View Full Version : brand name poker pros who are near broke

05-21-2004, 12:12 PM
from the big thread started by dynasty below there were a couple of posts alluding to the fact of just how hard it is to carve out wins on the tournament circuit, and a couple of names who one might perceive to be making huge buck based on reputation, but are indeed hanging by a thread.

For instance TJ came up, who is considered one of the top 5 poker players of the past 15 years perhaps.

That is scary.

i remember phil hellmuth once said that many more of the top poker players than you'd expect barely in make money.

05-21-2004, 12:19 PM
" I remember phil hellmuth once said that many more of the top poker players than you'd expect barely in make money."

This is one of many reasons why I prefer ring games.

05-21-2004, 01:11 PM
i agree.

and i guess the variance on tourney players is that much biger too, because you will likely play for entire days, and still wind up with nothing about 75% of time (actually less than nothing, since you had to buyin, and travel costs).

A cold streak could last very long until you hit a big one.

But i guess the tournament circuit players want the glory and recognition which you get from placing at top tournaments, and for that they forego the safer play of ring games

05-21-2004, 02:12 PM
this is all stuff that ive read so take it with a grain of salt:

TJ is sponsored buy some rich guy/guys who pays all his expenses and then gets a certain major cut of all his winnings and TJ gets to keep whats left

ive also read in several books that TJ is one of the old school gambler types who loves craps and other games of chance when hes not playing holdem

this may all be crap and like i said ive never come close to meeting him. I do think he is the classiest guy on the tour. If he gets a bad beat he immediately stands up, smiles, shakes the guys hand and says thats poker.

Mason Malmuth
05-21-2004, 03:04 PM
Hi Paul:

You are actually touching on a little commented on subject that I find quite interesting.

There are many successful poker players, who because of their success at poker think they are quite smart. So they quickly jump into a business deal that they have little understanding of, and that's often more like a get rich scheme, thinking they will hit "the big score." The money often disappears faster than they thought possible.

Best wishes,

05-21-2004, 04:14 PM
I returned home recently after spending a full month in Tunica, Mississippi at the World Poker Open. This marks the second consecutive year I have attended (and covered) this prestigious poker tournament. Before proceeding, I wish to say there is no tournament held anywhere in the world which is better run than the Jack Binion World Poker Open. The Gold Strike and Horseshoe casinos both team up to host an exceptional annual event, which is now entering its fifth consecutive year. In no way are the points of view expressed here intended to reflect poorly on this tournament or the organizers.

I came back home from Mississippi with many of my earlier perceptions fortified, and others changed forever -- changed in ways that make it impossible for me to look upon the tournament circuit with the same vivacity and wonderment that I once had for this great game. In many ways, January 2003 marked the loss of my innocence and woke me up to some cold stark realities.

If my illusions about tournament poker were shattered recently, the first crack surfaced at least a year earlier. After the 2002 World Poker Open, I started to question the assumption of players I once admired. I became uncomfortable with the common practice of backing arrangements. Worst and most troublesome, I found myself doubting the character of many poker players revered as icons.

My dose of reality was not born of na´vetÚ. After all, I have now covered the tournament circuit for a decade. What shocked me wasn't the ceaseless chicanery or the sullen faces of many on the tournament circuit so much as the degrees of depravity which currently exist in tournament poker. Following last year's cycle of tournaments, I ascribed my concerns to being burned out. Perhaps they were merely aberrations.

More than a year passed -- with several poker tournaments in between -- including the World Series of Poker, the Queens Poker Classic, and other major events. I became exposed to even more circumstances that were troubling to me, more than enough examples to realize that my initial fears about the poker tournament circuit were not an aberration. They were common practices and a way of life for many players.

The next question became, what, if anything, should I do about these concerns?

Should I Keep Silent?
I began to question both the efficacy and wisdom of writing about the problems I saw in tournament poker. Naturally, keeping my mouth shut and going along with the grand illusion was the easiest course of action. After I made the difficult decision to address these concerns, next I found myself asking, "Would PokerPages be the appropriate forum to express these negative points of view about poker?"

I will share some of these very personal observations -- about what the poker tournament circuit is really like, conveying my thoughts as to what one might expect if aspiring to be a tournament professional. Let's get started.

Life In a Fishbowl
You cannot spend a month or longer at a major event like the World Poker Open or the World Series of Poker and not make some startling observations about the people around you. You cannot help but see people at their best and, more often, at their worst. Living, working, breathing, eating, drinking, and socializing with the same clique of people day after day, night after night. month after month, and year after year gradually takes a toll on one's sense of reality. It becomes much like a military boot camp or a college dormitory. After awhile, there are no secrets.

Indeed, the poker tournament circuit is like living inside a fishbowl. You run into the same scowling faces constantly, at all hours of the day and night. Tournament players try to make their living together, they play together, they socialize together, they eat together, they drink together, and they form close relationships and bonds.

You begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of the people around you. Facades are stripped away, slowly peeled back by the pressures of survival, and true character is ultimately revealed, whether it be at poker tables at 5 o'clock in the morning or the strip clubs down the block. You see who is perpetually stuck. You see who is constantly borrowing money. You see who can and can't handle liquor. You see players displaying all the vices of self-destruction. You see it all.

One of the most troubling aspects of the tournament circuit is seeing how many players are constantly broke. I'm not talking about bad poker players or novices. I'm talking about names and faces everyone would recognize. The point is not to embarrass the misfortunate who have buried themselves into a permanent grave of perpetual destitution. It's rather to point out the immeasurable difficulties at earning a living at this game. Wait, there's more.

Shattered Illusions
One underlying quality of poker I have cherished over the years is the game's inherent sense of integrity. Up until my most recent tournament experiences, I believed that poker players, in general, could be trusted far and above other subcultures of society. If conducting a financial arrangement, give me a poker player as a business partner over a banker or lawyer any day. In poker, colossal financial transactions are conducted based on handshakes and promises. I've always greatly admired that rare quality that sets poker apart from other endeavors. Doyle Brunson expressed this point best when he wrote:

A professional gambler is the most honorable of men. I've known a man to walk through four miles of blizzard after his car stalled just to pay a debt on time. I've seen gamblers go hungry to honor a bet, even though no pressure was placed upon them. I shy away from legal contracts. If I can't trust a man's word, then I don't want to do business with him.
-- "Honor in Gambling" According to Doyle (1984)
On today's tournament trail, I find Brunson's virtues going the way of the dinosaur. Sadly, tournament poker is filled with dishonest, dishonorable people. This is not to say that all tournament players are dishonest. Many tournament pros are decent people with loads of integrity. Perhaps in defense of players who do not live up to Brunson's high standards, the perpetual state of indebtedness has blurred the lines between right and wrong and created selfish incentives to default on commitments.

At tournaments, I've witnessed numerous situations where players borrowed money and then did not honor the commitment to pay back the debt when the opportunity arose. This bothers me. Were it only a few players, it would be a troubling issue. But it's an epidemic. Dozens of players have made promises they did not keep. Others have taken advantage of backers because the rules of the arrangement were ambiguous.

Then, there are obvious cases of fraud. Some tournament players have been known to oversell of pieces of themselves. They sell off 2, 3, 5, or perhaps ten percent of themselves in an upcoming event. That seems innocent enough. But add up all the little pieces together owed to backers, and the player owes out 150 percent of himself if he cashes. Under these most dubious circumstances it's clearly in the player's interest to bust out before he has any chance of making the money, since he can't possibly afford to pay off all the backers if he cashes in the tournament. Mel Brooks once wrote a Broadway musical about this formula of deceit called "The Producers." The suckers invested over 100 percent into the project. The organizers skimmed the cream off the top. On Broadway, the notion was humorous. But I doubt if any backers in a poker tournament would be laughing. This is not honorable. In fact, it is fraud.

Then, there are railbirds, who deserve a separate category all unto themselves. In the past I've viewed these motley malicious malcontents with amusement -- sort of like a daily dose of the Frank and Ernest comic strip. The civil libertarian in me defends the right of railbirds to attend poker tournaments. Why should someone who is "economically disadvantaged" be forbidden from attending a poker tournament? It's a free country, and if a railbird can get staked more power to them. But what is troubling is seeing these pests jump on anyone in the poker room who makes any kind of score. They clutter around tournament winners like barnacles stuck to the side of a ship. Eventually, the event winner is so surrounded by the railbirds he can't move. After one player won six figures at a major tournament last year, I watched in awe as nearly a dozen railbirds lined up like a band of merry dwarves whistling as if their ship had come in. It would have been downright comical if were not so typical of what goes on at most tournaments.

Broke Tournament Pros -- What Does it Mean to You?
The obvious question that needs to be asked is -- can you make a living as a tournament pro? I have my doubts. Except for a rare few players who possess exceptional talent and have the bankrolls sufficient enough to play in the biggest events (where the margins of error result in swings of thousands of dollars), most people don't stand a chance of earning a living on the circuit.

It's difficult to prove this point. Much of the financial carnage is strictly anecdotal, which means there are no surveys or official records showing the financial conditions of tournament regulars. But I will testify to the reality that many top names in tournament poker are not only flat broke, but they owe thousands (in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars) to their backers. The destitution of these supposedly "great" players -- winners of numerous tournaments in the past -- should serve as a giant waving red flag to anyone with illusions of making a living in poker tournaments.

Here's a thought: If many of these "great" players have difficulty supporting themselves, what makes you think you can do so? Sure, there are a few players who have won millions. These are analogous to lottery winners. Sure, you meet a millionaire every now and then. But the vast majority of lottery players are lifetime losers.

At best, tournament poker is a break-even proposition. After paying expenses (travel, hotels, food, and so forth), it is clearly a negative proposition. Even if you think you're good, you will not outplay the best tournament pros. If former World Series of Poker winners are broke, what chance do you have of making it on the circuit? Add the annoying reality of "variance," (also called the "luck factor"), which is significantly higher in tournaments than in live action, and the odds are overwhelming stacked against you. Think about it.

For the Love of Money
Then, there are the predatory qualities of tournament poker. Another of poker's most appealing attributes is that anyone can play, so long as he/she has a bankroll sufficient enough to buy into in the game. Many newcomers to the tournament scene were successful in their private businesses ventures. New to the poker scene, they quickly become magnets for broke players and railbirds. It seems like an honor to stake one of the big names seen in the poker magazines. For newcomers, the best way to gain quick acceptance into the elite clique of tournament players is to avail yourself to loans. It makes these newcomers popular with players. Rarely is a bad word ever uttered about a player who stakes his peers. If so-and-so is "a great guy," that's probably a euphemism which means he gives out money.

I have seen some of these newcomers bled bone dry -- their trust shot and their good intentions violated. One well-known player borrowed a modest sum of $2,000 several months ago from a newcomer. Then, he watched with delight as the debtor recently cashed for nearly $20,000 in prize money. When the newcomer approached the leech to get his money back, the player whisked out a cell phone and pretended to be in the midst of a heated conversation. Next thing, the leech left town without so much as acknowledging the debt.

Another player won a tournament recently. He was due to collect a tidy sum. As the payout was taking place, a line began to form. The line was made up of players who were owed money by the winner. A fight broke out between two of the creditors when it was revealed that the player owed more to one single creditor than the entirety of the payout! Needless to say, only a few people got paid that day.

This is the reality of tournament poker. Cast aside your illusions that this so-called "sport" can become mainstream so long as the troubling issues continue and prevail. At the very least, be forewarned.

So, you wanna' be a tournament pro? It all sounds glamorous. Flying around the world, playing in the big poker events, winning trophies and cashing big, even getting on television.

Okay, now wake up from your dream. If you still have any lingering aspirations of becoming a tournament professional -- think again. If you're still not convinced, spend some time at a major poker tournament. Look at the faces of those around you. How many are smiling? How many are happy with their lives and what they are doing? Those smiling self-confident faces are few and far between. In tournament poker, there is no Santa Claus. There is no Easter Bunny. There is no "pot of gold" at the end of the imaginary rainbow. There is instead a lot of deceit, deception, and depravity.

Writer's Note: My role in covering tournaments gave me access to propriety information. It would not be ethical for me to disclose the specific names or circumstances of tournament pros who meet the criteria I have described.

05-21-2004, 04:25 PM
Very informative post, Nolan.

From what little I know about the tournament circuit, it appears that the ones who do succeed are making most of their income from cash games.

05-21-2004, 04:35 PM
hi mason,

between you and nolan posts, it seems both sides of the fence end up losing.

Successful businessmen give it a go at poker, only to have scrupulous poker players violate their trust to get their $$.

Then you say successful poker players give it a try in the business world, only to fail at the hands of scrupulous business schemes.

Not a rosy picture,,lol.

However, not that i am a poker pro or anything, i am also not gullible and protective of my $$.

If i ever went the pro route, i would stick to online ring games, and occasionally make a trip to one of the big tourney events just for the fun of it. AND i'd be sure to not stake anyone, no exceptions.

If they don't have the confidence to spend their own $$ on their own entry, why would i want to spend mine on them?

Actually Nolan, i think i read your article a couple months back. Have you since dropped the tournament circuit, or do you still play it occasionally?

05-21-2004, 05:22 PM
I'm pretty sure that's an article he wrote a couple of years ago. I got about half way through it and I realized who wrote it and that I had read it before DOH /images/graemlins/confused.gif

It was very informative the first time and equally this time. I always like Nolan's reports as well.

05-21-2004, 07:20 PM
a wonderfully eye-opening post.

although i am assuming you meant '2004' and '2003' in the places where you referenced '2003' and '2002' unless this article is older than i thought.

jesse may's book 'shut up and deal' may not be the epitome of literary greatness....but it tells similar tales of running away from debts-owed, etc in the world of high-stakes limit-poker. it also makes all the players out (including himself) to be non-stop, back-stabbing, tilt-prone, gambling-addicts.
the various tales in the book are similar to some of the incidents nolan describes.

coincidentally, jesse may is now the announcer on late-night poker and also on some of the fox-sports net poker telecasts.

05-21-2004, 07:54 PM
But i guess the tournament circuit players want the glory and recognition which you get from placing at top tournaments, and for that they forego the safer play of ring games

[/ QUOTE ]

I also think that it possible that a lot of the top tournament pros can't even play a good ring game. Ever read Hellmuth's limit hold em section?

05-22-2004, 06:56 AM
it also makes all the players out (including himself) to be non-stop, back-stabbing, tilt-prone, gambling-addicts.

[/ QUOTE ]

It cost me $500 to learn that you never ever trust a gambler with money. Don't lend money to poker friends, your going to lose the money and and the friend.

When ever I step into a cardroom, my attitude is that everyone in here has a gambling problem. The donors, for losing money that could otherwise be spent prudently and the winning players for not doing more with their lives. You don't have to kill time, it dies by itself.

05-22-2004, 10:01 AM
Nolan Dalla wrote that article, which can be found at: http://www.pokerpages.com/articles/archives/dalla27.htm You can find Daniel Negreanu's response to said article at http://www.pokerpages.com/articles/archives/negreanu12.htm

Also, another interesting article by Dalla on "nippers" is at: http://www.pokerpages.com/articles/archives/dalla40.htm