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24 February 2017
By Gary Trask
No cheering in the press box.
It's one of the first rules a young journalist learns, and the figurative and literal meaning is vitally important. You should never root for — or against, for that matter — the people or teams you are covering.
Last week, however, we had a rare exception here at Casino City. Our former colleague Dan Podheiser reached the final table of the $1,100 Main Event of the Winter Deep Freeze Poker Challenge at Foxwoods Resort Casino. With a $67,000 first-place check in the balance, we were all rooting — and rooting hard — from afar for Podheiser to come out on top, and we make no apologies for doing so.
You see, it was just 10 months ago that Podheiser walked into our office and resigned. No, he wasn't bringing his writing talents to another publication or altering his career path with a 9-to-5 job in a different industry.
Instead, he was doing what has probably crossed the mind of anyone who has ever played poker with some inkling of success, but never had the stones to actually commit to.
He was taking a shot at playing poker professionally.
His decision caused a bit of a jolt. Not only is Podheiser a young, skilled writer, but he is also the kind of guy you want in your office: dependable, creative, quick-witted and knowledgeable. And always up for grabbing a beer after work.
But on top of that, there was the natural concern for his personal well-being. Sure, we all knew Podheiser was a talented player. At 27 years old, he had been playing regularly for about 13 years. A New Jersey native, he would often play online when he returned home. He loved the game and seemed to have the demeanor and mindset to handle the rigors of grinding out a living at the poker table.
The timing was also perfect. His wife, Ashley, had just finished three years of graduate school and was recently hired as a speech-language pathologist, so they would have at least one steady check coming in each week.
This also wasn't some sort of hasty, impulsive decision. He had been thinking about it seriously ever since he was sent to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker for Casino City in summer 2015. In between writing about the event, he played multiple hours of poker with great success. And call it a coincidence or not, but Josh Beckley, a kid Podheiser grew up playing against in home games back in New Jersey, finished second that year in the $10,000 WSOP Main Event, taking home $4.4 million.
"I was like, Are you kidding me? Why can't that be me?" Podheiser remembers with a laugh.
While it was a well-thought-out plan, with the pros quite possibly outweighing the cons, I remember thinking to myself, Damn, can the kid really make this work?
Apparently, I wasn't alone. Podheiser insists that while all that mattered to him was the support of those closest to him — his parents and Ashley, first and foremost — he is well aware that there were probably plenty of doubters out there.
So, when Podheiser did indeed prevail at Foxwoods late Monday night, outlasting a field of 303 players for his first signature tournament win as a poker pro, you would think he experienced an extreme sense of self-justification. But that's not the case. While obviously elated with victory and the big haul that came with it, he didn't have that "I told you so" chip on his shoulder when we spoke in the days after the event.
In his mind, he didn't need any sort of validation.
"Nobody ever told me outright, but I'm sure there were a lot of people skeptical about my decision to turn pro," he told me without a hint of resentment. "I was making good money in the months leading up to this tourney playing cash games, but there's no documented proof of that. Now, I have a photo of me with the big trophy and proof of winning tens of thousands of dollars.
"If that leads those people to now believe I made a good decision, so be it. That's fine by me. But, to be perfectly honest, I never really cared about that to begin with."
Part of Podheiser's level-headed approach comes from the fact that he knows full well there are likely going to be hard times ahead. That's life as a poker pro. But when those dry spells do occur, he is much better equipped to deal with them, thanks to an extremely slow stretch in the initial stage of his pro career.
"I was really struggling during those first few months," he admitted. "I was doing OK, but I was still taking money out of my poker bankroll to pay bills. If I had a bad week and lost a few thousand dollars, it would put a lot of pressure on my already short bankroll."
Podheiser, who plays primarily $2-$5 no-limit cash games at Foxwoods, says it was the first time he really doubted himself. Exacerbating the burden of his new career was that Ashley, whom he met when they were freshmen at Emerson College, had just found out she was pregnant with their first child.
"Quite frankly, I didn't have an adequate enough bankroll to turn pro, I probably didn't have enough experience and I wasn't treating it as serious as I should have," he said. "There was just too much pressure on me. Every mistake I made at the table was compounded because I had all of that financial pressure on me."
After multiple discussions with Ashley, who remained whole-heartedly supportive, they made the decision to reach into their savings and put a "sizable chunk" toward the poker bankroll.
"We agreed that this was my small business and I needed capital," he explained.
He took two weeks away from the felt at the start of November and changed his routine, committing to investing his time properly in order to be successful. He reread Jared Tendler's The Mental Game of Poker, but this time he took notes, typed them out and put the PDF on his iPhone so he could review it while at the table.
He's devoured at least 10 more books since then, including Ed Miller's series of books, with Poker's 1% being the "most influential" of the four, and The Mathematics of Poker, by Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman, which he says is "most important" book he's read and one he plans to read again to gain a better understanding of the concepts.
He also began watching several hours of video content — Red Chip Poker, Run It Once, Doug Polk — and basically became a new student of the game. When he started playing again, he took notes at the table and every single morning he makes it a point to review a hand and dissect what he did right or wrong.
"I never worked hard in school; just always kind of did whatever I needed to do to get by," he said. "But this was different. I was totally committed."
He also started to see a therapist for the first time in his life to help him with the mental side of the game, and the benefits have been plenty.
"A few weeks ago I tried to step up and play a $5-$10 game and I lost more money in one night than I ever had before," he said. "Before seeing a therapist, I would have been down and out. Instead, this time I used it as a learning experience. I studied what went wrong and pushed forward."
His new routine now consists of logging between 100 and 120 hours a month playing cash games at Foxwoods and studying his game another 40 or 50 hours.
Positive results started almost immediately upon his return to the grind. In addition to regularly turning a profit in cash games, he made the final table in the only other tournament he's played since turning pro, finishing ninth in a $600 Mega Stack Challenge at Foxwoods in December, earning him $9,655.
Podheiser says the difference between his skill level and approach to the game now compared to last summer is like "night and day."
"I am in such a better place right now; it's not even close," he said with a rise in his voice. "What poker has done for me is put me on a path of personal development, both at the table and away from it.
"I still make mistakes, plenty of them. No one is perfect, but the great thing about poker is that there's no ceiling as to how good you can be. I have the capacity to get better and better. That's exciting to me."
Just last week, Podheiser and Ashley found out the expectant baby is a boy, which gave the future dad and diehard sports fan an extra hop in his step as he sat down in the Main Event. He played well, got some breaks and never had less than 30 big blinds in front of him. In fact, he says for 95% of the tournament he had at least 60 big blinds.
His opponent for heads-up play was Christopher Smith from Wallingford, Connecticut. Since they were dead even in chips, the two players agreed to each take $50,000 of the $108,541 at stake for the first two spots and play for the remaining $8,541, the trophy and the prestige of winning first place, which of course, all went to Podheiser.
The triumph also earned him some attention from the poker world. He says the best thing to come out of the whole experience was that he received an offer from a "well-known" professional to back in him in future tournaments.
"It's flattering to have people see me play and want to invest in me," he said. "It opens up a lot of opportunities."
This year's World Series of Poker, however, won't be one of them. Podheiser is booked for birthing classes every Sunday in June with Ashley and Baby Podheiser is due in late July, a direct conflict with any plans to hit up Las Vegas.
"That's fine with me. I have more important priorities at home right now," chuckled Podheiser, who played in last year's WSOP Colossus and failed to cash. "The World Series of Poker will always be there. And next year at this time, if I am playing more and more tournaments and feel good about my game, I'll be there."
So will we, Dan. And you can bet we'll be cheering from the rail, despite that press badge around our neck.
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