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A deck of cards. Fifty-two of them to be exact. The front side, or face, of each card indicates its relative value. Each of the 13 different values appear four times apiece in a standard deck, once in each suit - hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs.
People have been using playing cards as a pastime for centuries, from the individual time-killing classic solitaire to competitive cribbage tournaments. For most people, cards are just that, a pastime.
Mr. M isn't most people.
He doesn't look like much. He stands about 5'8", with very little meat on his bones. His choice of clothing ranges from formal, brand-name polo shirts complete with jeans and spotless white Nikes to sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt. He usually has facial hair that fits into no particular style - laziness aside - and he completes his presentation by masking his dark, wavy hair underneath an Augusta National ball cap.
Although he looks harmless, he's the guy who will take all of your money if you aren't careful. He looks the part of a college student, something he used to be. He recently gave up on the academic life. Rather than paying through the roof to fund an education he was never particularly interested in, Mr. M decided he'd rather use his mysterious character and incredible competitiveness to turn a profit. His life now revolves around check-raises, three-bets and filling up on the river. He's what the gambling world calls a rounder - someone who earns his or her living on cards, but he prefers to consider himself a professional grinder.
His game is Texas Hold 'em, by far the world's most popular form of poker. It's the game that took the world by storm in 2003, when amateur card player Chris Moneymaker parlayed $30 into a seat in the Main Event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Nev. The main event is decided over a game of Texas Hold 'em in the no-limit variety (where players may bet every chip they have and can win as much as they have in front of them). In Minnesota, No limit Hold 'em is illegal in casinos and card rooms, mostly because player's fortunes can change drastically from hand to hand. It's nearly impossible for a poor, inexperienced player to keep his or her money longer than a few hours at a tough no-limit table, thus making it difficult to keep a game running, possibly why bets are capped in the land of 10,000 lakes. In spite of the incredible swings, which can take a vicious toll on the most skilled players in the world, Mr. M prefers to play no-limit. He has to go the home game route to do this, but the casinos and card rooms have several high-limit games available to keep people like Mr. M around. His favorite game in Minnesota is $5-$60 spread limit.
Texas Hold 'em is played by dealing each player two cards face down, known as 'hole cards'. Three cards are then placed face up in the middle of the table - the flop. A single card is placed face-up - the turn or fourth street. A final card is then placed face-up - the river or fifth street. The flop, turn and river are all community cards anybody can use in conjunction with his or her hole cards to make the best five-card hand. The strongest hand wins the entire pot. A round of betting takes place once the hole cards have been distributed, as well as after the flop, turn and river cards are shown.
Just 21 years old, Mr. M has been playing poker for money since he was 15. He first began playing in small home games with his friends. Back then everybody put five dollars into the pot and would start with the same amount of chips. He and his friends would play until one person was left standing with every single chip. Back then, the winner took everything aside from the second-place finisher's five-dollar refund.
Things are a whole lot different now. Mr. M often heads to Running Aces Harness Park, a horse racing track with an adjacent card room in Columbus, Minn. He goes there to play in the $5-$60 spread game. He usually buys in for $800, quite the leap from the five dollar games of his youth. He doesn't like to talk much when it comes to his exact winnings, but it is not uncommon for him to return home to Duluth $1,000 heavier after an all-night session.
It's Friday afternoon. Time for Mr. M to punch in. He'll be at Running Aces this weekend.
His weekend on the grind starts with the turn of the key to his 2001 Buick Park Avenue. A quick peek inside the four-wheeled machine gives the impression its being used more as a suitcase than a source of transportation. The back seat is littered with empty Gatorade bottles, hockey equipment and clothes. Despite the car's spaciousness, it is essentially limited to carrying the driver and one other person. The back seat is literally out of play thanks to being taken over by the never-ending pile.
It's a two-hour drive to Running Aces, so Mr. M gets off Interstate 35 and pulls into the parking lot of the nearest BP. He stops at the pump, gets out, begins pumping gas and then walks into the convenience store, fuel still pumping. Apparently he doesn't see anything unusual about letting twenty gallons of highly flammable gasoline trickle into the belly of his Park Avenue without his supervision.
"What's gonna happen? Will my tank be any less full if I'm not there when it's pumping?" he asks sarcastically. "I think they'll still let me spend my money in here."
He wanders around the store for a couple minutes while his thirsty car fills up. This time he's going with a cool blue Gatorade and a Snickers candy bar. He finally walks up to the counter, where he grabs the last of his road-trip necessities - an individual cigar, that will later be emptied and re-filled with another substance prior to being burned. A have a nice day from the lady on duty and he's out the door.
Mr. M spends most of the two-hour drive talking about what he plans to accomplish that evening. He has a pretty good idea of how busy it might be, and what familiar faces he could be running into that night. He sheds a little light about his philosophy on poker, which is tough to follow at first. One thing he doesn't talk about is how much money he plans to come home with. The only thing he'll say is that if everything goes to plan, he'll bring home a bigger roll than he left with.
"I just hope there are tons of action fish out there tonight. It gets pretty crazy a little later into the night when people have been drinking for a while," he says with a twisted smirk on his face. "People play so bad. They'll sit there and crush Captain-Cokes for hours, and eventually they stack off."
He finally arrives at the office. The parking lot is full for the most part, a good sign for a shark like Mr. M. After walking through glass doors at the front entrance, he walks right past the blackjack and Chinese Poker tables. He's not here to play those types of games. At the back of the card room floor are more than 30 poker tables, most of which are filled. Almost every table features a variation of Hold 'em. Time to get to work.
He walks up to the guest services counter to sign up. After a twenty-minute wait he takes a seat at the $5-$60 game. He's now officially on the clock. It takes no more than three hands to realize why most people can't play in this game. Not only do people buy in for insane amounts of money - sometimes more than $1,000 - but that money is then thrown around as if it were pennies. A few hours pass buy and Mr. M isn't doing well. He's lost his entire buy in.
"I'm stuck," Mr. M says. By this he means he is currently down quite a bit of money. He goes on to say that he has to keep playing because one of his best friends hasn't shown up yet.
"My friend Mr. Variance will show up eventually, I'll get my money back," he says.
Who on earth is Mr. Variance? Well, he's actually not a real person. What Mr. M is referring to is the concept of variance, which basically says that if enough hands are played, the odds hold up and restore any imbalance in the game. To put it simply, he's had some tough luck so far tonight, and if he keeps playing the same way he'll start making money when the cards start falling more in line with odds.
Four hours later, his chip stack is climbing. He takes a small pot with top pair. A few hands go by before he rakes in a pretty big pot, this time by forcing everyone else to fold.
"Did you have it?" the older gentleman in seat five asks.
"Sir, I was full," Mr. M replies.
As time continues to pass and Friday night turns into Saturday morning, Mr. M has not only recovered his original loss, but he's now up a bunch. His chips are stacked in towers, each worth $100. He has at least 22 of them now. When the game breaks just after 7:00 a.m., Mr. M finds himself on a 12-hour break. He used to be known to sleep in the Buick at times like these, but he recently found a better option.
He hops in his car and sparks the ignition. He lets out a deep sigh, obviously relieved that he turned an ugly night into another winning session.
"A minor upswing," he says with a degree of cockiness. "I was so stuck there for a minute. It just took me a while to figure that one guy out. He had no idea what was coming once it got to that point. Did you see me felt that guy in seat two?"
He puts the car in drive and jumps back on I-35. This time the destination is the Hamline University campus St. Paul. One of Mr. M's friends lost a roommate last semester. Mr. M is now the beneficiary of the bed vacated by former Hamline student. He calls his friend to let him know he's arrived. Shortly after, the friend lets Mr. M into the building. After walking up two flights of stairs and navigating the hallway to room 315, M. M can finally crash.
He opens the door and heads straight for the empty bed. He doesn't take time to notice the heaping pile of shirts, shorts and socks in the carpeted floor or the plain white wall adorned with posters of star athletes. He barely even says a word to the friend providing him with a free hotel stay. Within ten minutes, he's asleep and dreaming of making plays on weak players and raking in more chips than he can count with his aces full of jacks.
After sleeping off Friday night's shift, he gets out of bed and tries to regroup around 6:30 p.m. Because he won big last night, he can afford to spend a little more freely on recovery food. When asked where to go for a good meal, a Hamline student refers Mr. M to a popular sandwich shop in downtown St. Paul.
Taking the referral without asking questions, Mr. M sets out in search of a delicious meal. He becomes enamored once he enters the sandwich shop.
"This is the real deal," he says with wide-eyes, comparable to a small child on Christmas morning. "There's just so many local gorges. I don't even know what to do."
After deciding on some variation of a turkey sandwich, he dives in. He doesn't let the mouth full of food stop him from talking about his battle plans for tonight.
"I'm going to make so many plays tonight. Saturdays are huge at Running." His words are hard to follow amidst the lettuce, cheese and turkey rattling around between his teeth. "It's really all about putting pressure on people. They don't like it. Plus you have to get your money in when you have the stones. I like to get at least three bets in (per card) when I'm full."
And that's what life is like for Mr. M. He spends most of his week hawking his fantasy sports teams on the internet, watching the big game on television and doing whatever else he feels like with no organized planning involved. Once the weekend hits, he finds the most profitable game he can and grinds it out. He doesn't win money every time he's dealt a hand, but he gets paid off when he hits a big hand, and minimizes his losses when the cards don't fall his way.
With the kind of success he's had, he has his eyes on bigger and better things. He's planning a trip to Las Vegas, Nev., the center of the gambling universe at the end of May. Planning is a pretty loose term in this case. He doesn't have plane tickets yet, and is in no hurry to book himself a flight and hotel room. All par for the course in the life of a grinder, who does everything on a moment's notice.
The timing of his trip coincides with the World Series of Poker, which commences at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino. All of the professional card players, as well as many rich flounders flock to Las Vegas when the World Series starts. Mr. M hopes to get a look at some of the no-limit games on the strip, which according to his sources, are very soft. The main reason he's going, though, is to buy into one of the smaller events on the WSOP circuit. With just a little luck he hopes to finish in the money in whatever tournament he enters. That would likely enable him to buy into the $10,000 WSOP main event, which had 6,494 entrants in 2009. The winner of the 2009 main event, Joe Cada - who was 21 at the time - took home over $8.5 million.
"I'm going to go out there and start small, mainly because I don't have much no-limit experience. Live experience anyway," Mr. M says, acknowledging that he's seen plenty of no-limit flops online. "You always here about people going down there and losing the shirt off their backs. I have some no-limit experience with home games but that's a hell of a lot different than sitting at the Bellagio."
Is it realistic for Mr. M to see himself taking a seat at the World Series next to the poker gods who taught him how to play by sharing their expert knowledge in training books?
"I'm taking a minor shot," Mr. M says. "I'm not going out there hell bent on being a superstar and coming back a millionaire, but let's be realistic. I'm not flying out there to give my winnings away."