At the poker house, it’s always breakfast time. It was nearly 2 p.m. on a recent afternoon when Chris Brand sleepily schmeared his morning bagel in a kitchen cluttered with cereal boxes and casino chips.
It’s always lunch time too, as Brand’s roommate Chad Power — just back from a profitable run at the World Series of Poker — buttered a Kaiser roll for his second meal of the day. Or maybe third; he had been up since 2 a.m.
It’s always bed time (another roomie was asleep in the basement). And always the end of the work day, as Aaron Mendelsohn came in the front door, ready for a little dinner after an overnight stint in the poker room at Maryland Live casino.
In fact, this Hanover, Md., townhouse is as confused about day and night as the gambling palace next door, which is where the seven men who live here are all attempting to make their livings as a team of professional poker players.
Night and day (when they can keep that straight), one roommate or another is almost always at the casino, grinding out hand after hand of Texas hold’em or Omaha. They play eight, 12, even 30 hours at a stretch — though never at the same table — before retreating to this four-bedroom haven a short walk through the woods from Maryland Live.
The seven players, ranging in age from 25 to 33, don’t just bunk together for convenience. Six of them are essentially shift workers in the poker factory that Power has been operating at different casinos for the past four years.
Power recruited and trained each of the roommates. He stakes their play, often with a roll of several thousand dollars at a time, and then evenly splits their profit. It’s an arrangement well known in the online poker world, but far less common with live casino players.
For two years, the sparsely furnished house with the uncollected newspapers on the stoop has served as the group’s combination crash pad and poker think tank. After eating, the three awake roommates settled in the living room to go over some of Mendelsohn’s problematic hands from the night before.
“So I have pocket kings and open at $45 . . .” said Mendelsohn, 33, reading from notes he made on his phone. The former welder from Frederick has clubs and hearts tattooed on his fingers and the Maryland crest on his arm.
The dissection continued: “I don’t think he’s ever check raising a draw here,” said Power, 26, shifting attention between the talk of flops and folds to his e-mail. He is organizing a game for the following week where at least $200,000 will be on the table.
The room was empty except for a sectional couch with a box of Rice Chex on the end table, a 70-inch TV and about a dozen pair of athletic shoes spilling out of the entrance hall. A forlorn chandelier hung over the bare floor of the adjacent dining room. The blinds were down and throw pillows were stuffed into the decorative crescent window near the ceiling. These guys are used to dark rooms.
Living largely on protein shakes and whatever they can find to slap on the countertop George Foreman grill, the players are living in a place that is only slightly more domesticated than a fraternity house. There were five bottles of Head and Shoulders in the shared bathroom. Yes, the toilet seat was up.
But the bachelor-casual style (Power doesn’t do his own laundry and has been known to wear a T-shirt as makeshift underwear) is balanced by the steely discipline of serious gamblers. All the roommates belong to the local Planet Fitness; keeping healthy is considered a professional responsibility.
And even with the undergrowth of wine bottles and pizza boxes, and the basement jammed with four beds, it’s a lot homier than the Atlantic City hotel and casino where some of them lived for a year before coming to Maryland.
“This is much better than the Borgata,” said Power, a nationally known Texas Hold’em whiz and the undisputed head of this house of cards. “The only thing I miss about that is having a maid come make my bed every day.”
Living together not only saves money, Power said, it makes it easier to mentor his players and keep up with the accounting.
“Let’s see, your roll is at $3,000,” he said to Mendelsohn as the two scrolled down a spreadsheet on Power’s laptop. It wasn’t a winning night, so Mendelsohn handed Power a couple of $100 bills from his wallet, making them square.
Mendelsohn is the newest member of the stable. He pays $550 a month for a single room and expects to clear about $55,000 this year. It beats being a laid-off union welder, he said, and he expects to make more as his skills sharpen.
Another roommate has a pharmacy doctorate from Rutgers. Another is former teacher.
Brand, flipping through videos on the couch before heading to the casino, came a year ago after not finding a corporate job out a college in New Jersey. He cleared about $40,000 in his first year, but last month he and Power both made it to the final three tables of the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas, netting each $262,000 before taxes.
“I’ll probably be moving out soon,” Brand said. Now that he doesn’t need so much coaching and staking, he’ll get his own place and start playing on his own.
His bedroom will be in high demand. Power is already sorting through more than 200 applications from aspiring poker apprentices who want to move in and join his team. Most in the group play smaller stakes; they are limited by Power to losing $2,000 a day. Power is a higher roller, in recent years making between $400,000 and $800,000 with a strategy he will only describe (unless you pay his coaching fee) as “patience.”
“It’s grinding,” said Power. “You’re going to win if you can wait for the good cards.”
The constant table time makes Power and his roommates popular with the casino. Mike Smith, director of poker at Maryland Live, said the guys from poker house are valued for the thousands of hours they put in as solid players.
“It’s almost like a partnership,” Smith said.
Power fell for poker as an eighth grader in Pittsburgh watching the World Series on ESPN. His single mom, a teacher, didn’t have $50 to help him play online, so he would scrape together $5 to play in local high school games. Soon, he was organizing his own basement tournaments.
By the time he was a bored junior at Slippery Rock University, his skills were sharp enough for him to drop out and play full time at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino. Within a week, he turned a $300 stake into $10,000 — which he promptly blew at blackjack.
Starting over, he built his next roll into “whatever I have now,” he said. “I haven’t looked back.”
Almost right away, he began staking and coaching a high school friend. He added other players, and, in 2012, the team moved to Atlantic City where they lived on comps at the opulent Borgata.
Then two summers ago, Maryland Live opened its $20 million poker room. Tired of hotel life and looking for a fresh card room, Power rented the townhouse in Hanover.
It’s a modest place, though Power does have his own bedroom, bathroom and widescreen upstairs. He still drives a used Nissan Altima. He has no plans to change his lifestyle, though the team may shift their game — and the poker house — to another spot, maybe to the MGM casino scheduled to open next year at National Harbor along the Potomac in Prince George’s County. He likes new casinos, when the poker rooms are flush with locals not yet burned by bad luck or bad play.
“It’s always the best the first couple of years,” he said. “People aren’t tired of losing money yet.”
His mother has visited. She came to cook Thanksgiving dinner last year and proclaimed herself satisfied with the sanitary conditions. (She feels better about safety too, now that they keep their cash in safe deposit boxes at the casino).
“I call it the Island of Misfit Toys,” Sally Power, 64, said by phone from Pittsburgh. “These are not 9-to-5 guys. Neatness is not their strength. But they are very supportive of each other.”