Sleep, Eat, Grind: Love What You Do

No matter how well you’re paid, it’s tough to leave well enough alone.

I don’t remember when I started living for the weekend.

The feeling grew slowly, such that I wasn’t sure exactly what it was until it was too late – the habit was in full swing. I’m paid well, have great benefits, and have a fair bit of autonomy day-to-day in my job, but sometimes that’s not enough. I need to want to get up and go to work each day, is that too much to ask?

I’ve been living in Madison, WI for the past 13 months, grinding out a decent living working for a software company that has been rapidly outgrowing itself for the past decade. But my true passion has been trailing me far longer than my paychecks from “The Man,” filing into the IRS’ and my bank accounts, respectively.

Enter Poker

I had my first fling with poker in the 8th grade, when my dad reluctantly agreed to let me create a Pokerstars account, with the grave, verbal ultimatum: “Only if you never put money onto one of these poker sites.”

That was 2006, and I was 14, so I eagerly agreed, not questioning the logic or my own resolve or motivations. I played freerolls for a time, satisfied, until one day I finally cashed in one of the enormous fields for a solid… 80 American cents.

Eventually I did it again… and again. At that point I had enough to enter a $2 HU SnG, which I naturally assumed would be easy, like the freerolls. I of course busted and was instantly intrigued.

I played the freerolls some more, built more money up, and had a little more success. I built from $0 to around $100 three or four times before I began to lose interest with my lack of progress.

PokerStars had giant fields, but I stuck at it and eventually cashed, building something from nothing several times.

It wasn’t until college that I started to get the itch again. This time I was less interested in the gamble and completely enthralled by the strategy. I ate up free strategy articles and videos, beginning to think critically about the few poker books I picked up and devoured.

I got active and joined several poker forums, gravitating most toward CardsChat. Slowly at first, then in leaps and bounds, I improved.

The most notable changes were at the roadblocks. When I’d first played, I only cared about winning, whether it was via luck or skill. I thought I was much better than my opponents, but that wasn’t the key to my enjoyment of the game.

This time around, I cared much more about having an edge, something concrete on which to build the foundation of my justification for playing this “gambling game.” I knew I played better than those at the bottom.

The super micro’s, the nano’s; these were the names of the lowest stakes available to online players, and they were the games I was playing. I moved up relatively quickly through 4nl on Carbon Poker, and after a couple shots at 10nl, I was doing well there too.

The Struggle

I hit an absolute wall at 25nl. The players seemed so good, playing a similar preflop style to each other, and not making as massive mistakes postflop as their lower-level counterparts. I wasn’t going to be discouraged this time though.

I wasn’t good enough yet, but I knew now that I had the tools and resources available to me to begin beating this level just like the last one. It was a huge step forward for me in poker.

I began to acknowledge that I was far worse than I used to think, and that there were many, MANY players out there far more capable than I was. It was a humbling realization, but one that all players must undergo if they wish to reach their full potential.

You have to improve if you want to beat the competition and move up.

I continued to improve, continued to take shots at 25nl, finally staying there, and eventually growing my bankroll such that I began to take small shots at 50nl. At this point I had moved to Bovada, a site with anonymous play and an overwhelmingly weak player pool.

I moved quickly through the limits over the course of several months to get back up to 50nl. I grew my $150 deposit to just over $2k, and with the help of a $1k tourney score from winning a $33 freezeout, I made my first “significant” withdrawal from a poker site. It was a momentous occasion.

My first real, tangible proof that I was a winning player. Of course I followed it up with the biggest downswing of my life.

I was 21, and the Cleveland Horseshoe Casino was just over 5 months old. I knew nothing about live poker, and I was bad at it – I mean bad. The huge difference in tendencies between live and online proved too much for me to handle without adjustment.

I lost 5 buyins, then 10. This was a lot of money to me, and I grew discouraged when I kept losing. But I kept at it. I began to acknowledge once again that I wasn’t as good as I thought, and I refocused on improving. In addition to dealing with the differences in player tendencies, I came face to face with an ugly side of the game – tilt.

I started to cut my teeth at the Cleveland Horseshoe Casino, which opened at the end of my sophomore year of college.

It wasn’t that I had never tilted playing online. On the contrary, I had dealt with tilt quite a bit. However, live poker brought its own brand of tilt that I never could have experienced online.

Slow players, slooow dealers, slooooooow hands, sloooooooooow poker. Run bad was accentuated, play bad was magnified, and every time I had a losing session I was losing 5-10x more than I would have in a similar one online.

After playing at the Horseshoe during the school year, I went to New York City for an internship, and played in some of the small stakes underground games.

I continued to lose there, losing almost the amount I was making from my internship. My housing and food were effectively paid for, but I was losing almost all my pay after that.

No one is immune to tilt, but I had it worse than most people.

I got discouraged, and considered giving up live poker altogether. After all, I knew I could be at least a marginal winner at micro or low stakes online. But there was just one problem: I absolutely loved live poker.

The social aspect, handling chips and cards, getting to know the dealers and the floormen. All of this outweighed the pain of losing. So I stuck with it.

I began to refocus on developing my mental game and beating live, low stakes no limit recreational players. Slowly but surely, I improved again.

There wasn’t any one thing that caused me to get better. I’d argue that the fact I got better was less important than the fact that I put so much effort into doing so. And maybe that wasn’t as important as why I put in the effort.

The truth was that I loved live poker. I loved playing it, I loved studying it, I loved talking about it, and I loved being a part of it. There’s no way I would have continued on without enjoying it as much as I did.

The Idea

Fast forward a couple years. I had graduated from a respected university, had a bachelor’s in Physics, and no idea what I wanted to do. So I took the first decent job that was thrown my way. I rented a nice apartment, my girlfriend moved in with me, and life moved forward.

Except that it kind of didn’t. I’ve been doing the same thing, going with the flow, for ages. Turns out, I’m not exactly loving what I’m doing. But life’s pretty good overall. Like I said, I’m paid well. I have good benefits and living for the weekend isn’t so bad, right? The weekends still rock.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to stop it from growing in the back of my mind, though. That tiny, innocent, little seed of an idea that lodged itself into my brain once I discovered that being good enough at a game meant I could make money from it.

Yes, that idea, that dream. Calling it a dream is borderline unrealistic. I don’t have fantasies of becoming a millionaire from this strange, remarkable game. But I do sometimes drift off, thinking about getting up in the morning, working out, then heading off for a session at Maryland Live.

Or grabbing dinner with my girlfriend before pulling an evening session at the Commerce. I can’t help it. I’ve had the bug for too long not to wonder what happens if I’m good enough to go for it. It’s because it’s a game.

It’s because it’s practically the American dream. It’s because when I wake up in the morning, I want to feel a sense of purpose, and when I come home at night I want to feel a sense of accomplishment.

I want to love what I do.

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