Pro Poker Hurts

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These amateur pros feast on tourists with bloated pockets and yentas who can't quite see all the cards — and guys like Norman, who have the money and know-how but not the drive or desperation.

They show up from open to close as if the poker room were an office. They take their meals at their desk — the poker tables. Their friends are their co-workers: the other regulars, dealers, and floor supervisors. And the massage girls — the attractive young women who, for $10, will rub your back and laugh at your stupid jokes as you play.

The goal is somewhere between carving out a semblance of a normal existence while playing a game for a living and making it big as a poker icon like Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson, or the ultimate amateur-made-good, Chris Moneymaker.

Battle between the patient Persaud and the tanned Norman continued for hours. The other players at the table could only watch as the two went back and forth, each trying to study and trap the other.

By 11 p.m., Persaud was collecting the last of Norman's chips.

After seeing his fortune melt away, Norman stood up quietly, with the empty gaze of a punch-drunk boxer. He went home, possibly to tan.

To his heckler, Persaud was curt. "You think I'm going to risk all that on a little pair of fours?" he asked, referring to the hand he had lost earlier. "He can have all the small pots he wants. I'll get him in the big ones. And look" — he pointed to the $600 of chips in front of him — "here's all his money." He grinned. "This is what I do."

The days of poker as the sport of bearded degenerates with tall hats and nicknames that involved geography are gone. Delaware Donnie has been replaced by Donald Johnson, an accounts manager from Dover who likes getting together with buddies and sometimes, while on vacation, plays at a casino.

Everyone in the industry can chalk up at least some part of America's poker fever to the work of Chris Moneymaker. And seriously, who could ask for a better name? The Tennessee accountant who began playing dollar games online and ended up winning the World Series of Poker main event in 2003 was a story too good to resist. This was the first live tournament he'd ever played. His small frame, soft build, and Southern drawl told millions of Americans they too could bluff out a Vegas pro and win a few million dollars.

Then came the constant replays of that event. And the rise of online poker. And the barrage of poker commercials and poker books. Poker movies. Scripted poker TV shows. Poker cruises. Poker videogames.

Poker players became celebrities, drinking champagne with movie stars, appearing on television and receiving large winner's checks. And then thousands of poker enthusiasts across the nation debated "going pro" — as if they were Heisman Trophy candidates forced to choose between friends on the team and the money in the NFL. Except, of course, with poker, turning pro doesn't mean you're signing a contract with a franchise. A thin sliver of players in Las Vegas and Los Angeles receives sponsorships from poker websites, but the only real requirement to turn pro is the willingness to gamble — and lose — large sums of money.

An industry centered on corporate-owned casinos such as Isle of Capri Casinos and Hard Rock International benefits from these individuals spending more time at the casino, where they eat, drink, get rubs, and tip, tip, tip.

Card Player magazine's 20th-anniversary issue, which is handed out free at several local card rooms, featured a column about "understanding what to expect before turning pro." Among the tips: "If needed, take a leave of absence from work. It helps to play every day (or whatever schedule you expect to work as a professional). If you decided to move to Las Vegas or California, go there for a few months to try it out."

Casinos found a way to make big bucks dealing poker. Though players are competing against one another and not against the house, as in blackjack and roulette, the casino still takes a cut of every pot. That portion, called a "rake," is normally 10 percent, with a cap at $5 every hand. A rake also means that even if two players tie in a hand, they both lose money.

Harold Persaud learned the game when he was a lounge performer 10 years ago in Las Vegas. But only in the past year and a half has he decided he could play full-time. He goes to Pompano or the Hard Rock most weekdays and at least one weekend day — to cash in on the weekend tourists looking to get a few hours away from the family. He told me he averages $1,000 a week from cash games, tournament wins, and the lessons he offers in his Boca Raton home. He also told me he's never read a poker book but that as long as he brings positive energy and sticks with his rules, he likes his chances against anyone in the world.

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Michael J. Mooney