In December of 2010, I learned PokerStars was considering adding me to its Team Online roster. The opportunity to promote a corporate entity is not something I consider frivolously, but I immediately seized the chance to represent the first online poker site I ever played on, a company whose product and ethics I had believed in for many years.
Now, my three year run with PokerStars Team Online is coming to an end, and I'm here to report that it was an extraordinarily positive experience, even despite challenges I never could have anticipated when I signed the contract.
To take it back to the start: after signing with Stars in 2011, my passion for the poker was reborn. I was eager to shine and made efforts to implement new levels of professionalism into my game: I got coaching from a friend and made attempts to learn HUD stats for the first time; I bought my first ever 30" monitor, the monolithic piece of equipment that stands on an online poker player's desk as a testament to his dedication to the game. Most importantly, I was having fun and making money.
Then, Black Friday occurred, when the DOJ swiftly upended the lives of every US-based online poker player. Just a couple of short months after my deal with Stars began, as I was settling into a comfortable new groove in Southern California, I was suddenly compelled to leave my country in order to maintain life as a sponsored online MTT grinder. This is when my journey with Stars really began.
Over the next couple years, I learned that unplanned obstacles - those that initially register on the psyche somewhere between annoying and devastating - can be surprisingly instructive and rewarding. Somewhere in the midst of relocating to Canada, then Mexico, ultimately spending the better part of two years outside of my comfortable confines in the USA, I enjoyed doses of clarity within the chaos.
First, in September of 2011, I moved to an apartment in downtown Vancouver with my friend David, a young online player and coach, a fellow Los Angeles resident also navigating the increasingly murky waters of professional poker life. We spent only a month in Canada before going our separate ways, but have since convened in Mexico, Amsterdam, and Israel--all basically in pursuit of playing on PokerStars post-Black Friday (and in pursuit of the lulz).
During that month in Canada, I had a really healthy return to the tables (in other words, "ran very good on a short bankroll"), highlighted by a win in the 2-7 Triple Draw event in the 2011 WCOOP.
A year later, I took third place in the same 2-7 WCOOP event, this time perched over the Pacific Ocean in an apartment just south of Rosarito Beach, Mexico; a sleepy resort town in the northern part of the Baja Peninsula, 30 minutes southwest of Tijuana and three hours from my old home in Santa Monica, where my girlfriend still lived.
I rented an apartment there for almost two years, and some other poker highlights I achieved in that space include: chopping the Sunday Million on New Years' Day 2012, winning the enormous $2rb Saturday Splash, and putting a bad beat on derek8 while playing three-handed in a satellite for two $10K SCOOP seats, the whole time thinking it was winner-take-all!
Eventually, though, after about a year and a half 'in exile', I hit a wall. My scheme to split time as an MTT grinder in Mexico while also fostering a romantic relationship in Southern California went from energizing me in 2012 to stretching me thin by the time 2013 arrived. I gradually felt less at peace with my lifestyle, less content with the external circumstances of the situation. The satisfaction of overcoming post-Black Friday obstacles seemed like a distant resource, replaced by a consummate anxiety. The stress of my geographical setup was exacerbated by a total inability to put up a winning poker session in 2013.
Inevitably I realized I couldn't sustain both a full-time grind and a relationship, and the need for an exit strategy became clear when my longtime girlfriend and I semi-spontaneously got married in Vegas during the WSOP. She quit her job, which had also involved excessive time on the road, and I gave up the lease to my apartment in Mexico with a goal to transition back into a life with her in California by 2014.
Exit plan notwithstanding, I still needed to find time to sit in front of a computer that wasn't on US soil for the remainder of 2013 in an attempt to win money in poker tournaments and put in hours on PokerStars. However, it seemed no matter what I tried - reducing the number of tables I played, eliminating tougher, higher buy-in tournaments from my schedule, spending hours away from the grind studying, getting coached - I could not put up a winning session.
The 30" monitor became less of a symbol of dedication to the game and more an albatross that I was wearing wherever I went. Whether I was running bad or the "game had passed me by" (or to paraphrase Bottle Rocket - "Did I lose my touch or did I never have a touch to begin with?"), I knew I had to conjure up whatever remaining heart and energy and poker smarts I had left and pour them into the 2013 WCOOP. I showed up at a friend's house in Tijuana early one morning during the first week of the series to set up shop just in time to late-register for the 9am tournaments. My hasty arrival meant that I only had time to set up on my laptop, leaving the 30" monitor in my car.
Playing on my friend's dining room table in downtown TJ, on a 17" Macbook with no Hold 'Em Manager or Table Ninja, I simply focused, made reads and played good old-fashioned poker. With this stripped down setup came an ironic nod from the poker gods, and I put up my first significant winning session of the year, taking second place in a $215 turbo for almost $20k.
I moved to the Grand Hotel Tijuana that night, but maintained the barebones computer setup. It was a throwback to how I played online poker when I started out recreationally, staying up late nights in my Brooklyn studio apartment in 2004 trying to win the $11rb. I came out a winner during that first stretch in Tijuana and even had the inspired idea to sell my 30" monitor, since I was, a) finally winning without it, and b) because I was, after all, planning to quit playing online poker full time in 2014.
Within five minutes of deciding to sell the monolith, I had negotiated a deal via the Rosarito Skype chat, and a few hours later, a young online poker pro stopped by the hotel and paid me $600 for it. The situation sounds absurd, maybe because it's a great example of something that would never have taken place before Black Friday: the sale of a specialized, high-end piece of computer equipment in a hotel room in Tijuana on a random Thursday evening.
Filled with confidence and inspiration from the early WCOOP sessions, I decided that there was an even better way to close out the last two weeks of the series than remaining holed up in a small room in a noisy, dirty city. I booked a vacation rental in Salt Spring Island, in BC, Canada, the idyllic place where my wife and I spent much of our honeymoon. It seemed like the perfect Zen poker retreat. I devised a travel budget in line with how much I was spending in Tijuana and figured my plan was foolproof: play more hours while feeling more dedicated, buoyed by confidence and unburdened of the 30" monolith.
Unfortunately, Canadian Customs had other plans for me. I was denied entry and sent back to LAX the same night. It was a feeling of total defeat and humiliation, deflating the wind which had been gathering in my sails.
I trudged back down to Tijuana, back to my room on the 22nd floor of the Grand Hotel, this time far less enthusiastically. My second WCOOP stretch consisted of four lackluster days, during which I came out breakeven thanks to another score in a turbo on the final day of the run.
Then it was time for the Grand Finale at the Grand Hotel Tijuana. I got rid of the bitter aftertaste of the Canadian border experience and went back for a third time to my 22nd floor perch over Blvd. Agua Caliente. I felt a sense of equanimity but also a true hunger, and not only because the room service at GHT was terrible. I was determined to maximize the juiciest opportunity of the year for an online MTT player, let alone a player with one foot out the door.
The first three days of the final stretch went well, and going into the final day of WCOOP, I was sitting on $13k profit for the month (after chopping with my backer) and a seat in the $5,200 Main Event. The final day of WCOOP turned into the penultimate day when I made my first ever Day 2 in an online poker tournament, still alive on Monday with a shot to cash for $1.8m.
To think that I actually made the final table, taking sixth place for a cash of $291k, my biggest-ever score in a nine-year span playing poker tournaments, is more surreal than any denouement I could have scripted, a more fake-sounding storybook ending than anything you'd believe in a Hollywood film.
Usually, this is the space in the blog where I'd flash back to reality and describe the nitty gritty of how the $291k gets whittled down between my backer, my trades, my bills, my debts, the amount I owe the IRS, and on and on. Let's just say that I maintain what Springsteen would call the "kind of debts no honest man can pay," but even after all those splits, my portion of the money still allowed me to significantly turn around my financial situation and buy my wife an expensive pair of boots and a new TV for the holidays.
Even months later, with the warped perspective of time, I can't afford to be jaded when I think about how close I came to scoring an even more monstrous sum of money. Yes, I wish I had a time machine and could go back to my bust hand and flat call with 55 instead of shoving, but I'm far more overcome with a feeling of gratitude - that I was able see my avatar at that mythical final table and, somewhat miraculously, walk out the door of my poker career on the highest possible note. It was a more solid footing than I could have hoped for with transition looming.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of that WCOOP run to the final table was the interaction with the rail, both in chat and on Twitter. It really felt like I had an overabundance of support from the poker community, a lot of people from all over the place rallying behind the not-quite-washed up old schooler making an improbable run in a perennially epic tournament.
Once again, it felt like a throwback to what it felt like playing on PokersStars in 2004 and 2005, when the conversation between the rail and the players was lively, free, and a little raucous. Interacting with all kinds of people on Twitter during the Main Event actually served to help me zone in rather than distract me. Perhaps the most fun I had was exchanging lyrics from the UGK song "One Day" and Bun B's 'Pushin'' with David "Gaucho21" Paredes, who enthusiastically supported me (and good rap music) for many hours in observer chat.
That spirit was the truest possible reminder of why I was so eager to sign with PokersStars in 2010. Not only has Stars met its obligation to its players at every turn, it has always felt like a real place within a virtual world: a place where I saw large sums of money won and lost, but far more memorably, a place where personalities were built, lifelong relationships were fostered, and community thrives.
It has been a privilege and a lot of fun to represent Stars during the past three years.
Shane "shaniac" Scheleger was a member of Team PokerStars Online.