Gray Friday

By Andrew Brokos

Wednesday, April 13

I sign the largest check I have ever written, slip it into an envelope, and drop it into a mailbox just down the street. Returning home, I send a quick tweat: “Six figures out the door to the IRS. I suppose there are worse problems to have.”

Friday, April 15, 11 AM
It’s a beautiful spring afternoon in Boston, one of the nicest we’ve had since I returned to the city in February. Because I make a living playing poker online, I don’t always have cause to leave the house and take advantage of my central location in a major city. In search of an excuse to get out and enjoy the pleasant weather, I scheduled an eye examination with a nearby optometrist.

It’s been five years since my last eye exam, and my girlfriend has been encouraging me to get some better-looking glasses. When I got the pair I wear now, I was barely out of college, looking for work in the nonprofit sector, trying to start my own nonprofit organization, and making ends meet playing $10 sit-and-go tournaments on Pacific Poker. My current glasses are as bland as you can get, thin metallic frames that came free with an exam.

The shop is owned by an older Asian couple, Chinese I think, and almost certainly immigrants. They are friendly but a little odd. They must be doing well for themselves to occupy prime real estate in one of Boston’s most fashionable shopping districts. I smile, imagining that the two of them are probably living the life they dreamed of when they came to America. Then again, they are small business owners in a faltering economy, so they may well be struggling.

After the exam, my girlfriend meets me at the bus stop and we ride to Harvard Square to shop for frames. I end up dropping nearly $500 on a fashionable pair that she and the salesman agree fit my face far better than the ones that cost half that price. Comparing them to my current glasses, the salesman asks, “Is it safe to assume that making a statement with your glasses is new to you?” I smile. Spending $250 less for perfectly good frames would have been a no-brainer a few years ago, but now I intend to make up the difference in about an hour at the virtual tables when I get home tonight.

We complete our afternoon with sandwiches at a small deli a few blocks off the square and browsing at an independent bookstore. I am a voracious reader and love indie bookstores, but I have no idea how they stay in business. Since I got a Kindle, not even I buy books from them.

I love the atmosphere of these shops, the way they recommend books new and old, unbeholden to the priorities of publishers and corporate parents, often with statements hand-written by employees. If they can find a way to sell me e-books (Google is rumored to be working on this), they’ve got my business, but until then I mostly browse.

The more time I spend on the internet, the more disdainful I become of the physical world. I work online, I play online, I shop online, and I meet people online. Owning physical things is mostly a nuisance to me. They have to be stored, carried, cared for, and packed or discarded every time I move, which is often, thanks to the freedom that online poker provides me.

A job ties most people to a particular place, but not me and not my job. I’ve been without a permanent residence for nearly two years, and the two months I’ve been in Boston is the longest I’ve been any one place in that time. My girlfriend and I have traveled all around the country, seeing some of the greatest cities and national parks that the US has to offer and paying for it all with a few evenings and weekends of online poker. I’ve learned to accept the envy of everyone I know with a gratified smile and assurances that I realize how lucky I am and am just trying to make the most of it.

Friday, April 15, 5 PM
When we get home, I head straight to the kitchen to grind coffee and boil water. Then I curl up on the sofa with my mug and my Kindle. This caffeination and de-compression ritual usually precedes an online grinding session and is standard operating procedure for a Friday evening, when the games are better than average.

It is my girlfriend who breaks the news to me. “A bunch of the owners at like Stars and Full Tilt got charged with money laundering or something.”

I barely look up. I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m reading, and my mind is refusing to grasp the significance of what she’s telling me. “I guess that’s not too surprising,” I mutter and return to my book.

A few minutes later, she informs me that, “This looks pretty serious. They’re looking at, like, $2.5 billion in fines.”

I grunt in acknowledgment. I’m starting to realize that I’ll have to deal with this, but I still want to relax right now and think about it later.

Finally, she gets me off the couch. “People on 2+2 are saying they can’t log in.”

Sighing, I walk over to my computer and read about the end of my world.

Surprisingly, I’m a little bit excited. I never really wanted to be a professional poker player. First I was making ends meet while getting my nonprofit off the ground as the part-time, volunteer Executive Director, with the intention of drawing an income should the organization take root. It did, about three years ago, but by then I was making so much money playing poker that I decided I’d rather hire someone more qualified than myself to the run the organization while I stayed on as a part-time volunteer deriving my income from poker. So, I guess that’s about the point where my life started to become all about a card game.

For nearly seven years, poker has been my primary source of income. In the beginning, I did some non-poker contract work, and more recently I’ve derived additional income from coaching and writing about poker, but playing has been my primary income stream ever since I graduated college. Except for a few summers working at a 7-11, I’ve never had a traditional job.

It still seems surreal to me, so many years later, that I can make any living, let alone such an extravagant one, clicking buttons on a computer screen. What purpose does this serve? Who is helped by my facility with hand reading, range analysis, and turn overbetting? Would the world, or even any person other than myself, be any worse off if I were no longer able to ply my “trade”? We may be about to find out.

The whole thing has always felt too good to be true, and now I feel like I am waking up from a dream. Something about this seems right and proper, in a cosmic sense, like someone has finally realized I’ve been getting away with something for too long.

Not to mention that the better I get at poker, the more I feel compelled to play. Because I could be playing at any time, I start to evaluate everything else I do in terms of opportunity cost. Seen in this light, dinner and a movie could easily cost me well over $1,000. I still did these things, but there was always a nagging guilt attached to them, and in some ways I failed to keep up with other aspects for my life that were important to me.

For example, one of my oldest and best friends recently told me that he is getting married. I left him a message with my congratulations but haven’t yet spoken to him directly. Suddenly finding myself with a free evening, I call their apartment and speak with him and his fiancée for nearly an hour. My friends ask me to be his best man! Despite the sudden loss of my livelihood, how can I consider this a bad day?

Saturday, April 16
Appropriately, it is rainy and overcast. I didn’t sleep well. I spend the morning glued to 2+2, reading a lot of speculation but little actual news. Everyone seems angry, fearful, or both.

Mostly I feel anxious. I am not worried, per se, as I never truly upgraded my lifestyle to suit the money I was making. I could live for several years on what I have in the bank, but what would I do? There are decisions to be made, soon, and they are big ones: What do I want to be? Where do I want to live? What is important to me? What compromises am I willing to make?

I had always assumed that these things would just sort themselves out while I was in college. They didn’t, and I was a bundle of nerves as graduation approached. At that time, I didn’t have much in the way of savings, and I owed about $50,000 in education loans, and what the hell was I supposed to do with a philosophy degree?

The strange phenomenon of online poker enabled me to stave off those existential questions. I never knew what I was going to do next year, but I always knew that right now there was a lot of money to be made, too much to walk away from. The better I got and the more I made, the harder it became to contemplate doing anything else.

An associate of mine from my nonprofit work, a man I admire tremendously, tried a few times to hire me. My answer was always, “I’m flattered, and you’re welcome to make me an offer, but right now I make six figures a year working part-time. I set my own hours, I wear what I want, and I’m my own boss.” He never chose to make an offer.

After discussing our options for a bit (move to Montreal? go to Las Vegas for the WSOP? see if that job offer is still on the table?), my girlfriend and I go out for dinner and a movie. So this is what Saturday night feels like.

Sunday, April 17
Once again, I sleep poorly and am awake at 7. It’s another dreary morning, so I stay in bed tossing and turning for an hour and a half before giving up, getting up, and logging on to 2+2. As expected, there’s no real news but lots more speculation and fear-mongering. I waste another morning on this business, but by afternoon the clouds have burned off and it’s looking nice outside. The girlfriend and I take a walk through the community gardens in the Boston Fens.

Now divided into individual plots available and rented to nearby apartment- and condo-dwellers, the area was originally used for World War II Victory Gardens. It’s a throwback to a time when America really needed the productive labor of its citizens, when those who weren’t actually fighting were called upon to support the war effort however they could: by working in factories, donating nylons, and growing their own vegetables. America won that war by out producing the Axis, and the myth at least is that every American had to chip in to achieve that goal.

It’s easy to feel worthless as a professional poker player, but how many people in this country have jobs that really matter anymore? Unemployment is the highest it’s been in decades, and even most of those who are working are involved in the marketing and selling of products or services that nobody really needs. Listening to the national discourse on employment, it’s clear that we don’t need all these people as producers; we need them as consumers. Job creation has become an end in itself, a way to enable people to buy things so that other people can be employed selling it and thereby purchase still more products and services from other people. In the aftermath of September 11th, our president asked us to show our patriotism by going shopping.

There are exceptions, of course. Doctors, police officers, and teachers- these people provide services that really do meet other people’s needs and improve their quality of life. Sometimes I feel guilty when I compare myself to those people. But there’s a vast and growing economy in America of people who do nothing of any real importance. Job creation is simply a more politically palatable form of welfare. They are just two different ways of ensuring that every American has the means to perform his patriotic duty of consumption.

Not wanting to pursue this pessimistic line of thought any further, I call my grandmother. Sure enough, she’s already heard about the online poker indictments on the news and is eager to hear how I’ve been affected. I assure her that although I’m officially out of work, I’m not in dire straits, and no, I don’t need any money.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, she has never really accepted that I can actually pay my bills by playing a card game online. To be fair, I wouldn’t have believed it either, a few years ago. She isn’t rude about it or anything, but whenever I speak to her, I can always detect this undertone like she can’t believe I still have electricity and hot water. She’s only recently stopped telling her friends that I’m taking a year off before law school.

Monday, April 18
I had another restless night. I get out of bed around 7. I know that I won’t be able to keep myself from checking the news soon, but I don’t want to think about all that quite yet, so I walk across the street to the coffee shop.

A work crew is digging up the street in front of my building. A lone police car sits at the corner. A state law requires that a police officer be present at any work site, even when there is no traffic to direct. This is generally considered a cushy gig, the police union’s take on a no-show job. I glance in the window of his cruiser as I walk past. He is playing a video game on his on-board computer.

Today is the Boston Marathon, the largest and most prestigious in the world. My apartment is just a few blocks from the finish line, and soon this area will be clogged with traffic and mobbed with fans, but right now the world is quiet, fresh, and empty.

There is a church on my block, an ornate stone edifice that looks wildly anachronistic on a busy commercial street. In front of it grows a single cherry blossom tree, now in full bloom and perfuming the air. I linger under the tree, sipping my coffee and waking up slowly to the crisp, clear morning.

In the afternoon, we go to encourage the stragglers in the marathon (the fastest runners have been finished for hours). There are thousands of them, pouring down the street at the rate of dozens per minute. Many write their names prominently on their running outfits to make it easier to shout for them. Who knew it would be such fun to cheer for strangers?

Many run for charity- in fact it’s the only way to get in the race if you aren’t good enough to have a qualifying time in other marathons- but the most touching are the ones with personal causes. Several wear pictures of friends and family members in military uniform, beneath the dates on which they were killed in action. “My father quit smoking today,” reads another shirt.

For some reason, I find it most moving when a runner sports the uniform of Children’s Hospital or the Susan G. Komen Foundation along with a message that says simply, “For Sarah” or whomever. I’ve been telling people that Black Friday “turned my world upside down” and I suppose that’s true, but the thought of a child with multiple sclerosis or a spouse with breast cancer gives new meaning to that phrase.

Mostly, it’s just moving to see people investing so much of themselves in a cause that really means something to them. Though I’ve never tried, I’m sure that training for and running a marathon entails a level of physical exertion on par with the mental challenges of mastering poker. The difference is that while I like making money, at the end of the day I don’t really give a damn about being good at a card game, not the way these people care about the things that motivate them. The sight of all those sweaty red faces and staggering bodies straining towards the finish line shames me.

Gray Friday
I don’t mean to say that I’m happy about the prospect of online poker leaving my life; I’m not. These indictments have already cost me a lot of money and caused me a lot of stress.

Ultimately, though, they are like the two-outer that costs you 80% of your stack in a tournament. It sucks, but the last thing you want to do is start trying desperately to get back to where you were. That’s a recipe for further disaster. You have to accept that what’s done is done, evaluate your current situation, and keep making good decisions.

I can’t tell you what you should do now. I haven’t even figured out what I’m going to do.

But for me at least, there’s a silver lining. This catastrophe is forcing me to confront some big questions that I’ve been putting off for too long. I don’t expect it to be an easy or pleasant process, but I hope to be better for it in the long run.

Originally published in Two Plus Two Magazine, 2011. 

2 thoughts on “Gray Friday

  1. “It’s a beautiful spring afternoon in Boston. I don’t always have cause to leave the house and take advantage of my central location in a major city. In search of an excuse to get out and enjoy the pleasant weather, I scheduled an eye examination with a nearby optometrist.”

    Whoa, slow down man! :p

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