Paying the Bills Playing Online Poker

Los Angeles writer Kevin Arnovitz speaks with an entertainment industry couple that has turned to online poker as a way to pay their bills.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

You have met a couple here that you've turned into a story on how people get involved with this and what happens to them. Tell us about these people.

KEVIN ARNOVITZ reporting:

I host a casual Wednesday night poker game and this couple are frequent attendees, and I found out they were playing a lot of poker online, and I went to their house to watch them in action.

Mr. CRISPIN LEYSER: I've got nothing. I'm down to nothing. That ace-king against ace-two absolutely killed me, and...

Mrs. JULES LEYSER: How much was it for him to call that?

Mr. LEYSER: He went all in.

ARNOVITZ: It's Thursday morning. In a house perched over Laurel Canyon, Crispin and Jules Leyser are hard at work on their matching titanium laptops. But even though this is Los Angeles, the casually elegant husband and wife team aren't pecking away on their latest screenplay. They're playing poker online.

(Soundbite of computer bell)

Mr. LEYSER: I'm playing a single table tournament and I've actually bought in for $100. So there's 10 players here. Each of them have staked $100. The first place will win $500, second place will win $300 and third place will win $200.

ARNOVITZ: Jules is a writer and actress and Crispin a creative executive. But the film production company Crispin worked for lost its funding last summer, and Jules experienced her first brief dry spell in recent years. Faced with a hefty monthly rental atop the Hollywood Hills and irregular work in the entertainment industry, the couple began playing poker as their primary income.

Mr. LEYSER: I think it's about 3 1/2 thousand dollars a month.

Mrs. LEYSER: I mean, obviously, it's not the same amount every month, because it's poker and it's a game and it's not something you can control. But, you know, our rent is $2,500 a month and we've covered that by poker since last August.

ARNOVITZ: The Leysers aren't professional poker players. They picked up the game a few years ago in London and have sharpened their craft by reading game theory and by playing in competitive home games around town. They're the players at the weekly poker night who consistently have the towering stacks of chips in front of them. Now instead of resorting to temp jobs that typically get entertainment types through the lean times, Jules and Crispin have taken their experience to the Internet. They say the popularity of poker on TV coupled with the ease of playing online has been lucrative for them as players.

Mr. LEYSER: There are a lot of bad players online, just kind of trying it out and jumping on the bandwagon.

Mrs. LEYSER: And they're using online to learn how to play, and actually spending, you know, a reasonable amount of money.

Mr. LEYSER: And, you know, so occasionally they luck out but if you sit tight and wait until you've got a monster hand, you're gonna take their money.

ARNOVITZ: Conventional wisdom is that winning at poker is all about staring across the table and looking for your opponent's tell, that nervous twitch that lets you know they're bluffing. Of course, you can't do that online, when your opponent is a stoic computer graphic. That's why Crispin says some players resort to keeping tabs on the competition.

Mr. LEYSER: There are people I know who absolutely keep notes on every player online that they play with and, you know, I know that there are other players who have notes on me and that kind of thing. To be honest, that's more time than I'm prepared to put in.

ARNOVITZ: But more players every day are putting in serious time at these virtual tables. According to the online newsletter PokerPost.com, 1.9 million people are playing poker online. And that number is growing exponentially each month. And so are the stakes. In January 2003, online poker players wagered about $11 million each day. Today that number has grown to over $180 million. According to Jules and Crispin, they're part of a growing community of players for whom online poker pays the bills.

(Soundbite of computer bell, typing noises)

ARNOVITZ: Twenty minutes into her game, Jules has taken control of her table, and she's got a full house.

Mrs. LEYSER: What I'm gonna do here is be a little bit naughty.

(Soundbite of computer bell)

ARNOVITZ: Jules, who's holding an unbeatable hand, wants to lure her overconfident opponent into her trap.

Mrs. LEYSER: There we go.

(Soundbite of typing noises)

Mrs. LEYSER: My little strategy worked.

(Soundbite of typing noises; computer bell)

Mrs. LEYSER: Now I've guaranteed myself a payout.

ARNOVITZ: Along with the relaxed dress code that allows you to work in pajamas, another benefit to playing online is that you can still pursue your day job, so to speak.

Mr. LEYSER: He's folded. I'm only going to put a minimum bet out there. There's the phone. And of course this is what happens in the middle of the game, you get a work call.

(Soundbite of phone conversation)

Mr. LEYSER: Hi, this is Crispin. Yeah. That's right. Yeah. Sure. Yeah. That's not a problem. Yeah.

ARNOVITZ: Even as Crispin cradles the telephone receiver as he sets up a meeting for a prospective project, he's still able to multitask, keeping his eyes squarely on the monitor and raking in a big pot.

Mr. LEYSER: I took two people out and I'm now guaranteed money.

ARNOVITZ: All right! So we have two people in the money.

Before they can finish breakfast, Jules and Crispin both manage to make money for a first- and third-place finish, respectively.

Mr. LEYSER: Not a bad wage.

Mrs. LEYSER: Well, it's not terrible.

Mr. LEYSER: We didn't even have to leave the house or anything.

CHADWICK: And we're back in the studio with Kevin Arnovitz.

So, Kevin, how much did Crispin and Jules make on that morning that you spent with them?

ARNOVITZ: Well, just that morning they made 180 bucks. And I just checked in with them and over the past two weeks they're up $4,500. Their winnings, Alex, have actually gotten them some attention. The World Poker Tour, apart from their poker show on the Travel Channel, and their tournament of top players, also has licensed a boot camp, and the WPT, as they're called, has hired the Leysers to speak to novices about playing online during their seminar series. So they're teaching things similar to what you just heard on the piece, like luring opponents into making big bets.

CHADWICK: So who's actually behind these online games? Is this casinos who are doing this?

ARNOVITZ: No, the online poker world is a little bit shady. Most of these companies are run offshore in places like South Africa or Gibraltar. But the casinos have tapped in in another way. They frequently give seats to their big poker tournaments to online winners. And the same goes for the World Poker Tour, which reserves seats for online winners as well.

CHADWICK: And as for Crispin and Jules, they're looking to cross over into non-virtual tournament play, as you say. They're doing the seminars on how to play?

ARNOVITZ: The WPT has hired them to do some of the weekend seminars, but aside from playing in neighborhood games, they've made it clear to me they're still pursuing their careers in Hollywood. But for now, it's nice to be able to make ends meet through a hobby that they thoroughly enjoy and one they're awfully good at.

CHADWICK: It's a hobby, but it would just scare the daylights out of me to be thinking I'm betting the rent money here on what is still a game of chance.

ARNOVITZ: There's an adage that says that it is a hard way to make an easy living, but Jules and Crispin are what we call high-percentage players. They don't take silly risks. They maximize their potential in each hand. They don't chase, which is a term for sort of...

CHADWICK: Throwing good money after bad.

ARNOVITZ: Precisely. And as a result, over time, percentages say they will make a reasonable amount of money if they stick around long enough. And that's proven true over the last year.

CHADWICK: So you're a poker player. You like the game. Seeing them in action, does this persuade you, `Hey, online, I can get in there, I can make a lot of money, and why not?'

ARNOVITZ: Well, the evening after I recorded the story, I went home and registered for a poker site. And for the two weeks following, I made a moderate amount of money. But I found that it ate so much into my social life and professional life that I had to uninstall the software, and I no longer allow myself to even link to an online poker site.

CHADWICK: Kevin Arnovitz, a writer and player here in Los Angeles.

Kevin, thank you.

ARNOVITZ: Thank you.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY continues.

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