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Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em

On the record ... with John Tobias

Published: Monday, June 30, 2014 9:20 a.m. CST
Caption
(Provided photo)
John Tobias with his winning cards and $12 million in poker chips after winning his bracket in a Las Vegas poker tournament. The payout was based on place in the tournament, not on chips; Tobias' winning payout was $42,000.

DeKALB – When most people travel to Las Vegas, they see the shows, they enjoy the sights, they play for fun. When John Tobias visits Las Vegas, he works.

The paycheck from his last trip was $42,000.

Tobias has been traveling around the United States playing poker professionally since 2007. On June 8 in Las Vegas, Tobias placed first out of 1,539 participants in the Rio Daily Deepstacks No Limit Hold'em poker tournament and won a $42,000 cash prize.

Tobias retired from Northern Illinois University in 2011 after working for 30 years as an electronics engineer. He started playing poker at casinos for fun in 2002, and a stroke of beginner's luck fueled his interest in the game.

Tobias met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to talk about life as a professional poker player.

Milton: When did you first start playing poker?

Tobias: It started about 12 years ago due to this friend of mine named Mark, who I used to golf with. One day after golfing, he suggested we go to Hollywood Casino to play Texas Hold’em poker. I knew a little bit about poker, but not very much. I said sure, why not, I’m adventurous. And I went there, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew that a straight beat a flush and things like that, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I ended up winning money, which was probably a bad start, since I thought that it was easy. …I didn’t know the right way to play strategically, so it was dumb luck that I won that first time. Then I got hooked.

Milton: How did you become a professional?

Tobias: It’s not like I went to a class and got certified. …Being a professional really comes from you treating it as a profession, as a business where you keep track of travel expenses and entry fees, your airfare and your wins and losses. If you do it recreationally, it’s just like winning at a slot machine. If you treat it professionally, you treat it as a business.

Milton: Tell me about your bucket list.

Tobias: When I retired, I made a bucket list of what I wanted to do with my time. One of them was to play in more poker tournaments and to travel. I had also been working on building a dog park for DeKalb and/or Sycamore. …I also wanted to play more ice hockey, since I’ve been playing since I was 13 years old. …Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Death with Dignity, but it’s an organization that tries to get the laws changed so that at the end of your life, you can decide how to end your life when you’re terminal.  …I have more time on my hands, and I wanted to use that time in a way that was good for myself and for the people around me. My wife, Sarah, and I don’t have children, we just have dogs. These are my passions, and I want to do what I can.

Milton: How do you practice playing poker?

Tobias: I watch. I watch tournaments on TV that I have recorded. I don’t like to read books on the subject much, but I like to play. The more you play, the more you learn, if you’re paying attention. When I watch a tournament, I see every little thing that’s going on so that I can really learn from everything. It’s a lifelong learning process, and you can never figure it out. There’s also an element of luck in poker. It’s frustrating on one hand, but it’s also a good thing. Poker is not like chess. In chess, the best player always wins, but in poker, the best player doesn’t always win. You need to play well, and you need to have things go well for you. It’s a double-edged sword.

Milton: Do you believe in luck?

Tobias:  I believe in trying to do the right thing. Hopefully karma will pay you back, but there are no guarantees. There’s a saying that goes something like, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” I believe in that. I don’t have a lucky charm or a rabbit's foot. …Without luck, the tournaments wouldn’t have these turnouts and payouts.

Milton: Do you feel lucky?

Tobias: In poker, I feel no more lucky than any other player, but in life, I feel extremely lucky.  Whenever someone complains how unlucky they are, I tell them we have all won the lottery by just being born.  If you Google “odds of being born," that is the exact sperm and exact egg that made you coming together, the odds are roughly 1 in 400 trillion. So yes, I feel extremely lucky to have been born.

Milton: Did you feel lucky the day you won the tournament?

Tobias: Actually, the day that I won was one of the unluckiest starts that I ever had. The tournament started at 3 p.m., so I went to have lunch at my favorite Indian restaurant. …I was sitting there half an hour, and they didn’t even bring out the appetizer. I asked them what was going on, and they said that the chef was on break. So I went to another restaurant and I ordered a steak. It took 35 minutes for the steak to come out. When I finally arrived at the tournament, I was half an hour late, so I was a little bit flustered.

It started at 3 p.m. and lasted until 7 a.m. the next day. I had a 15-minute break every two hours, which was basically a bathroom break. What you see on TV is usually the fun and games during the final table. And that is where the fun is. What you don’t see is the work getting to the final table. It took 15 hours before we got to the final table. The work, the grind, is not fun. You can have conversations and interact with the other players, but it definitely is work.

Milton: How does the payout work?

Tobias: We each started with $15,000 worth of tournament chips. I had about $12 million in chips when I won. ...You cannot cash the chips. At one point, we were betting $1 million chips, and it’s funny, since you don’t get to say that too often. The payout is depending on what place you finish. …Every tournament, 90 percent of the people who enter do not win any money. Ten percent cash, and the top 1 or 2 percent get really good money. …You have to be able to handle losses. It’s rare to win a big tournament, and it’s really special when that happens. It doesn’t happen very often, and it doesn’t happen to most people.

Milton: What makes a good poker player?

Tobias:  What’s most important is discipline. When you have a big hand, you need the discipline not to go too fast. When you shove all in, most people just tend to fold. You can’t overplay your hand if you have a strong hand, and you can’t overplay when you have a weak hand. You also need patience, patience and discipline.

Milton: What is your favorite type of poker?

Tobias: No Limit Texas Hold’em is my favorite. It’s pretty much all I play. What makes it unique is that you can go broke on any one hand. You can’t win the tournament on one hand, but you can go broke on any one hand. A lot of times, you end the tournament with a splitting headache because you are so focused. As long as the other player has more chips than you, you can lose it all.

Milton: How do you feel about wild card poker?

Tobias: Well, you usually find it on video poker. Wild cards are for parties or family get-togethers. In tournaments, there are no wild cards.  There are no wild cards in a 52-card deck.

Milton: Do you continuously learn when playing poker?

Tobias: Everybody who plays poker, including myself, thinks that they know more than they do. It takes a lot of confidence and you have to believe in yourself. There are plenty of big egos out there, and I try to keep mine in check. I know more than I did last year, and I knew more last year than I did the year before. I thought that I was good, but I’m always learning more.

Milton: Do you wear sunglasses or a hat during tournaments?

Tobias: I might wear reading glasses to see the cards, but I never wear sunglasses. I’m not sure how some of the people can see the cards when they wear sunglasses, since it is dark inside. I wear a hat because the bright lights from above the table start to irritate my eyes. I need the hat to shade my eyes. But I can’t fault them if it gives them confidence. But it doesn’t mean anything to me. The cards and the bet sizes dictate your play. You can wear whatever you want, and it won’t change the game.

Milton: Has any movie really captured what it’s like to be a poker player?

Tobias: There’s a movie that I saw and that I love, and it’s “Rounders” with Matt Damon. That was the movie that really inspired me and got me interested in poker. There’s a lot of truth in that movie. But if you think that you can watch that movie and go play and do well, you’re in for a rude awakening.

Milton: Are some of the slang terms used in the movie used in real life?

Tobias: There are terms, like calling beginners “fish.” But you try to be respectful at the table. You want to have it relaxed. You don’t try to be the bad guy so that everybody hates you. It’s not conducive to a pleasant time. Some people toss around insults, and although you may not like it, you have to accept it.

Milton: Do you have any advice for novice poker players?

Tobias: You have to remember that poker is a game of skill with an element of luck. I do most of my learning from watching, playing, and listening. There are some videos with the analysis. Sometimes, when the announcers are doing the analysis on TV, they don’t even show the cards. Some of the analysts are so good, that they can tell what the players’ cards are depending on what they are betting. That is the ultimate level, when you can analyze everything and have an idea of where that person’s hand is at. It depends on the size of the bet, and their confidence. They could be bluffing. You can’t win on your hand alone, you have to be able to bluff effectively. You have to read the other person. You have to do what you can with the information you have.

Milton: Is poker addictive?

Tobias: Winning is addictive, and that’s what casinos are all about. When you win, it makes you want to come back. One of the hardest things is to walk away with your winnings and not give it all back. It’s such an adrenaline high that you want it again and again. Discipline is a big part of poker and any type of gambling. You have to know when to fold your hand in a poker tournament and when to walk away when playing casino games, just like the Kenny Rogers song. There’s truth in that.

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