“When poker is portrayed on television, it’s given this glamorous gloss. We are expected to believe that every bracelet winner is living high…most of them are struggling just to keep the lights on.”
Dutch Boyd is a poker player and author of Poker Tilt, an autobiography of his experiences as a poker player, a founder of an online poker site, and his issues with drugs and mental illness.
It’s one of the most transparent accounts of professional poker.
“There is that upper tier of the pyramid, where you do have guys with seven-figure bankrolls. But for the most part, any poker player who has gotten rich has done it through some sort of business or investment.”
Why does he stay with the game, despite recognizing the severely negative side of it?
“I ask myself that same question every time I have a losing session. One of the main reasons I stick with it is because I’m really good at. I also have a lot of hope for poker…it has the potential to become this positive-sum game.”
It is difficult to leave an occupation that guarantees fame.
“Your identity gets wrapped up into poker. I’m at the point where I can walk into any cardroom in the world, and people will say ‘What’s up Dutch?’ When your identity is wrapped up in it, you get to a point where you can’t leave…it’s nice to be really good at something.”
Dutch was closely featured in the 2003 and 2004 World Series of Poker. I asked Dutch to describe the poker scene around that time, including “The Crew”, a young group of players that found success around that time.
“Back then, poker was very much an old man sport. It was smoky, and kinda greasy, and the big game was a $20/$40 limit game, and that was just huge…we built this thing called The Crew…in 2004 we did pretty well at the World Series…it was a big deal, and ESPN featured us, saying ‘this is the new type of poker player’.”
Is the stigma against gambling overblown? Would society be better off if we didn’t have that stigma?
“I don’t know the answer to that. There are a lot of good things that come from playing poker. Money is not an end in itself–you see money as a tool, and hours as a resource…but losing money hurts. And it can turn people ugly, and you see people making pretty poor decisions. There wouldn’t be as many of those stories if not for gambling.”
Why is the World Series of Poker so important? What is the motivation behind wanting to win so badly?
“There are some things you can’t buy. You can’t buy a championship. You can’t buy a Superbowl ring. And you can’t buy a World Series bracelet…it’s a cultural event. It’s like running with the bulls but you don’t get gored.”
A decade ago, Dutch was diagnosed as bipolar. I asked him about his current take on that diagnosis, which he write about in Poker Tilt.
“Bipolar disorder was something that I struggled with for a long time. 2008 was the last time I had an episode. And for the last seven years I haven’t had any problems at all. I just stopped doing drugs and stopped staying up…[but at the time] I don’t think it was a misdiagnosis because I wasn’t really in control of myself…for me personally, a lot of it was just fueled by high-stress situations, plus drugs, plus lack of sleep.”
“Mental health and mental illness has such a negative stigma. People don’t want to talk about it. If you are diabetic, people don’t think less of you as a person, even though it could very well be because of things you are putting into your body of your own choice. With mental illness, it’s not treated the same way. When someone’s mentally ill, society treats them like there is something wrong with them…like they are defective, and there’s really nothing that will change that. And I think it’s really unfortunate.”
Dutch distilled his poker experience, and provided some parting wisdom.
“Think about your life in finite terms…when you are playing poker, it gives you a lot of opportunity to think about what life is and where you are, as individuals, as a society…try this–get out a calculator and figure out how many hours you have left. It’s kind of a small number. Think about what you want to do with it. Think about the system we are in. Life doesn’t have to be the way it is. Don’t waste it.”