Dark, secret world of poker millionaires
SHAUN Goldsbury couldn't look at the computer screen. After eight years of neurotic poker education and obsession he had arrived at this moment.
He was "all-in" at the final table of one of the world's biggest online poker tournaments and the next two seconds were worth close to $200,000 to him.
The cards fly out quick in online poker. Tournaments are often hours of boredom followed by seconds of sheer terror reports the NZ Herald.
When two players are all-in, there's just enough time to grind your teeth, take a breath and pray to the poker gods.
"It's a flip, my ace-king against his pocket queens," says Shaun. "Please, one time … Oh my god!"
Bink. Shaun hit an ace on "the river" to win the hand and our poker house in Papamoa, New Zealand, erupted into madness.
It was April, 2009, and we were five 20-something professional online poker players, living together in a lavish beachside house - and one of us was about to triple his net worth.
Shaun had been playing the Pokerstars SCOOP Sunday Million tournament for 22 hours over two days. On the final table of nine he made between $10,000 and $100,000 every time an opponent was eliminated.
We all gathered around his desktop computer in a shared state of jealousy and excitement, scrutinising every hand in deep detail. And we all knew what that ace on the river represented: a lot of money and a lot of drinking.
His opponent was eliminated in 7th place for $35,000. Shaun went on to win the tournament for $377,000.
It was the biggest win any of us had seen - on another occasion a roommate won $200,000 - yet it would pale in comparison to what one of the group would go on to achieve, but we'll get to that later. For every success story, there are hundreds of players that hit dead-ends.
Welcome to life as a professional online poker player.
MUCH MORE THAN 'BAD BLUFFING AND DRUNKEN BULLS****ING'
Poker - once a shady backroom game, played by snarling curmudgeons in cigar-filled rooms - has been taken over by the nerds.
Bourbon whiskey, Stetsons and swagger have been replaced by dual 32-inch computer screens, mathematical theories and a multi-billion dollar online industry.
Millions play the game online for recreation, but only about 5000 worldwide use it as their sole source of income.
With a credit card, internet connection and a computer, a generation of kids exploited the poker boom of the early 2000s to call themselves "professionals".
For three years I was one of them.
I started playing poker as a teenager in 2002. Every second weekend my football club in Hamilton took a bus to play games in Auckland. On the way home we gambled. At first it was all bad bluffing and drunken bulls****ing, but it quickly developed into a competitive scene and, for me, something clicked.
I liked getting inside people's heads, I enjoyed problem solving, thinking two steps ahead of the opposition, and I loved winning money. I realised I didn't need to be the best, just better than the mugs I was playing against.
Four years from 2003 on a football scholarship at university in New Jersey put me right in the heart of the poker boom. This was a period when the online poker player pool doubled every year.
My specialty was "heads up" "sit and go", one-on-one tournaments where the winner took all. I would play games for $100, $200 or $400 and made enough to support myself over the holidays.
Returning to New Zealand, I spent two years working for a media company before deciding to literally gamble with my future. I built a bankroll, quit my job, moved to Mt Maunganui and called myself a professional poker player.
At the time, New Zealand only had a dozen online players making a living from the game and coincidentally I bumped into three of them on a night out.
There was a Scottish guy called Neil "Puggy82" Stewart who was the leader of the crew and one of the best in the world. He offered to train me for multi-table tournaments and pay for my buy-ins in exchange for a cut of my profit.
Within a month I was living in their rented beachside mansion just down the road in Papamoa and had won a $27,000 tournament.
On a standard working day, I would buy-in for $3000 worth of online multi-table tournaments, play 12 at once, around 20-30 per day, spread across two monitors. I would start at 5am, to get in sync with the US and European markets, and play three to four days a week for around eight hours at a time.
We had a maid. Because the five of us couldn't leave our seats with so much action on our screens, we needed someone to prepare and bring us breakfast and lunch. "Kazza" was the mum of the house and gave our lives a certain structure. She was also a motivator. The meals would come regardless of what we were doing, but there was no guilt quite like trying to tell Kazza we were too lazy to get out of bed to play online poker.
I was a rookie but these guys were high rollers, so I accepted it as normal.
Our sprawling five-bedroom beachside villa was party central. Poker winnings were spent on a boat and a six-person spa pool, which became a liquid hub of life and self-analysis.
For three years, life was a blast. Then one day, the crew decided to move to Las Vegas whereas I opted to stay in New Zealand, moving to Auckland. Very quickly, the shine went off and it became an anti-social, unfulfilling way to make a living. That was when the improbability of my life became impossible to reconcile - I was spending all day and all night alone, playing computer games against strangers.
Long term, I knew poker wasn't a career choice that would work. When the games got tougher after "Black Friday", April 2011, when the US Department of Justice issued an indictment against the three biggest online poker sites, effectively cutting off American players from the rest of the world, I decided to transition back into the real world.
For one former roommate, though, leaving poker was never an option.
WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN
It takes a specialised skillset to win long-term at online poker. Any old "luckbox" can win a tournament by getting the rub of the green, but success over months, years, or decades can be achieved only by being better than your opposition.
For a year of my poker education, I lived with the best and most successful online tournament player of all time.
Chris Moorman's skillset was complete. He was obsessed with the game, patient, disciplined, super-aggressive and a MacGyver-like problem solver.
Moorman has won more money than the best All Black will earn in a lifetime. That includes $20 million on PokerStars and the now defunct Full Tilt Poker, $7 million in live earnings, and two occasions where he has won a tournament for more than US$1m.
"I joke with friends that I can remember hands they've played against other people better than they can," Moorman told me recently when we caught up again. "If I'm involved in a hand I seem to have a photographic memory, which, oddly, is the complete opposite in real life where I can't remember anything.
"But poker takes over my brain and I can remember so much useless stuff, but some of it is quite helpful. If I played against a guy a few years ago, but haven't played him since, I would still have really strong reads on the player and I remember their weaknesses."
When I first met Moorman seven years ago he was 25 and a laid-back, socially awkward, softly spoken millionaire. He listened more than he talked, was strongly opinionated, quick witted and deeply analytical. It seemed his brain was operating on a slightly different frequency.
He had all his money tied up in online poker rooms and, although I didn't appreciate it at the time, he was living the most stressful year of his life.
"At that point I had about 20 different players that I was bankrolling by myself," Moorman said.
"It got to the point where my poker didn't matter. I remember winning a tournament for over $100k on a Sunday and losing money on the day. It was a bit out of control - I was investing so much more into other people than myself. Good or bad days weren't determined by me, but other people."
Moorman cut all his "horses" after Black Friday and put more time into improving as a player and dominating the live scene. His change in focus was rewarded with two million-dollar-plus tournament wins within five months.
"In 2010 I had a really bad year, and lost about $200,000," he said.
"When you're playing every day and it's not going well, you feel terrible. I'd had a lot of success before, but I did wonder if it would ever turn around. It doesn't take long to wonder if they're every going to win again during a downswing. Being down on certain sites over the course of a year is hard to take, because you figure the variance would sort itself out, but I had to realise I wasn't playing great either.
"On the flip side, my best year of online poker was in 2011, so it shows that I was able to use that bad period as a positive."
Moorman's work ethic was insatiable: he was a freak, playing 20 tables at once, seven days a week, 10 hours a day.
"At peak time I was playing more than I would sleep. I would choose playing poker over going out with friends and justify it in my head because if I played I might make $1500, so I would evaluate the opportunity cost of it. I would say, 'OK, if I don't play I will spend a couple hundred and miss out on making $1500, so is this night really going to be worth $1700 to me?'"
Moorman was a bad loser and his obsessive nature drove his determination to fix mistakes in his game.
"If I had a bad day, other people might get down and sulk about it and not want to play the next day, but it motivated me to get better. I wanted to figure out why I lost and just didn't accept that I 'ran bad'. I worked really hard to improve."
Moorman now lives in Las Vegas with his wife. He accepts that online poker's glory days are probably over.
"Back in the day I would play online six days a week, but you can't do that now. Online is probably only good one or two days a week. Back then, a lot of the professionals weren't even that good, but they made money off the amateurs.
"But now all the pros are working really hard on their games, so it's pretty tough."
If the world's most successful online player has doubts about poker as a long-term career option, it's got to be troubling for the average grinder.
"10 years? I don't know, I don't really know what I'm doing in 10 days. I still see myself playing some poker, but maybe not as my whole career."
TIME RUNNING OUT FOR THE 'GRINDERS'
Hemi Mulligan is another who knows his playing days are limited. The poker ecosystem is swallowing up small-time "grinders" slowly but surely and his is a race against time.
The 27-year old player from Hamilton has been a professional online player for the past three years and figures he's one of about 10 to 15 still making a living from the game in New Zealand.
Mulligan is a world away from the high-stakes scores of Moorman, but has managed to eke out a comfortable existence, working when and where he wants.
"I get up around 10am, go to the gym, and hit tables by 1pm. I do a split shift where I have dinner with my partner, then play another five or six hours afterwards, hit the bed then start over again. I don't have set days. Sometimes I will grind two weeks straight and sometimes I will take four days off."
Mulligan is a "cash-game" player who plays up to six games at once, at stakes ranging from $2/4 blinds, to $5/10.
"I'm currently working my way out of a $25,000 downswing. I'm bankrolled to survive a $30,000 swing, but maybe a $50,000 downturn would hurt me enough to make me drop down a few levels and play lower. On a standard bad day I might lose $5000, and I think the most I ever won in one hand was $7000."
He's also won $85,000 in tournaments around New Zealand, including a three-way deal for first place in the Auckland Poker Champs main event for $42,000.
Mulligan is starting to move away from the No-Limit Hold'em variation of online poker as a long-term earning source and toward Omaha - where players are dealt four cards instead of two.
"I don't think there will be much money left in No-Limit cash in a year or two," he said. "It will still be juicy live pretty much anywhere in the world, but it's going to get harder and harder to make a living from No-Limit Hold'em online in New Zealand.
"Omaha is still really soft though."
Twelve years ago, during the poker boom, millions of punters wanted to play poker, but few knew how.
Anyone with a slightly advanced strategy was likely a winning player in most games. Today, the games are tougher. Poker is on television, there are guide books, websites with training videos devoted to improving play, and the top players in the world often livestream their online sessions.
Collectively, the world has got better at poker - and it's hurting today's professionals.
"I don't think I want to do this too much longer," Mulligan said. "I don't know what I want to do after poker but I don't want to be here in 10 years still grinding. I love the game but I don't enjoy it as much as when I first started.
"It creates so much isolation."
'VAST CHASM BETWEEN THE SHARKS AND THE FISH'
At poker's height in 2010, I was one of nine professional poker players who rented three adjoining apartments in Queenstown to "grind" together. We moved from Papamoa on a whim, for a change of scenery and a more appealing night-life - the ability to play all day and go out any night of the week.
From that group, Moorman is the only one still playing full-time.
From those of us standing around that screen in 2009, Puggy is a financial trader, Michael "Welshwizard" Bryan-Jones is a producer at BBC, Justin "Arsonist88" Shelton is a software developer and Goldsbury (Mathclubnz) can be found on the back pitches of Seddon Fields playing masters football, when not working as a wholesale manager at Genesis Energy.
And I am a digital sports editor for New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME).
I play all the big buy-in tournaments in Auckland and Christchurch, but don't dabble much online anymore. To commit to a tournament requires a full eight hours of freedom, which I struggle to find these days. I sometimes play heads up games, but they are much tougher now and it's debatable whether I'd still be a winning player at the stakes I used to frequent.
But I love the game and follow Moorman's adventures with admiration and envy. Long term, he may be looking for a way out of the game but I'm dreaming of a way back in.
There's an unwritten rule that any poker yarn should always finish with a philosophic line or two from the classic Kenny Rogers song The Gambler.
"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em and know when to walk away …
"The secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away And knowin' what to keep …"
But perhaps there's an even bigger secret to poker today: it has a structural problem because online play has become such a skilful pursuit.
The ceiling has risen and this is keeping new and casual players from participating. There is now a vast chasm between the sharks and the fish.
Before you can have winners you need to have losers and the attrition rate of casual players who stand no chance against skilful online players is growing.
It means even tidy players who once believed in the theory that every hand's a winner are now increasingly finding every hand's a loser.
The best you can hope for is to make your money while you can.