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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.

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.

Tom Wang is a pro who has lately been spending a lot of time at Maryland Live. A sleepy-looking guy who has the temperament of a born poker player, he is a model of consistency who channels his intensely competitive spirit into studying his own behavior, to spot and fix holes in his game. He is kind and considerate to other pros, and to anyone who sits down at his table. On the day we met, he wore a black sweater and a leather jacket and was in a particularly welcoming mood, having recently returned from a five-star beach vacation in the Dominican Republic with his photogenic girlfriend.

The traits required to win at poker mean that most pros are fun to talk to: they are normal enough guys with a misfit streak. Wang fits that bill. “I used to have an office job,” he said of the dark years before he turned pro. “I was a budget analyst for the government. It was the most mind-numbing, humiliating job I could imagine. I was humiliated every day by how boring it was.” To relieve his boredom, he started playing poker every day after work, on an online site called PokerStars. In 2008, the quality of his play attracted the attention of Merson, who fronted him $2,000 in exchange for a share of his winnings. It was a wise call: within a few months, the money Wang was making in a three-hour session of play was equal to or greater than his weekly paycheck. So he quit his job and went fishing.

There are plenty of simple poker truths that pros like Wang intuit but that fish find impossible to recognize. One is that strong is weak, and weak is strong—meaning that players who are obviously trying to suggest that they hold, say, four aces, by betting large sums of money and raising at every opportunity, are most likely holding air, whereas players who act poor and meek while still staying in a hand are probably the ones holding the cards. Another truth is that nearly all fish signal the real strength of their cards through the timing of their bets: when fish bet fast, for example, they’re almost always trying to discourage other players at the table from betting, by falsely portraying a weak hand as strong. At a higher level of play, the most common way that fish reveal their true position is by failing to tell a consistent story about their hand, through their pattern of betting, as new cards are added to the board.

Being a poker pro means that you make the majority of your income from playing poker. In the olden days, that meant becoming a kind of multidimensional grifter like Amarillo Slim, the World Series of Poker champion who made his bones by instituting home games with super-wealthy Texas oil barons, and who wrote the first truly insightful book about the game, Play Poker to Win (1973), while mastering the lures of prop betting and other devices for extracting ready cash from suckers.

The two or three dozen pros who swim among the fish at Maryland Live are the children of the online-poker boom of the aughts, which was halted in its tracks in 2011 by two things: the fears of casino operators and various other guardians of public morals, who ginned up legislation based on dubious legal theories; and the government’s drive, post-9/11, to more closely monitor and control global cash flows. Poker sites were chased out of the U.S. market and forced to pay huge sums. Hundreds of their most avid clients exited their dorm rooms and suburban basements and headed for the bright lights of America’s casinos, where poker was still legal.

Not all the online-poker players found the experience of live play congenial. While the rules are technically the same, online poker is, or was, its own world—a place where competitors with online monikers like ka$ino, CrazyMarco, and Potripper lived out their poker lives on Internet time, mining a data-rich universe of pseudonymous suckers with credit cards for buckets of spare change. Playing six or 12 or even 24 hands at a time, they could play 800 to 2,000 hands an hour. For the most highly skilled players, who saw more cards by their junior year of college than Amarillo Slim saw in his lifetime, this meant the winnings added up fast, even at 50 cents a hand.

Greg Merson, the winner of the 2012 World Series of Poker, in Las Vegas, contemplates a bet during the event. When Maryland Live first opened, Merson's table was hosting games that required a minimum $20,000 buy-in. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

John Calvin’s trajectory, from online-poker sites to casino poker rooms, is typical of the new generation of pros. He started playing on PartyPoker in 2003, in the early days of the online-poker boom, while working as a management consultant. “The games then were ridiculously soft,” he told me. “It was to the point then where anybody could pick up a poker book, read a chapter on starting hands, and probably immediately make $30 to $40 an hour, after 15 minutes of study.” Playing 10 to 15 hours a week, on nights and weekends, he saw thousands of hands, and started making real money. In 2004, still playing 10 to 15 hours a week after hours, he made more than $100,000. In 2005, he made even more.

The first sign that Calvin’s wildly lucrative hobby was in trouble came on October 13, 2006, when Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which declared it to be a federal offense for a gambling business to “knowingly” accept payments “in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful Internet gambling.” While this somewhat broadly defined offense was made punishable by up to five years in prison, the statute did not define unlawful Internet gambling. Preexisting federal law had declared sports betting unlawful, but not poker. Still, everyone seemed to recognize the intent of the statute, and federal prosecutors went after poker operators, who were pressured to pay enormous sums and shut down their U.S. sites in exchange for their continuing freedom. The owners of outfits like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker made millions by stepping into the vacuum left by the wholesale retreat of more-cautious operators who could afford to retire. But the poker sites had been warned.

On April 15, 2011, a day known among online-poker players as Black Friday, the Department of Justice unsealed United States v. Scheinberg, a federal criminal case that targeted the founders and key associates of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet. The government alleged that the defendants had violated the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act and conspired to commit bank fraud and money laundering to process transfers to and from their customers; a civil case filed alongside the indictment targeted assets that were valued at upwards of $3 billion.

Black Friday forced the online-poker players to choose between poker and their real-world lives. Many, like Calvin, chose poker. He estimates that learning to control his body language at the table took about 40 hours of live play. In his first six months playing live $5/$10 No Limit in Charles Town, West Virginia, according to his iPhone app, he made an average of about $150 an hour, which was more than he made as a consultant. He enjoyed his work more, too. He got friendly with the other pros, whose passage through the looking glass, from the online-poker world into the casino poker rooms, had been similar to his own. “It’s kinda almost like we’re co-workers, really,” he said when I asked him about the bonds that have formed among the pros at Maryland Live. There’s Brandon, a clean-cut guy in his 20s who speaks with a gentle southern drawl, and Nate, who looks like the captain of a prep-school squash team. Along with the other pros, Merson and Wang included, they eat the bad food and endure the late hours while taking money from the fish. “We’re very friendly with each other,” Calvin said. He is quick to deny that there is any kind of formal collusion within the group, but they all understand that staying out of heads-up pots with other pros is another basic rule of winning poker.

“It’s common sense,” Calvin told me with a smile. “I don’t want to get in marginal spots against someone who’s good. I want to get in marginal spots against someone who’s bad.”

It’s all relative, though. For a pro like Tom Wang, who occupies a higher position in the food chain, the way Calvin plays is entirely predictable. “He’s married, and has a kid and a mortgage,” Wang told me, in a matter-of-fact, only mildly condescending tone. “It’s a very formulaic way of playing, unimaginative and uncreative. It’s common among grinders like Calvin. But you don’t want to play against him. You want to play against the fish, who are bleeding all over the place.”

Even the biggest sharks have to obey the moral order of the poker room. Except when they decide otherwise. “I have Gregory Merson on my table,” a middle-aged floor supervisor with a modified Denny’s-waitress-type beehive of long black hair complained to her manager. “He jumped the line.” Merson ignored her. At this table, Tom Wang and Calvin were sitting together with John, a baby-faced pro with slicked-back hair who was wearing a red vintage windbreaker emblazoned with a name patch from Eli Lilly’s hospital division. “It’s a piece of history,” John explained when I asked him about the jacket, which he had bought off an old fish named Gil for $60. The lure of this particular table for the pros was the presence of two of the bigger whales in the room—the Asian guy in the Orioles cap, whose name was Lee, and an older business owner named Alan, who, a few of the pros told me, had lost a lot of money in Las Vegas and was now losing less sizable sums here.

Calvin licked his chops. He has been earning an average of $120 an hour at Maryland Live. Leaning back in his chair, he began to figure out which fish he should angle for. “Today I’m going to make my money from those two guys,” he said, nodding at seats 4 and 9.

Sitting down at the table next to Alan, Merson took a rubber-banded wad of high-denomination chips from his pocket and cashed them in for smaller chips, which he shuffled and wove together into unsteady towers that wavered above the baize. Across the table, Tom Wang stacked his chips to build a geometrically perfect castle, with three towers that contained exactly the same number of chips. Seeking out volatility wherever he could find it, Merson isolated Alan at every opportunity, three-betting him on nearly every raise (that is, putting a third bet into the pot, to signal strong cards and aggressively drive up the cost of the hand). His decisions were always right, but at no time was he an overwhelming favorite. Alan, despite playing in a notably careless manner, won a number of decent-size pots—after which, gloating, he bought Merson a massage. Yet only a fool would interpret Alan’s success to mean that poker is primarily a game of chance. What’s sure is that Alan will come back to the tables and play the same way again, and the cards will be different, and Merson will win two or three times as much, or eight or nine times as much. In the meantime, Merson was free to enjoy his massage.

Later, he had time to talk. “I love poker as much as I did when I was 17,” he told me when I asked him whether he is ever tempted to put his wizardry into a more lucrative, long-term line of work, like options trading. In fact, he said, before he won the World Series of Poker, he was offered a job on a hedge-fund trading desk—as an intern, which shows that the hedge-fund guys maybe aren’t so smart. Merson turned down the offer.

One of the biggest adjustments you face when moving from online play to live play, he said, sounding exactly like a hedge-fund trader, is that although you have many more types of information about each player when you play live, “tendency information”—information about how players behave in specific situations, which enhances your reads of what they are holding and about to do—comes in at a much lower rate. We talked about a high-stakes private game in New York that had recently made it into the tabloids, to which Merson had been invited. “I drove up to Manhattan and stayed in this great condo near Central Park,” he said, still sounding amazed. “There were four TVs in the living room, a massage girl, and a chef making food. The night before, this guy had lost $1.1 million. The biggest winner made $700,000.” He also told me about a famous private game on the Strip in Vegas, in a 16,000-square-foot house that, when he visited, featured 20 women, self-professed models, as decoration. When the game was over, the girls put on bikinis and jumped in the pool.

Merson remains a poker kid at heart. He is not part of the high-stakes nomenclatura, which includes Phil Ivey, who has his own poker room at a Vegas casino called Aria, which Merson recently targeted in a series of outraged tweets, objecting to being kept out of a high-stakes casino game where the table was stocked with fish. Merson’s ethos is entirely democratic, whether it comes to private games in casinos or online-poker sites that rig their seats. “I started at the bottom, at 17 years old,” he said. “I think that the games should be fair, and everyone should have a chance to play.”

Every once in a while, even the most cautious player gets stuck in a heads-up pot with a player like Greg Merson, no matter how aware they are that the odds are unfavorable. Calvin is no exception. Toward the end of the night, during a $10/$25 No Limit game, holding the jack and the 10 of spades, pre-flop, he raised to $75. His bet elicited three callers, two of whom happened to be the best players at the table: Merson and Tom Wang. With $300 in the pot, the flop came six, four, deuce, with two spades, giving Calvin a flush draw. Merson, acting first, bet $275, a nearly pot-size bet that, when a fish makes it, almost always indicates a weak hand or a draw (the aim being to scare away other players and win the hand immediately); coming from Merson, the bet could have meant those things as well, but it also could have indicated a very strong hand or a pure bluff. Calvin’s pre-flop raise suggested a starting hand such as an ace-king or an ace-queen. In Merson’s eyes, Calvin was prey—and Calvin knew it.

Calvin’s decision to call Merson’s bet was entirely logical and didn’t reveal too much: to Merson, it might look like he held a big pair, like nines or jacks. He didn’t know what cards Merson held, but Merson couldn’t see his cards yet either. With both Merson and Calvin portraying strong cards, Wang and the other player in the hand dropped out. Luckily for Calvin, the fourth card—the turn—was the queen of spades, completing his flush.

What Merson made of the situation became apparent a few moments later, when he bet $700, a sizable amount that suggested he had either a set—three deuces, three fours, or three sixes—or a flush, the hand Calvin actually held. Any of these hands might have led Merson to call Calvin’s pre-flop bet, but not to raise it: both Calvin and Merson were telling consistent stories. If Calvin now raised—in many ways, the most prudent and straightforward play—he would likely win the hand then and there, unless Merson held a high flush. But Calvin, mortgage be damned, just called, hoping that Merson was bluffing, and that he might continue his charade by making one last bet after the final card was dealt. That card—the river—was the four of spades.

In a split second, Calvin went from feeling that he had a near-lock with his flush to being scared shitless because a fourth spade had fallen, and the board had paired: Merson might now also be holding a full house, another hand that would beat Calvin’s flush.

To Calvin’s relief, Merson checked. Calvin quickly did the same, and the game was over. Merson, it turned out, was holding nothing but a busted gut-shot straight draw—the seven and eight of hearts. Once the queen of spades hit on a turn, he was drawing dead. Merson said the last card was lucky for him: if it hadn’t been so obviously bad, he would have continued to bluff.

Forgivably, Calvin saw the hand a bit more heroically. “I just outplayed Greg Merson the 2012 WSOP champ,” he texted to his wife when the hand was done. He knew he possessed nothing close to Merson’s level of skill and intuition, but still: he’d won. It was the kind of moment, he admitted to me, that made life as a mid-level pro feel like something more than just a way of saying no to boredom.

But the truth is, even without such moments, Calvin is more than at peace with his chosen profession, however disreputable it may seem to lawmakers, prospective employers, and others who think that poker is a game of mere chance. It’s satisfying, the hours are flexible, and above all, it’s challenging work, even for someone who went to business school. “All I want,” he told me on our drive home, “is to do something smart, and get paid.”