Las Vegas has a reputation for sorting out winners from losers. For every story of “overnight riches” there are dozens of tales of bankrolls lost. But for some, the poker rooms of Las Vegas casinos have been proving grounds, the work space from which to launch careers as professional players—not in the blink of an eye but through long hours of grinding at the tables en route to hard-earned cash game wins and World Series of Poker (WSOP) success.
Switching Sides of the Table
More than a few pro poker players got their start as Vegas dealers before taking their rightful seats at the table. Scotty Nguyen was one of them. Growing up in California, the Vietnamese immigrant was bored with high school and used to skip class to play poker. His dream of playing professionally brought him as a 21-year-old to Las Vegas, where he started out by cleaning tables at a casino and eventually got a job dealing poker, first at Harrah’s Holiday Casino and then at the Golden Nugget.
Nguyen learned so much by observing the methods and mistakes of customers that he was able to start playing himself and winning consistently at low-limit games. Within two years, he was able to quit dealing and begin playing fulltime. Today, five WSOP bracelets and $5 million in tournament earnings later, “The Prince” is one of the most recognizable faces in all of poker.
A similar story could be told by Mike “The Mouth” Matusow. In his early 20s, he got a job as a poker dealer at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in Las Vegas, where an older player offered to stake him in tournaments. As it turned out, Matusow won frequently—often enough, in fact, to turn poker into a professional career. With three WSOP bracelets and over $6 million in winnings, the Mouth has a reputation for “always being on tilt” as his style of play.
Quitting Their Day Jobs
Today, Kathy Liebert ranks among the top female tournament players of all time, but she certainly didn’t start out as a rounder. After graduating from college with a business degree, she worked for Dun & Bradstreet as a business analyst. She discovered poker when she was transferred to Colorado, where she did quite well at low limit games.
Feeling the need for more action, in 1994 Liebert visited Las Vegas to participate in some small buy-in tournaments and ended up winning over $30,000 in one week. That was just the bankroll she needed to leave the business world and turn pro. She left Colorado and has lived in Las Vegas ever since.
David “The Mathematician” Sklansky did it the other way around. He felt that his math skills were underappreciated in his New Jersey actuarial job, so ditched the 9-to-5 first and then traveled to Las Vegas, where he could put his college-learned card skills to the test. The experiment was a resounding success. He got his first WSOP cash for $7,000 in 1976, won the $1,000 Razz event at Amarillo Slim’s Superbowl of Poker in 1979 and soon captured three WSOP bracelets after that. He has been a fixture in the Las Vegas poker scene ever since.
Poker as Education
In many ways, Las Vegas provides students of poker a way to graduate into their professional careers. Huckleberry “Huck” Seed was studying to be an electrical engineer at the California Institute of Technology, but preferred playing poker. At age 21, he entered the 1990 WSOP Seven-Card Stud and Limit Hold’em Hi-Lo events, finishing fourth at both final tables for over $32,000. That was the end of his schooling and the start of his life as a pro, including four WSOP bracelets and some $2.9 million in tournament winnings.
In much the same fashion, Freddy Deeb was intent on getting a degree in mechanical engineering at Utah State University. When war broke out in his home country, Lebanon, he was cut off from funds to finish studies, yet his student visa prohibited him from working to make ends meet. Deeb started playing poker in Las Vegas to cover his living expenses. Two WSOP bracelets and $3.9 million in cashes later, the naturalized U.S. citizen is not displeased at all with the turn his life took.
Burt Boutin never finished college either. In fact, fresh out of high school the Pennsylvania native moved west, not to play poker but to become a stockbroker. In 1989 at the age of 22, his business dealings required him to move from Colorado to Las Vegas; it was not until six years later that he “stumbled into a poker room and was hooked.” Since then, the stockbroker has won two WSOP bracelets and earned more than $1.3 million.
All in the Family, Too
Doyle Brunson, of course, got his poker career started in Texas before moving to Las Vegas, but his son Todd is a purely local product, whose 2005 WSOP bracelet and nearly $1 million in tournament earnings prove it is possible to be born into the profession. In 2007, daughter Pamela caught a couple of cashes, too, although she appears to be letting her brother carry on the family business.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas resident and CardPlayer Magazine owner Barry Shulman has got his family following his winning ways, which includes a pair of WSOP bracelets and $1.6 million won at the tables since he “rediscovered” his love of poker in Vegas at age 51. Son Jeff has already surpassed his pop with over $2.3 million in winnings, while Barry’s wife, Allyn Jaffrey Shulman, has her own WSOP bracelet and $688,479 banked.