Canadian Poker Professional Daniel Negreanu has earned $14,601,194 in tournament winnings alone since 1997.
I can appreciate the concern Adam Lazarus has for the potential harm competitive poker could do to our nation. Poker isn't a game for everyone, and to be sure, there are plenty of players out there who will never understand why they are "unlucky" or "cursed," and can't seem to ever win.
Do I feel sorry for these players?
Not a chance.
Any aspiring poker player can improve dramatically through various tools which are available to anyone with an appetite for knowledge. Poker books, boot camps and one-on-one training sessions only warn players against always chasing straights and flushes, they tell you about implied odds, bankroll management, how to adjust your game to tournament structures, how playing cash games differs from playing tournaments, poker-related psychology and so much more.
Poker is kind of like NASCAR—it is a true everyman's sport. How many casual race fans think they could stick it to Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch at the Daytona 500? Probably a lot!
Does NASCAR get ripped for making icons out of their drivers for fear they increase the amount of high-speed accidents on America's interstates? Would that ever make it to print in a race-happy state like Florida?
Are there people who max out credit cards to play poker? Yes, without a doubt. People also max out their credit cards to buy cars, clothes, watches and other various toys they can't afford. There are some people out there who will never have self-control when it comes to their bank accounts, and yes, there will always be some people why have no business gambling.
Every now and then (or more often if you are plugged into the poker world), you will hear of top-notch poker players going busto. A solid majority of the time it is because they made poor decisions with their bankroll and it has little to do with the variance they experienced at the poker table.
On a personal note, playing poker to supplement my income for a few years made me manage my personal finances much better. Poker players must develop the ability to treat their bankroll separate from their bank account to be successful. Learning that you should never put up any more than five percent of your bankroll at one time is something most serious pros adhere to, and they all have their own systems of pulling money out of their bankrolls and transferring it to their bank account to pay their car payments, student loans and other expenses.
Keeping on the subject of bankroll, there are a lot of top poker professionals who are backed (bought into cash games or poker tournaments) by either other successful pros or people with the means to do so. Players will enter into an agreement with their backer to pay them X percent of their winnings. In the event they don't produce positive results, the backer will either stick with their investment (the player) or choose not to back the player again.
There are also corporate sponsors out there who back poker players. Some players are even paid a base salary on top of being bought into cash games and poker tournaments by corporate sponsors like Internet poker sites, although we'll see less of this in the near future due to the Department of Justice's April 15 lockdown of the American sites.
Further, there are agents out there who represent poker professionals. Poker Royalty, the leading such agency, allows poker players to capitalize on their success at the poker table by getting them endorsement deals, book deals and more.
As for comparing washed-out and wanna-be poker professionals to athletes who couldn't make it in the NFL or NBA, there is very little comparison. We're talking apples to grapefruit here, really.
How many times do I crack the sports section and hear about Ohio State University's Terrell Pryor driving a band new Corvette to prom or a 370 Z to his press conference to deny any improprieties?
How many times do I have to hear about USC signing eight or nine five-star recruits in a class, and then reading about their moms all moving into new houses in Southern California? How many times do I have to read about kids at Michigan State getting into dorm brawls, or starting fights with the hockey team, only to see these same kids starting against Michigan weeks later?
How many of these kids are going to play in the NFL, and how many are going to end up on the streets when they don't? How many of these kids were all but promised they would be NFL stars since they were sophomores in high school? How many of these kids blow out their knees, have to quit because of concussions or have their upper body battered so bad they can barely hold their kids when they get older?
Have you seen NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell walk recently? It is infinitely sad, especially because I remember him as the most powerful running back I've ever seen. How about former Redskins legend Dexter Manley, who went through college but was all but illiterate as an adult?
The poker world is comprised of doctors, lawyers, professors, accountants, chiropractors, math professionals, engineers, airline pilots, and yes, even sports writers. Are there unsavory characters in the poker world? Yes, just like in the sports world.
Here's another way to look at it. Take a five-star high school athlete and put him in a college football/college basketball program like Florida, USC (football only), Ohio State, Florida State (football only), Kansas (basketball only), UNC (basketball only) or Texas. Now, take a kid who got a 32+ on their ACT or 1400+ on their SAT and put him through Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cal-Berkley or Yale.
Now, take this elite athlete, and see how he does in either his year of college basketball or three years of college football, and have him turn pro early. Now, take the academic kid and turn him loose on the poker scene at any point during his college career. Which kid is going to:
- Have the tools and talent to compete at the professional level against already-seasoned pros
- Have a longer career in the profession they've left college early for
- Is most likely to ever go back to school and finish their degree
- Is most likely to have a transferable skill set into a different career.
- Have a better chance of going bankrupt due to their inability to manage personal finances.
Watching the WSOP on TV is really no different than watching any other reality show. There is a cast of characters which range from hero to villain, and everything in-between. What is the difference between the two? It is simple, really. Anyone who wants to join the cast just has to pony up the entry fee for the tournament(s).
ESPN's coverage of the WSOP can, and has, turned everyday people like Doyle Brunson (a former business machines salesman with a Masters in Administrative Education) Greg Raymer (a patent attorney by trade) and Chris Moneymaker (an accountant by trade) into household names.
While there are a ton of poker players who would love to have the kind of success they've achieved and get the acclaim which goes along with it, this is certainly less dangerous then fueling the NFL dreams of at-risk high school kids.