Tom Chambers is a young graduate of Harvard who recently scrapped his job as an actuary to make a living playing online poker. But a new law threatens his livelihood. Can he and others like him hold—or must they fold?
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"I don't really care about the guy in the nine-to-nine 'I'-banking job who says I'm not doing enough," says Chambers, bouncing the question right back: "What do you add to society?"
On Thursday morning, October 12th, one day before President Bush signed a law essentially making online gambling illegal, Tom Chambers sat at his computer in the cramped back bedroom of his unkempt apartment in Lincoln Park, doing his job. He played nine simultaneous games of Six-Handed No Limit Hold 'Em-folding on this hand, betting on that one, bluffing here, calling there-meanwhile talking a stream of strategy. A befuddled writer nodded in feigned comprehension and turned on the tape recorder:
"A pretty standard situation in a heads-up raised pot is that neither player really has much of a hand, including the person who raised. Like the hand where I just had jack, nine of diamonds. I raise; the guy calls; the flop comes king, ten something. I've got a gut-shot straight draw, and so I've got some chance of making the best hand. Mostly I'm just bluffing here, but there's a little bit of a semibluff in the bluff. It's not just a straight bluff because I can catch a queen to make a straight. . . ."
And on like that, without pause. For two hours straight.
Tom Chambers-26, Harvard '02, former private school teacher and actuary, newlywed-is the round electronic icon you're playing and probably losing to on the computer in Sunday morning poker tournaments and Thursday night games of Texas Hold 'Em, Pot Limit Omaha, Stud Hi/Lo, and Razz. He's a professional poker player, and he makes his living working percentages and outthinking casual online gamblers while playing 45 to 50 hours a week. Competing in up to 12 games at a time, he ends up playing roughly 100,000 hands a month.
Though he has been a winning amateur player for a couple of years, Chambers started playing full-time this past summer only after quitting his job at an actuarial firm. He plays for midlevel stakes-a large pot in a typical game is a few hundred dollars-winning at a rate that makes an annual income in the low six figures an ambitious but reachable goal. Through practice and discipline, he hopes to be good enough within a year to graduate from his current role as a "grinder" to higher-stakes games that could get him into the multiple six figures. "I'm still developing my skills," he says.
Photograph: Peter Wynn Thompson