Howdy, y’all. People often ask me how I became a professional poker player, so I thought I’d share a little bit about how I broke into high stakes.
Like most Americans who lived through the 2000s, I first saw poker on TV. I started playing with my high school friends, and I seemed to have a knack for it. At the time I was a super competitive chess player (I started playing chess competitively when I was six), but as a teenager I increasingly found myself more interested in the poker games played on the side at all the major chess tournaments than the tournaments themselves. I got to the point where, at fifteen years old, I could often make enough in those side games to cover my entry fees and hotels.
When I was sixteen, I started placing small bets online. I remember one of my first bets was a $25 transfer on an endgame skin that had a 100% deposit bonus. I remember ratholing the smallest NLGs (No Limit Games), buying into a game for $5 and then switching tables once I got up to $10. At some point along the way, I started playing SNGs (“sit-and-go”) tournaments.
Early on, I played like you might expect a teenager to play. I’d hoard bonuses from online poker sites, which inflated my expected value. I’d take a $1000 bonus to play, lose $150 and still be +$850. Thanks to these inflated values, I had a five-figure bankroll way before I should have skill-wise. But I kept learning and improving, the games became easier and easier, and eventually I switched to cash games, where I started to win — and also lose — real money.
During my junior year of high school, for instance, I won $30,000 two months in a row playing 3/6 NL (No Limit). But in my senior year, I went on a losing streak and, with my bankroll dwindling, my parents made me cash out some money for my college tuition and taxes.
Around that time, I reached out to another professional player my age, Michael “Timex” McDonald, looking for a backing deal for mid-stakes No Limit. Timex told me he knew nothing about cash games, but that MTTs (Multi-Table Tournaments) were easy and I should play them instead. He offered me a couple month deal and a 40/60 profit split with no makeup. Shout out to Timex for realizing even back then that makeups were stupid.
With Timex bankrolling me, I ended up going on a massive heater, and on the very last day of our staking deal I got 2nd place in the FTOPS main event for $200k. It was Spring 2007. I had a bunch of money and my own roll. I was feeling great.
In Fall 2007, I went away to college in Maryland. I hated it, and I started degening, playing recklessly. I would multi-table 25/50 PLO or short stack 200/400 PLO with no idea how to play PLO at all. I was really just blasting all over the place, and money was again running tight. In January 2008, my dad passed away. As I’ve discussed in the past, it was a low point for me. I wasn’t in a great place mentally, and I did some dumb gambling. I eventually transferred to a small college in New Jersey — partly to be closer to my mom, and partly because I could no longer see the point of spending $40,000 per year on college when I hated being there.
Things got worse before they got better. That February, I got roped into a scam in Atlantic City by a “friend” I met on the internet, and it left me broke without money for tuition. I hit up Timex again, explained my situation, and asked for another loan. He gave me $4,000, and I went on a tear and won $30,000 in one month. A month after that, I won $35,000 in one sitting. It was a pretty wild time for me; as I recall, the day I won $35,000 I was very hungover and still had drawings on my face after passing out at a post-prom party the night before. Over the summer of 2008, I rented a beach house in New Jersey with Chewy, Zugwat, and Randall Flowers. I remember driving everybody six hours to Turningstone to play the $1500 Heartland Poker Tour Event. I remember telling everybody how stupid I thought it was to drive so long to play small stakes live tourney, but somehow we don’t swap anything and I end up walking away with six-figures with 100% of the action.
The small college in New Jersey I had transferred to ended up having a wilder party scene, so I decided it was best to transfer back to my old college. I moved back to Maryland in the fall, but didn’t end up enrolling in classes. Chewy and Zugwat had also convinced me to rent an over-the-top penthouse with them rather than live in a busto college house. At the time, I could afford it. I had spun up my $0 to $300k+ and we all went to Europe to play EPTs and WSOPE. I remember playing the £10k (18k USD tourney) WSOPE. I had sold a piece to Awice at 1.2. The morning of the tourney I unsold the action because I thought my edge was too big. I swapped 5 with chewy and Steve and just yolo-ed the rest. I didn’t make the antes, and I punted.
Over the next two years, I got beat up badly at the live tourneys. Chewy convinced Ashton Griffin, who was in the middle of one of the biggest heaters in poker history, to back me. But I couldn’t catch a break and I kept getting my butt kicked. In January 2011, Griffin himself took 40% of me in the Aussie Millions $100k, only to then go on a bad losing streak himself. At the lowest point, I was something like $350k-$400k in makeup and Griffin couldn’t afford to put me in anything big, so he asked me to play $500 live tourneys
Griffin ended up gifting the makeup to Tom Dwan, and in the fall of that year I started chipping away at it with some medium scores. Then in 2012 (AKA the year of Justice), I went on an all-time heater. I cleared makeup by winning the Aussie Millions $100k and then ended up scooping pretty much everything else that year. It was wild. My 2012 run has since been surpassed by Bonomo, Fedor, Colman, etc., but at the time it was arguably one of the greatest in tourney history, though of course that’s open to debate.
After I won the Barcelona $50k euro high roller that summer, I had finally earned enough to quit the whole staking deal and play with my own money. And I’ve been playing the biggest games ever since.