John Kelly's Washington

John Kelly: Would-be pro gambler gets lesson in life, cards

Jon Urban quit Black & Decker to try to become a pro gambler.
Jon Urban quit Black & Decker to try to become a pro gambler. (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

If I were a maker of reality TV programs -- as opposed to a chronicler of reality -- I would train a camera or two on Jon Urban, math nerd, industrial designer, grinder.

I first wrote about the 28-year-old Montgomery County native in July, when he quit his job at Black & Decker to follow his dream.

His dream? To be a professional poker player -- or "grinder," in the unkind parlance of the eternal-daylight casino. In August, Jon loaded his Scion tC with a few of his possessions, put the rest in storage and -- like a million gamblers before him -- headed for Vegas. There, he quickly found shelter in a rented room in a group house he shares with a bouncer and a professional wrestler.

"It's a bit of a circus house," Jon said when I called him recently. (I'd probably add a showgirl and a Cher impersonator to spice things up.)

A 10-minute drive takes Jon to his new workplaces: the $2/$5 tables at the Bellagio, the Venetian and Caesars Palace, the occasional tournament at the Wynn. He heads to the office about 7 p.m. and plays poker till 2 or 3 in the morning.

"I don't have a fixed schedule," he said. "That's one nice thing about it. I always try to work the weekend. That's when you get the drunkest people and the most people out there."

One night last week, Jon won $2,425. Over the next two nights, he lost half of it. In his two months in Vegas, Jon is up about $6,000. Not bad, but given that his aim was to equal -- and ideally double -- the $60,000 he made annually at Black & Decker, his dream hasn't quite come true yet.

Texas Hold 'Em could also be called Texas Squeeze Him.

"I would say I'm not quite as successful as I hoped I was going to be," he said. But any poker player will tell you that you don't look at your day-to-day winnings, or even week-to-week results. You take the long view. Jon envisions his progress as a series of sine waves: up and down, up and down. He's trending up, and that gives him hope.

And he's still learning, about poker, yes, and about other poker players, but also about himself. There's a term in poker called going "on tilt." It's when you lose a big hand and get so flustered that you play recklessly to win the money back. It's like the bends: something you hear about and fear and hope will never happen to you.

Until a month ago, Jon had never been on tilt. Then he was bluffed out of a big hand he had every expectation of winning. The guy who won had the audacity to start chuckling about it. A few hands later, Jon had decent cards but not ones he'd normally go crazy on. Seated across from him was the chuckler, the guy who'd stolen Jon's pot and laughed about it.

"I ended up pushing all my chips in. He called."

Jon lost again. "It was an emotional decision on my part. I lost $250 on that hand because of my emotions. I've never done that before. . . . That's very costly. Normally that'd be how I win a lot of money, from people making that mistake."

These are the hands Jon tends to remember. He says he learns more from a bad hand than a good one.

"When you have losing sessions back to back, it does make you more scared to put your money in, which is not a good way to play. Losing begets losing until you can turn yourself around."

If it wasn't for the poker, Jon doubts he would be in Vegas. It isn't a very interesting place to live, dead beyond the flashing, heaving Strip. He has seen one show -- Cirque du Soleil -- when his girlfriend came to visit. Otherwise, it's been poker, poker and more poker.

"I don't have any regrets," Jon said. "The thing is, even if I lose, even if I fall flat on my face and don't make any more money or, even worse, lose money, it always comforts me to know that at least I tried it. I am making money. . . . But I think it's a little too soon to tell whether or not I can make a career out of it."

Black Rooster crows again

Good news for fans of the Black Rooster Pub on L Street NW. With the help of D.C. Council member Jack Evans (and my column?), the watering hole got a reprieve. It should reopen in two to three weeks.

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