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 IS RUNNING LATE. Two of his closest friends, Mickey Pickett and Jay Melancon, are already sipping Diet Cokes and sitting in a corner booth at The View restaurant in Minneapolis when he walks in. They’re casually dressed—white Adidas Classics, designer jeans with gold embroidery on the back pockets, and black or white zip-up hooded sweatshirts with elaborate, colorful patterns running across the chest.
Brian pulls up a chair. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. “What are we talking about?”
“I was saying that probably only 5 percent of poker players make a consistent profit,” says Mickey,
“That’s so true,” Brian says.
“Maybe even less than that,” Jay adds.
Though just 24, Jay is a natural leader. A native of St. Cloud, he has dark eyebrows and a magnetic smile. He’s self-deprecating and quick-witted. He regularly plays in the richest No-Limit Hold ’Em games online and has won or lost up to $100,000 in a single day. But he tries not to take himself too seriously.
Mickey, 25, is tall, with dark hair and dark features, and a baby face that would get him carded at an R-rated movie. But he carries himself with the confidence of a CEO. He drives a black Mercedes with a personalized license plate that reads “ANTE UP,” and he pocketed more than $240,000 when he won a live No-Limit tournament in 2008.
Mickey started playing poker shortly after graduating high school in Little Canada in 2003. His two older brothers played the game, and often hit the tables at Canterbury Park in Shakopee. Mickey asked them to teach him how to play; they did, and he spent much of the summer at the tables. “I was winning and I realizing this could be something I could make money doing,” says Mickey, “But I never thought of it as something I could make a career out of.”
That fall, Mickey drove to Iowa State to start his freshman year. It was there that a friend introduced him to online poker. “I deposited $75 and proceeded to play 12 hours a day, six days a week for the next five months,” he says. By February, he had worked it up to $20,000, so he decided to quit school and try online poker full-time. Eventually, he moved back to the Twin Cities and began spending more time with Brian, Jay, and the other guys who played online poker and hung out at Canterbury.
Jay was enrolled at the U of M when Mickey returned to town, but he was struggling to balance academics and poker. As his poker success increased, his performance in school went progres-sively downhill.
“I’d play all night, then all of a sudden it’d be 8 a.m. and I’d have class in 45 minutes,” Jay says. “So I’d go to this 300-person lecture hall and sit right in the front with my laptop and play poker while the TA was talking about Galileo or something.” One day, while playing online in a psychology class, he made $5,000.
You can see where this story is going too, huh? Yes, one night Mickey was over at Jay’s house and the two were up till dawn playing Internet poker and discussing whether Jay should quit school. Morning rolled around, Jay headed to class, and Mickey kept playing. When Jay came back, he asked Mickey how he’d fared. “Mickey had won like $17,000 during the hour I was at class,” Jay recalls.
“I quit school two days later.”
But just because you hit a hole in one on the golf course doesn’t mean you can play on the pro tour, the guys caution. The same is true in poker. “You see it all the time,” says Mickey. “Some guy who plays for the first time turns $50 to $500. The next two months, he gets pretty lucky and turns $500 into $10,000. Now, all of a sudden he thinks he’s awesome. He thinks it’s easy money. He has no bankroll-management skills, no foundation, no support system of poker friends, and he hasn’t dealt with losing. Then all of a sudden he’s lost it all and he’s borrowing money that he can’t pay back. It’s actually very dangerous to win all that money right away.”
That’s why the group is so important. “If we didn’t have each other to lean on,” Brian says, “none of us would be where we are today.”
“Definitely not,” Jay says.
EACH MEMBER OF THE GROUP believes that his individual success is due, in no small part, to their collaboration. Like a couple of venture capitalists meeting at Perkins to swap research or a group of small-business owners trading management strategies over coffee, they regularly share information, tips, and war stories. Each member of the group does independent research—reading poker blogs, finding the best instructional videos—forwarding anything valuable to the other guys. They use advanced computer software that tracks and analyzes each hand they play, then stores the statistics and information into a database so they can review anything that might give them an edge. They offer each other advice. They tip each other off regarding opponents. “I take notes on the people I play, then I color-code them according to how good I think they are,” Brian says. When easy prey pops up on the screen, he joins the game.
The members of the Minnesota circle sometimes stake each other, too, buying a “piece of each other” in big games or tournaments. One of Brian’s buddies, for instance, recently pulled together a big online game, which required him to sit down with more than $200,000. He didn’t want to leverage that much of his bankroll, so he sent a text message to friends, asking who wanted in on the action. “I bought 10 percent,” Brian says, “meaning I cover 10 percent of whatever he loses, and I take home 10 percent of whatever he wins. It’s all about trust in this group of guys. We trust each other completely.”
The members of the group rarely play each other. (Why take money from your friends?) They also specialize in different games at different limits, so their paths rarely cross online. But Brian, Jay, and Mickey do regularly hang out in the same room while playing on their respective computers. “It’s easier to focus and stay calm when you’ve got people sitting there with you,” Mickey says. They often watch each other’s games, and swap bits of advice and encouragement via AOL Instant Messenger—sometimes messaging each other even while they’re in the same room. Don’t worry about that beat...That guy sucks, you’ll get him eventually.
“I can’t think of anything more stressful than poker,” Mickey says. “Many days I’ll play for 14 hours straight with only five-minute bathroom breaks once every hour. It’s incredibly draining.”
This profession can be taxing on personal relationships, too. “You have to convince friends and family that what you’re doing is a career,” Jay says. “Just because my job is flexible doesn’t mean I don’t have to take it seriously, and they have to accept and understand that or it won’t work.”
He might be cuddled up on the couch with his girlfriend and a bowl of popcorn, watching Sleepless in Seattle, but his computer is always on. If he hooks a fish, he’s got to go to work. “It’s like getting a call from a really important client,” Jay adds. “I may be sitting at home in my underwear on the couch instead of wearing a suit and taking the Lincoln down to the office, but it’s the same thing.”
IT'S 11 P.M. AT CRAFTSTEAK in MGM Grand. The meal is done, and the leggy blond server has just dropped the $1,550 bill on the table with a wink and a smile. One of the guys stands up, takes off his Twins cap, and holds it out over the table. The dozen or so twentysomethings sitting around the table take the last gulp of their cocktails, reach into their wallets, pull out credit cards, and toss them into the hat. It’s credit-card roulette, and one of these guys is the sucker who’ll be paying for tonight’s entire meal.
After the blond returns with the credit card—and another wink—the group heads to XS Nightclub at Wynn, the hottest new club in town. They’ll sit in the VIP section, order the $200 bottle service, and party until 3 or 4 a.m.
For Brian, Mickey, Jay, and the rest of their entourage, this is basically a business trip. They’re in town for the World Series of Poker, considered the Super Bowl of poker. Poker pros and amateurs alike flock to Vegas each summer for the month-long series, which features 55 tournaments and culminates with the $10,000 “Main Event,” the competition Moneymaker won in 2003. Brian and his buddies wouldn’t miss it for the world. But at day’s end, they often go back to their hotel rooms and play online—sometimes against the very same people they faced live that day in tournaments.
Life ain’t bad. But is poker a profession? How long can these guys keep this up? “It’s hard to say what the future will bring,” Brian reflects one recent afternoon as he sits at the desk in his home office. “I don’t know what online poker is going to be like in 10 years. Maybe the laws will change or the sites will shut down. Who knows?”
“Or maybe there will be a time when we don’t want to play poker anymore,” adds Mickey.
And if poker doesn’t pay the bills someday? Neither Brian nor Mickey nor Jay have any conventional work experience. Only Brian has a college degree. But they’re not sweating it.
Poker has given them a broad network. Playing high-stakes games has put them in close proximity to powerful people—people in business, people with money, people with connections. They’ve met celebrities, professional athletes, CEOs, and financiers who play poker. These powerful people actually look up to Brian, Mickey, and Jay. They respect their skills and admire the guys for their poker savvy.
If Brian hits a bad streak or just wants to try something new, he’s got the private phone numbers of people who know people. “Those connections pay dividends in the long run,” says Jay. “I’m confident that if I had some great business idea and I wanted to stop playing poker to pursue it, it would only take me a few phone calls and less than a week to generate the start-up cash I needed.” Recently, when Mickey’s buddy’s girlfriend was looking for a job, all is took was one phone call to a local business owner and she had a job.
“Other job opportunities are out there, of course, but I love playing poker,” says Brian. “I don’t know if it’s the greatest thing to do, but it’s what I want to do. I hope I can do it forever.”
“I love the freedom of poker,” says Jay. “I set my own hours and I can work from anywhere.”
But the three agree that someday they will invest in a business venture together. Someday, the right opportunity will come along. “Who knows, maybe we end up working on that 40 hours a week, and playing poker part-time?” Mickey suggests.
“I’d love to invest in a business, but 40 hours a week?” Brian says. “I’d rather play poker.”
Colby Johnson is the editor of Drinks magazine. She lives in Minneapolis.