At 20, schooling competition at poker no big deal for Calvo

ON GAMBLING

The Kickoff

June 07, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

Peter Calvo's story probably should come with some kind of a disclaimer. Perhaps something like, Kids, don't try this at home. Or, adult supervision recommended.

The 20-year McDaniel College student and Howard County resident has made nearly $60,000 doing what would make most parents blanch with terror -- playing online poker for fairly high stakes.

But in Calvo's case, the communication major's father is convinced that his son has a gift for the game and has even taken a hand in making sure that he goes about it in as responsible a fashion as possible. That includes paying federal income taxes.

"You have to play by the rules," said Robert Calvo, who is a quality assurance manager for NASA, a job he concedes is all about risk-aversion.

And he admits he was as skeptical as any parent would be when, after a semester of college and a flush of success at small-stakes poker, his son declared ambitions about being a serious poker player.

"I wanted to make sure this wasn't just dumb luck or just beginner's luck," the father said. "But his attitude went beyond, `I'm better than my peers and I can be good at this level.' He wanted to excel."

And so Christmas and birthday presents were instructional books on poker. In the few years since, Peter Calvo graduated from the modest online Texas Hold 'em games of 25-cent and 50-cent betting limits to, more typically, $5-$10 no-limit cash games, sometimes lower, sometimes higher. Of course, with no-limit meaning exactly what it implies, the wagers can soar quickly. Occasionally, he'll also play in online tournaments.

But -- and this is where it gets interesting -- Calvo frequently plays eight tables at a time.

"My dad will watch me and he's shocked at the moves that I make with a certainty that it'll go one way or another," said Calvo, who keeps spreadsheets of quarterly income and expenses so his father can file the tax returns.

Calvo's most lucrative quarterly earnings were about $30,000. In the most recent quarter, the River Hill High graduate has made withdrawals from his Internet poker room of choice, PokerStars, of more than $20,000. He has also had a few quarters that were flat or negative.

Jonathan Kendall, assistant director of counseling at the University of Maryland, said that Internet gambling among college students remains largely underground until some problem emerges -- academic or financial -- that forces a student to seek help.

"If it's connected to some kind of behavior, such as when they have a break from class they go right to the computer, then we'll suggest other things for them to do with that time," Kendall said.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said among the factors young people should keep in mind are the long odds in being consistently successful at a profession that involves gambling.

"Of all the thousands and thousands of kids who play Pop Warner football, their chances of making an NFL roster are probably better than of all the people playing poker becoming successful poker professionals," Whyte said.

Interestingly, when Calvo started at McDaniel College, his intention was to play football as a 6-foot-1, 190-pound defensive back. Instead, he'll be heading to Las Vegas in a few weeks for the seven-week World Series of Poker.

Calvo turns 21 on June 20, which means it will be legal for him to play in bricks-and-mortar casinos when the World Series starts a week later with the first of more than 40 open events. It culminates with the famous $10,000 buy-in world championship. He has played freely online because the legal status of Internet poker remains gray and any enforcement has been nonexistent.

Looking forward to his senior year in the fall, Calvo is renting a condo in Vegas for the summer and plans to play in most of the World Series no-limit hold 'em tournaments, about 20 in all. While playing in the main event is not imperative for him, Calvo hopes to become the youngest player ever to win a coveted World Series of Poker bracelet that is given to the victor of any WSOP event. The current record-holder was 21 years, three months and three days old when he won a $1,500 limit hold 'em tournament last year and pocketed nearly $362,000.

Calvo, who is pursuing minors in business and film and video studies, hopes to leverage any success at the WSOP with his own Web site, www.younggunzofpoker.com, where he has already invested some of his winnings trying to sell self-designed poker apparel. A little more personal investment has been the purchase of a late-model white Mercedes Benz hardtop convertible.

When David Williams -- a math whiz from Southern Methodist University -- finished second in the 2004 World Series of Poker main event and won $3.5 million, he made sure to sound a warning to other young people urging them not to drop out of school with dreams of becoming a professional poker player.

The McDaniel College student said he has promised his parents that no matter what happens in Las Vegas, he will earn his degree. And while Calvo's own advice to friends is less pointedly cautionary than that of Williams, it remains sobering.

"I tell them that some of being successful at poker is learned and a lot of it is from playing over time and gaining experience. And some of it is personality and mindset," he said.

"But the ability to take it from good to great and to play against pros and to think you have the ability to win in tournaments," Calvo said, "you've just got to have it."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

To hear an interview with Peter Calvo, go to www.baltimoresun.com/ordine

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