This was first published in The Brooklyn Ink.
One morning in January, Russell Baumblit woke up and understood poker. Not in the sense that he finally understood the rules of the game, but in the sense that he got it. He suddenly knew how to win. So he decided to go pro.
He was 18 at the time, and had been playing online poker for a few months for fun, but he’d not been taking it seriously, and, as he explains, he hadn’t had a plan. He knew that becoming a successful poker player would take time, but he’d also suspected that it would take some luck. That day he realized he had been wrong.
“Poker is pure skill,” Russell says sitting in a large office in his parents’ house. He has outfitted the room to suit his needs as a serious poker player with a poker coach. Along one wall is a desk with the multiscreen computer he uses when he plays, and on the other side of the room there is a large mahogany desk with a computer for his students.
“Over the long run, there’s no luck involved. But it’s like any other skill. You have to work on it,” he says.
In January, he started working on it. Russell got up every day, turned on his computer and played poker. He didn’t pick up his phone and he told his friends not to bother him between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. He played small-stakes games, double-or-nothing “sit and go” tournaments in which you and nine other players buy in for a dollar each. When five players have gone bust the remaining five share the buy-in, giving them $2 each. “These games are a good way to learn,” he says, “and you can play a bunch of tables at the same time.”
Some of the better players can keep several hundreds of these tournaments going at any one time. Russell normally juggles around 40. “You can pick up a pretty good hourly wage doing it,” he says. “You can easily do a few hundred SNGs in an hour and if you place in the top five around 20 percent of the time you take home anywhere between $50 and $100 an hour.”
Watching Russell play this way is a chaotic experience. He plays only Texas Hold’ em, a form of poker where each player gets two cards each that they bet on. Then three cards are turned face up on the table. This is called the “flop.” The players try to combine the flop with their own two cards to make the best hand possible.
Russell’s dual computer screens are littered with graphs, numbers and grids. A small window shows a crude image of a poker table with 10 names spread around it. Russell’s poker name is “Fwuffywink.” The names around the table change rapidly as Russell toggles his many tables. “There’s no skill to this,” he says. “It’s just survival. You just hope someone makes a mistake, and keep your head down.”
“The key to these games,” he says, “is folding. You fold every hand while the ante is small enough not to bleed you dry, and wait for people to call and raise each other. You don’t play to win. You play to lose less than the other players. You just need to stay in it until five players go bust.” In these games experienced players stay away from any action, letting the fish, as beginners are called, take each other out. Russell says: “ Fold, fold, fold. I need chips. Shove. Fold, fold, fold. I need chips. Shove.” To a person not used to online poker, this approach seems strange and vastly removed from what poker is often perceived to be. Russell tells me that games this size have little to do with wits or luck, and even less to do with skill. The trick is to stay detached, to avoid getting sucked into a hand and to not try to win.
Fish will get a good hand and go for it. They’ll raise, or call, and sometimes it works out. Sometimes they’ll win a pot, or even a game. But for Russell, that’s not the point. The point is to grind through as many games as possible, ending up in the top five. It is the difference between a race car driver and a cab driver. It’s not about winning the race, but about getting through as many fares as possible.
Russell was born in Queens, but raised in Manhattan Beach, an affluent, mostly Russian area of South Brooklyn, a couple of stops east on the Q-train from Coney Island. He’s a tall, lanky teenager with a pierced lip that’s always curved in a slightly bemused grin.
His dad works in real estate and owns several buildings in the area, and his mom owns a large grocery store on Brighton Beach Avenue. Both his parents are Ukrainian. He has a half-brother from his dad’s previous marriage who he hasn’t seen since he was 12. Russell says he wants to go find him, and that he thinks he lives in Brooklyn somewhere. He also has another brother who owns a gold shop in Utica, NY.
Russell had been playing poker for about a year before he decided to get serious about it. A friend of his once showed him online poker, and Russell began fooling around with it. He never really lost, he says, but he didn’t really play for much money either. He deposited $50 into his online poker account and his friend started teaching him how to play. Another friend started around the same time, but got good faster. Russell says that the friend put in the time, and that’s why he got good.
In January of this year, Russell went on vacation to Costa Rica. He didn’t have his computer with him and so he didn’t play poker for weeks. When he came back, “It all clicked,” he says. “When I came back, I started to understand shit I never understood before. It was like, “Oh, okay, I get it.” And that’s when I started building up.
“At the time, it seemed like the best plan of action,” Russell says. “I was a high-school dropout who didn’t want to go to school. Poker’s fun. Who wouldn’t want it as a job?”
Russell played well during the spring. He stuck to a rigid timetable, and when he wasn’t playing he studied the hands he’d won or lost and all kinds of statistics about the games he had played.
“Stats are vital in online poker,” he says. Stats are the difference between playing poker and being good at poker. Often the stats matter more than the cards. In online poker, every player has stats that every other player can see. Among many other things they tell you how often a player folds and how often he raises. “If a player’s stats tells me that he plays, meaning that he doesn’t fold, 50 percent of the time, and that he raises 70 percent out of those 50 percent, then I’ll make an assumption about what he’s likely to do,” Russell says. “And I’ll stick by those assumptions until proven otherwise.”
In other words, stats are a way of predicting what you opponent will do. If a player folds 70 percent of the time, chances are that player will let you “steal” his chips, as forcing a fold is called, by raising big.
In low stakes games like this, pros take on an almost predatory quality. “The cards doesn’t matter,” he says. “The fish hang themselves.” In low stakes game where the goal is to win, not just outlast, it is all about stealing chips, forcing the smaller fish out of the water. “If I have position,” Russell says, “I’ll go all in with an UNO-card and a piece of plastic. I’m stealing the other guy’s chips no matter what.”
By “position,” Russell means where a player is relative to the dealer. All the players take turns being the dealer, also known as “having the button.” A rule of thumb is that it’s good to be the last one to act. In poker, the man who has the most information is king, and so being the last one to act is a good spot to be in.
“It’s science,” Russell says. “In the high-stakes, they’re not playing their cards anymore. They don’t care about their cards. High-stakes is all about assuming that they know that you know.” Russell explains that when you have the stats of the players you are facing, they also have yours. It becomes a game of manipulation. If Russell’s stats say that he raises often, he might deliberately try to confuse his opponent by hardly raising at all. If his stats say that he often folds, he might raise a lot. In effect, high stakes games where people play off their knowledge about the opposition comes down to, “I know that you know that I know that you know that I know.”
One of the most important concepts to understand in tournament poker is fold equity. In a tournament, a player comes to the table with a set amount of chips, and when he runs out, he’s out of the game. “Some people call it fear equity,” Russell says, “and it’s the fear other people feel to call your shove in a given situation.” Fear equity is based on the size of your stack. It is about posturing and intimidating the other payers into submission. When a player with a big stack goes all-in on a hand, he is challenging the other players to follow him. The opponents will see their stacks compared to the stack that was just shoved and decide whether or not calling is worth the risk. More often than not, the opposing players will decide that it isn’t and fold, surrendering whatever chips they have in play to the aggressor. Going all-in with a big stack says, “I have good cards and you don’t want to risk finding out how good they are.” It may be a bluff, but the point of the tactic is to instill fear. It is dominating the table through aggression.
Doyle Brunson, a legendary player and the author of book on poker, once said:
“The very best players I know are extremely aggressive… And I firmly believe that’s what accounts for the difference between a very good player and a truly top player…There’s not a man alive that can keep beating on me…The first opportunity I get, I’m going to take a stand and put all my money in the pot.”
Talking to Russell, it is difficult to imagine him capable of this kind of aggression. He is soft-spoken and friendly. As he describes forcing other players into submission, a Silken Terrier sits on his lap and licks his face. When he discusses poker, he talks about probability,range of cards and percentages in a technical way, almost like an engineer describing a scientific process. There’s no trick to it, yet to an outsider, a fish, the countless graphs, grids and numbers on Russell’s computer screen seem incomprehensible.
Russell tries to explain “range” to me. Range is what cards one can assume the opponent has based on his actions pre and “post flop,” the three cards that are placed face-up on the table in Texas Hold ‘em.
“Say your range is 2–2+,” Russell explains. “That means any pair from pocket twos to pocket aces. So say I write your range as Ace–10 + to King–Jack +; that means Ace–10, Ace–Jack, Ace–Queen, Ace–King, King–Jack, King–Queen. It’s not about what hand you have; it’s about what relative hand you have.”
To a person unaccustomed to poker, it is confusing. A while ago, Russell took on a student, Bagrad, who he wants to turn into a co-coach. Another student, Sean, recently dropped out. Every day at 11 a.m., Bagrad comes over and they talk poker. Russell makes lesson plans in which he explains the fundamentals of poker, such as position, equity and something called the independent chip model. After they study the previous day’s hands, they play. Russell sits behind his multi screen and Bagrad sits on a large, mahogany desk behind him. Bagrad is still on the low stakes, survival games and Russell stakes him the money to play. Every so often, Bagrad will ask Russell a question, and Russell answers something like, “Remember your spot and keep shoving. Who’s on the button?” Bagrad tells me it’s going okay, and he’s been winning lately. He pulls up a graph on the screen that he claims describes how he’s been doing. “My variance is okay,” he says and points to the jagged line that runs across the screen. The plan is that Bagrad will eventually reach Russell’s level and help him start his own team. “My goal is to have my own poker house,” Russell says.
The plan is that by Christmas, January at the latest, he will have won enough money to rent a four or five bedroom house. He and Bagrad will be coaches, and they’ll invite less experienced players to join them. He will stake the lesser players’ bankrolls. They will, in turn, pay him back over time by giving him a cut of their winnings. If no one wins, the money is lost. Nothing has to be paid back. Russell isn’t worried about that. If all goes according to plan, he will soon be the head of a team of players, taking cuts from all their winnings and attracting new students to his house.
“That’s how you learn,” Russell says. “Living with other poker players and talking poker all the time. Imagine 12 poker players discussing one hand, bouncing ideas off each other. That’s how I learned.”
Russell was playing hard all spring. When he first got serious, he had a $600 bankroll. “Basically nothing,” as he put it. As he played, he says, his bankroll grew and he was able to join higher-stakes tournaments, the kind of games where winning actually matters.
Eventually, he found himself playing “heads-up” in a big tournament. Heads-up is when there are only two players left in the game. “It was such a rush,” he says. “It was basically me and this other guy. First prize was $5,000 and second prize was $3,500. That was a lot of money at the time. You’re thinking, “One fuckup. One fuckup and you just lost $1,500. We played heads-up for about an hour-and-a-half. Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes you can make a deal. If you know the other guy is just as good as you, you can make a deal and split the money down the middle. I knew I could beat this guy so I was like, ‘Fuck the deal. I don’t like deals.’ There needs to be a winner. You need the glory too.”
He doesn’t remember the hand he won with, just the rush, and that he knew what he was going to spend the money on.
“My plan from the beginning was that if I ever won a big tournament, I was going straight to boot camp,” he says. “The boot camp was my solution to becoming a pro.”
Russell called a man in Texas named Brian. Brian is a pro who runs a big poker house and who coaches players for fee. Russell sent him $5,000 and got on a plane. “I told my parents, ‘I’m leaving for boot camp. I’ll be back in a week or two.’ I didn’t ask for permission. I didn’t care at that time. I was just like, ‘I see the dream. I’m almost there. I just need to go to Texas, learn and come back a killer.’ ”
A limo picked Russell up at the airport and took him to Brian’s house. Brian is 23 and lives in a big house he bought with money he says he made playing poker. There was also an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter living in the house with them. The fighter was Brian’s friend from high school and Brian was paying all his expenses so he could go on and fight in Las Vegas.
“I would wake up in the morning and watch Brian play poker from morning till night, constantly asking questions,” Russell says. “Sometimes Brian would watch me and tell me what I was doing right and wrong. He didn’t really teach me, but I learned a lot by asking questions and being really interested.”
During his first week in Texas, another of Brian’s students quit suddenly. The student was about to become one of Brian’s coaches, and Brian asked Russell to step in. So Russell lived in Brian’s guesthouse for three weeks with a bunch of other coaches. He says he learned most of what he knows about poker during that time, sitting around for hours talking about hands, coming up with strategies and ideas.
But his playing was in a slump, and Russell was losing money fast. “I was playing perfectly,” he says. “Even the other coaches said so. I made mistakes, but the mistakes I made shouldn’t have cost me that much money.”
In the three weeks he was in Texas, Russell lost $5,000. He was broke and had to call his mom and ask for money to come home.
“I was done. I gave up,” he says. “I gave up for two months. I gave up on poker and I gave up on my life. I didn’t know what to do. When your dream gets crushed it’s such a big thing. I mean, I was there. I was in Texas, learning to play poker. It was the life. And then… It definitely crushed me for a few months.”
Now Russell says he’s back. He says he’s more disciplined than ever, and slowly rebuilding his bankroll. Recently, a big player invited him to join his team and staked him the $7,500 bankroll Russell needs to play at the level where he’s making money.
“I’m moving up to where I’m playing higher stakes tables, and ideally juggling 20 of them at any time,” he says. In these games, the blinds are $6 and $12 and the winner walks away with around $650. The people who place 18th to 10th place double their buy-in of $12, the top ten spots take away more.
But online poker is not about winning any one game, but about averaging well. “I should be winning on average three dollars per game. That’s a good average,” Russell says. “On a good day I can play as many as 400 games, so that makes $1,200 per day.”
A good poker player never gets hung up on one game, in the same way as he never gets hung up on one hand. The key is variance. Variance is how much you should expect to win over time based on your previous results. “You can have a loosing streak,” Russell says. “But you have to think about variance. As long as your variance is good, you’re doing okay.” A bad player in the middle of a losing streak will forget about his winnings. A good player knows that if he’s losing 65 percent of the hands he’s playing, he’s winning 35 percent, an enormously profitable ratio.
Modern, online poker is faster, bigger and more abstract than anything a poker player could imagine 20 years ago. Tells, ticks and poker faces have been replaced by calculations, ratios and probability. In Russell’s opinion, however, the essence of poker endures.
“It’s not gambling,” he says. “People don’t understand variance, and just assume that good players are lucky their whole life. You can’t be lucky for 40 years. Look at Doyle Brunson, who’s been playing poker for 60 years. He’s still making money. That’s not luck. There’s math, actual math, behind why we do what we do, and people don’t understand that.”
Russell is coldly pragmatic when it comes to poker. Poker has a language, and if you become fluent in that language, you win. “Anyone can do it,” he says. “Anyone who puts in the hours can make a good living playing poker. It’s easy.”
He has none of the romantic preconceptions about the game, and describes it purely in terms of a job. It’s nine to five. Russell never talks about players who have made fortunes playing poker. He never mentions fast cars or big houses. If he ever thinks about these things he keeps it to himself. He wants security, a house and a decent living.
“My mother’s glad I’m doing what I want to do with my life,” he says. “But my dad hasn’t seen any money yet. As soon as I show him my first big check next month he’ll know that I know what I’m doing.”
Russell was recently scheduled to start his new career in the high stakes games. This would be the first day putting his plan into motion. The day he had been working toward since January. When I asked him if he thought he would make it, his answer was an instantaneous and unqualified, “Yes.”
“Tomorrow morning, I’m going to wake up, make food, and just play all day, every day,” he says. “And come December, I’ll have my house and my two coaches.”
The next day he sent me a text that read, “Doing alright. Some decent profit. Been playing a lot. Haha.”