The Money Report May 2014

Where the Card Sharks Feed

In 2011, the Justice Department targeted online-poker operators for violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. Since then, many guileless amateurs, known to poker pros as “fish,” have been moving back to casinos. 
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Dan Saelinger

Fish all start out the same. They are bad at poker yet continue to play. By the time they reach the limits of their endurance, emotional or financial, they are poorer but seldom wiser. Those who do learn from their mistakes may climb a rung or two on the evolutionary ladder. Some even evolve into sharks.

Fish abound at Maryland Live, home to the hottest new poker room on the East Coast. Maryland Live is a casino-and-entertainment complex in Hanover, Maryland, adjacent to the Arundel Mills mall. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it offers thousands of slot machines and 177 table games, including blackjack, roulette, craps, and mini baccarat. The poker room, which opened on August 28, 2013, has 52 tables, making it one of the biggest rooms outside of Las Vegas. According to Bravo Poker—an app that tells you how many tables are open for business at any time of day or night in nearly every room in every casino in every state in America—there are usually more high-stakes games running at Maryland Live than at the world-famous Borgata, in Atlantic City. Even pros from Florida, who like to boast of their state’s sunny weather, low taxes, partying tourists, and self-renewing population of old white guys, now come to Maryland Live in the dead of winter. The fishing is that good there.

Like any complex ecosystem, a poker room offers much more than a binary relationship between predators and prey. John Calvin (not his real name) swims somewhere in the middle. He is a grinder, a cautious type who doesn’t bluff that often or do anything hair-raisingly spectacular in tight situations, and who makes his living by doggedly adhering to the odds against lesser players. He got his start making a few dollars a hand on the Web site PartyPoker, then graduated to long weekends of live play at the Borgata before taking up residence at a casino poker room in Charles Town, West Virginia. These days, he commutes from his home, in Washington, D.C., to Maryland Live, where he feeds on fish who are happy to lose a few hundred dollars an hour playing No Limit Texas Hold ’Em—the poker player’s game of choice since 2003, when the great American online-poker boom of the aughts took off.

In January, just after the start of the new year, I visited Maryland Live with Calvin. In a gray sweatshirt and jeans, bald and wearing thin-rimmed black glasses, he looked like a leisure-time version of the corporate strategist he had been in a former life, before he ditched the full-time number-crunching gig and took up poker. As we entered, he rubbed his head, as if for luck, and peered through his glasses at the biggest kettle of fish in North America—which on any given day might include local small-business owners, bored retirees, college kids, and the occasional big-name donator, or “whale.” Among the whales we spotted that afternoon were a red-faced, choleric guy who runs a local charter-boat business, and a shaky-looking Asian guy in an Orioles cap who I was told had donated well over $100,000 during the past few months. Explaining the presence of the Asian guy, Calvin gestured over to a sweet-looking kid in a gray hoodie at the next table and said, “Merson must have got him here.”

Gregory Merson, 26, the winner of the 2012 World Series of Poker, was the biggest shark in the room. He fiddled with an uneven stack of chips and unzipped his hoodie to reveal a black T‑shirt with a hand grenade emblazoned across the front. Every kid in every poker room across America who dreams of playing live on ESPN at the World Series of Poker instead of working some soul-crushing cubicle job would love to have even one day of Greg Merson’s life—playing $10/$25 or $25/$50 No Limit for $300 or $400 an hour, and jetting off to big-money tournaments in the Bahamas and other foreign but civilized places where you can plunk down your credit card and play online poker. (Without getting too technical, $10/$25 refers to the bets that the first two players are required to make before even seeing their cards.)

Merson is a volatility hawk, which means he enjoys levels of risk that make grinders like Calvin fold. His loose style of play is enabled by a scary ability to read other people’s hands based on the way they portray them through their bets, on other patterns in their play, and sometimes on physical responses, known as “tells,” like rubbing their eyes or looking away. Now that he’s a star, his fat bankroll allows him to drop $20,000 on a single hand without blinking. When Maryland Live first opened, Merson’s table was hosting $100/$200 No Limit games that required a minimum $20,000 buy-in. The table was drawing whales from up and down the East Coast, and pros from all around the country. A quality pro with a nice bankroll could make an average of $1,600 an hour by sitting at the table, and a few of the more serious actors have made upwards of $100,000 in a single day. Merson was the most famous poker star at Maryland Live when I was there, and the most fun to watch, but trying to emulate his game would be like trying to shoot three-pointers with Manu Ginobili.

We found a table Calvin liked. “There are no good pros here,” he said. It was easy to identify the other players at table 24 as fish—the older white guy with gray hair and horn-rimmed accountant glasses was one, and the clean-cut young black guy pushing seven Ben Franklins out of a bank envelope was another. Calvin licked his chops. One of the basic rules of thumb in live poker is that clean-cut young black guys play like older white guys, meaning they are cautious and rarely bluff, which in turn means their hands are incredibly easy to read. According to a handy app on his iPhone called Poker Journal, Calvin has been earning an average of $120 an hour at Maryland Live since the poker room opened. Leaning back in a red-leather-padded chair, he began to figure out whom at the table he should spend his afternoon angling for. “Today I’m going to make my money from those two guys,” he said, nodding first at the black guy, in seat 4, and then at the charter-boat guy, who was in seat 9.

Calvin admitted that there are moments when he feels a little dirty taking other people’s money. He also admitted that such moments are rare. “You need people with money,” he explained. So far, he is winning more than enough to cover his mortgage and car payments, which keeps his wife from getting nervous. “I want to keep those guys in as many hands with me as possible,” he said, “and isolate them in heads-up pots”—one-on-one matchups. “That is my goal for today.”

After three hours of steady losing, the charter-boat guy, whom I’ll call the Captain, was staring down at the eight and nine of hearts—which could have, and by his calculations should have, given him a winning hand. Instead, he lost yet again. “I got the nuts!” he said. “And I still can’t win! Goddamn!” The Captain slapped his cards down on the table with the plaintive cry of a flawed man whose desire to think well of himself is frustrated by realities that defy his understanding. He stared accusingly at Calvin before objecting in a loud, pained voice, “He done got me too many times!”

A scene from the new 52-table poker room at Maryland Live, a casino in Hanover, Maryland. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the room is one of the largest in the country outside of Las Vegas. Usually, more high-stakes poker games run at Maryland Live than at the Borgata, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Maryland Live Casino/PRNewsfoto)

Most games in which large amounts of money are won and lost require a basic acquaintance with the laws of chance. But poker requires skills that transcend simply knowing the odds of completing any particular hand. It requires a split-screen ability to read the other people at the table while maintaining an awareness of how they are reading you. It requires what is called “leveling”: the ability to move fluidly and accurately in one’s imagination from the hands that all the other players are representing, to the hands that they probably have, to the hand that they think you have, to the hand that they think that you think that they think you have. The acute awareness and processing ability required to quickly go through a complex checklist and get it right—while controlling your thoughts and behavior so that others can’t read you with any equivalent degree of accuracy—is what separates poker pros from casino operators and other crude types who profit from the fact that large numbers of people are dumb or drunk and can’t do math.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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