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Underdog Hand

Federal crackdowns on online poker leave some pro players short stacked

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

There is no dress code for the World Series of Poker. Players are as likely to show up wearing garish Hawaiian shirts as they are Izod polos, and glasses with snake eyes painted on the lenses as mirrored Oakley shades.

This year, though, a new trend in poker attire has emerged, and it was more than evident at the World Series of Poker’s No-Limit Hold’em Championship, which took place last month at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas: hoodie sweatshirts emblazoned with college logos, flip-flops and iPod earbuds.

The buy-in for this game – which this year attracted some 3,000 players – was a whopping $10,000, but the payoff for the winners made it worth the investment: The last man standing could bring home $8.7 million. Traditionally, this kind of game would attract veteran players who qualified by doggedly working their way up the ladder through a series of smaller games (thereby having their buy-in fees waived) or the foolhardy inexperienced player who could afford to lose $10,000. But this year a new crop of players – those in the hoodies and flip-flops – had a heightened attraction to the game: refugees from the online poker world, mostly men in their 20s, who had been displaced from their online games in April after a federal fraud investigation shut down many of the sites that hosted them.

Grayson Nichols of Windermere is one of them. Nichols, 27, is one of about 10,000 career online players unaccustomed to having to show his poker face to anything other than a computer monitor. When the feds shut down the online poker rooms this year, they also cut off his most reliable source of income. Nichols is used to earning between $50,000 and $100,000 per year playing online poker; it’s the only well-paying “job” he’s ever known.

He began his card-playing career in 2003, when he was a freshman at the University of Florida. When he started out, he says, he was a “fish”: A weak opponent preyed upon by more experienced players. Despite the fact that he kept losing money, he was addicted to the game and would wake up in the morning and head straight to the computer.

Eventually, he realized that if he could develop a better strategy, he might have more success, so he picked up a copy of Doyle Brunson’s Super System: A Course in Power Poker, known as the poker player’s bible. He learned the basics about position, betting and which hands to play.

After a period of diligent study, his game improved and he’d amassed $50,000 using the screen name The_Dean221. It wasn’t long before he was approached by a backer – someone who pays promising players to play for them – and he soon realized that playing the game with someone else’s money wasn’t such a bad idea.

Over time, Nichols says, he discovered that he was no longer addicted to gambling or poker at all. It had become something very mundane for him: a job.

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