Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The departure is official

I'm leaving the paper on June 17, maybe to return in 13 months, maybe never to return. It's great when the future is open ended, like the only straight draws we should betting on.

I talked with the editors on Tuesday and we came to an agreement on the leave of absence, which is non guaranteed. They will not hold an opening specifically for me, though positions become free all the time in this high turnover business, and I am not contractually obligated to come back. (But after a year I'll probably be broke and begging for a job.)

A note was sent out to fellow employees explaining that I would be taking an extended leave to write a book, though it didn't specify what kind. Those who've asked have given me plenty of encouragement, though not of the sort Tom (that's Iggy, fellow bloggers) told me about when he quit work, with the high fives and all.

"Do it while you're young," my co-workers say. They're right, of course. I'm 28, free of all loans except for a house payment, have no wife and kids. The time is now, or it is never.

So after I leave on the 17th, celebrate Father's Day with my dear old 60-year-old dad, it's off to Vegas for the last three weeks of the World Series of Poker. My adventure begins in 81 days.

Monday, March 28, 2005

How would the Easter Bunny play this hand?

Rat a tat tat.

Woke up early this morning and drove down the sloppy roads from my parents' house in Cullman to Tuscaloosa. I'd usually come back on Sunday evening after spending the Easter weekend up there, but thanks to the tornado watch across the state I decided to hold off.

My mother woke me at 6:15 and I could hear the rain hitting the pavement outside. Man, what a day to call in sick. I know the best days to fake it are those when the weather is beautiful outside, but when you know you've got to drive nearly two hours through the slop and it's that early in the morning you just want to go back to bed.

Rat a tat tat.

So I made it to the house, changed clothes and headed for the office. Even got here at 9 a.m. -- regular time. There wasn't any coffee in the pot so I put the filter in and hit the brew button. The green light came on, followed by

drip, drip, drip

Rat a tat tat.

Bang the drum slowly.

Five years in the same job. I don't know how people (like my parents) spend a lifetime doing the same thing. Completing the same tasks, working with the same people, putting up with the same stuff.

Wouldn't life be great if we didn't have to train for years to learn a profession? What if we could be a lawyer for a week, a doctor the next and, heck, even a garbage man the week after that? We could put ourselves into another's shoes, if only for that brief period, and see what life is like for others.

What if we could just play poker all day for one year?

Well that can be arranged.

I've talked with the bosses. We've actually been talking off and on for nearly a month, but finally close to sealing the deal. It appears I'll be granted some type of leave in which I can come back to work here without losing any benefits I've accrued. My last day is going to be June 17 it seems, two days after I turn 29.

I'll be 30 when all this is over, a fitting round number for when I hit the crossroads. Where will I be at that time? Will I come back, or will I go off on other adventures?

Rat a tat tat.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Razz mania

Since Full Tilt Poker added Razz to its game selection, I thought I would give it a try, even though it seemed the game was giving Howard Lederer migraines at last year's WSOP. It's a bizarre game to be sure, going against everything I know and believe about poker. Low hand wins? Whaaa? I wonder why it isn't just called Seven Card Stud Low. I'm sure there's a good story as to why it's called Razz, but I'm not privy to it.

As I desperately sought any advice on how to play the game, I came across some passages from my own poker library -- a brief section in the Lowball chapter of Super System and a more meaty offering in Phil Hellmuth's Play Poker Like the Crybaby Pros -- to give me some guidance. While I'm not killing the games by any means, I think I have a handle on Razz now. So I've set myself a goal. If I can win at least $1,500 playing Razz on FTP in the next three months I will buy into the Razz championship at the WSOP. I see two distinct advantages to that tournament, and both are related to the sparse attendance it draws. With fewer entries (191 last year I believe), Razz gives a player the best chances to 1) make a final table and get TV time and 2) win a WSOP bracelet. I wouldn't complain about either.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Odds and ends

Just uncluttering the mind here, putting thoughts to keyboard:

Most people laugh when somebody refers to poker as a sport. I'm not among those who believe poker should be cast in that category, but judging from my own play of late, I would say that poker is a bit like basketball, where when the shots aren't falling a player can tend to force things, taking and missing bad shots and making things worse. When your aces are getting cracked, suddenly a J-9 suited looks like a hand to play from early position, or an A-8, or take your pick.

I played in a tournament in town yesterday, finishing 6th of 29 players and going out on the bubble. The guy who won wore a bad shirt and an even worse haircut, a mullet that would make Joe Dirt proud. His play was less than examplary, in fact, it was downright horrid, but he was catching the deck. When it's your day, it's your day, unless you owe a big debt. Mullet man won first and the $1,100 or so that went with it, but he apparently owes thousands to another guy named Ricky who was playing. After mullet won, Ricky snatched the money-filled envelope from him and the guy left without saying much. Later, Ricky took a call from his girlfriend and told her, "I finished 18th, but took first."

Friday, March 11, 2005

Hoyt Corkins interview

Hoyt Corkins, the Alabama cattle farmer, made a name for himself when he won the World Poker Finals championship event in Foxwoods a couple of years ago. He graciously replied to some questions I emailed him recently, including an interesting nugget on that match against Phil Hellmuth.

Q. As I recall, you played tournament poker pretty seriously about a decade ago and won at least one WSOP bracelet in the past. Did you stop playing, and if so, why did you decide to return to the circuit?

A. My grandmother died and then my father died suddenly of cancer. I was very close with them. My father supported my efforts in poker, so it was a crippling blow for me. I needed to take time off from poker to deal with my emotional losses.

Q. Regarding the tourney circuit, where do you travel and how often are you gone? What's the hardest part about it? To what do you attribute your breakout success in 2003?

A. I go just about anywhere. There are some tournaments in Europe and Australia that I have not been to, but look forward to making. The hardest part is not feeling like you have a home. Having that comfort of home helps my mind wind down. My success is in part to my loving girlfriend, Natalie. She encouraged me to get back on the circuit and helps me keep my mind straight. She goes with me everywhere and handles the little details of life that can sometimes be very overwhelming for a poker player when he has spent all his mental energy in the game. She is typing my responses for me right now, since I don't type that well.

Q. What do you think of Hellmuth's reaction to your "all-in" strategy at Foxwoods in 2003? Why did you use that strategy?

A. I thought it was quite comical. Phil, despite what people say, makes a very good poker show. Some may say that he is overly dramatic, but that drama makes the show more intense. I used that strategy because of an article that he wrote in Card Player. He had just played Toto Leonidas at the US Poker Championship a couple of months earlier and wrote in detail about it. Poker is about using information to your advantage, and Phil gave me all the information I needed.

Q. How much time do you spend in Vegas, and how much in Glenwood, Ala. (where he has his farm)? Why do you maintain residences in both locations? What cash games do you play in Vegas?

A. I spend most of my time in hotels, really. :o) I probably spend more time in Vegas than in Glenwood, due to the fact that there are so many tournaments in Vegas. Glenwood is in the middle of nowhere, and staying there is not good for travel. I keep a house there, because that is where my family is. I try to escape poker when I go there and get refreshed.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Wait til he has a losing streak...

This article appeared in The Crimson White, the college newspaper at the University of Alabama, a couple of weeks ago. I truly feel sorry for the kid profiled in this story. I wish him well, but we will see how he comes out in the long run. I suspect he will discover that there's much more to life than poker. Also, click the link above to go to the Web site with this story and check out some of the interesting feedback to the article.

Raking in on the Internet

Former UA student makes thousands playing online poker, which is a growing national trend

by Chris OttsNews Director
February 28, 2005

Andy McClure, 21, looks nothing like someone making $70 an hour.

He wears the same old blue jeans and the same ragged T-shirts he's had since his freshman year at the University. If you didn't know better, you could swear his faded Yankees cap was surgically fixed to his head. He spends most of his time in bare feet.

That's the part McClure likes most about his story. Most college students can only dream of a job that pays big bucks and allows them to sit around with their friends watching TV or listening to music. But that's how McClure spends his time: hanging out and making money.

McClure is cashing in on America's poker boom. He spends about 50 hours a week, he said, playing over the Internet. That's earned him more than $40,000 since the summer, when he first sat down in -- or logged into -- an online poker room.

McClure cautions that's just a fraction of what he expects to make now that he doesn't have school or any other obligations to detract from his playing time. In 2005, McClure thinks he'll make at least $200,000. "That's a conservative estimate," he said, noting that he could win several hundred thousand with a strong performance in a large tournament. Since Jan. 1, McClure has made about $18,000 online, he said.

McClure plays Texas Hold 'Em, the seven-card game made popular by the World Series of Poker and other televised events. An inordinate surge of interest in the game nationwide is filling casinos, and social games among friends are making college students into poker aficionados.

The online gambling industry is also riding the poker wave. There were almost 1.8 million regular online poker players in January, up about 10 percent from the total for December, according to, a firm that tracks the industry.

McClure said the recent upsurge of Internet players is already making a lasting impact on the game.

"A lot of your next generation poker players - they're not your pool shark, back-room cigar guys," he said. "They're your Internet whiz-kids and your smart math geeks."

Just like the other kids McClure would like to say he's been a poker know-it-all before the game became a fad, but he admits: "I'm just like all those other kids who saw the movie 'Rounders.'"

McClure and many others credit the 1998 film, starring Matt Damon as a high-stakes Hold 'Em player, with spurring the revival of poker -- once thought to be a game for old men.

"I saw 'Rounders,' and I didn't think, 'This is a bad-ass movie,'" McClure said. "I thought, 'This is a bad-ass future -- for me.'"

After getting his feet wet playing with friends, McClure borrowed $50 from a friend to try his hand at online poker this summer. Playing only low-stakes games in his time away from working at Domino's in his hometown of Huntsville, his winnings were modest at best.

"I just kind of hovered around even those first two months," he said.

But because he was so afraid of losing his small buy-in, McClure said he "learned to play really tight and smart," only staying in a hand when he has a good chance to win and avoiding getting drawn into losing situations.

That strategy paid off, earning McClure money with which he can play more games. It begets itself: the more he plays, the more he can play, and the more money he makes. In his first big win, which seems paltry now, McClure turned a $10 buy-in into $80. After a few weeks, he was averaging $15-$20 profit an hour. Now he's up to $70-$80 an hour. Playing one high-stakes table on a Saturday in January, McClure made about $320 in 20 minutes, which he said is well above average, but not uncommon.

Those kinds of winnings convinced him to drop out of school, even though he came to the University on a full scholarship. "Every hour I spend in class is $70 I'm not making playing poker," he said.

Online poker is a different world

In a casino or some other live setting, it would be impossible for McClure to win so often with such ease, but online poker is a different world.

McClure usually plays four tables simultaneously, which he could not do in a casino. "I've always been really good at multi-tasking," he said.

He plays conservatively, folding his cards more than 80 percent of the time, he said. So when he does get into a hand, he bets aggressively, and he doesn't have to worry about any serious action on his other tables.

McClure said calculating the probability of his hand's chances -- the math side of poker -- factors more prominently in online poker, because you can't see the faces or the gestures of the people you're up against, only their screen names. McClure, who made a perfect score on the math section of the SAT, sticks to his carefully timed play, and it almost always works for him, he said.

"Plus, when you can play 200 hands an hour, any variance that comes due to luck or the odds -- it just gets eliminated," he said.

With the recent surge in poker interest, many amateurs are trying out poker online, playing high-stakes games they would never play in a casino, and providing more seasoned players like McClure a chance to win their money.

McClure plays almost exclusively on, by the far the most popular of the almost 200 online poker rooms, according to PokerPulse.

"Every retard who watched the World Series of Poker on TV and thought 'That's really cool, I want to play poker,' is on PartyPoker," McClure said. "So you have a lot of people who don't know what they're doing."

McClure said once he won hundreds of dollars from a woman who kept calling big bets even though she had pathetic hands. He messaged the woman through the PartyPoker software to ask why she was throwing away so much money.

"She said was married to some really powerful lawyer in New York," McClure said, fighting off bursts of laughter. "And that he said she can blow as much as $5,000 a month on poker as long it keeps her from cheating on him."

Rich McRoberts, 22, a recent UA graduate, also makes money playing online poker daily. "It seems like the people on the Internet are a lot crazier, which is better for making money," he said. "Online you have your sharks and your total fish."

But McRoberts said because online players are unpredictable, you can rarely "bet them out," or bet big when you have a good starting hand in hopes the other players will fold, a standard poker strategy.

"People will call anything," and sometimes they'll get lucky and win, McRoberts said. "And it sucks when that happens, but if you make strong plays consistently, you'll make money."

McRoberts said he only plays about three hours a day on average, but still makes more money than he did as a waiter.

Scott Kidwell, 36, an advertising salesman in Tuscaloosa, has played live poker semi-professionally for about five or six years, he said.

Kidwell said he plays online for the fun of it whenever he can, but he said he's had trouble adjusting to whimsical plays his opponents make online.

"It's fun, no doubt about it," he said. "But when they call and draw out on you -- man, it's tough."

Questionable legal status

Despite the surge in online poker usage in the United States, the legality of Internet gambling is still questionable. Almost all of the popular online poker rooms are based overseas. PartyPoker is regulated by the government of Gibraltar, a territory of the United Kingdom just south of Spain.

The federal government has limited its interest in gambling to organized crime, but many states have anti-gambling statutes, which could be extended to online poker, according to I. Nelson
Rose, an Internet gambling expert at Whittier Law School in Santa Rosa, Calif.

"The only way to know for sure is to check the laws of your state," Rose wrote on his Web site,

A statement from the Alabama Attorney General's office on the issue implies that Internet gambling could be prosecuted in Alabama, where gambling is generally illegal.

"State law does not distinguish between Internet or online gambling and other forms of gambling," Joy Patterson, spokeswoman for Attorney General Troy King, said in the statement.

The law also states that gambling is illegal even if the game is conducted outside the state, Patterson said.

Playing poker over the Internet also raises security questions, such as what prevents two or three people from conspiring in the same game.

Ashley Trebor, a shift supervisor for PartyPoker's technical support, which is based in India, said PartyPoker has an "investigations team" which scrutinizes betting patterns and other information to look for suspicious behavior. He said he could not elaborate, for security reasons, on how the team keeps people from cheating.

McClure said it seems it would be easy for people to cheat, but in reality there are several factors that can give cheaters away. McClure said he doesn't think there are many people trying to rig games on PartyPoker.

Learning curve

On a lazy Saturday afternoon in January, McClure sits in a buddy's dorm room, shooting the breeze and playing video games.

His demeanor is relaxed as ever. It seems like a normal day when he hooks up his laptop and logs onto Party Poker, but McClure is about to enter his biggest poker game yet.

It's a tournament with more than 2,000 players and a prize pool of $1.22 million. If he were to win the tournament, he would take home $256,000. It would cost McClure $640 to enter, but he won his ticket in by finishing first in a satellite, or promotional, tournament, which cost only $70 to enter.

McClure knows the competition here will be much stiffer than in the typical Party Poker game.

McClure spends most of the first hour of play folding his cards. "That's just how you have to play in tournament like this," he said.

Finally, he decides a starting hand of Ace-Queen is good enough to play, and he makes an aggressive bet. Only two players stay in the hand, one of which bets all his chips. McClure wins a big pot after two more Queens were dealt, giving him three Queens. McClure says he should have lost to one of the players, who had two Kings, but "I got lucky. Stuff like that happens all the time in these kind of games."

That win puts McClure in the top 30 percent of tournament players after the first hour of play. "That's a good place to be early," he says.

But luck works both ways, he soon finds. Dealt an Ace and a King, McClure makes a hefty bet, but one of the players pushes in all his chips. Sensing a bluff, McClure calls, and he's right: the other player only has a Nine and Four. But a Nine and a Four are dealt in the community cards, giving the bluffer two pairs. McClure loses all his chips, knocking him out of tournament.

He doesn't seem to mind: "I just want to get as much high-level experience, especially tournament experience, I can," he says.

He plans to move to Las Vegas to become a professional, live poker player in about a year in half, when he's saved up $100,000 in poker money, he says.

In about two weeks, McClure is planning a weeklong trip to Vegas, where he will sit down for the first time at high-stakes World Series of Poker event. He's also planning another Vegas trip in the early summer. McClure plans on playing in $1,000 to $2,500 No Limit tournaments to gain experience. He's not going to play in the WSOP main event, which carries a $10,000 entry fee, unless he wins his way in, he said.

Once he realized he could make a living playing poker, he never gave returning to school a second thought, he says.

"Real jobs are such B.S. anyway," McClure says. "Even in the ones that make a lot of money, you don't have any fun."

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A plea to a poker deck

Why do you torment me so, with your teasing second-best hands? You fill my heart with hope when you bring forth queens and kings, sometimes aces, only to give another player trips on the river with his 8. Please don't let my constant losses to this inverted symbol for infinity be a sign that my losing streak will be perpetual.

Whether you are real or imagined, as in graphics on a computer screen, you club me over the head, metaphorically with a real weapon and in actuality with a flush of puppy-dog feet shapes. Blue, red, green, brown, all of your colors are tortuing me. It's not supposed to happen like this. I'm better than average. I should be beating the dickens out of the plethora of fish sitting across from the table or across the world via the Internet. But you just won't let it happen. And as I go on tilt and begin to play poorly, you won't treat me as you treat the others, providing that miracle river card that would allow me to snatch the pot right out from under them as they do to me. Why, oh why, poker deck, do you treat me so?

I know what doesn't kill you (or your bankroll) is supposed to make you stronger. But right now I am a weak man and my game is in disarray. You did it to Jay Lovinger, he of the mighty ESPN family, but he deserved it more. I've read his column. He just doesn't play very well. Why me? Why now? I'm trying to build up my bankroll to prepare to zip cross country for a poker travelogue. This is a time when I need to be winning and saving money, not seeing it blow away in a hailstorm of bad beats.

Ok, enough with the whining. The fact is this: I'm down about $1,500 for March, and tragically March is only 8 days old. Ooh. There is the inverted infinity again. Concidence? I think not.

I can take comfort in the fact that my poker column is a go, at least through the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. It will run in some of the dozen or so papers that the NYT owns, mostly in the South, with a couple in California.

I also hope to receive approval in the next couple of weeks for my one-year leave of absence to go for the book. I've even determined a rough schedule of my travels and I've got friends and fellow poker players lining up to go with me, which is good since if I go it alone I expect to spend around $8,000 for travel and traveling companions can help defray some of the costs.

Here is that rough schedule:

June 21-end of the WSOP -- Las Vegas
3 weeks in Aug. or Sept. -- drive to St. Louis and Deadwood, S.D.
mid Oct.-mid Nov. -- week in Atlantic City, week in New York (stay with a friend), week in Connecticut for Foxwoods (stay with a friend)
2 weeks in January 2006 -- Tunica, Miss. for the WPO
late Feb. and most of March 2006 -- Commerce Casino near LA and Reno Hilton for the WPC
June-July 2005 -- back to WSOP to wrap it up

In total, I figure to spend about four months on the road during this 13-month period. I'm giddy thinking about it, but weary of my recent losing streak. But I suppose that will make for good book fodder.