It's in the Cards

Not even a well-honed poker face can hide the allure of playing Texas Hold 'Em online. But does our writer have the chips to turn pro or will his all-in play go bust?

My name is Lane, and I don't have a gambling problem.

Now please leave me alone so I can go play poker online for the next 86 straight hours.

Because that's what I do now, you see. I'm a professional online poker player. I don't play for fun. I play for cash. Cold, hard cash.

It's going quite well, too. My earnings for the second half of last year were $3.45. I see no reason why I can't pass the $5 mark this year.

"Well, I'm glad to see this poker-playing obsession hasn't changed you," said my wife, once the lowly spouse of a writer, now the proud life partner of a high-stakes online professional poker player.

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"Hmm, let's see. You're sitting in front of the computer, wearing sunglasses. You're clutching a blue token you stole from the kiddie area of the St. Charles Carnival. And you're screaming at a guy on the screen named deuceswilddave."

"You don't understand," I said. "He stayed in with a king-eight off-suit and caught a king on the river. It makes no sense after I raised on an open-ended straight draw with three diamonds onboard."

"Dinner's ready," she noted, walking away, not very understanding of the erratic betting behavior of deuceswilddave.

"And second of all, I didn't steal that token from the St. Charles Carnival," I yelled after her. "I'm just borrowing it until next year. So there."

Somebody better call a doctor. I've been bitten by the poker bug.

Six months ago, I started playing poker online for fun. "Play For Real Money Or Play For Free!" they scream at you. All you have to do is download their software, create a screen name and you're in. You play a game, you have a little fun, you're done. At any time, day or night, thousands of people are playing from all over the world.

"What a great diversion," I told people. "After a stressful day, it's fun to just kick back and play a game of poker. Plus, it doesn't cost anything. So if you lose, no big deal."

"Trust me, you'll be playing for real money soon," warned my friend Howard, who starts every sentence with "Trust me." "They lure you in with the free game. Then, once you get a little confidence, you're like, •Hey, I can do this for real money.' And boom, you're in."

"It'll never happen," I scoffed. "Other than the fact that my wife wouldn't give me money to play online, there's no way my wife is going to give me money to play online. Plus, I know my addictive personality and if I started playing for real money, I probably won't be able to stop."

"I'll give you three months," he said.

"You're wrong."

"Trust me," he said.

Just for the record, he was wrong. It took five weeks — mainly because it took me four weeks to get up the courage to ask my wife if I could do it.

"Are you sure this is legitimate?" she asked.

"Totally," I said. "I mean, as far as some-small-island-out-in-the-Caribbean-offshore-gambling site goes, they don't get much more reputable than this. Heck, I know a lot of guys who are doing it. Trust me."

" •Trust me?' Have you been talking to Howard?"

"Howard who?"

"Look, I don't care if you do this," she said. "I just want to make it clear that I don't want it to interfere with our time together or the kids or any work you need to get done."



"No, I mean deal," I said. "Deal me some cards. I need to practice."

Poker, Texas Hold 'Em in particular, has simply exploded over the past year and half. Everybody's playing. And everybody's watching. You can't turn on the TV without every single network having some sort of poker programming. "The World Series of Poker." "The World Poker Tour." "Celebrity Poker." "Everybody Loves Poker." "Survivor: Special Felt-table Edition."

Two years ago, there were about 850 players in the main event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. In 2004? Nearly 2,600. Mind you, the entry fee is $10,000. And since the last two winners of the World Series of Poker have been guys who qualified for the tournament online for a heckuva lot less than $10,000, tens of thousands of people are living the dream that they're going to be the next famous poker guy.

Not me, though. With career earnings of $3.45, I think it's obvious this is anything but a dream.

"Y'know, I think I can qualify for the World Series of Poker," I say to my wife every night as I stare at the computer screen. "I really think I can."

"I really think I can be one of Charlie's Angels," she answers back.

You probably should also know that it's not as easy as it sounds being a successful online professional poker player. I've had to make many sacrifices in my life. All the great ones do.

"What a beautiful afternoon," said my wife in early September. "Let's spend some time outdoors and just enjoy nature with the kids before the weather gets awful and we can't go outside until the spring."

"I'm sorry, I can't go," I said. "Professional online poker players don't go outdoors. First of all, they don't have cable modems outside. Plus, there'd be a glare on my pile of computer poker chips. But don't let me stop you. Go ahead. And close the drapes, will you? That sun is killing me. Y'know, I thought casinos weren't supposed to have windows."

"This isn't a casino," she replied. "It's our house."

"Could you fetch me a drink, sweetheart?" I said. "A Diet Pepsi. And here's a little something for you."

"I'm going to pretend you didn't just hand me a dollar," she said.

Evenings of quality family time are now filled with hours of staring at a simulated poker table. Relaxation has been replaced by anxiety, sweaty palms and trying to calculate the odds of my flush draw against the guy on the Big Blind who just raised when the board flopped an ace of hearts, a four of clubs and a nine of hearts.

While you're sleeping, I'm up at 6 a.m., playing a $10 No-Limit Hold 'Em game against BigMoney_Man, Adgitator2, TheKingofAces, pokerNUT and ChiefWampum.

Because this is what I do now. And given my track record of success, I can see myself making literally tens of dollars down the road.

Truthfully, I really don't watch TV (other than poker). I come home from work, I eat dinner and I play.

My career objective? Can I get back to you after this hand?

The other night, the phone rang. It was Howard.

"How's it going?" he asked.

"Trust me, you don't want to know."

"Hey, that's my line," he replied. "What happened?"

"I had pocket aces and the guy raised me so I went all-in," I said. "He had a queen and jack of spades. Guess what flopped?"

"Don't tell me."

"Jack, jack, queen," I said. "Game over."

"That's why they call it gambling, my friend," he observed. "Y'know, I typically don't tell people what to do with their lives, but every time I talk to you now, jeez, all you're doing is playing. Maybe you should take a break for a while."

"You're so right," I said. "I do need to take a break. This thing is starting to take over my life. For crying out loud, I've got a great wife and kids, y'know? I've got a life to lead. What am I doing obsessing over these dumb cards? I've become a slave to the computer."

"Exactly, take a break," he agreed.

"I'm so glad you called. I'm definitely going to take a break from this insanity."

Fifteen seconds later, I asked, "Do you think that was a long enough break?"

"Nah, I'd wait at least another minute," he said.

As I mentioned earlier, my name is Lane. And I don't have a gambling problem.

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