Folding His Career and Planning to Deal His Own Luck in Another

By John Kelly
Thursday, July 9, 2009

The game was Texas Hold 'Em, one-on-one. Jon Urban dealt the cards, two each to start. I lifted the corners on mine: an eight of spades and a nine of diamonds.

"I may be the first person in the world to get a promotion the same day he quit his job to play poker," Jon said.

On the day Jon was promoted from reliability engineer to senior reliability engineer at Black & Decker in Towson, Md., he turned in his notice. His last day was last week. Who cares if it's the worst economy in decades? Next month, the Montgomery County native will move to Las Vegas. He'll find a room to rent on Craigslist and play poker up to 14 hours a day.

"It's a lot less stressful," Jon said of his new career.

Less stressful? Placing high-money bets, bluffing, reading tells -- that's less stressful than clocking in 9 to 5?

"You have your stress while you're playing your hand, but in between hands, or when the hand's over, there's no stress."

Think of it: no worrying about project delays, performance reviews or idiot co-workers.

"I'm the age, and this is the time to do it," said Jon, 28. "I'm not married. No kids. . . . Everybody at work was impressed that at least I was trying to live my dream."

Jon dealt three cards face up. This was the flop, communal cards for the both of us: nine of spades, eight of diamonds, queen of spades. I suddenly had a pair of eights and a pair of nines. I bet accordingly: six chips. Tortilla chips. We were at a Mexican restaurant in Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood.

Jon didn't grow up playing poker, though he always liked games and logic puzzles. He was a chess champion at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. He did the math and science magnet at Blair High School in Silver Spring and then got a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Maryland.

As part of his job at Black & Decker, Jon was transferred to Jackson, Tenn. There is very little to do in Jackson. He started playing poker in a bar there. He went to a casino in Tunica, Miss., and though he didn't play very well, he won -- or profited, as he puts it. He played the $1 and $2 tables and walked out with about $400.

When he moved back to Towson, he started making monthly trips to Atlantic City. He studied the game, reading books such as "The Theory of Poker" by David Sklansky and "Harrington on Hold 'em: Expert Strategy for No-Limit Tournaments."

He learned that folding a weak hand is as important as playing a strong hand and that it's harder to win against bad players than against good players. He started to appreciate the complexity of poker, the combination of strategy, patience and psychology. And he started to think a life designing drills, grinders and reciprocating saws might not be for him. In May, he went to Las Vegas for a trial run. He won $3,600.

Jon dealt the next communal card: the turn. It was the two of diamonds.

"I don't think that two helps anyone," Jon said.

It didn't help me, but I threw in two more chips. Jon raised it six. The river was coming next. An eight or a nine, and I'd have a full house.

"If I have a talent in this, I feel it's worth giving it a shot. . . . I'm hoping to make my salary -- $60,000. My goal is really twice as much."

But, he said, "I'd rather make less money and enjoy my job than make money and be miserable."

But isn't gambling kind of, well, dishonorable?

"I understand that's the perception people have," Jon said. "I'd be proud to say that I'm a poker player."

Jon dealt the river: the 10 of hearts. He bet 12 chips. I called.

I had two pairs, eights and nines. A pretty good hand, I thought.

Jon had a straight: 8, 9, 10, jack and queen. He won.

I'm not sure whether John beat me because he was lucky or good. Starting next month, he'll need to be both.

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