Gambling that pays off: Poker in your pajamas
Rising daily at 2 p.m. or so, Matt Doyle, of Washington, D.C., allows himself a half-hour to properly wake up. Next, he might consider a trip to the gym; only then will he attempt a couple of hours’ work before dinner. In the evening, he’ll work a few more hours, followed by a beer, a movie and bed.
Doyle is not a lazy college student, but a professional online poker player. Last year, the former Discovery Channel researcher made $80,000 from playing poker roughly 25 hours a week.
Doyle is one of perhaps thousands of Americans who have quit their day jobs to make a living playing poker online. The top players earn yearly sums in the millions, taking advantage of the profligacy of recreational gamblers happy to lose a few dollars here and there. But the life of the pro stay-at-home card sharp is not without its cons. Luck may disappear at any moment. And the continuing uncertainty over U.S. gambling laws looms large.
Online poker is big business. The industry grossed more than $2 billion last year. In September 2007, an average of $213 million was wagered in online poker rooms each day; an average of 140,000 people were playing at any moment.
But online poker is different from live poker. The pool of online players includes millions around the world; it is possible to sit at several virtual “tables” at a time. Some professionals, like Doyle, are known as “grinders,” players who play cautiously for several hours on tables where the stakes are low. Those who play for fun may be willing to lose $2 or $3 at a time, but over time, this allows the grinders to accumulate a lot of winnings.
There are other ways that the tactics are different. In online poker, you can’t look into the eyes of your opponent. “There’s no perfect equivalent to the poker face,” said Nick Grudzien, a former Wall Street trader who left his job in December 2005 to become a professional online poker player and coach, setting up a Web site, stoxpoker.com, to share his expertise. Instead, he says, pro players rely on habits of online players—-how much they bet, and when—-to make judgments.
Grudzien, 31, earns about the same amount of money now as he did as a trader at the bank Allen & Company, but the main reason he quit his job was so that he could move back to California with his wife and two children. “One day I was working. The next day I wasn't,” said Grudzien. “Now I am able to take the kids to school, take a day off and go to the beach mid-week.”
This way of life, however, is not guaranteed. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 made it illegal for financial institutions in the United States to transfer funds to Internet gambling sites. Some sites, such as London-based public company Party Gaming, which runs partypoker.com, subsequently pulled out of the U.S. market. Party Gaming revenue fell by almost 60 percent, from more than $1 billion in 2005 to just over $400 million in 2006. But some private sites with assets abroad are able to evade prosecution. One of these, bodoglife.com, whose headquarters are in Antigua, continues to serve U.S. customers.
Grudzien is less concerned about the U.S. law—-online poker players have never been prosecuted, he says—-than the daily financial risks. “If you play poker for a living you can have a terrible downturn and that’s in some sense tantamount to losing your job,” he said. “But there’s always a risk in a number of jobs.”
Doyle, 25, admits he lost several hundred dollars before he began to make regular money. But soon he learned to win more than he lost. And now, he says he has no regrets about leaving the 9-5 working world for his stay-at-home job. He now earns twice his former pay. “The freedom it gives you, the lifestyle, the hourly rate--it’s ridiculous,” he said.
But even he says there is a psychological toll to all the hours spent concentrating on multiple games. “Your brain can get pretty fried sitting in front of a screen,” he said. “You get pretty wired. It’s an intense experience.”
If he decides to resume a more traditional career in the future, explaining the large hole in his resume will be no problem, he insists. “Poker is a much more impressive selling point as a worthy candidate than other jobs I had,” he said. “It shows self-discipline and motivation.”
Meanwhile, he enjoys telling people about his new job. “When I tell strangers what I do for a living,” he said, “they look at me bug-eyed.”