Can Playing Online Texas Holdem Make You Smart About Money?

Today we have another in my interview series. Ben Huber who, along with his partner Jeff Proctor, run the Dollar Sprout. Ben’s is an interesting story. His journey to his current career had many interesting turns along the way. One of those turns came when he discovered he was pretty good at online Texas Holdem poker. It wasn’t specific to online Texas Holdem or, for that matter, just that poker game.

Ben read my interview with someone who talked about overcoming his gambling addiction. Ben had a different experience. He did pretty well at his gambling. Keep in mind that neither Ben nor I am endorsing or suggesting that gambling is a good thing. It’s risky, can be costly, and can become an addiction. I ask him about the addictive aspect of it in our interview. He is aware of it and knows how easy it can lead to that.

We ended up exchanging guest posts. His interview here and my post on Dollar Sprout.

Ben’s going to share the things he liked about playing poker, what he didn’t like, and the lessons he learned. I’ll let Ben tell his story and offer some final thoughts in the end.

If you have a story you’d like to tell overcoming adversity, I’d love to talk to you. Complete the contact form or send me an email at fred@moneywithapurpose.com.

Tell us a little about yourself.

It only fits that this question comes first because it’s always one of the hardest ones for me to answer.  

My friends would call me an extroverted introvert. An oxymoron, I know, but there is an article or two out there that attempt to explain what it’s like to be one.  I gravitate towards a few close friends and have the appearance of being sociable. At the end of the day, I mostly like to do my own thing. 

My childhood and school-age years make it pretty easy to see why. I lived in middle-class white suburbia for 18 years, had the same group of 8 friends the whole way through, and ended up going to Virginia Tech with most of those same friends.

The support network

I had a great support network throughout my formative years — but it never really forced me to expand my social circle beyond that group. 

And now that they’ve all grown up and have scattered across the country, surprise, I’m not the best at branching out and meeting new people. 

I didn’t mean for that to sound like some sob story about why it’s hard for introverts to branch out. It provides an excellent backdrop to the sorts of activities I tended to gravitate towards in high school, college, and beyond. 

In college, I studied Biology. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life upon graduation and ended up getting a second Bachelor’s degree in Nursing. I spent five years running the gamut of nursing positions, from entry-level new grad to Hospital Supervisor, and then shifted into a co-founder role with my college best friend at DollarSprout

I’m super competitive and a huge fan of sports, and cannot stand losing. I’m active in the realm of health and fitness and tend to get wholly obsessed with any activity I enjoy. 

Tell us about your career path.

Well,  there’s no shortage of bizarre twists and turns here. As you may have noticed, I took a roundabout way of getting to what I hope is my last career switch. 

The son of a successful nuclear engineer, I began with the only career path I was familiar with:  engineering. 

I too worked at a nuclear power plant between my freshman and sophomore years [as the first step in achieving that goal. 

It was an interesting internship and one that I excelled at. Despite the pressure of living up to my dad’s reputation, I like to think I did a good job and provided great value for the company. That said, the field just wasn’t going to work out for me. 

It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it per se. I had just unknowingly started down a path during my time at Virginia Tech that I wasn’t aware of. 

I volunteered for the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad as a way to get involved. It was my one feeble attempt at branching out. But boy did it have a massive impact on my life. I enjoyed responding to 9-1-1 calls on the ambulance but was concerned about the relatively poor reimbursement for careers in public service.

Move for better pay

I chose to try and go back and get my nursing license because of the slightly better financial prospects of taking on a job in a similar field. I wanted to replicate the same enjoyment I got out of working on an ambulance but in the better-paying hospital setting.

Nursing was the culmination of doing the thing most closely related to what I enjoyed – ambulance work. I also needed to timely address what remained of my student loan debt.

Now, like I said, joining the rescue squad had a profound impact on my life in more ways than just helping shape my then-immediate career choice. 

It helped me meet people that I otherwise wouldn’t have met outside of my circle of close friends.

Namely, I met my now business partner, Jeff. 

Over ten years ago, the thought of starting our own business was something we kicked around while sitting at the station. The problem was that I was an up and coming Biologist. Jeff was going to cure cancer as a Biochemist. These are not exactly two skill sets that lend themselves to building a business outside of millions of dollars in VC funding. 

A partnership is born

Through some twists and turns, Jeff too switched career-paths and took an $8/hr job working as a glorified secretary at a wealth-management firm. Three years in, he had obtained his Series 7 and 63 licenses and had developed a baseline understanding of the industry. 

It wasn’t much in terms of professional experience, but it did hone financial acumen beyond what our biology and biochemistry education had taught us. Concurrently,  I spent the better part of 3 years working in a hybrid clinical administrative role for a regional health network. I too garnered experience that proved invaluable for what came next — starting our own business. 

In February of 2015, we decided after seven years of talk that we were finally going to jump headfirst into something, and that is exactly what we did. I brought my marketing and corporate background to the table, Jeff’s newly-found love of finance, and we started what has now become DollarSprout. 

Ultimately, Jeff left his job in mid-2017 once the business was income-generating, and I followed shortly behind in mid-2018, as it had expanded to support both our employees and us. 

When we first started talking about this interview, you mentioned you had experience with gambling. Unlike many gambling addiction stories, you said yours was a positive one. Tell us what you mean.

So like I alluded to earlier, when I get into something, I get into something. When I was younger, I loved to play computer games with my friends. We were really into them, but I took things to another level. 

I picked one or two that I enjoyed and spent a ton of time on them (shout out to Age of Empires, Red Alert 2 and Counter-Strike). What I enjoyed the most was the competitive, strategic nature of the games and the near-constant adrenaline rush of getting to outwit human competitors.

The early exposure to screamingly-high levels of dopamine probably played out in other activities [gambling] later in life. 

Online Texas Holdem

Coincidentally, online poker was in the throes of a massive spike in popularity in the mid-to-late 2000s, and some of my gaming friends spent some time there too. (You can see where this is going.)

Out with computer games, in with learning online poker (specifically Texas Holdem). 

I should preface this by saying that I had played poker before the online boom: in highschool weekly with that same group of friends. 

At least once a week we’d all get together and slap down $5 and play a tournament until everyone was eliminated. Winner takes all, and someone walked away with $25-$30. 

It was extraordinarily fun. We loved it. It was just enough money that everyone could afford to play. It kept things serious because there were a few bucks on the line, and you could wrap it up in just a couple of hours. 

Poker in college

Fast forward back to college and the explosion of online poker, and with it, the explosion of information. Coaching, forums, shadowing, one on one sessions – everything. I became obsessed. Just like I did with the video games. 

I started with $5 online, then $20 when I lost that, then another $20 when I lost that. It was relatively small amounts at first, but I was learning and fast. 

Lessons learned

Despite the obsession, the one good thing about all of this was that I learned the right way how to: 

  • Take the emotion out of the game.
  • Correctly and responsibly manage my money.
  • When it was time to get up and walk away so that I did not compound mistakes.

I lost a little when I was starting out, probably a few hundred dollars. I didn’t see it as a problem because it was a relatively small amount for the hundreds of hours of enjoyment I got out of it. 

Poker was a monster stress reliever after classes (that I didn’t particularly enjoy). I’m sure that the constant dopamine rush had something to do with my enjoyment 

I got very good at removing myself when things weren’t going my way and optimized my conditions to amplify my success. I was absurdly disciplined in the exact things that people who struggle with gambling addiction have a hard time dealing with.

Was there ever a time when you felt the side effects of your gambling were getting out of control (or could)? If so, what how did you address them?

Playing online poker for years, (especially grinding low-stakes cash games at absurdly high ROIs) I had times when I didn’t have the mental energy to compete at the level necessary to win.

Texas Hold’em, specifically, is more a game of skill (despite elements of luck). It takes near-constant mental sharpness to make the highest expected value decision at all times. In the short term, there were times where I went beyond where I knew I should have stopped, and lost money in situations where it would have been better to take a break and come back refreshed. 

Conversely, I was multi-tabling cash games for over $100/hr as a side hustle in college. Every minute I spent away from the table was actually a negative EV play from a financial standpoint.  

The birth of frugality

In my finances, I became immensely frugal. Nothing went to waste. I scoffed at the idea of “gambling” because, in nearly every other game, the odds are against you. The house will always win in the long term.  

It was so ingrained in the thought process that I looked at life decisions from that mindset. I valued money in a way I never had before. 

Would the nursing school be worth it? What about depositing into a retirement account now vs. paying off student loan debt?  The basic tenets of budgeting, saving, spending, and investing came into the spotlight. 

Alas, despite the financial benefit of playing, it was taking time away from other important things in life. Friends, family, school, work,  sleep. It was a constant battle choosing between and balancing other priorities in life. 

At the time I was so enveloped in it, I feel like I was blind to the adverse effects it was having on other aspects of my life. I would stay up till 4-5am sometimes, well beyond what was normal for someone who had to go to class at 9 am (or I chose to skip altogether). With hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to point the blame on poker for grades slipping, and not keeping up with friends and family as well as I could and should have.

My gambling addiction story shows you can experience the unintended consequences of “gambling” frequently, without losing money, be a symptom of the problem. 

Would you say you are likely the exception to what happens to people who get into gambling? What would you say to anyone who is engaged in frequent gambling?

Absolutely. I am in a rare breed of people that spent a lot of time playing poker/gambling who survived with minimal consequences. I did just barely enough to get by, and that’s not something to necessarily be proud of. 

Now, others play poker, and gamble frequently, and maintain “work”-life balance better than I ever did. I knew and played with professionals who took things extremely seriously. They’d play a set schedule and then completely disconnect. They’d go home to their families and attend to other pressing priorities in their lives. 

The thing with that is it’s not the norm. Most people who engage in frequent gambling aren’t disciplined enough to pull that off. Frequently playing is a slippery slope because it opens the door to further involvement and chasing of losses.

Fortunately, I was young and not responsible for much in life. Other than grades, I wasn’t responsible for putting a roof over my head or just about anything else. There were very few repercussions spending more time at the tables than I should have. 

The exit from poker

Ironically, my departure from poker wasn’t a choice I made. In April 2011, online poker in the US disappeared almost overnight. The arrest of several high-profile online executives effectively crushed the US-facing market for online poker.

I was 4 hours away from the closest in-person poker room, and 20+ hours away from Mexico (where online poker was still viable). Resuming a “traditional” life-path became my only immediate option. 

Being immediately removed from playing dozens of hours a week was a huge bummer at the time, but it’s one of those things where it was almost certainly for the best. It helped me re-focus on why I went to college in the first place, what I was doing next in life, and get back to the other things that held importance to me. 

Ask yourself some questions

I think at the end of the day, an important question to ask yourself if you’re caught up in frequent gambling problem is, “why am I doing this?” It’s a super simple question, but it does provide a ton of perspective in regards to the choices you’re making. 

If you’re a capable, winning poker player, is it your source of income? Are you doing it to blow off some steam? Are you doing it because it’s fun and you get enjoyment out of a few hours now and then? 

Ask yourself this question. Twenty years from now, will I regret all the time I spent gambling instead of pursuing other activities (career, starting a family, traveling, etc.)?

If there’s a conflict between what you’re doing and your goals, it might be time to adjust your playing frequency. 

What lessons did you learn from your experience? If you had it to do over again, would you still have gambled?

Hmm, so this question is interesting because if I could go back and do it all again, I probably would still play poker to some extent. But there are certain things I’d like to change.

Again, financially speaking, playing poker was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I share more about the game and how much I won in an interview here. I learned some invaluable lessons that have instilled an excellent awareness of money and how to handle it best 

(Summary: I won about $100,000 in during college and used it, well, to pay off college, haha). 

Things I regret

  1. Not balancing poker and school better. I skipped too many classes and did not prioritize studying at times, thus limiting career choices with the degree I obtained. 
  2. Not spending more time with friends and developing those relationships. You can’t get that time back.

Things I enjoyed

  1. I did get to play poker with friends to some extent, and that was an immensely fun activity. We played online (but in-person); not on the same table, but we’d play cash games together. 
  2. We’d go on trips and play in-person occasionally. Those led to some great times with friends, and those trips offered a great escape from the daily grind of our day jobs. 
  3. I genuinely enjoy the competitive, puzzle-like challenge that such a complex game presents. There’s something about dissecting the intricacies of the game, learning how to play it from a mathematical perspective, game theory, betting theory. That part is fun. 

Ultimately there’s an identifiable spot on a continuum of balance where I could have had a profitable side-hustle that helped me pay for school. But I am content with playing for less time (and making less money) to foster the human relationships that are important in being a well-balanced individual. 

I’m sure you know (or have known) people with a gambling problem. What advice/encouragement would you give them?

Like nearly all addictions, to recover, an addict must acknowledge and admit the negative impact that the activity is having on their lives. 

If occasional and responsible gambling develops to the point where it’s conflicting with life responsibilities. Or maybe you find yourself dodging social situations where you’d otherwise usually attend. It takes an epiphany-like moment to step back and recognize things are starting to go too far. 

And just like other addictions, the best way to combat them is to take proactive steps to remove temptation from your life. For some, that might be as drastic as physically relocating to eliminate geographic proximity. For others, it may mean the hard decision to find a new group of friends or leaving enablers behind.

And still, for others, it might mean something as simple as talking to someone: a friend, a family member, a pastor, a counselor. 

A positive influence on your life that will hold you accountable for your actions, even when you are not able to do it yourself. They encourage you when you’re doing well, and build you up when times are tough. 

Talking to people is extremely hard because it means admitting that you’re not perfect and that you don’t always make the best decisions. It’s also a great stress relief to have a sounding board. 

Find that one person in your life and stick to them like glue. Don’t project problems on them, but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it most. 

Headshot of Ben Huber

Final thoughts

Thanks, Ben for sharing your story. As we said in the beginning, gambling of any kind is a slippery slope. If you’re the type of person that can’t say no or who doesn’t know when to stop, I’d suggest you never start. Ben was smart and, as he said, a little lucky. He also knew when it was time to stop. For many, that isn’t the case.

I found Ben’s story of working at a nuclear power plant, to the ambulance, to nursing, and to running a successful online business to be very interesting. His time at the online Texas Holdem tables makes it even better. He was both lucky and smart. He got out before he got into trouble. He learned from his experiences and used those lessons to his advantage.

 

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