From afar, it has the look of a glamorous lifestyle, at least what you see on ESPN's telecasts, especially when, for dramatic effect, stacks and stacks of hundred-dollar bills are plopped right smack dab in the middle of the poker table.
And for a fortunate few, sure, it's quite the rollickin' good time.
Well, at least, now it is.
But there was a time, and not really that long ago, when Ryan Riess was a student at Michigan State, double-majoring in hospitality business and Texas Hold-'em, and once had to beg his sister to wire him 5 bucks so he could get some Wendy's.
"Chicken nuggets," Riess said, recalling the meal.
Jordan Young also attended Michigan State, only for two years. He was playing so much cards, classes might has well have been his extracurricular activity, so he dropped out to pursue poker full time. It was such a struggle, he soon found himself working two jobs, one as a waiter at a beach lodge on Lake Michigan, another at Michigan's Adventure, an amusement park.
He wasn't amused.
"Enjoyed it," said Young, "until I had to be there at 5:45 in the morning."
Joshua Marvin's first summer playing full time in Las Vegas, he was being staked by a friend — a common, behind-the-scenes practice in the poker world, where a more-well-off acquaintance puts up your money, then reaps your rewards — and, within his first three weeks, he had blown through $100,000.
And you thought avoiding your roommate because your share of the cable bill was three days late was awkward.
"That," said Marvin, "was extremely stressful."
Riess, Young, Marvin and several other poker professionals from the state of Michigan have entered the ferocious storm that is gambling for a living — and often to the dismay of their tuition-paying parents — and, yet, against all odds, each of them has managed to come out the other side, sure a little wet, yet afloat, with livelihoods in tact, and rent money in the bank.
But, like drawing to an inside straight, it wasn't easy. At all.
As the 2018 World Series of Poker's 78-tournament schedule gets under way this week at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, just off The Strip in Sin City, The News talked with several of the state's top card sharks about the stresses they've endured, obstacles they've overcome and the keys to staying, well, relatively sane when your paycheck — the size, and sometimes even the existence — is essentially determined in large part by chance, even if poker's largely a game of skill.
"Crazy downswings in this industry," said Casey Carroll, "are inevitable."You know it's possible at any point, but you just keep striving for your dreams."
'They were all learning experiences'
One of the oldest adages about hard-core gamblers: They love to tell you about their big wins, but conveniently leave out tales of their big — and often bigger — losses. When you reach the pinnacle of the sport, though, there's much more willingness to discuss the deep valleys, though, if for no other reason than to offer a cautionary tale to any amateur, $1/$2-blind player who might just be thinking, after a big night at the MotorCity or Greektown tables, that they, too, can make it big.
"I could tell you about six of them," said Young, 31, of Muskegon, when asked to share the story of his biggest downturn. "I've had a bankroll of six figures, and then had to borrow money from friends five separate times. They were all learning experiences in different ways. It tests your resolve.
"I remember, I had about $200,000 in September of 2011, and by the end of April 2012, I dusted almost all if off. And if you have $200,000, and lose $150,000 over a five-month period, that $50,000, you might as well light it on fire. It's gone. Unless you have a really good plan in place.
"And I never had predeveloped plans."
Marvin, 28, of Sterling Heights, had it mighty rough early, too.
"Umm, OK, I've had multiple six-figure downswings," he said the other day, before flying to Vegas for the summer session. "My first time out there, I lost, in the course of three, four weeks, I was down about $100,000. I was new to playing that big.
"I've had other downswings that were similar, but that was probably the most devastating one, mentally, being my first year out there. I was just a kid."
Both of those stories have happy endings, of course.
Marvin — who attended Oakland University for a bit before he realized "I wasn't the 9-to-5 type" and turned to poker full time — had his biggest cash last summer, earning $214,913 for finishing 31st in the Granddaddy of Them All, the Main Event. Young, who lives in Vegas now, also had big wins last year, taking home $242,160 for a second-place finish during an earlier WSOP tournament, after a $117,381 payday for winning a tournament five months earlier.
Everyone always wants to know how poker players splurge after their first big win. Truth is, many don't go too crazy, at least the bright ones don't, because they're usually at the point in their lives and careers where they've seen it all, and know how fast things can turn the other direction. Or they're just building a bankroll. After all, the more money you have, the more you're in position to win. So Marvin doesn't recall spending wildly after winning $166,565 in Mount Pleasant in July 2015, though he acknowledged taking a Caribbean cruise this winter. Young, after a sizeable win years ago, put down $3,300 on Doogan, an English Bulldog.
Carroll, 30, of Grand Rapids, went to Grand Valley State, got a marketing degree and planned on a life of office work — maybe someday, he'd be a CEO. But he started dealing cards, believed he was better than the players he was dealing to, and made a choice, starting with local charity games. In November 2015, at Soaring Eagle in Mount Pleasant, he turned $300 into nearly $28,200, but didn't make any big-ticket purchases. Then, in May 2016, at a tournament in Chicago, a $1,650 buy-in netted him about $174,469.
Still, he didn't splurge until this past October, when he bought a house just north of Grand Rapids — and even still, he has roommates.
"You save up," Carroll said. "You build your bankroll."
Young, Marvin and Carroll are among the most accomplished poker pros in Michigan history, each ranking in the to 40 in all-time cash tournament winnings in state history, according to The Hendon Mob, an online poker database. The top three on that list, money-wise, are Shelby Township's Joe Cada, Clarkston's Riess and Ann Arbor's Jeff Gross, each of whom wasted little time getting into the WSOP mix, playing the first open event — a $10,000, turbo tournament Wednesday night, when Cada made the final table, finished ninth and pocketed $27,582.
Cada, 30, and Riess, 27, aren't your typical rags-to-riches stories, even if Riess had some tough times playing small-potatoes poker in college.
In 2009, baby-faced and 21, Cada stunned the poker world when he won the Main Event, which paid first place $8,547,044 — of which Cada was entitled to half, before taxes, with the remaining half going to the backers who paid his $10,000 entry fee. The son of a card dealer (you better believe he grew up hearing horror stories), even Cada didn't go wild with his windfall. He purchased a condo in Canada, where online poker, his bread and butter, is legal. So that was more of an investment. Not long ago, Cada liked to brag he still wears clothes from high school.
In 2013, at the age of 23, Riess won the Main Event and took home a little over half the $8,361,570 top prize, the rest going to an array of backers that included friends and family members. He bought lots of rounds of drinks that November night in 2013, and later a house in Vegas, where he now lives full time. Following his first big win, a tournament in Hammond, Ind., in October 2012 when he turned a $1,675 entry fee into $239,063, he paid off all his student loans and bought a car, leaving plenty left over for a rainy day, or, say, Wendy's.
And, of course, a cushion for the occasional and inevitable bad day at the office — which, yes, still stings, even with his substantial wealth.
"Recently, I lost a really big sports bet for six figures. That wasn't fun. And in online poker, I don't know much I've lost lately," said Riess, whose new girlfriend is from the Ukraine, so he spends a lot of time in Europe, where online poker is legal. "I don't even want to look. But it wasn't good."
About that sports bet?
"I took Michigan State (basketball) to win the championship before the season against a couple of teams, and one of those teams was Villanova."
Villanova beat Michigan for the title. Riess, the biggest of Spartans fans who's often spotted wearing green and white at the tables, found himself rooting for the Wolverines.
"First time since I was a kid," he said.
Of course, it's obviously not been all doom and gloom for Riess, an avid poker player since he was 14 — who admits it's been "smooth sailing" since winning the Main Event, and who also has had six recent six-figure paydays from good showings in tournaments abroad.
'It tests your love for the game'
Poker players, by nature, are supremely confident in their abilities. They also are realists, and know there are going to bad really bad days, and really big losses. The key is plowing through, and not getting too low — just like you can't get to high when you're on a heater.
It can take players a long time to learn how to cope, Young acknowledged, and many never learn, which is why the sport's flameout rate is off the charts — even for those who've made it big. One WSOP Main Event winner, when the top prize was $12 million, is widely believed to be broke, or close to it. There are tales of WSOP champions pawning their bracelet, the circuit's trophy for winning a tournament.
"The most difficult thing used to be not letting a downswing affect my personal relationships. That can happen very easily, and that's not fair to people in my life," Young said. "That's something I try my best not to let happen anymore."
One way to avoid that is finding balance in your life, and not letting poker be all-consuming. For so many poker players, it's all poker, all the time. When they're not playing tournaments, they're finding a cash game, and vice versa, and they only see the inside of their hotel room when they're sleeping or showering, and sadly, neither one happens enough.
It's why during the WSOP, while many prefer staying on-site at The Rio, Marvin rents a house off the strip — to get away.
Young — who said poker used to be "90 percent of my life" — has finally found a balance, too. He has a social life, at last. He exercises. He meditates. After all, those are things he can control, unlike what card's coming next. Topgolf has become a popular outlet. Actual golf always has been. Young also has learned the proper way to balance a bankroll. When he was just starting out, every penny he had was gambling ammunition; now, he's learned to set aside money for the essentials (rent, etc.), which eases the stress.
"It's experience of being on top of the mountain and being back at base camp very quickly," Young said with a laugh. "The swings can be really, really crazy, but only if you allow them to be."
He added, "It really tests your love for the game."
Psychology is so important in poker — not just at the tables, but away from them, in how you handle the extremes.
"The emotional aspect of it is huge," said Carroll, who considers himself on one of those downswings right now — as he came up nearly empty from his annual January-February trip to Florida. "Growing up as an athlete taught my everything about keeping my emotions in check."
Staying even-keel is huge, Riess agreed.
When you let emotions take over, that can impact your play, and often negatively.
"When you're losing a lot, you might be a little more scared, and may not be as confident," Riess said.
Of course, confidence is high for Riess, Cada and the rest of Michigan's elite poker contingent, as the WSOP schedule kicked off Wednesday, and continues through the Main Event in July. Young calls the whole WSOP experience "45 days of Christmas." A younger Young probably would've called it "45 days of something not fit for print in a family newspaper."
Same with Marvin, especially early in that first summer in Vegas, six years ago.
Remember that $100K he lost in a matter of weeks?
"The last two weeks of the trip," he said, "I ended up getting it all back."
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