'My Mum begged me not to do it' - Meet the Irishmen mixing it with the high-rolling poker millionaires
Parental scorn is inevitable when you walk away from a degree course and announce that you plan to live out your dream of becoming a professional poker player, yet that plan is not quite as reckless as it might seem.
For an increasingly healthy number of Irishmen, playing poker online and in high stakes tournaments around the world is a job that can reap huge rewards, with life changing sums of cash up for grabs is you ride your luck and master the skills required to become a multi-millionaire.
Independent.ie were invited to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas earlier this month, with the presence of Olympic sprint king Usain Bolt and big screen comedy giant Kevin Hart adding star quality to an event that saw millions of dollars won by the game’s biggest names.
While poker may be a game of chance with your fortunes determined by the turn of a card, the same names tend to appear at the top of leaderboards when the big cash prizes are handed out at every tournament and as PokerStars ambassador Fintan Hand told Independent.ie, the craze of playing the game online has helped to turn an obsessive hobby into a job.
“The majority of people who make a career out of poker fall in love with it at the beginning and then one day, you find you can make more money per hour playing the game than in a regular job,” Dubliner Fintan tells us.
“I was working in the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin as a dealer in the casino and decided I would give it a shot at making a career out of it. I have been playing full-time for the last five years and so far, it is working out for me.
“My Mum pleaded with me to finish my Business Computers degree at Dublin City University, but I have been playing poker pretty much every day since I was a kid and wanted to have a go at it. I passed my first year exams, but made the decision not to go back. Another three years just felt like way too long for me and eventually my Mum gave in. Now I just buy her nice presents for mother’s day and her birthday and think she has forgiven me.”
Hand suggests the luck of a turn of a card only plays a small part in the outcome of a poker game, as he argues mental skill and endurance are key recipes for success on the poker tables.
“This is a game you need to put the work in on,” he continues. “You need to study what is happening as the game can develop quickly and you can fall behind. On any given day, the luck factor plays a part. If I played someone who just started playing last week, I’d fancy my chances of beating them 90 per-cent of the time, but they could get lucky and land a couple of aces and that is how the game can go.
“The Irish Open at the Citywest hotel will be the big one for me this year. That’s 15 days of poker and it's great fun. I wore a pretty crazy suit for the event last year so maybe I will give that anyone run this year.”
To be in with a chance to landing seven figure sums of cash on the poker tables, you often have to pay six figure sums to win a place at the poker tables in major events, with Irishman Larry Ryan admitting the stakes at the top end of the game are not worth the risk as he spoke to us in the Bahamas.
“This is not my job, this is just my hobby,” stated the Tipperary poker fanatic. “The top five per-cent of poker players make big money, but I am not tempted to get into that end of the game. I have my own employment agency and this is a little sideline. It’s relaxation time and over the year I will make €40-£50k a year out of it on average and have a bit of fun along the way.
“You look at the high rollers and they can win a million as quickly as they lose it. I’m not interested in that thank you very much. I went out to the Bahamas for £500 and had a nice time playing a bit of poker and relaxing. The big boys play for much higher stakes and I don’t need that kind of pressure.
“Is it a game of luck? There is a bit of luck involved, of course, but if you don’t have the skill then you will have no chance. The same lads rise to the top all the time and that is no coincidence."
My meeting with PokerStars hero Daniel Negreanu was an eye-opening experience, with the Canadian who has pocketed $35,924,594 in live tournament earnings over the course of his career confirming he is not alone in collecting huge sums every year.
“I started playing at 17 with my buddies and when I realised there was a professional tour I could get involved with,” he told us. “Some people have investors behind them who put up money for them to enter a $100,000 event and see it as a good bet. I have been successful in my career, so I can enter with my own money, but it is an interesting mix on the tour.
“I would say we have 30-40 people making seven figure sums playing this game every year, a few hundred more making six figure sums and thousands more making a good living.
“A company like PokerStars has made it possible to sit on your butt at home and make a living. Say you are in Estonia and there is no live poker event to go to in your country, you can play online and do well out of it, so online has opened doors to so many different avenues.”
Negreanu has starred in a series of viral videos with PokerStars ambassadors Usain Bolt and Kevin Hart, with the online views for their comedy sketches attracting tens of millions of viewers.
“Having guys like Usain Bolt and Kevin Hart involved in our promotion is great for poker because they are helping to take this to a new audience,” he adds. “I had 30 millions views on my Twitter feed along for the videos I did with those guys and it shows the reach the both have to an audience way beyond the poker community.”
With PokerStars giving away Platinum passes worth $30,000 in their online games and live events throughout 2018, even beginners have a chance to win an all-expenses paid trip to take part in the Players Championship event in the Bahamas next January.
Yet as Fintan Hand will confirm, if you do decide to pack in your studies and try your luck as a full-time poker player, make sure you win some serious money before breaking the news to your Mum.