WizardOfAhhs: A deadly disease, $500, and the road to PokerStars history

ps_news_thn.jpgKevin Thurman is 31 years old, lives a nice life outside of Dallas, and intends to earn more PokerStars VIP Player Points in 2010 than anybody has in the history of the VIP Club.

Thurman is also suffering from a potentially deadly disease and in the middle of an agonizing chemotherapy treatment.

Known as "WizardOfAhhs" on PokerStars, Thurman has set out on a task no one has accomplished and is doing so under a set of circumstances that would prohibit many people from even getting out of bed in the morning.

To understand why and how Thurman is walking down this road, we have to look back nearly a quarter-century.


Kevin Thurman was eight years old when his father first let him come along for a dealer's choice poker game down the street. The nickel-dime-quarter games rarely had pots bigger than $5. The players in the game looked across the table and initially balked on the idea of a kid playing in their game. Before long, Thurman had his regular seat. And he was a winner.

"I'm pretty sure all profits went to toys and candy," Thurman said.

Thurman never stopped. He played through his younger years, played through college, and played after he graduated with an economics degree in 2001. Though he loved poker, he did all he could to make use of his college education. He spent four years working in the corporate world and hated every minute of it.

Making it worse, Thurman had spent several years dealing with an illness he had a hard time understanding. At first, he thought he simply had a throat infection that would go away in due time.

That first week of sickness turned into months. The symptoms got worse. Thurman had no idea what was happening to his body, but he knew it wasn't good. It took him years to get a proper diagnosis. When a doctor finally figured it out, it was bittersweet.

"I was no longer blindly battling a mystery and could finally give the enemy a name," Thurman said, "but I also learned that treatment is a long and arduous journey and not always effective."

Thurman learned he had Lyme disease. Not only that, but he had so-called co-infections that included an intracellular parasite and a cousin to Malaria. His body was infected in a way that few people could understand. Thurman constantly felt like he had the flu. Doctors told him the disease could replicate so fast and aggressively in his brain and heart, it would kill him in a matter of a few years.


Thurman suddenly found himself facing the toughest decisions of his short life. He was finding it hard to make it through the corporate workday slog. He needed time to concentrate on getting healthy. His doctor was recommending a potentially life-saving chemotherapy.

"I turned to my biggest hobby at the time for a chance at the lifestyle I needed," Thurman said.

In December 2005, Thurman took $500 and began playing online. In less than one year, he'd run it up to $900,000 playing six-man and heads-up no-limit games. Thurman didn't know his expected value during that time, but he knew it certainly wasn't nearly a million bucks. He'd started at .25./.50 and moved up in stakes every few weeks. He was eventually playing nosebleed games and ignoring the fact his win-rate was unsustainable.

It took some time, but he learned his lesson. He ran into some tough beats and ugly coolers. He had a tough losing month. It didn't hurt his bankroll too badly, but it was a wake-up call. That and the changing nature of the online game in 2006 forced Thurman to look closely at his goals and abilities.

"I decided to never play higher than $25/50 no-limit again," he said. "And believe it
or not, I still had back-to-back six-figure profit months in early 2008."

All the while, Thurman was dealing with his disease, his treatment, and the very real possibility he could die. Trying to concentrate was as tough as anything.

And so Thurman put a folder on his desktop. He filled it with pictures of everything he wants in life. He filled it with photos of people he loves. At the beginning of each day, he opened the folder and looked upon its contents.

"It reminds me exactly why I push myself," he said. "It is a vivid visualization of my success. Body and mind are connected as one. It's important for me not to let my body dictate the mood and stamina of my mind."

Over the past few years, Thurman has taken that initial $500 and turned it into $2 million in winnings. He's moved in with the love of his life. He's studied music theory and turned himself into an accomplished musician and vocalist. If not for the fact that he has a deadly disease, his life would be just about perfect.


Success aside, Thurman doesn't fool himself. Looking back on his heater in 2006, the man from Texas knows it all could've turned out differently. If he had few bad days back when he still had $500, he might have been facing a dreaded disease with no income at all. Instead, things went in his favor and he's made the best of it.

"I'd like to think I would have always found a way to succeed, but there is no way to know. I'm a fairly humble guy and am honest enough with myself to know my life could have easily went another direction," he said. "Poker is an area of life that I have been very blessed in and I will never lose sight of this fact."

With that confidence and drive, Thurman has now picked 2010 to shatter every record at PokerStars. His goal is to earn four million VIP Player Points by December 31st. He has already amassed more than 2 million, twice what it takes to become a Supernova Elite VIP. He's on pace to outdo Team PokerStars Online player George Lind's record of 3 million VPPs in a single calendar year.

How is Thurman doing it? He describes the process of building his brain to endure intense sessions of multi-tabling no-limit hold'em games. He puts in sessions that see him playing 30 tables for five to six hours. He takes a 30-minute break and then does it all over again. And he does it while dealing with the stamina-killing effects of chemotherapy.

"Playing 20,000 hands in a day isn't easy, but it's most definitely not the hardest thing a grinder will ever do," Thurman said. "But try waking up the next day and doing it again... and then again. Now imagine doing that for a month straight without taking a day off. I don't think many people can do that without some serious planning, nutrition, and loads of ambition."

It's impossible to say whether Thurman will make his goal. It's a grind like none other, and it's a grind even most healthy people couldn't endure. Yet, if Thurman has shown one thing, it's that he can do what most people cannot. Betting against him is, quite simply, a bad idea.

"(My illness) is going to be a long, painful, and at times very depressing road, but I think I can handle it by holding on to hope for better days," Thurman said.

If there is one thing good poker players understand, it's that knowing the game isn't all that's required to win. You have to know your opponent. That's something Kevin Thurman understands on a whole different level.

"I've been dealing with this disease for quite a while now and know its demons," he said.

To learn more about Lyme disease, Kevin Thurman recommends the documentary Under Our Skin.

Brad Willis
@BradWillis in PokerStars news