A poker pro plays the hand he’s dealt

John Kelly
Columnist August 7, 2012

When you’re a professional poker player, time doesn’t really exist. Or if it does exist, it’s measured in decks of cards, in hands, in raises and calls and bluffs, in pots taken and pots lost. Which is why when Jon Urban won $27,000 and a Rolex watch for taking the top place in a Las Vegas poker tournament, the first thing he did was sell the watch.

What did he need a Rolex for?

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Jon is the Montgomery County native I first wrote about three years ago, when he was 28 and had just quit a well-paying engineering job with Black & Decker to move to Vegas and play poker professionally. Who among us wouldn’t love to trade the 9-to-5 grind for the glamour and freedom of professional pokerdom?

But Jon is nothing if not a realist, and last year he traded the glamour and freedom of professional pokerdom for the 9-to-5 grind.

“Overall, I think it was a success,” Jon said of his 18-month stint playing cards. “I managed to make somewhat of a living.”


Jon Urban, 28, poses for a photo in Washington, D.C. Jon quit his job as an engineer at Black & Decker to live his dream. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

But he was missing his longtime girlfriend (first she was in Washington; now she’s in Dallas), and he was in a rut, profit-wise. He had started out hot but for six months had been struggling. “I was extremely unlucky,” Jon told me on the phone from Dallas. “Also, I noticed that I started getting a little arrogant and started losing my discipline.”

Jon had always prided himself on his discipline, his ability to fold bad hands, to ignore bullying or buffoonish tablemates. But he saw that slipping.

“I was trying different types of moves and plays that I really had no business doing,” he said. Although he thought a change in his style of play — from what poker players call tight-aggressive to loose-aggressive — was a step in the right direction, he decided to walk away, to move to Dallas to be with his girlfriend, to look for a job in the real world.

“It was a strange circumstance to go into an interview and say, ‘Yes, my last job was in Vegas as a professional poker player,’” Jon said. “I got some funny looks. But I did have Black & Decker behind it, so that definitely helped.”

And Jon feels that poker skills transfer to other arenas. “When I was going through interviews I was definitely pushing that fact,” he said. Poker, he said, helps develop “problem-solving skills.”

Last August, Jon found work as a manufacturing engineer at a company that rebuilds heavy-duty trucks, particularly for fighting aircraft fires.

“It was tough at first,” he said of a job that requires him to wake up in the morning instead of the afternoon. “It’s still tough. But I’ve adjusted. I’ve done it before. Everybody else in the world does it.”

Jon is 31 now — “a dinosaur in the poker community” — and he says that someday he might return to the table. Even if he doesn’t, he’s glad for the experience. “It’s one of those things where I can always say at least I tried.”

Before I hung up, I asked Jon about Greg Merson, the Laurel 24-year-old who dropped out of the University of Maryland to play poker full time. Merson’s already won $1.2 million in the World Series of Poker and will compete in October for the $8.5 million top prize.

“Good luck to that guy,” Jon said. “I’m jealous of course — I don’t see how you can’t be — but I wish him the best.”

Roasted with own petard?

You know that old expression “A raw chicken takes no guff”?

No, me neither, but it somehow seemed appropriate after my column the other day about those mistakes we make without even knowing we’ve made them. Many readers chastised me for chastising my daughter Beatrice for roasting a chicken upside down. Apparently, this is an accepted way of producing a juicy bird.

“You should commend your daughter on discovering the ‘correct’ way to roast a chicken,” wrote Marla W. Schwenk of Sag Harbor, N.Y.

If only I thought that’s what Beatrice had done. I think, instead, that she stumbled upon it. And she left out the crucial last step: flipping the bird — so to speak — with about 15 minutes left, so the breast would become brown and crispy.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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