As a Millennial and part of the tech generation, I grew up around computers. I can’t remember much of a time before the Internet. Computers were ever-present by the time I reached middle school. When I was in fourth grade, I learned HTML and began writing code by hand – a geek of the highest order.
In elementary school, my parents bought their first computer. I was glued to the magic of the mouse, keyboard, and screen working together in a confluence of beautiful technology. These integrated zeros and ones seemed to dance before me, and it wasn’t long before I started making money from it all.
Today, I have a secret to share with you all: in high school, I had a gambling problem. In 2004, I started playing poker with my friends. It started out pretty casual and fun; lighthearted, even. Large groups of people would coalesce at one person’s house every couple weeks, and a doable $5 buy-in would be advertised. Texts and phone calls would be sent out, and the get-togethers were great.
The buy-ins (the amount to play in tournament-style texas hold ’em poker) grew, too. What was $5 soon became $10, $20, and there were even re-buys (to buy back in for extra if you had lost once) at another $20. The shared prizes were amounting to hundreds and hundreds of dollars. If you won, you could easily walk away with an extra $100-200+ in your pockets. The infusion of funds was electrifying. I was hooked and loving it.
Some people were inspired by the statistical underpinnings. Behind it all, poker between friends was a stats-based game of skill and chance. But if you mastered the art of stats, your chances became stronger. Poker wasn’t pure gambling, as the same winners would be on the leaderboard week-to-week. They were doing something right.
The mathematics never appealed to me; instead, I loved the interpersonal dynamics – the play, candor, and fight between personalities at the table. Give me 8 other opponents, and I believed strongly that I could understand their style, bets, and choices. This was exciting and enticing. Unfortunately, at the end of every tournament, the game would be done for a couple weeks. I’d have to put my earnings and love for poker on hold.
I was looking to fill that gap, and that’s when I found online poker. The world of online poker is complicated to explain in the space and time I have today. Basically, the in-person life I was experiencing every couple weeks could happen every day – at any time. There were hundreds of thousands of players worldwide. Money was flowing – some would say overflowing. A growing mass of amateurs were joining, dropping $100, $200, $1,000 into online accounts. Frankly, they were suckers and I was ready to take advantage of their inexperience.
In 2005-2006, I was playing regularly online through two websites. I entered a couple tournaments and made nearly $2,000 in a couple weeks. When I played “cash games” (no buy-in and not in a tournament style), I was averaging anywhere from $7-10 per hour. Mind you, I was a sophomore/junior in high school, and this kind of money was astronomical to me.
Unfortunately, I had one major problem: I couldn’t stop. The money was so powerful and my earnings were ridiculously lucrative. I lost respect for money, and that’s where things got troublesome.
I was only 16 years old, had made thousands of dollars off of poker, and I was getting bored. Better said, I wanted to raise the stakes and make more money. $2,000 here and there was no longer enough – I wanted the $50,000 prizes and $50 an hour average pay. Amidst this mix of greed and boredom was a toxic combination. I started playing one-on-one (colloquially: “heads-up”) for hundreds of dollars at a time.
The numbers didn’t really mean anything, and it all began to feel pretty surreal. Once, I continually bet $100 against someone – over and over again – until I lost about $400. My heart was racing. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Within seconds, I had lost hundreds, and all without care. I had been gambling for entertainment, and this was never the intention.
Off and on, I struggled to stop or curtail it – a telltale sign of addiction. The rush was calling and I itched to play more – in time and money. As my winnings disappeared, I saw my savings account go back down to near-zero. In addiction parlance, I had hit rock bottom, and began selling off dvds, books, and anything I could get my hands on to keep funding the rush. When I ran out of that, I used credit cards. When I ran out of that, I realized I had lost everything.
I’m about 5-6 years “sober” from poker/gambling problem. I haven’t touched a deck of cards to teach or play texas hold ’em. I blocked and closed all online accounts. Like all dependencies, I know this itch is eager to get back out there and play another hand. Instead, I’m writing this article and saving my precious pennies. Now, my life is changing and it has nothing to do with the cards I’ve been dealt.