just putting $300 on red every night.”
Individual hands seem not to faze him. At one point, he focuses on a table that he wished he’d folded. “I guarantee you I lost this hand. Oh, hey, what do you know?” he says, as the pot came his way.
“I thought I was totally screwed there, and I ended up winning. Something I hate: people will bitch about bad beats all the time. I am fucking sick of hearing bad beat stories. Like in the tournament today”—that afternoon, Richard had entered a $200 tournament with a guaranteed prize pool of $250,000—“I ran up against aces with my queens, and I lost.”
“But there have been times when people bet queens against my aces. It’s just going to happen, and if you let it eat you, if you get really pissed off every time you lose a hand you shouldn’t have…” Richard trails off to calculate the pot odds of his pair with a straight draw. He loses.
“You’ve just got to let it go.”
Transition to Steady Money
Richard started playing a Monday night game early in high school. “It started off as a $5 buy-in and got real cutthroat,” he says. Soon some of the high schoolers, including Richard, were buying in for up to $100.
“I was not always a good poker player,” Richard says. “There was a point when I thought I was good enough to play online and make money and definitely was not. I was always telling my parents I was good enough to do this and make money, and they never really believed me.”
Today, Richard says, his parents pay for tuition and housing, and his poker income takes care of the rest.
Harnessing a Fad
Dustin Brauneck, CC ’05, an RA in Broadway, wasn’t arousing much interest in his February event, a fundraiser for the Columbia University Dance Marathon on Jan. 29. “I was having trouble with my advertising, even though I was flyering everywhere,” he said.
Then he asked the students at the Poker Society to get involved.
“As soon as I did, I got just a ton of responses. This is more than I was expecting, honestly,” he said, surveying the 40-plus students spread across the Broadway Sky Lounge on Sunday night. They were seated eight to a table, each with a fake $1,500 in chips, about to compete for an iPod Mini, a DVD player, and two pairs of ballet tickets. Each had paid a $10 entry fee.
“We made $400 like that,” Brauneck said, snapping. “There was no question we were going to get a lot of money.”
The tournament followed a similar one in Schapiro’s ground-floor lounge three weeks earlier, which had also offered an iPod as a prize. (Tournament organizers are still unsure about the legality of offering cash or cash-equivalent prizes.)
The popularity of Texas Hold ’Em, coupled with the social network of CUPS, has enabled these notoriously under-attended events to entertain residents and raise money to boot.
At the Broadway tournament on Sunday, the variety of skill levels is immediately apparent—some players drop phrases like “string bet” and “check-raise,” but Mike—an athlete who, like Richard, didn’t want his name used—folded one hand when he could have checked for free. “Oops,” he shrugs. “I’m the newbie at the table.”
Most mistakes were forgiven, but everyone had a breaking point. Will Jamieson, CC ’07, called a big bet with just a five high—only folding or raising (bluffing) would have been appropriate. Ben Dooberman, CC ’05, couldn’t believe it. “Why’d you call?” he demanded. “Why’d you call $300 on a bluff? You had—you had the worst possible hand!” Jamieson brushed it aside and won an all-in bet on the next hand.
Clock in, Clock out, Get Paid
“I’ll still play in person every once in a while, just hanging out with buddies, drinking and whatnot, but if they’re playing downstairs for like five bucks, I’d rather just come up here and play on my computer, ’cause I can make so much more money,” Richard says.
He’s not antisocial. He reacts with scorn to the idea of playing alone on a Saturday night. It’s just that at his level, poker is all business.
Earlier, he had explained how to keep a cool head. Don’t think of it as being up or down; don’t quit when you’re losing or keep on just because you’re winning; poker is just one big unending session. You’ve got an equal chance tomorrow. Clock in, clock out, get paid.
“This summer I’ll get an internship, probably one that doesn’t pay, and do this at night just for the money.” He mentions the idea of expanding his operation—buying another computer at $1,200 to play eight games at a time. His cut of the casino’s rake would double to $24 an hour.
Salaries, investments, regulated play—Richard’s poker was sounding an awful lot like a job.
I had to ask—is it still fun?
He thinks for a long second. “I don’t dislike it or anything—I’d much rather do this than schoolwork,” he says. “But there’s certainly times I’d rather be doing something else. I do kind of feel compelled to play as much as I can, which is tough, because I don’t have a ton of time to relax and just watch TV and play video games. It does wear on you sometimes.”
He turns to face me. “There’s part of me that would rather play than do something else,” he says, “and part of me that feels like I should play. Does that make any sense?”
Richard looks back to his computer screen. In one window, he holds queens and 10s, a monster hand. But it isn’t the nuts—a king is on the board, and when Richard is re-raised on the turn, he knows he’s beaten.
“Now I gotta call this guy down. I know he’s got trip kings. Shit,” he says.
He’s right. His stack drops to $291. After a few more hands Richard logs off. He’s down about $280 after an hour of play, more than most students spend in a month.
Richard was completely unruffled. He’d make it back tomorrow, and profit the next time around. Just another day at the office.