Sunday, April 26, 2009

How I Became a Poker Player (Long)

Questions I’m often asked are, “How can you play so much poker?” or “Don’t you get sick of it?”, or “What motivates you to play?”

The answer to all of these questions is I love to play poker, it’s what I’m best able to do, and it’s what I was put on this earth to do.

I started gambling and playing games somewhere around age 6. I can still remember bowling plastic balls at plastic pins at my friend Jon Busconi’s house for nickels. After going double or nothing about 20 times in a row, I owed Jon more money then I’d ever be able to pay off. Of course it was all in good fun at that age. It was only the beginning though.

By about ten years old I started playing pool competitively in tournaments and by about age 13 or 14 I was playing for money at the pool halls. It wasn’t at all uncommon for me to win $300 or $400 when I was in high school and I vividly remember carrying around a wad of money that felt like a million dollars but in reality was probably a few hundred.

I started playing cards (mostly poker) when I was about ten years old as well, with my mother, two brothers, and sometimes family friends, neighbors, and my dad. We used to play for quarters and I always loved playing. We played the typical crazy house games like baseball, criss-cross, Indian, 5 card draw with odd cards being wild, etc., etc. I developed a love for cards and gambling from playing in these games even though my mother usually won.

At about fourteen, I was hosting poker games in my house after school. School used to end around 2:00 (when I decided to go) and my mother would be home at 5:00. I remember at least ten people would be in my house crowded around the dining room table with cards flying and money everywhere. At about 4:50 it was a mad dash to get everybody out of the house before my mother was back. She caught me one week when she noticed the vacuum wasn’t in it’s usual place in the closet. Someone had spilled something on the floor and my mother knew well that I’d never pick that vacuum up unless people were at the house and I was trying to hide something. This was typical of my mom, she once figured out I had a party at the house because a bedroom shade was pulled 6 inches higher than when she’d left the house.

I remember being sent to a psychiatrist when I was about seventeen to work with me on my “gambling problem”. He handed me a sheet and told me to check off any of the gambling related activities I had taken part in. It went something like this, sports betting…check, lottery…check, poker….check, horse racing…check, casinos…check. By the time I finished the only thing left unchecked was “investing” in the stock market - the stock market was only a matter of time though. I only met with the psychiatrist once, I refused to see him again. I didn’t see anything wrong with my gambling. In fact, throughout our session I was adamant that nothing was wrong with me and nothing was wrong with me gambling.

I played every card game imaginable mostly at a pool room called Mr. Billiards in Framingham, MA during my teenage years and into my twenties until they closed. We gambled at Gin, Cribbage, Pitch, Spades, Hearts, Chow Dai Di (Chinese Poker), and Russian Poker among other games. There were many days where I’d be waiting outside the pool room before it opened at Noon and the last one to go home at 3 in the morning. It was in these games that I really honed my skills and developed my card sense.

It was also during this time that I got serious about blackjack. I read several books on counting cards and was determined to learn how to beat the game. I used to spend endless hours dealing out cards, counting cards, and betting fictitious money while tracking everything in a notebook. I still have a picture of the desk in my dorm room in college and the only thing visible is a blackjack shoe. As many of you know I’ve had quite a few amazing blackjack adventures (and still do). None more amazing than winning about half a million dollars when I was 21 years old and then promptly losing it all back in less than two weeks betting 18K a hand (the maximum the casino would allow me to bet).

I had dropped out of college at nineteen and from that point to about twenty-five all I did was play pool and cards. I managed a pool room near Boston and played either pool or cards at least eight hours a day every day. And when I say every day, I mean every single day, 365 days a year. I wasn’t making much money at it and my life was going nowhere. It wasn’t due to lack of effort or skill, there just wasn’t money in the pool rooms. I always did well when I could find a game but towards the end the only people that wanted to play with me either were trying to cheat me in some way or wanted a handicap that made it very difficult to win.

I distinctly remember reading a book back then called Scarne on Cards. It had a section on poker and one of the first lessons he taught was poker is a combination of math and psychology. If you were to pick two subjects that most interest me and that I’m best at, it’s math and psychology. As I was reading that I remember thinking that I was destined to play poker.

For the time being though, my poker career was on hold. The reality of my life was that I was 25 years old, completely broke, in debt, living with my father, and had done nothing in life but played pool and cards. My Dad was understandably fed up with me and basically told me to get a “real” job or I was on the street. Although I hated the ultimatum at the time, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I ended up getting a job at what’s now Bank of America. Even though I hated being on a schedule and working 9-5, it taught me about discipline, hard work, and corporate life. Without it, I wouldn’t be nearly the poker player I am today and I don’t think I would have ever developed the appreciation and thankfulness for being able to do what I love to do from the comfort of my home.

It was during my time at Bank of America that online poker was born. My first experience gambling online was actually playing Gin Rummy at a site called I don’t remember how I found out about the site but I remember how incredible I thought it was that I could take my credit card and play for money with someone on the other side of the world.

I found out about poker shortly after this and as you might have guessed, that’s all I started doing. For about the first year to year and a half, I was a consistent loser. I would deposit twenty or fifty bucks and play for maybe a week or two and then bust. Sometimes I’d run my twenty bucks up to two or three hundred before busting and other times I’d lose it right away. Eventually I was lucky enough to final table a few tournaments. There weren’t huge paydays back then, in fact I remember pacing 4th in the Stars Sunday tournament and winning about 800 bucks. Nevertheless, 800 bucks was a ton of money to me especially when I was working an entire week for less than that. I started playing single player tournaments (SNGs) after the tournament scores. I started out playing $20 tournaments and gradually worked my way up to the $200 tourneys. Any free time that I had during the day was spent playing SNGs. I would stay up all night playing them and then go to work. I’d even bring my laptop and air-card to work and play on my lunch break. Before long I had paid off my debts and built up a little bankroll.

During my time playing SNGs, I was also playing limit hold-em cash games on Party Poker. I had been a pretty consistent loser playing in the ring games but one weekend I suddenly realized I could beat the games. It was the middle of a Saturday and I was lying in bed playing when it suddenly hit me that my opponents were making all these mistakes. Up to that point, I didn’t really know enough about limit hold-em to know whether what I was even doing was right or wrong. But I had been reading and studying a lot and was starting to grasp a lot of concepts. My results told me I was a losing player but I knew I was improving every day. Once I started to see people doing all these things I knew were wrong, I thought it was likely I was a winning player.

It didn’t take long for my results to confirm this, I started winning with more regularity. I had built up a bankroll of about twenty thousand and was frequently making in a day what would take me forty hours at the bank to make. At this point, I made the decision to quit work. At the time, it was a difficult and scary decision. The bank had given me order and structure in my life and I knew it would be up to me now without having the security of a job to fall back on. I also knew that I loved to play poker but up that point in my life none of my gambling forays had worked out. I moved into an apartment shortly after and began playing full-time. I was very fortunate my first year as a pro to have finished about 115th in the main event of the World Series, this netted me around 60K which more than doubled my bankroll at the time. I also won about 35K in a tournament they were running nightly at the Rio during the Series. Without that extra income, the first year could have been a lot tougher.

It has pretty much been all smooth sailing from that first year. I never really looked back or ran into any financial trouble. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs but I’ve always played well within my bankroll. I have probably been too conservative with my progression through the limits but I’d rather err on the conservative side then take any risk of going broke.

The bottom line is I’m doing what I love most and it's providing Jamena and I with more than a comfortable living. There was a time a few years ago where I was feeling guilty because playing poker doesn’t contribute much to society. I was talking to my sister and she said something that has stuck with me ever since, “Don’t ever feel guilty doing something you love.” I feel extremely fortunate to do what I love and I’ll always consider myself lucky regardless of how the cards are treating me on any given day, week, or month.


  1. Good read. Reminded me of the night we played cards all night at the pool hall, left at closing, went to foxwoods, and got back to the pool hall just in time for opening.

  2. Was that the night we decided to double down on every hand for an entire shoe? I remember the pit poss making a big scene every time we'd double down on something other than the normal 9, 10 or 11. We're very likely in some elite company in that we've doubled hard 19 and hard 20 and won.

  3. No, I don't think I was there for that episode. It was the night you were taunting the pit boss - or at least one of the nights - lol. You hit a hard 18, caught a 2, looked at the pit boss and said "This is such an easy game, how does anyone ever lose?" His response, "Yeah, you just keep doing that!"

  4. You were doubling on some bizarre hands but I don't think it was for an entire shoe.

  5. Nice story!

    I do remember some stories. I love the game, Pitch, but it's easy to lose so much money! We have also played Nert and 100 percent. I think we have betted on video games like Madden, ha. You always told me, "why do I keep winning?" every time we play Madden or other games and that's an annoying strategy!

    Speaking of Mr. Billlards, I remember the old days and some guys were funny to watch like the engineering guy and he kept losing and losing. I have never won bigger than maybe $150.00 until I was in college.

    One funny story - when I went to NH for a pool tournament with Rich and I took a wrong pill for my sinus - it's a night pill. I was so sleepy and lethargic when I started playing! But I ended up in a prize position and I didn't remember how much I won. I think the pill ruined my memory on that day!

  6. Wow, you just reminded me of how much Pitch we used to play. I remember that game being so popular at the pool room when we started playing that there were two tables full of players.

  7. What is Pitch? You got to show me that game Tony. JG

  8. Wow, I haven't played pitch for a long time but we used to sit in the pool room for hours on end playing that game. It's a great game if you have a bunch of guys looking to play, I think we used to play with anywhere from 4 to 8 guys.

  9. Hey Tony

    Just read this Blog . Really cool to see it all put down in words and being able to see all the transitions you have gone through to get you here . Keep doing what you love and congrats on doing what most only dream of and very few are good enough to make work



  10. Thanks Leah, I appreciate it.

  11. Great Story...!!

    You hav made me wanna change from NL and take on fixed limit poker..!!


  12. Wow !
    Good story, You should somehow have this story more visible on your site. It took me a few seconds to find it.


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