Game Boy

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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So far, the act hasn’t cramped Chambers’s style. His preferred site, Costa Rica–based, continues to welcome Americans. And Chambers is confident that new e-commerce companies will step up to process gamblers’ payments. Still, he admits, “this is a PR hit.”

For pro players like Chambers, public relations is important, because the public is important. The suggestion of illegality might drive away casual players-the overwhelming majority of the 23 million Americans said to gamble online. And pros need lots of amateurs and the “dead money” (as their easily poached dollars are called) to make their living.

Chambers acknowledges that the law passed quietly because nobody cries for poker players, amateur or professional, except the players themselves. While Chambers believes he and other pros should be allowed to make a living at this, “it’s almost more offensive to me,” he says, “that Joe Businessman can’t come home and do this after work to relax.”

At first blush, Chambers doesn’t own the résumé you would expect of a professional poker player. He’s the son of two public school teachers from Royal Oak, Michigan, and a graduate in intellectual history from Harvard University. He wrote his thesis on Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and their treatment of language and metaphysics, but he credits his late father, a math teacher, with giving him a head for cards (though no direct training; Chambers played poker for the first time, and only a couple of times, in college). After graduating, he taught calculus, algebra, and world history and coached basketball for three years at a private school in St. Louis, where he met his future wife, Torey Cummings. Also in St. Louis-aboard the casino boats on the Mississippi-Chambers began to fall for another love. Eventually, he and Cummings both ended up in Chicago, she to become an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and he to take the actuarial job. He got more successful in online poker games and tournaments on nights and weekends, until finally he quit the actuarial job, which bored him, to play the game that never did.

Though his wife was happy he had quit an uninspiring job, his new calling made her nervous. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we lost a thousand dollars,’” Cummings says. “But you forget: he won $10,000 last week. You have to look at it long-term.” Meantime, she has also learned how to play poker and occasionally plays online and at casinos, though for lesser stakes than does her husband.