The Big Gamble

A Marylander sells the family business and moves to Vegas to play poker. Is success in the cards?

Playing for Keeps

Moving from suburban Maryland to Las Vegas to make a living playing poker? You bet your life.

Cover Story

November 02, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Staff

LAS VEGAS -- John Robertson loops a rubber band around thirty-five $100 bills, tucks the roll into his pocket, and climbs behind the wheel of his 8-year-old Crown Victoria. It's 10 a.m. and the temperature is already over 100 degrees as he flies past desert scrub grass and fast-food joints, toward gaudy casinos that loom like bowling pins in the distance.

Thirty minutes later, his odd commute takes him between the towering black pyramid of the Luxor Hotel & Casino and the faux Empire State Building of New York-New York. His destination: the Bellagio, with its 8-acre lake, botanical gardens and the most prestigious poker room in town.

He leaves his car at valet parking and makes his way past high-end clothing stores into a chandeliered parlor off the casino floor, where he joins seven other players, all men, at one of 30 green-felt tables. The minimum bet is $40 and most of the pots are several hundred dollars, although some will climb over $1,000. The higher stakes don't faze him; venturing money is as much a part of his job as filling out timecards is to a clerk.

The players engage in some banter. "I swear if I get even, I'm never coming back," one says.

Robertson says hello, but offers little about himself. Blue-eyed, bespectacled, his hair and goatee beginning to gray, he could pass for a professor. He wears blue jeans, sneakers and a button-down shirt, an outfit neither sloppy nor showy -- it's utterly without attitude. Like any serious poker player, he wants to be hard to read.

With a quiet intensity, he sizes up his opponents. "Tourists have a tendency to dress up," he says. "And if it's 2 o'clock in the afternoon and their watch says 5, I know they're a tourist from the East."

Robertson is a poker room regular. These impromptu games, called "side action," are professionals' closest thing to a steady income and serve as tuneups for tournaments, where big money -- and reputations -- can be made.

A sign advises players: "The Bellagio Poker Room is a non-smoking area." A few tourists nurse beers or gin and tonics, but a working man wouldn't booze it up on the job, and the poker room is Robertson's office.

On this day, his office mates are a mix of serious and casual players. They don't know they're up against a man who has earned all of his revenue from poker since 1999.

Or that Robertson, 47, is just 12 weeks into the biggest gamble of his life.

It's hard to imagine making a more radical move without leaving the continental United States.

In April, Robertson and his wife, Nancy, traded a home with green grass and trees in Mitchellville, Md., for a suite in a salmon-colored "extended-stay" hotel in a transient area on the outskirts of the Las Vegas Strip.

In July, they moved into their new home: a stucco contemporary in a gated community 17 miles north of the Strip. The house has a pool surrounded by desert landscape -- almost a moonscape to the Eastern eye. Four varieties of cactus grow in their rocky front yard.

Robertson could have continued to play professionally from the D.C. suburbs, but this is the poker capital. Leaving friends and routines behind to move 2,400 miles closer to the action sometimes made him feel uneasy. His wife would miss her book group, and face selling off her beloved Washington Redskins season tickets. Mostly, though, Robertson didn't think about what they had to lose.

He is a man comfortable with risk, and not just in cards. Without aggressively taking chances, he believes he's a mere hostage of fate, a pawn of whatever hand life may deal him.

He grew up playing poker, canasta and other card games, but that was just for fun. The clear expectation in his middle-class family was that he would eventually run the family printing business in Washington.

After studying business administration in college, he did exactly that. But he never stopped playing poker, which, by the mid-'90s, seemed to gain a permanent hold on his psyche.

He played in informal games in the area and occasionally drove to Atlantic City. He pored over strategies and opponents' tendencies with the seriousness of an accountant studying tax code revisions. He read books purporting to reveal poker "secrets," even one on applying Zen Buddhism to the game.

He meticulously logged his poker results and notes into a spiral notebook in tiny handwriting:

"If a player looks a long time at their last card, it wasn't what they wanted. Feel safer. Bet."

In time, he became as fastidious about poker as about another passion, gourmet cooking. And he wondered if he could become adept enough to land near the hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money awarded to top finishers in the biggest tournaments.

At that level, competing against hundreds of the world's best players at a time, Robertson would never enter a tournament expecting to win. But if he consistently got close, he figured fortune might one day manage to locate him and, like a magnetic pull, draw him into the winner's circle.

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