The stereotypical poker player of yore–overweight, hunched, puffing through a pack of Marlboro Reds–is long gone in 2019. Physical fitness has never been so prevalent in the poker world, with top players like Jason Koon and Olivier Busquet leading the charge.
But the crossover between the poker world and the fitness world comes from the other side too. Take the UK’s Zac Aynsley, for example, who for the past few days has been battling his way through the Moneymaker Tour Main Event here at his hometown casino, Aspers in Newcastle, ultimately finishing in 25th place out of 436 entries.
At just 25 years old, Aynsley–also known as ‘Mr. Biceps’–has established himself as one of the leading lights in bodybuilding. With TV appearances, magazine covers, and more than 1.2 million followers on Instagram, not only has he inspired countless people to begin their own fitness journies, he’s also garnered admiration from his bodybuilding idols including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Phil Heath.
What a lot of those people might not know, however, is that Aynsley had another passion long before he stepped into a gym.
“I’ve always been into poker since I was a kid,” he tells PokerStars Blog on break from the Moneymaker Tour Main Event. “My dad taught me to play when I was around six. I then joined a karate club and we used to tour the country, like a giant family. We’d all play poker for pennies and sweets, just for fun.”
While most kids his age were playing video games, Aynsley was grinding play-money poker on social media apps. Yet it would take a chance encounter at a blackjack table for him to first venture into a live poker room.
“When I turned 18 I came to this casino a couple of times with friends, to play blackjack and stuff. I always wanted to play poker, but I was too shy and too scared to ask where I could play or who I could play with.
“I’ll never forget it,” he continues. “I was playing blackjack and I saw all the poker players over in the poker room, but I was far too intimidated to go and ask if I could play. I was clueless, I knew how to play the game, but I’d never played live before in a casino.
“A guy next to me on the blackjack table told me he’d just busted a tournament and I asked him about it. He said it was only £25, and he told me how to enter. I went in and I won it, my first ever tournament! Every time I was in a hand I was shaking uncontrollably.”
Those nerves have subsided now, but what hasn’t waned is his love of the game.
Aynsley might be ‘Mr. Biceps’ these days, but it wasn’t always this way. As a youngster at school, he was a frequent victim of bullying and at times was severely underweight due to a diet consisting mainly of candy and processed foods. While bullying resulted in panic attacks and lifelong anxiety, it was actually alcohol abuse that led to Aynsley taking up bodybuilding.
Having taken up DJing at 15, Aynsley began a party-hard lifestyle which after a few years resulted in doctors telling him he had the liver of a 50-year-old. He had to make some severe changes in his life whilst studying photography at university, and upon graduating he decided to focus on his fitness full time.
The results are pretty mindblowing, and after uploading a video of his transformation he became an internet sensation. Despite this, Aynsley’s anxiety is always present.
“I always suffered from anxiety and depression growing up, so it’s always on my mind that if I let my mind rest for too long, and if I have too much time to think about things, I can scare myself,” he says. “Playing poker for me is an amazing all-round way of distracting myself from my diet and from thinking negatively. If I’m ever in a bad mood, poker will take my mind off everything.”
As a competitive physique bodybuilder, eating the right food all year round is crucial for Aynsley. He constantly has to keep snacking temptations at bay.
“In this line of work, my diet is so unbelievably strict,” he says. “If I’m at home after a day of training watching a movie, I naturally want to snack on things. I can never go to the cinema when I’m training for a show. But sitting at home, popping the laptop open, putting my feet up and playing a few tournaments each night is perfect for me. It keeps my mind busy. Hours fly by, and you don’t even realise. It keeps you thinking at all times.”
There are countless sports stars who take up poker. Just ask footballer Gerard Piqué, golfer Sergio García, or snooker legend Stephen Hendry. At the end of the day, it’s just another way for them to channel their competitiveness, and it’s no different for Aynsley.
“I really enjoy playing, but I hate getting beat,” he says. “I flopped trips earlier and a guy hit runner-runner to beat me. I was absolutely mortified. The competitive guy in me was furious. I felt I should have won that, so I was really spitting my dummy out. I tried not to show it, but inside I was going mental.”
It turns out there are bad beats in the bodybuilding world too.
“They happen all the time,” Aynsley tells us. “It can be a very biased sport because it’s judged by a panel of judges. Earlier this year there was a competition where I definitely felt I deserved a higher placing than I got [Aynsley finished fifth]. It was one of the most difficult shows in Europe. When I came offstage a lot of people came up to me and said: “How the hell did you only get fifth?’, and when I hear that, I feel like I deserved more. But the judges on that specific night, they were my bad beat. I put everything I could into it, but in the end, it still wasn’t enough. You feel like you’ve been robbed, and that’s a feeling all poker players can relate to.”
Another thing poker players can relate to is having friends and family who don’t understand the game, or just see it as gambling. Aynsley hopes to rectify these misconceptions in his own life, both in bodybuilding and poker.
“Bodybuilding is so misunderstood, as poker often is,” he tells us. “People think bodybuilders just take loads of steroids and think they’re better than everybody, but it’s the complete opposite. Many bodybuilders that I know are some of the nicest, humble, down-to-earth, hard-working people you’ll ever meet.
“It’s the same thing with the poker community. When I tell people I play poker, it’s always “Oooh, you shouldn’t be doing that, it’s just gambling”. The stigma of this sport–and poker really is a sport in my eyes–is that it’s a mug’s game because it’s gambling. I want that to be destroyed because it’s not true. If you look at poker properly, you’ll understand that it’s not gambling like other casino games. It’s a game of skill, maths, concentration, patience, and overall, it’s an amazing experience. If you go on the roulette wheel, that’s just gambling. There’s no real strategy there, the odds will always be against you. That’s not true in poker.”
Aynsley is hopeful that his own success in the game can change some people’s minds.
“I played a local £225 tournament around here which I won outright for around £12,000. When I posted that online, the reaction I got from my followers was insane,” he says.
With his next bodybuilding competition not until July next year, Aynsley currently has time off from training (if you count only working two hours a day as “time off”). He plans on playing a lot more poker in the meantime.
“I want to pursue poker for more than just the fact I love the game, competing, meeting new people and having a good time at the table. I want to pursue it because I feel like I can bring a lot to it,” he says.
“There are a lot of unhealthy people in poker, who sit down for too long and only eat takeaway food. A lot of people think it has to be all training or all poker, and they don’t seem to grasp the concept that you can do both.
“My advice for poker players looking to take that first step towards improving their fitness would be to do half an hour of cardio in the mornings,” he says. “It sets you up for the day and is going to do so much for your body and your metabolism. It will help your brain function as well.”
While his goal on the felt is to one day win the World Series of Poker Main Event (“which everyone wants,” he admits), Aynsley’s ultimate goal is to simply have a positive impact on the game and its players.
“I want to see if I can bring something from my line of work into this industry and the poker world. And I know for a fact that a healthy workout plan is something that many poker players would actually do if there was something set up. It excites me knowing that, if there’s an opportunity provided, I could do big things with that.”
Having a chilled night in and fancy playing some online poker? Click here to get a PokerStars account.