When Ashly Butler was a junior at The University of South Alabama, he tore his patellar tendon. It was a scholarship athlete’s nightmare — especially when Butler’s task, as a member of the track team, was to run far and fast. Fortunately Butler was running well somewhere else: at the poker tables. Sidelined by injury and blessed with a healthy bankroll, Butler lost the desire to finish his degree. In 2002 he dropped out of school, started coaching cross country and track at his old highschool, and gave poker his best shot.
These days Butler, who lives in New Orleans, still plays poker for a living. “I play all the games,” he told me recently. “All the games,” it turns out, includes not only no limit hold ’em, pot limit Omaha, limit Omaha high, Omaha Hi/Lo, and other mixed games, but also summer league kickball. As teammates on the Uptown Oysters, I played first base while Butler manned the outfield. Last month we discussed what it means to be a professional poker player, how to conduct yourself at the table, late-night PLO with Russell Westbrook, and game theory optimal kickball strategy.
Ashly Butler: It’s funny because I like to kind of stay off the radar. You’re going to find that with a lot of people who play poker for a living.
Ben Saxton: Definitely. It’s been tricky to figure out who’s eager to talk, who wants to stay private, and to respect everyone’s wishes. But so far people have been open and helpful, and I think part of the reason is that I’m less interested in winrates or strategy —
“What’s your hourly?” “Who do you think the best regs are?” and all that.
Right. I’m more interested in how you got into poker, why you play, that kind of thing.
You’re from Mobile, right?
I grew up in Mobile and Saraland, Alabama. It was all right. I competed in sports as a kid, got into cross country and track in high school, and had some decent success. I ended up running on scholarship at Brevard College and then transferred to South Alabama. One of the first times I ever gambled in a casino was in Cherokee, North Carolina, where you only have to be eighteen. I’d go with my Brevard teammates.
Was that the first time you ever gambled?
The first time I ever gambled for money, I was fifteen years old. My parents got divorced, my dad lived in a shittier section of town, and I played basketball with some guys who were basically drug dealers. Have you ever heard of Tonk?
I’ve heard of it.
It’s a bastardized form of gin rummy. You can play it heads-up or three ways. I was always interested in games, I guess, from a young age. Have you ever played Rook? Or Phase 10?
Nope. I got to poker through chess and board games like Stratego and Monopoly. I’m less of a card game guy.
I grew up playing 5-card card stud with my grandparents on my mom’s side, and on my father’s side we played Rook, Phase 10, gin rummy, games like that. But these guys, after we played basketball, they would set up a table and play Tonk, and I could see that they weren’t using very good strategy. If you “tonk out” they have to pay you double — which is obviously what you should be trying to do. We played for twenty dollars three ways and I tonked out the first game. We played again, I did it again. I won a hundred-and-something dollars and they were like, “you can’t play any more.” That’s kind of how poker works.
From the start, you were able to identify profitable spots.
I’ve always had a gambling mentality. When I first started playing poker — good God, I probably went broke eight or ten times in my early twenties, running up a bankroll in home games from literally a couple hundred bucks to 5 or 10K. I’d go to the Beau Rivage or the Grand Casino in Biloxi — this was around 2002 — and play whatever game they had. No limit [hold ’em] wasn’t really a thing back then. It was mostly 15/30 limit hold ’em, 20/40 limit hold ’em, or on Sundays I’d play 20/40 Stud. I didn’t really study poker back then, but I was super-aggressive, which generally worked because you’re playing against older opponents who would usually just fold.
When you began taking poker more seriously, were there any important resources that stand out?
There used to be a guy who lived here, Sunny Mehta, who played for a living when I had just moved to New Orleans. His book Professional No Limit Hold’em was literally my Bible for a while.
That was the first book to introduce SPR, right?
That’s a pretty important concept. Especially if you’re in games where you can be anywhere from fifty to, like, one thousand big blinds deep.
Exactly. Stack-to-pot ratio. Whenever anybody asks me, “What’s a book where I can get better at hold’em?” that’s the book I say.
You had a great year in 2012, when you finished third in Event #8: $1,500 Omaha Hi/Lo for $102,373 and third in Event 46: $3,000 Pot Limit Omaha Hi/Lo for $124,645. You had already gone pro way before then, right?
I don’t really consider myself a professional. You can take a professional approach to being a poker player, but most people who play poker for a living are fairly lazy. I’m probably smart enough to have a professional job, get my degree, and work a 9-to-5, but I’m the smart, lazy kid. I’m the kid who never went to class and did really well on standardized tests. I guess that mentality has its pros and cons, but it’s the way I live my life.
So you wouldn’t call yourself a poker pro because you don’t think there are any poker pros?
No! I definitely think there are poker pros. But I don’t approach the game in a professional way. I don’t study the way I used to, I don’t go over preflop ranges like I used to, I get up when I want to. If I don’t want to play, I don’t play.
But you’re supporting yourself through poker.
For a lot of people, that’s the definition of a pro.
I think there’s a big difference. I think a lot of people who announce themselves as a poker pro, who say “I am a poker pro” without being asked, are losing players. Especially in cash games.
That’s pretty accurate in my experience.
If I had to point out the one person who made me a better poker player, it would be Ryan Lenaghan. He’s a good friend of mine who made a deep run in the  Main Event. I think he’s one of the top twenty-five or fifty PLO cash players on the planet. He’s that good. I say that not because he’s a friend but because of his approach to the game: he’s watching videos, he’s reading Two Plus Two, he’s talking with people better than him — that’s a professional. He introduced me to Tommy Angelo, who has a really good video series that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to play poker for a living. It’s called The Eightfold Path to Poker Enlightenment. If I was going to coach someone about poker — or just about how to treat other people — I’d start there.
Can you give a few tips on how to conduct yourself at the table?
You should have a humanistic view. I’m not religious or spiritual in any way, shape, or form — I’m not saying there isn’t a God, I just don’t have proof that there is — but I live by the Golden Rule: treat others the way you’d like to be treated. And I think you should bring that to the poker table. Whether they’re a winning player or losing player, treat people well. Treat them like a human being.
Also, act quickly. You want recreational players to continue to play, so don’t take every little action so seriously. Don’t tank preflop. Save those moments for when you have real decisions — maybe a big river all-in, something like that. I understand why people tank: it’s game theory optimal to balance your decisions. But you want recreational players to come back. You don’t want them to be bored.
I’ve played poker with Bruno Mars, Kevin Hart, Channing Tatum. One day Ray Liotta was in our 2/5 game and some guy just wouldn’t leave him alone, he kept asking: “What’s your favorite movie that you’ve made?” But these guys don’t want to talk about what they do for a living when they’re playing poker.
Which gets back to your point about being treating people well at the table.
Exactly. If there’s a lawyer who sits down at six o’clock and he’s in his suit, are you going to ask him, “Hey, how were the depositions today? Did you go to court?” It’s the same thing with harassing a guy like Ray Liotta about acting or a guy like Russell Westbrook about basketball.
I’ll give you a funny story about Westbrook. The first time I played with him, in 2013, we played 5–5–10 PLO at Harrah’s [New Orleans]. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, he’s just chilling and eating healthy food with his buddy. But we played really late, till about four in the morning, the night before Westbrook had a game. The next day I turn on ESPN and the BottomLine says, “Russell Westbrook misses morning shootaround due to illness.” I texted my friend David, who had played with us the previous night, and said, that motherfucker’s not ill. He was playing PLO till four in the morning and wanted to sleep in!
Wow. Did he play in the game?
Oh, yeah. He probably went for forty. Westbrook is the sickest. He has no chill. He’s my favorite basketball player. By far.
Any final thoughts on kickball?
Do you want to play more kickball?
Not really. I just wanted to play to have fun, to have a noncompetitive thing, but the other teams took it so seriously. I guess that’s fine, if your only interest is winning at kickball. Jesus, if that’s all you have to look forward to every week, then God bless your soul and your life, because it has to be pretty awful. I liked our approach, which was more random and fun.
I was surprised at the importance of bunting. I wouldn’t have expected it to be so important.
It’s like limping in PLO. In a live full-ring PLO game, ranges should be tight. It’s a game with a lot of variance, and nothing really matters until you see a flop, so it’s kind of a GTO thing to do. Bunting in kickball is GTO: you want to get on first, so if you’re quick and a good bunter then you’ll get on base a good percentage of the time.
I feel like, having no experience and no strategy, our team did a decent job. By the way, if you’re interested in playing basketball in the winter, I’ll put in a good word in for you.
I haven’t played much basketball lately. It would be fun. I’m trying to run and get back into shape. I’ve just been lazy, man.
You’re also trying to finish your degree at South Alabama, right?
Trying to. I have two more classes.
Two more? That’s doable.
Yeah, they’re Chemistry classes, though. I’m a Chemistry minor.
Ah. You might have to hit the books for a tiny bit, then.
Oh, yeah. I’ll be fine. I can cruise through.
And what about poker? What’s the end game?
I’m not in poker to have the biggest stack. I’m not in it to have any “poker celebrity” bullshit. I’m in it to win money and to not work a 9-to-5. I like my lifestyle. If I can do what I’ve done for the past however-many years, I’ll be pretty happy with the rest of my life.
*This interview was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine