Suppose your first job earned you six figures a year while working from home? No boss. No cubicle. Just you, your computer, and a lot of suckers filling your pockets.
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Brian Clark flops down in the swivel chair in his home office and boots up the two 30-inch computer monitors on his desk. Jay-Z’s “Young Forever” is blaring in surround-sound on the stereo. We live a life like a video…you never get old…and the champagne’s always cold. A Culligan water cooler is within arm’s length, and a mini-fridge with sodas and snacks is just a step away. “If only I could get a urinal in here, then I’d be all set,” the 26-year-old jokes.
With a few clicks, Brian fills one of the screens with virtual poker tables—nine total. The other large screen shows a detailed spreadsheet, data collected by a software program he uses to record and analyze his own playing habits, as well as his opponents’ patterns.
Brian clicks back and forth from table to table, screen to screen. His eyes get sharp and focused. In his left hand, he holds three casino chips, which he flips and spins repeatedly in one beautifully choreographed motion. “I think that guy’s only got one pair,” Brian says, eyeing one of the nine tables he’s playing. “I’m going to shove all in.” He does, and his opponent folds. He rakes in a $450 pot.
Brian Clark has never worked in an office, he’s never had a boss, and he’s never punched a timecard since graduating from college in 2005. But he has consistently earned more than $100,000 per year. He owns a four-bedroom home, which he’s currently remodeling. He pays taxes, has health insurance, and saves for retirement. He has a personal financial advisor who handles all of his investments. He travels the world—from Barcelona to Aspen to Vegas—for work, skiing, and whatever else he wants, and has season tickets to the Twins and Wild. He even has a personal assistant, who handles much of the day-to-day details of his life, including washing his laundry and dishes, making grocery trips, and
organizing his mail.
Brian belongs to a circle of young Minnesotans who make their living playing poker—an elite group of card sharks who log up to 60 hours a week at virtual poker tables (sometimes playing up to 15 games at a time), competing against people from all over the world. Many of them earn six figures a year. The most successful of the Minnesota players treat the game like a profession, abiding by principles that limit losses and adhering to a regular schedule. Brian, who is considered by many online players to be one of the top 20 Limit Hold ’Em players in the world, wakes up every morning, walks directly from his bed to his computer, and, in his pajamas, plays poker for one to four hours. He spends afternoons doing whatever he wants, then he’s back in front of his computer in the evening for another three- to six-hour session. For Brian, it’s just another workday.
IT'S PROBABLY MORE DIFFICULT to burn toast than it is to get to an online poker game. You log onto the Internet, point your browser at Fulltilt.com or Pokerstars.com, download a bit of software, select a clever screen name, password, and avatar, and deposit money, as little as $15, via credit card. Boom—you’re ready to play.
Once registered, you enter the virtual lobby, an enormous list of thousands of games of all types, sizes, and stakes. With a click of your mouse, a table (or tables) pops up on your screen, and you “sit down” with your virtual stacks of chips to play against “SickPuppy” from Wiesbaden or “2Hot4You” from Nantucket.
But you probably don’t or won’t or can’t play online poker like Brian Clark does. Like the old woman at a bingo hall who plays 20 cards neatly spread in front of her, Brian is experienced at “multi-tabling.” He can play eight or more tables at a time to maximize the potential returns, though he often plays just a few higher-stakes games at one time. He has different accounts on four different poker websites, which increases the likelihood that he’ll find deep-pocketed opponents. “It’s like dropping your line in four different lakes,” Brian says. “If one lake’s not all that great one day, you head over to another one.”
Online poker players like Brian Clark
often play several tables at a time
to maximize their profits.
Brian is less a weekend angler, however, than a Great White hunting for a nice fat fish—a cocky salesman with some cash to burn, or a drunk frat boy after bar close. Those are the kinds of opponents Brian loves to find. And those are the games where he typically walks away with all the money. Eventually he cashes out part of his bankroll, requesting that the website send him a check. (He used to be able to move money directly from his poker bankroll into his bank account, but a law passed in 2006 prohibits U.S. banks from conducting transactions with online gambling sites. No matter. The mail will come soon enough.)
To be successful at online poker, Brian says, you must understand the rules. You’ve got to understand hand values and mathematical odds and the basics of risk-versus-reward analysis. You must master bankroll management, playing at dollar limits that prevent you from losing your entire bankroll. Bankroll management, Brian says, is the most important thing in poker. He aims to not risk more than 5 percent of his bankroll at a time. “You have to be willing to gamble and not think about it as money. The only thing you can control is how much you put in front of you,” he says.
“If you’re not willing to lose everything you have in front of you, then you’re playing outside your bankroll.”
You have to manage your emotions, too—keep your focus, and not “go on tilt,” as poker players say. Winning poker players don’t panic when another player gets a miracle card on the river, or when some hothead starts ranting and swearing in the chat boxes. “Put it behind you and move on,” Brian says, “because the next hand is already underway.” How does Brian deal with the stress? He practices yoga.
“Poker can be a mean bitch,” he says. “It doesn’t care about you. It can just torture you.” But losing is just part of the big picture, Brian says. He’s thinking long-term, focusing on the future. “If the stock market takes a four-day tumble, you don’t panic and sell,” he says sagely. “You stick to your plan. It’s the same thing in poker.”
IT ALL BEGAN WITH ROUNDERS. Brian was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota–Morris when he first saw the 1998 Matt Damon film about the seedy world of private high-stakes poker clubs in New York. He was intrigued. He started playing Texas Hold ’Em with some college buddies for small stakes—$5 and $10 games, basically beer money.
He discovered he had a knack for it.
“I made $1,500 that year just playing those games in the dorms,” he says. “Then one night I played with some other friends who were really good, and I lost. I didn’t like losing.” Rather than blaming bad luck, though, he got smart. He went straight to the bookstore, bought all the poker books he could find, and started studying. Really studying.
Of course, Brian wasn’t the only one inspired by Rounders. A 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee aptly named Chris Moneymaker had seen the movie and was also giving poker a whirl. But he lived four hours from the nearest casino, so he took to the Web’s online poker rooms, where he honed his skills. In 2003, Moneymaker earned a $10,000 seat into the main event of the 2003 World Series of Poker by winning an online tournament that had cost him only $39 to enter. And against all odds—there, in Vegas, playing against the world’s best—Moneymaker went on to win the series, taking home $2.5 million and the coveted gold championship bracelet.
Brian, just starting his junior year at Morris, watched on ESPN as Money-maker’s improbable victory unfolded. It made him curious. What was this whole online poker thing? “I looked into it and a couple of new websites were offering promotions where they would give you $50 with no strings attached to try it out,” Brian says. He decided to give it a go.
You can see where this story is going, right? After the first couple months of playing online, he had rolled that initial $50 up to $4,000. After the first couple months of playing online, he had rolled that initial $50 up to $4,000. “Honestly, I got pretty lucky in the beginning,” Brian says. “I knew how to play poker, but I didn’t have discipline or money-management skills.”
His family suggested he take his money and run. “My parents were like ‘Cash it out, you’re going to lose it all,’” he recalls. But Brian was committed. He ignored their warnings—and he lost a large chunk of his bankroll. “I got down to $1,200, and I started wondering if my parents had been right,” he says. But rather than freak out and throw good money after the bad, he mapped out a strategy to rebuild. He dropped from the higher-stakes games he’d been playing to the lower-stakes games—the opposite of what most gamblers do, which is chase losses by increasing the stakes. “That was the first time I really started learning about the importance of money management, patience, and discipline in poker,” he says. “You can’t let yourself panic or you’re going to go broke every time.”
Within four months, his bankroll was up to $20,000. He slowly and steadily increased the stakes. He won, and he kept winning. He managed his bankroll. He stuck to his strategy. And when he drove home for the summer in his old mini-van—less than 10 months after he’d taken that free $50—Brian Clark had more than $40,000 in his online poker account.
Brian lived at his mom and dad’s place in Roseville that summer. His parents made him work part-time as a counselor at a day camp, but Brian didn’t argue. “I was living at home, they were paying for school, and they wanted me to have a job, so I worked,” he says. “I was still able to play plenty of poker.” By the end of the summer, his bankroll was up to $100,000.
He returned to school that fall, but there was no question about what Brian would do after graduation. “I didn’t even think about getting a ‘real’ job,” he says. “I knew I was going to play poker full-time.”