Just a few moments ago, Daniel Kim was relaxed. He leaned back against his chair, eyes scrunching up once in a while as he laughed politely at my embarrassing excuse for conversation icebreakers. Now he’s focused, a look of feigned nonchalance on his face as he watches me from behind his cards. His fingers play comfortably with the black poker chip, spinning it around as he waits for me to decide whether I want to call his bet.
I throw my hand down onto the table. Two pair, Jacks and 5s. The corner of his mouth twitches upward and he reveals the flush that he’s been hiding. Without a word, he rakes over all the chips from the pot over to his side and starts methodically stacking his prize. As someone who just learned the basics of this game thirty minutes ago, I’m glad there’s no real money on the line.
Daniel Kim is what society would call a professional gambler. His poison of choice is Texas Hold ’em, a game that many would consider the gambler’s bread and butter. To his mother, he’s unemployed: a fact that she only reluctantly stopped nagging him about after he came back one day with a little less than $14,000 in tournament earnings.
“People seem to think that poker is all luck.” Daniel said, “It’s really not. Poker isn’t like playing slots. We’re not just pulling a lever hoping that we’ll get a lucky one. People say that winning big in gambling is like being struck like lightning. But we’re chasing that lightning.”
Because he isn’t exactly a poker star yet, Daniel has to take the risk of borrowing capital. These loans are nothing to sneeze at. Joey Young, a childhood friend and backer of Daniel, has experienced all of the stress that comes with possibly losing money.
“Nowadays I’ll give him a thousand, two thousand, with the promise that he’ll make back a lot more. Then we split the earnings and everyone’s happy.” Joey said, “But obviously people aren’t just giving him free wins. I remember there was a really bad streak where he ended up owing me over ten thousand. Luckily he won a big pot later to pay it off, but it was pretty devastating for both of us for a while”
That specific instance seems to serve as some sort of traumatic trigger for Daniel as well. It was in his last summer as an SU student, when he and a few of his friends decided to fly to Vegas to try their hand at a national tournament. The results were the very opposite of what they wanted.
“We were small fish in a very, very big pond.” Joey said, “I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into. All I can really say is that it was a good thing we booked round-trip tickets, because we might not have been able to get back home.”
“I remember coming home and not being able to sleep right for days.” Daniel said, “It’s not like I could do anything about it after the fact, but it still felt like there was a weight hanging above me until I could pay back what I lost.”
That feeling of loss is something that needs to be experienced, according to poker coach Adam Stemple.
“If you want to play poker professionally, you have to internalize that feeling and disregard it.” Stemple said, “People tend to get too affected, especially in the middle of games when they lose a big hand. The instant they go on tilt, they’ve basically given up everything.”
When asked whether he thought his gambling was an addiction, David laughed.
“With the amount of money that you can lose in one hand, you kind of have to be a little addicted to keep wanting to go back to it.” He said.
Daniel is no stranger to addictions. He’s had plenty of what he likes to call “phases” in his life, and he freely admits that he has somewhat of an addictive personality. The first of these phases hit in high school, when he committed more time playing the real-time-strategy computer game Starcraft than his studies.
“My parents were pissed, obviously.” He said, not seeming particularly bothered, “I ended up doing so badly in school that I had to drop out of my private school and go into my sophomore year as a public schooler.” None of this discouraged him, however, and his love for the game only grew over the years.
“I wasn’t even that good at the game, to be honest.” Daniel said, “But I played so much of it that I eventually started winning a lot.”
Daniel would go to local internet cafés to participate in tournaments, winning small cash prizes and gift cards. At one point a gaming organization even sent him a contract to join their team. He turned it down.
“I was still in high school. Ultimately I knew that leaving school entirely wasn’t going to be a good decision for my future.” He said.
After a while, Daniel’s interest in the game waned and was replaced with a myriad of others. After Starcraft was basketball, entrepreneurship, and (he sheepishly admitted) pick-up artist techniques. Eventually, he found poker.
Daniel started his gambling career online, walking to his local CVS to get prepaid credit cards to fund his habit. Once he got a bank account, all bets were off.
“I remember I lost five hundred in a day once.” Daniel said, “Back then that was a huge deal. But then I put in more money and won some. That rush was enough to keep me going.”
Daniel isn’t sure how much he spent on online gambling over the years before it was made illegal in his home state of New Jersey. Being barred from poker websites, however, did nothing to deter him. Instead, it became his world.
“I remember I bought books on poker game theory. Actual books. I hadn’t read anything outside of school in my life.” He chuckled.
In college, everyone played cards. They were cheap, convenient and social. It wasn’t hard to convince people to play with him. Not many people would play for money, but that didn’t matter.
“I was just trying to get experience back then.” Daniel said.
His first debut at a tournament that had a big stake was in his later years of college.
“It’s stressful even more for me, watching,” Joey said, “I mean, yeah, some of it’s my money, but still. He’s my friend, and seeing him in that kind of high-stakes situation on TV freaks me out to this day.”
Daniel’s younger sister, Sarah, has watched him through all of his phases.
“He’s always been like that.” She said, “He once asked me, ‘If you’re not the best at something, then what’s the point in even doing it?’ which I guess sums up his whole mentality to a T.”
His mother, Mrs. Kim, seems to have a lot to say despite her broken English.
“Daniel is smart son.” She said. Like a typical Korean mom, she sounds very used to bragging about her child to everyone within earshot.
“Poker is not job.” Mrs. Kim continued, “We did- He don’t go to school for that.”
“She hates it, I know that.” Daniel said, loosely interpreting for his mother, “She thinks that I’m wasting my time and effort when I could be out doing a ‘real job’ and getting connections to work at Wall Street or something.”
One Saturday evening, Daniel’s back in his hometown and gets a call from a friend. Turns out that Daniel knows a guy (who knows a guy) who runs poker circles at his house pretty regularly.
“His name is Paul.” Daniel said, “He’s rich.”
Paul has been hosting these get-togethers since high school, when Daniel and his friends all thought they were poker hot-shots. Now that they’ve grown up, they still like to think it’s true. The buy-in is somewhat high for a friendly game, but Daniel likes it that way.
“There’s nothing I like more than amateurs who think they’re professional.” He said with a smile.
Even among friends, Daniel doesn’t let up. There’s no such thing as ‘going easy’ on someone when cash is on the line. They’re all aware of this, but they don’t mind. For them, poker is a hobby. For Daniel, it’s his job.
“I’m not going to pretend that this is a stable career option.” Daniel said, “I do have a degree in accounting, so I could always go back and try to find a job in that. But for right now, this is what I’m going to do.”