If you're a betting man, here's a proposition worth putting a little money behind: Dax Jeter will play poker this weekend. Change the bet to a weeknight, and you'll still come out ahead in the long run.
Though "it's not an everyday deal," more evenings than not, Dax will find a game. He never has to look far, although the other players may come from all over the world.
A 28-year-old branch manager of a local industrial supply business, he doesn't play the kind of Texas Hold 'Em tournaments you see on TV, with players eyeing each other warily from behind their midnight shades. Most of his games are on the Internet.
Online tournaments are mushrooming in popularity, outpacing even the boom in televised poker. Jeter estimates that he spends about 20 hours each week watching hands develop and deciding whether to hold 'em or fold 'em. Most of those hours are spent at all-poker-all-the-time sites like bodog.com.
"You can find a game anytime you need to find one," he says. "If you can't sleep, you can play."
Increasingly, online tournaments are also tickets to something bigger. Like more than a third of the 5,600 players in this year's World Series of Poker, he earned his trip to Las Vegas earlier this month by defeating very real but utterly faceless opponents on the 'net.
Perhaps more than any other factor, Internet poker has expanded the ranks of the WSOP-worthy from a relatively elite fraternity to a cast of thousands. That's how Jeter, who says he's been playing poker for about 10 years, refined his game enough to win a tournament on bodog.com, which bought a seat at the World Series for him and 69 other winners.
"They paid my $10,000 entry fee, flew me out there and put me up in a hotel suite for a week," he says. "They treated me really well. The only stipulation was I had to wear their gear." (Under the circumstances, he was happy to oblige.)
A year ago, "Manhattan Matt" Treasure got to the WSOP in much the same way as Jeter, albeit through a different poker website. Unlike Jeter, Treasure, a railroad engineer in New York City, travels to Vegas four or five times each year to compete in weekly tournaments that you can enter for $100 or less.
Last summer, he finished among the top 40 at the World Series. He didn't take home quite enough cash to quit his day job, but more than enough to fund his frequent poker expeditions. For this year's WSOP, he adopted a strategy that is growing in popularity: he raised the $10,000 entry fee by selling shares in himself to friends. If he fared as well as he did in 2004, an investor who put up $100 could realize a tenfold return.
The possibility for such meteoric success emboldens players like Jeter. "Just think," he says. "Chris Moneymaker [who won the World Series two years ago] was an accountant in Tennessee, and now he doesn't even have to work."
Jeter had played in Vegas several times before"mostly in lower-limit games at the Bellagio," he says. But his previous experiences didn't quite prepare him for what he encountered earlier this month. "I had never entered a live tournament that big," he says. "It was in an airplane-hangar-sized room at the Rio. With so many players, they spread the first round out over three days."
That part worked in Jeter's favor. Because he didn't compete until the third day, he had opportunities to watch other competitors. He got used to the roving ESPN cameras and to rubbing shoulders with giants of the game like Dan Harrington and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson.
The two-day respite also allowed Jeter to get acclimated to the live game again. Online, the whole "physical aspect of poker" is missing: the body language, telltale eye movements. "You can tell not only by the way someone bets but even the way they say 'Bet' if they have a hand or not," he says. "When you watch the good players, you notice that when the flop is dealt they aren't looking at the cards. They look at the other players and their reactions."
As it turned out, not playing till the third day was one of the few good hands Jeter was dealt. "I got cold decks," he says. "No cards for 12 hours."
He survived long enough to outlast the legendary Doyle Brunson, who entered and left to standing ovations. And he went out with a stroke of bad luck after receiving a rare good hand: Ace-Nine, suited hearts. Despite an "amateurish mistake"calling with a low-percentage handthe player on his left picked up an Ace in the river and won, eliminating Jeter, who had slid in all his chips. "I was on the verge of tripling up [my chips] and going on to Day Two," he says wistfully.
Manhattan Matt suffered an equally deflating fate. "I had $21,000 after Day One and within 90 minutes had built it up to $32,000," he wrote in an email to his investors. An hour later, "I looked down [at my hand] and found two Kings." He raised and reraised; then one of his tablemates "moved all in." At that point, Treasure recalls, "I would have been ahead of every possible hand but one." Sure enough, after Matt called, the other player revealed a pair of Aces.
Treasure finished 1,200th this time. "Poker," he wrote, "can be a cruel game."
He'll be back next summer. So will Jeter, who stayed in Las Vegas long enough to win one of the numerous satellite tournaments concurrent to the World Series. Just talking about it over the phone was enough, he said, to get the juices flowing again. "I'll probably be playing tonight. For a while, at least."