PCA 2014: The highs and lows of a nosebleed poker player
We sit in the Imperial Ballroom of the Atlantis Resort where three people from two final tables will win more than a million dollars later tonight. This is the peak, the very pinnacle of what any poker player can possibly wish for, and anyone here can congratulate themselves on belonging in the top percentile of their profession or recreational pursuit.
But it's important not to get too carried away. Poker is a game that involves money -- a lot of it -- and it involves emotion, human emotion. There is a lifestyle befitting a movie star for its most successful exponents, but there are plenty of pitfalls that must be navigated along the way.
The Team PokerStars Pro Ville Wahlbeck is among the elite players in world poker, both online and off. He plays the very highest games on PokerStars (I'm talking the $1,000-2,000 draw games, when they're running) and pretty much everything below that. He has run very, very hot -- look at Wahlbeck's results at the 2009 World Series of Poker -- and he has endured massive downswings. He knows the highs and the lows but, unusually, doesn't mind talking about them.
We caught up with Wahlbeck for one of the most candid interviews you'll get from a top-level professional player. It started as a chat about his work/life balance, about how he manages to arrange his life to accommodate both poker and non-poker pursuits. But right from the very first moment, when he said, "I will be terrible at this. I have no work/life balance," it was clear this was going in another direction.
PokerStars Blog: What is a regular week for you in poker?
Ville Wahlbeck: A regular week? There's no such concept for me. Some weeks I don't play at all and some weeks I play 60 or 70 hours. But that's the extreme. On average I would say between 10 and 20.
Do you have a routine?
I would really love to. I've been trying to do that for years but it seems to be impossible for me. I would like to get up really early, because the games are still going when it's really early, do some exercise, eat a good breakfast and then play maybe three hours and then have the rest of the day off. But unfortunately it's never worked out.
What ends up happening is that I decide, "OK, I'll play a bit." And then I'm still there in the next morning after 15 hours or so. And then I crash down, I haven't eaten properly, haven't slept properly, haven't drunk enough water or done any exercise or anything. And then it just takes me a few days to get over that...and then it happens in the future a few days again.
What would need to change for you to get things straight?
I don't know. To be more organised about it. To be more clear about the goals and how to do it. I don't know why it's always been a problem for me. Even if I start out saying I'll play two hours, I then just say I'll play one more hour. Then that hour goes by and then I don't even put on a limit anymore. So in general, my life would have to be more organised.
Did you ever have a regular job?
Yes and no. I did some freelance journalism for a golf magazine. And I was teaching kids in elementary school, as a substitute teacher. I worked pretty long periods and they asked me to be a regular, so that was a huge compliment when they asked me if I would do it more often. But that all changed when I started winning enough money that, money-wise, it wasn't worthwhile to do anything else besides play poker. So that's pretty much the moment I decided to turn pro.
What about a bad period? Would that change your attitude?
Well, yes, they are the moments when you do think like that. You never think it when you're on an upswing and winning a lot. That's the moment when you don't want to change a thing. Because the rush or the high of winning is better than anything. Once you hit the downswing and you don't feel comfortable in your life in general, you start thinking that maybe you should start making some changes to your schedule. But yeah, periodically I do get the feeling I should do something about it.
Are you married, with kids?
I'm not married, but I do have two kids. I never play when I'm with them. I have my office space and whenever I'm going to play, I go there to play. Being with kids it's just impossible, I couldn't focus properly. I need to be in private and mostly alone to play.
Would you recommend poker to your kids?
No. Never. At least not with the methods I'm doing it. It's too exhausting. The way I feel is that it's a very nice hobby. It's super fun with your friends or as a recreational thing. But once you're doing it full time, it's mentally very exhausting. When the losing periods are going on, it's stressful, demanding. And ultimately I also think that there are way, way, way, way more professions that are more fulfilling intellectually and mentally for people, besides playing poker full time.
I've been playing over a decade, almost 12 years, and there are not very many new things happening. You don't push forward. You don't create much. I still enjoy it. I still like playing but not as much as I did when I started out. For my kids, I'm definitely going to teach them how to play and hopefully we're going to have some fun moments together. But as a profession, I would rather see them do something else.
In an office job, you would expect an annual promotion and a salary increase. But it doesn't work like that in poker.
Yes. It's actually the contrary. Sometimes you're actually going to be demoted. You could be playing much higher and then in the next year you could be crushed so badly that you have to move to a lower level. There are not too many professions in the world, besides maybe some investor or day trader, where you can work your ass off for a year and still end up being a loser. That's not a nice aspect of the profession.
Do you ever find yourself thinking, "Right, I need a holiday, two weeks off"?
I don't put a time period, but I definitely do have these feelings where I can't even open the computer, or at least the poker software, because it makes me already so exhausted, I'm almost physically sick. Those are usually after very long sessions, when I've been playing for a few days. I haven't slept much, and I've been losing lots of money, and I need some days off. Without that, you would just crash down or something.
You don't travel as much as you used to.
Especially since I have kids now. I used to travel, I would say one third of the year. Nowadays maybe one fifth. It's quite exhausting when you're changing time zones and spending time in airports and in the aeroplane and eating restaurant food and things like that. So overall, the stability and regularity of life is in a fuzz all the time.
What do you say to people who are envious of you, who don't know about the exhaustion?
It's tough. You need to be pretty close to a poker professional to see how rough it can actually be. I'm not doing it the easiest way. There are tons and tons of smarter guys than me, who are more organised in their life and professional and are able to keep it separate. They just play some hours and don't think poker otherwise. But for me it started out as something that I loved and has always been my passion, so whenever I play it's in my head. It's oftentimes in my head even when I don't play. So the organisation, to divide things between the poker life and life in general would be brilliant.
Do you worry about burn-out or actually having a breakdown?
I'm hoping that I'm smart enough to go for breaks before I get to that point. But I can definitely feel the symptoms. There have been many times where I've felt that if I had still kept playing I could easily have had a breakdown. Fortunately I have been able to take breaks before that happened. I've been very exhausted, but you need to have a break before you crash down.
How do you keep your money safe?
You have to have some money management. There's a saying, at least in Finland, that your bankroll is like your toolbox if you're a carpenter. Without the bankroll, you're as useless as a lumberjack without an axe. You need to take care of that. But it's much more easily said than done. For me, like most poker players, one of the most difficult things is, when you have lost enough, to go down in limits. If you're used to playing something higher, or much higher, it's not very easy to start playing with smaller amounts, mentally. You feel, 'Why am I playing for these peanuts, when a month ago I was playing five times or ten times higher.' It's tough, mentally.
I play pretty big and the variance is high on those short-handed games. There's a lot of action, a lot of movement. It can be stressful sometimes. The problem with the high games is that the gaps are so big oftentimes. There's really big games and the next biggest game is ten times smaller. At lower limits there are more options, you can play 50c-$1 no limit or $1-$2. But once you get higher, there are fewer and fewer players, so there's not that much option.
Do you still get the buzz out of playing poker?
Not as much as I used to. I would be lying if I said I was as passionate as I was when I was younger. I still like it. I still like a good session and I still like putting the effort there. Once I start playing, I'm 100 per cent focused always. It's not about that. But overall it's been a long decade poker wise. Mostly I'm just glad that it's not as intensive as it used to be.
When I started playing it was absolutely the best thing that I could possibly imagine. My first thoughts about poker in general was that I would hope that I could even break even, so I could just keep playing and playing. It wasn't even about the money, it was about playing poker. Whenever I could, I just wanted to play more poker. The sad feeling was that if I lost it, I couldn't play any more. So I would have been happy just to break even, just to keep playing whenever. Also one of my first goals in poker was the thought that if I could earn $50 per hour, that would be worthwhile. Then I wouldn't need to do anything else.
Do you pay yourself a salary?
No. I try to invest the winnings when I have them so I don't have them all online or cashable. I use them in the sense that maybe the investments earn me a bit of money in themselves. Once they're out, put somewhere else, it's not so easy to just cash them out and start putting them back into the games. It gives the money security, in a sense that I can't lose too much too fast.
What do you do away from poker?
I try to read as much as possible and to do some sports, play golf and stuff like that. But the sad thing is that I've actually always been a gaming addict. When I'm not playing poker, I play something else like iPad games or PC games or whatever. It needs to be something. I find it very relaxing playing. I've just bought Knights of the Old Republic, it's an old Star Wars game on iPad. It's an old game but they just converted it to iPad. When I start one of them, I just have to get it finished and I just can't put it down before it's finished. But I also find it, sort of, relaxing. It fulfils the gaming or gambling addiction.
Does this mentality help in poker?
Yes it does. With that mentality it's so easy to focus, when the action is there you're so into it, like any computer game. I play computer games with the same kind of attitude: focused and in there, just playing it. I played PC games and golf before poker. But it's just so time consuming playing these RPG games that take 100 hours to finish.
How old were you when you first discovered poker?
I played a bit when I was seven, eight or nine with my brother. My father played a bit of five card stud with his friends, so we picked up the game there. Mostly I was playing when I was 16 or 17 in High School. We had these game nights once a month or so. But when internet poker started, then you could play every day, 24 hours a day, there was constantly a game available. That's when I feel that I really, really started. The basics were there already, but once you start playing online, the games are so fast and there's so much material and so many opponents, so you can learn much faster than live. Ever since then, I've played so much that it's ridiculous.
Will you ever give it up?
Professionally, yes. At some point when I'm older. Recreationally, I hope I keep playing until I die. I'm 37 so hopefully it's still a few years away.
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