Odd Jobs, Chapter 1

 

Posted November 7th, 2018

The following is the opening chapter of my book Odd Jobs. The book is a collection of stories about my experiences working odd jobs from singing telegram performer to professional basketball player. But it is also a collection of stories about my life as the whole thing was happening. And that story starts in 2010 when I was beginning a very different career as a professional poker player.

The woman on the other end of the phone sounded like she’d smoked too many cigarettes in life. She sounded like she’d been up until 4 a.m. the night before. And she sounded like she didn’t have time for my crap. In short, she sounded like Vegas.

“Yeah honey, you missed the deadline to wire your buy-in,” she told me. “You’ll have to do it in person.” A few weeks earlier, I had won $12,000 in an online poker tournament that, unlike your average tournament, had one special condition: The winner was supposed to use $10,000 of the prize money to buy into the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas—arguably the biggest poker competition on the planet.

I had assumed that the website that hosted the original tournament would handle the logistics of signing me up for the Main Event, but instead they had sent me the $12,000 via bank transfer and left me to do the rest. For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might have trouble registering over the phone.

 

“So, what do I do?” I asked. “Bring $10,000 cash in my right pocket on a flight to Las Vegas?”

 

“Yeah, that’s what I would do.” 

 

“Isn’t it illegal to carry that much on a plane? Won’t security stop me?”

 

She gave an exhausted sigh, as though she couldn’t believe we were still on this. “I just wouldn’t tell them about the money. What are they gonna do, check you?”

 

It occurred to me that since I would be at an airport, yes, they might check me.

 

But I clearly didn’t have much of a choice. So I found myself standing in line at the bank, trying to act like I wasn’t there to withdraw massive quantities of money. As I waited, I eyed the other customers, each one a potential mugger. Someone who might overhear me taking out $10,000 and decide it would be worth his time to follow me home, stick a knife in my side, and make off with the loot.

 

“Can I help whoever’s next?” the teller called out, and I walked up to her window.

 

"I’d like to make a withdrawal,” I said, trying to be as quiet as possible.

 

“A WHAT?!” the teller seemed to be shouting. I looked around at everyone who couldn’t care less, convinced their ears were now tuned towards me. 

 

A withdrawal,” I murmured.

 

“HOW MUCH?!” she bellowed.

$10,000.

 

“10,000?! OH, I DON’T KNOW IF WE HAVE ENOUGH HUNDREDS! LET ME CHECK.”

 

By the time she handed me my money, I was surprised it didn’t come in a bag with a giant dollar sign on it. But I didn’t care. I was going to Vegas.         

           

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Riding the shuttle from the airport to the Strip, all the tourists chatted excitedly about how much they would lose. Playing poker, you forget that this is how the rest of the world views gambling: as an inevitable parting between you and your money.

 

In most casino games, the odds are rigged slightly against you, so that as time goes on your funds slowly disappear. But in poker, you aren’t competing against the house, you’re competing against other players, and the casino makes its income by withdrawing a little money from every hand you play or charging you a fee upfront to join the game. If you’re good enough, you can beat everyone at such a rate that you overcome these deductions and turn a profit.

It is still a game of chance, but one that a skilled enough player can beat over the long haul, like investing in real estate. And so you end up staring out the window, smiling at all the people who seem to take an almost perverse joy in speculating about how much they’re going to lose.

 

Eventually, someone noticed the quiet 24-year-old in the back seat. “Hey, you’re not here for that tournament are you?” she asked.

 

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Wow.”

 

The conversations stopped, and everyone’s head turned. “How much does it cost?”

 

“About ten grand,” I said, trying to act like it was nothing. Suddenly the several hundred they thought they’d dump playing blackjack that night didn’t seem quite so audacious.

 

“Woooowwww. How much do you get if you win?”

 

The tournament was eight days long, with participants getting knocked out each day. Being among the final ten percent or so of players left standing—a distinction you would achieve if you made it partway through day four—would earn you almost $20,000. And, of course, the longer you lasted, the more you made. But they weren’t asking what I’d get if I survived four days. They wanted to know what I would take home if I won the whole thing.

 

“First place gets around $8 million,” I told them as the jaws dropped. Throw in a $10 million sponsorship deal that went to whoever won, and first place was worth nearly $20 million before taxes. That was, assuming you could outlast over 7,000 opponents, including most of the top players in the world.

 

“Oooooh… Well, don’t forget us when you’re rich.”

 

It was a line I had heard a lot leading up to the Series. But what was there to remember? Oh, you were on that bus ride to the Rio? Well then, here’s five grand!

 

I smiled and assured them I wouldn’t. As with everyone else who told me to remember them if I won, I felt certain they would forget all about me if I lost.

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The competition kicked off the next day and I, a historically poor sleeper, couldn’t sleep. I woke up around 3 a.m., wasted an hour and a half trying to doze back off, then gave up and headed downstairs from my room.

The floors were still littered with stray gamblers on late-night benders pouring money into slot machines and unloading their wallets at the craps tables.

 

I walked to the tournament room and looked out on a sea of empty tables and chairs. Strolling through it all, I felt like a rookie called up to the majors, stepping onto the field in an empty stadium the morning of his first game. Soon, this place would be filled with shuffling chips and the juice of millions of dollars on the line. Soon, there would be cameras from ESPN and poker superstars filling the floor. But right now, it was only me and a few janitors. Silent.

 

The hours ticked by like days, slowly grinding toward lunch time. In return for my $10,000 buy-in, the Rio had given me a $10 food voucher for the nearby cafeteria. So, you know, not a bad deal. I had told myself I would eat healthy during my trip to help maintain stamina, and this was my first real meal since making that pledge.

 

“Chicken fingers and fries with a Pepsi,” I told the man behind the counter. This was about how long most of my healthy eating resolutions lasted.


“Are you playing today?” I heard someone behind me ask as I waited.

 

I turned around to find a tiny old woman staring up at me with starry eyes, her husband standing beside her.

 

“Yeah,” I answered. “You?”

 

“Oh, no. Just here to watch. Our nephew always dreamed of playing. But he died three months ago. So now you get to live his dream.”

 

I stared at her, dumbstruck. What do you say to that? Well... have fun watching!

 

“I guess so,” I said, then headed for my table.

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Talking to people before leaving home, I had acted humble.

 

“We’ll see what happens,” I told them. “I’m sure I’m making a giant mistake not just keeping the money.” Like I said, I was supposed to use what I had won to buy into the World Series, but once the website had deposited the money in my bank account, it was mine. I could have just decided to keep it. Instead I had let it ride on a $10,000 gamble.

 

But, internally, I wasn’t worried. It was almost like I knew I was going to win. Maybe not the $8 million, but at least $20,000. After all, I was better than almost everyone I normally played against. My friends. People at casinos. The competition in the low-stakes online poker rooms. Why should this be any different? I was going to take a wrecking ball to this freakin’ thing.

 

Or so I thought.

 

It was about ten hands into play that I realized just how outgunned I was. The guy on my left saw through my every move. He called when I bluffed and folded when I was strong. The guy to his left was fearless. As the game went along, friends of his kept coming over to give him a hard time about the tens of thousands of dollars he had lost betting on soccer games over the last few days or to joke about the $80,000 hand they had played the night before. This buy-in meant nothing to him, and not caring if you lose is power. He bullied all of us and steamrolled over me like I was nothing. Which, I suppose, I was.

 

I started to get in my head, started thinking about all the more financially prudent things I could have done with the $10,000. Man did I wish I hadn’t committed to posting updates to Facebook about how I was doing.

 

“1,700,” came my opponent’s bet.

 

Your buy-in gets you 30,000 in chips. Once those are gone, you’re eliminated. And I was down to my last 12,000. Meanwhile, my hand was terrible. I needed a nine to catch a straight, or else I was dead. If I called, I was betting almost 15 percent of my chips for a pot I had about an eight percent chance of winning.

“I call.” I heard the words coming out of my mouth like someone else had spoken them. The right play was to fold. My brain was screaming “fold.” But I wasn’t acting logically anymore. If you take enough hits over the course of a game, you stop making the plays you think will work and start making the ones you hope will work. And anytime you’re hoping in poker, you’re in trouble.

 

Then came the next card.

 

Nine of hearts.

 

As card players like to say, it’s better to be lucky than good.

 

That’s when things turned. I caught a run of quality hands. I won a huge pot off the big bad bully, and suddenly he wasn’t so intimidating anymore. The player to my left, who had such a strong read on me, had won so much that he now seemed content to simply fold the rest of his hands and advance to the next day. I picked up a pair of kings. Then ace-king. Then aces. As my confidence returned and my opponents began to fear me, I bluffed more, stealing pots and stacking chips.

 

I finished the day with 88,000 chips, good for a spot in the top five percent of everyone competing.

 

Day two was more of the same. I came out strong, climbing over 100,000. And all I could think about was how much money I was going to make. About how I was going to come back home as the guy who took on Vegas and won. You’d think I would have learned my lesson about getting cocky from the day before.

 

There’s a line in the movie Rounders—a Matt Damon poker movie that is virtually required watching for anyone in a card room—where Damon, quoting a poker book, says, “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.” And that about sums it up. Because it’s been five years, and I can still remember every detail of what happened, right down to the suit of each player’s cards.

They call them bad beat stories. Players experience a cruel twist of fate, and they want to tell everyone who will listen, which is unfortunate since no one else cares. You got unlucky in a game of chance? That’s crazy!

But I can queue those memories up and play them in my brain like I’m watching scenes from a video. My opponents caught flushes on back-to-back hands, including one I never saw coming. As I watched them scooping up giant pots full of my chips, my brain started to feel like a misfiring computer. It didn’t fully understand what had happened, only that something had gone very wrong.

An hour into play the next day, I was out of chips. Just another tourist who took his shot and lost. As I headed for the exits, I told myself that making it to day three wasn’t bad for my first time in the World Series, and I’d be back again soon.

I was wrong. 

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