The strange ways low-stakes gamblers think about money

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The strange ways low-stakes gamblers think about money

Sam Albertsen didn’t even watch as the black-shirted dealer dragged the pile of compression-molded clay chips — worth three weeks of pay at his summer job — away from him. He was already digging into his pocket for more money.

When the dealer saw the amount Sam pulled out, he hollered to be heard above the Friday night din of the Lebanon Poker Room, named for the small New Hampshire city in which it is located.

“Floor!” shouted the dealer to a small cluster of floor managers monitoring the action of a dozen tables. “Two hundred!”

For Sam, things weren’t going according to plan.

Five hours ago, when his engineering statistics class ended, the gangly 21-year-old borrowed a friend’s car to drive along the prosperous retail strip that serves the students and professors of Dartmouth College. As he drove, Sam cast curious glances at the Hanover Inn, Base Camp Cafe and Molly’s Restaurant.

During his three years attending the affluent Ivy League school, his friends invited him to these restaurants many times, but he always put them off. The truth was, he simply couldn’t afford it.

“It would be a different story,” he said, “if I was a trust fund kid.”

Sam grew up in Walnut Creek on San Francisco’s East Bay. Though Walnut Creek is drenched in sunlight, Sam, the only child of a single mother (a hospital receptionist), always felt like he was in the shadows.

“I lived below the poverty line my whole life,” he said, the surfer bro cadence of his words at odds with the eyeglasses, mild acne and scruff of a classic engineering student.

It might seem strange that a person too frugal to eat in a sit-down restaurant was willing to risk hundreds of dollars on a single hand of poker.

And it is strange. Sam is part of a bizarro financial universe, where people have one relationship with money when it comes to paying bills, but a completely different relationship with money when it comes to playing low-stakes poker.

Sam sits on the bottom rung of a ladder that stretches all the way up to the glitzy high-stakes games seen on television, where the turn of a single card can make an instant millionaire.

"Part of the poker game is projecting the image that you are the best."

Just as each aspiring world champion boxer must work their way through an army of concrete-fisted journeymen, the path for most players begins in places like the Lebanon Poker Room, where one can sit down with as little as $60.

Sam hopes his academic approach to the game will allow him to succeed where so many others have failed. For three years, he’s steeped himself in deeply analytical discussions with members of Dartmouth’s poker club, played in micro-stakes games, and gobbled up dozens of books on poker strategy, stats and theory.

Over the summer of 2018, he worked long hours in a kayak shop, scrimping on expenses to put together a $1,500 bankroll. By September, he felt ready to cut his teeth in Lebanon.

A successful climb up the ladder would allow Sam to keep building his bankroll, while paying for the occasional plane ticket back to Walnut Creek, or night out with college friends at a local bar.

But if Sam goes bust, it will knock him clean off the bottom rung, sentencing him to another year of monastic living, and a decision about whether he wants to trade another summer of kayak-lifting toil for another climb next year.

Friday nights are key to Sam’s strategy, and as he pulled into the Lebanon Poker Room, it was easy to see why. The packed parking lot suggested the pulse of paychecks about to flow through the poker tables inside.

As Sam put the car into park and reached for his wallet, he didn’t know that, right across the Connecticut River, Daniel Guy was on the move.

king

Even before the clock ticked over to 5:01 p.m., Daniel Guy was walking briskly through the parking lot of the Veterans Administration Medical Center, where he works as a medical support assistant. “I’m basically a glorified secretary,” the stocky 38-year-old said.

Daniel, a car enthusiast, hopped into his 2000 Audi TT and zipped down the interstate to the apartment he rents in Hartland, Vermont.

Daniel let his two rescue pitbulls into the backyard while he exchanged his professional work attire for a light blue Nike jersey — a much better match for his hair product and modest bling.

Where Sam’s analytical approach embraces the mind, Daniel’s instinct-based game embraces the gut. He began his poker education at 7 years old, watching his grandfather play for nickel-dime-quarter stakes. Over the course of 15 years of poker rooms and street games, he’s gained confidence in his ability to read other players.

Daniel’s not opposed to poker books. But to him, instinct is key.

“Sometimes you need to trust yourself,” he said.

The son of military parents, Daniel graduated high school and made good money for a while as a restaurant server on Palm Beach, Florida. But most of his adult life he’s bounced from one odd job to another, on both sides of the law.

In poker, the most important skill in climbing the ladder has nothing to do with confidence, or even cars. As in life, it's financial discipline.

The VA job, which Daniel took three years ago, is his attempt to finally achieve stability and gain the financial traction that’s evaded him.

Committing to an office job allowed him to stabilize, but not thrive. While Daniel gets good benefits, his $1,500 monthly salary is a tight leash. After he pays $750 for rent, a $200 loan payment and $100 each for electric, cell phone, and internet service, there’s barely anything left for gas, food and other expenses.

And yet, after tiding over the pitbulls with a short-term, high-intensity cuddle, Daniel drove north to the Lebanon Poker Room, where he forked over $300 to get a plastic rack containing three neat rows of $5 chips. He, too, wanted a shot at payday.

Daniel’s generally credited among his peers as being a highly skilled player, but for 15 years, he hasn’t been able to build a bankroll that will take him further up the ladder. One obstacle he faces is that, when his wallet grows fat, temptation sets in.

“When I want to buy something special, I buy it out of my bankroll,” he says.

The same appetite for risk that makes Daniel a dangerous opponent also causes his bankroll to fluctuate wildly. A month ago, he was up to $3,600, but lost $1,600 in a single night in a poker room in Manchester. He built it back up to $2,500, but then he withdrew $600 for coilovers, and another $800 for a brake kit, which allowed him to upgrade the Audi’s suspension and brakes.

By Friday night, he had $1,300 in gambling money. Another losing session could bust Daniel entirely, leaving him to make tough choices between paying bills or playing poker. A winning night would keep his dreams of climbing the ladder alive.

Soon Daniel, Sam and seven other players were seated at a table against the rear wall, everyone making small talk and joking around while they surreptitiously eyed one another’s chip stacks. No one ordered food from the waitress circulating through the room.

But everyone was hungry.

queen

Vast amounts of money change hands over decks of cards in both illicit home games and legal poker rooms. Licensed operations that donate a portion of profits to charity — charitable gaming — are legal in every state save Utah and Hawaii.

New Hampshire’s poker rooms, which are strictly tracked and regulated, saw $83 million in betting in 2015. The players who enter the frosted glass doors of the Lebanon Poker Room indirectly contribute as much as $26,000 to charity in a single month, and another estimated $48,000 for the operation’s staff salaries, non-rent overhead and profit.

The poker room earns much of this by offering roulette and other table games, where gamblers bet against the house. But at the poker tables, the house only takes a small bite out of each pot, leaving room for skilled players to win money from unskilled players.

Serious players benefit from the presence of large numbers of recreational players like medical technology engineer Seth Henson, 37, who has a poker budget, rather than a poker bankroll.

Henson, who was playing at a table near Sam and Daniel, isn’t a bad player, but he views it mostly as a form of entertainment. He and his wife earn a low six-figure household income, which puts them squarely in the middle class. He says he can afford to spend as much as $500 a month on poker.

“It’s extra money, after bills,” said Henson.

Though he doesn’t track his wins or losses, Henson thinks he loses a modest amount over time. But Henson maximizes the psychic benefit of the pastime; mentally, he’s already written off his losses, and when he has a winning night, it feels like a windfall, which he enjoys spending on something nice for himself or his wife.

"I want people to say, 'This kid's crazy.'"

When Daniel and Sam bought their chips, the transactions were two of many overseen by Tom Sweet, a 40-year poker veteran who opened the Lebanon Poker Room about a year ago.

Every state has people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum willing to stretch their paychecks to the breaking point, and Sweet has gotten to know thousands of them, as both opponents and customers. He says Daniel and Sam both walk in the door with “higher-than-average” skill sets, but also limitations.

“Both of them, to be brutally honest, view themselves as much stronger than they are,” Sweet said. But in a game that includes psychological domination of your opponents, Sweet doesn’t see that as a fault.

“Part of the poker game is projecting the image that you are the best,” he said. “I would say Dan does a better job of that. … Dan’s a little bit more boisterous.”

But in poker, the most important skill in climbing the ladder has nothing to do with confidence, or even cards. As in life, it’s financial discipline.

“Bankroll management,” he says, “is huge.”

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At 10:15 p.m., Sam was down to $300 of the $560 he’d brought. He needed to turn things around quickly if he wanted to break even by 11, when he planned to leave. On a table beside him was a water bottle he’d scrounged from the Dartmouth lost and found, because he couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

Daniel, who bought in for $300, was neither up nor down.

The dealer started a new hand, whisking two cards across the felt to each player. Sam got a four and a five. They weren’t very good cards, but he called the $2 opening bet anyway. So did five other players, including Daniel.

During a hand of Texas Hold ‘em, the dealer turns up five communal cards, which combine with players’ starting hands. Because every communal card recalibrates the playing field, a great starting hand can turn into a loser, while a terrible starting hand can become a monster.

Sam watched as the dealer turned over the first three communal cards: a three, a six and a queen.

The three and the six gave Sam some hope. If a two or a seven hit the board, he’d make a five-card straight, a very strong hand.

Some experts see similarities between investing in one’s poker skills, and the stock market — to succeed, you need to both understand your goals and diversify your investments.

Sam bet $15. Three players folded, but Daniel and one other player called.
The next card was a 10. No straight.

Sam bet again, this time $35. Both Daniel and the other player — a coffee distributor known for taking big risks — called again.

The final card was an ace. Again, no straight.

Sam’s five-high had lost its potential and was now instead about the worst hand possible. But he didn’t want to give up on the $160 pot, so he tried a risky maneuver — he bet out $80.

If the bluff failed, he would be left with only $170 of his starting $560, making it that much more difficult to break even.

For a tense moment, Daniel mulled it over. Then he pushed his cards, facedown, to the dealer. The coffee distributor also folded, and Sam showed his bluff to the other players, laughing at the table’s reaction as he stacked his chips.

Two hands later, he revealed another successful bluff, with eight high.

“I want people to say, ‘This kid’s crazy,’” Sam explained during a short break. He hoped to fool someone into calling a big bet from him in the future, when he had a strong hand.

It didn’t take long until he found himself holding an ace in his hand to match two on the board — almost certainly a winner. Sam’s large bet made a burly man with grimy knuckles and a torn T-shirt from a local auto body go into deep thought.
Finally, the man called.

Sam’s advertising had worked. He took in another pot. By 10:30, he had $520 in front of him — just $60 less than what he bought in for.

He kept grinding.

joker

The poker room doesn’t close until 1 a.m., so for most of the evening, the men (around 95% of the players are male) are cheerful with the promise of hands yet to come. In a country increasingly stratified by wealth, the world of low-stakes poker remains an economic melting pot: Here, a well-heeled software executive can hoist a beer to a utility line worker, a Denny’s cook can hoist a middle finger to a medical doctor, and men of all backgrounds have their pants half-unzipped before they even get to the bathroom, so eager are they to return to their stations.

In this egalitarian world of poker, greed is absent of snobbery and refreshingly practical: No one cares about the money Sam or Daniel have in the bank — they’re only interested in the money on the table.

This is a function of bankroll.

Some experts see similarities between investing in one’s poker skills, and the stock market — to succeed, you need to both understand your goals and diversify your investments.

Unlike recreational thrill-seekers, whose goal is primarily to have fun, pros near the top of the ladder need enormous bankrolls to insure themselves against a run of bad luck that could jeopardize their rent money.

Sam and Daniel are somewhere in the middle — serious amateurs with a goal of building a sustainable bankroll that will grow indefinitely, without negatively affecting their personal finances.

Poker players diversify their investment over time, not stocks. They need to spread their bets over enough favorable situations for the probabilities to play out in their favor.

“You’re not going to win every session,” said Sweet. “You want to keep enough money on hand so you’re not playing with scared money. You don’t want to be gambling your grocery money.”

Poker industry experts recommend that serious amateurs start with a bankroll of 300 “blinds” (a blind is the minimum bet). The lowest blind in most poker rooms is $2, meaning Sam and Daniel would need a $6,000 bankroll to stave off a run of bad luck, even against unskilled opponents.

Unfortunately, a $6,000 bankroll is, like pet insurance or a regular prostate exam, something that many should have, but few actually attain.

It would take Sam and Daniel years of scrimping to put together a $6,000 stake out of their paychecks. So, like many hopeful amateurs, they play with less, meaning that every session has a razor-thin margin of error.

“There’s no celebration, no ‘I just won $500 and I’m going to go buy a new pair of shoes.’ You have to be serious about it.”

Some of the players who watched the dealer sweep away the last of their chips on Friday night could be seen thinking long and hard before reluctantly walking over to the only place in the poker room that gives players a payout every time — the ATM, which charges a $3 fee to access checking accounts, savings accounts and even credit lines.

Some of these players are skilled, but they tend not to succeed because they have neither bankroll nor budget, instead choosing to risk windfalls, like tax refunds, or money they can’t afford to lose.

Sweet says players with small bankrolls should look for micro-stakes games, or tournaments with low buy-ins. He offers a weekly Tuesday night tournament with a flexible buy-in that allows players to take a shot for as little as $10.

But building from those situations up to a playable bankroll requires patience, said Sweet.

“There’s no celebration, no ‘I just won $500 and I’m going to go buy a new pair of shoes.’ You have to be serious about it.”

genius

A woman playing at the table next to Sam’s handed him a half-eaten basket of French fries.

“She had a good read on me,” he joked, stuffing them into his face. “She knows that I’m kind of a vacuum for food.”

At Sam and Daniel’s table, the coffee distributor bet everything in front of him — about $60. Sam quickly folded a queen-three, but the man in the auto body shirt and two other players called. That left Daniel, who was working on a calzone, to consider a call.

Daniel held a five and a two — a terrible starting hand. But with a potential $240 payoff already in the pot, he called, hoping to get lucky.

He was. The flop came with two fives. Another player bet all in for $150, which Daniel quickly called. Soon, he was raking in a $650 pot, while one of the busted players left the table, disgusted. The coffee distributor reached into his pocket for more money.

By 11 p.m., some of the tables were breaking up. A pall of urgency settled over those who remained. One, overweight and tipsy, asked if anyone wanted to drive to the MGM, a casino about two hours away in Massachusetts. No one did.

Sam announced he was playing his last hand for the night. He looked at his cards, folded them and stood up. A moment later, he sat again and announced he was playing one more last hand. He put in a large bet to win an $8 pot.

Sam stood again and slowly pulled on his sweater, watching the action. He headed to the counter to cash out for $795, enough to add $135 to his bankroll. The pot he’d scooped on his single $80 bluff made the difference between a winning night and a losing one.

Rather than put his $1,500 into a retirement account, which would be the advice of most financial consultants, Sam has chosen the poker life.

For him, this is a financial investment that makes sense. A player of his skill, he said, has the ability to earn much more than the 7% he might expect from a traditional stock portfolio, and playing cards is a lot more fun than opening a quarterly statement.

He also sees another upside.

“Liquidity,” he said. Because he’s not yet established in the workforce, Sam wants to be able to tap his growing bankroll, without paying a penalty for early withdrawal. He’ll always be frugal, but he doesn’t want to leave college having saved all his money, and spent all his youth.

The following week, Sam’s friends decided to celebrate the completion of a tough round of exams. Sam went with them to Molly’s, a pub with pizza and avocado toast on the menu. The young man who thought nothing of pushing $80 into a pot with a five high hemmed and hawed, trying to strike a balance with his desire to climb the ladder. Finally, he ordered the Bang Bang Shrimp, for $18.

“It was the first time I’ve eaten at a restaurant in Hanover,” he said. “I felt like a senior!”

After Sam left, Daniel closed the poker room, eventually moving to a higher-stakes table that was even more dangerous to his small bankroll. But his luck held. He left with more than $1,000 in his pocket, almost enough to pay for the Audi’s upgrades.

But for most of the other regulars who streamed out of the Lebanon Poker Room at closing time — the serious amateurs and the seriously lucky, the bankroll savvy and the casual thrill-seekers, winners, losers, the underfunded and the over-martinied — it was just six days until the next Friday night of paychecks and poker came around.

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Images: Phillip Blackowl.