Matthew Pierce was playing no limit hold 'em recently at an underground poker club in Albany. He had two jacks in his hand and two jacks waiting for him in the flop. Almost nothing could beat him.
Then, against astronomical odds, the other guy in the pot got all four kings. And a sure win turned into a loss.
Luckily, Pierce was out only $60 that night. As a professional poker player he's usually playing for much higher stakes.
Pierce can probably handle the $60 hit. The Albany resident says he's won more than $75,000 playing in professional poker tournaments around the country over the last 12 months. It's a life of big swings -- sometimes you lose nine grand in a weekend, sometimes you win $7,000 in one hand.
Even with those swings, the 35 year-old Pierce says most tournaments are just about the grind. "It's not all glamour. You're sitting in a chair for 10 hours a day, could spend two or three days at a tournament and make no money for three days worth of work," he explained. "But when you hit the paydays, it comes big."
The upside to the life of grinding tournaments: a more flexible life. "I don't have to work as much and I'm happier. I've been pretty much ecstatically happy these past few years," said Pierce, who figures he now works about 20 hours a week.
He started playing when he was 6 years old when his dad taught him the game. But he didn't start playing professionally until about 10 years ago "when Moneymaker won the World Series." While maybe not exactly headline news for the rest of the world, this was a monumental event in poker history. In 2003, Chris Moneymaker -- yes, his actual name -- became the first person to win the World Series of Poker by qualifying online. Moneymaker's win prompted a huge boom in poker popularity.
That win inspired Pierce to start putting some real money on the table. Then, in 2006, he started playing online poker and the winnings started piling up. When he found himself making $1,000 a week online, he quit his job as a waiter and spent most of his time sitting in front of a computer screen.
"I realize that I loved it when I realized it was something I could do for a living," said Pierce.
Then in April 2011: "Black Friday." The United State government shut down the three largest online poker sites over concerns about money laundering and bank fraud. So Pierce started focusing on playing at the table.
Since then he's been playing weekly cash games and traveling the country for tournaments. He says it's a different experience than playing online. "At live tournaments, you see the person, you feel if someone is confident or not when they bet. You read body language." (see below)
Pierce says the keys to the game are practice, patience and focus. "It takes a lot of waiting and looking at hands that are no good. It's a discipline, a slow process of learning, playing and learning from your mistakes."
It seems to be working for him. Pulling in more than $6,000 a month, he's says he's made enough that he's able to take off the entire month of August to focus on friends and music festivals. In September, he'll return to the tournaments.
One of the biggest parts of playing these tournaments is being able to read the other players at the table, looking for their "tells." Pierce explained there are three categories of tells:
1. The first is if the player's hands are shaking. It usually means he's got a huge hand. His adrenaline is pumping because he knows what he's holding. "That's when you know to get the hell out of there," said Pierce.
2. The second tell is that people usually react opposite to what they're holding. If they seem confident, they usually have nothing. If they seem less than confident, it means he's got something good.
3. The third is if people tell you, "Hey, you can call if you want." It usually means they don't want you to call.
Of course, some players know these tells and try to intentionally give the wrong signal. "So ultimately," says Pierce, "the game should just be about playing cards."
photo courtesy of Matthew Pierce
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