Setanta TV, 2013
Saw this one on the US documentary channel, PBS, a couple of evenings ago. Certainly one to watch if you fancy taking a glimpse at the lot of a professional poker pro and gambler - despite many references to telephone number wins and losses, this one steered clear of all of the bullshit glamour and provided an insight into what you can expect if you decide to chuck in the day job and do it for a living.
John O'Shea originates from Dublin, and early into a career in accountancy with one of the big four (KPMG) he decided to bin the tedium of the nine-to-five and do what he really enjoyed for a living instead - playing poker and travelling the circuit. The documentary follows him, and his fortunes, during 2012 as he takes part in the Irish Open, the European Poker Tournament and then across the pond to Las Vegas to take part in the WSOP. At the time the programme was made he was 27, and had been throwing chips into the pot, both the stackable and electronic varieties, as a pro for five years. Interesting that early on in the programme whilst chatting to the film makers during a round of golf, and discussing the forthcoming Irish Open, he made a comment along the lines that 50% of tournament outcomes are down to luck, and for poker players they were the equivalent of taking part in the Lotto - that made me warm to him straight away (clearly someone who wouldn't need to book a second seat on a flight to accommodate his ego).
Other things I liked about this documentary? The reporting of the ups and downs as they happened, and some of the practical aspects of Mr O'Shea's "working" life. He can't get a bet on with any bookie within a 10 mile radius of where he lives, as he's a known pro whose won too much in the past (in many cases due to insider information). The inevitable losses; the camera caught more than the odd sad face as things didn't go according to plan.
Losing the last in a series of bad bets on the footie when Chelsea equalised against Bayern Munich in the eighty-eighth minute of a European match - Mr O had put a bundle on Bayern to win in conjunction with another punt, and he finished the weekend €100K down. Over (what I assumed was) Sunday lunch with his parents this came up in conversation and you could tell his mother was less than impressed with his choice of careers.
Then there were the featured tournaments, where Mr O kept running into unlucky combinations of cards and had to exit stage left. Despite putting in a creditable performance at the Irish Open and getting to day two, his chip stack was devasted through losing two key hands, and his final long-odds punt came to nothing when a larger stacked player called his shove and paired on the flop. In the European Poker Tour final in Monaco, his exit was again engineered by the variance fairy when an opponent contested a hand and finished with a full house, taking a large proportion of his chips after which he walked when his Ace-Ten versus Ace-Queen punt was met with a queen on the flop. For his trip to Las Vegas for the WSOP World Series, he sent across $400K in advance of flying out, and admitted to losing the lot before he'd even got to the main reason for travelling there - although he did progress far enough in the competition to get into the money and recovered around 10% of this. Lastly there was the sitting at home late on a Saturday night, waiting along with all the other sharks for the chumps to get back from the pub and log on, and finding the "fish" and pursuing them around the ether.
During the programme it was clear that Mr O had a very pragmatic, but almost casual, attitude to his losses. Discussing the fact that gambling is a volume endeavour aimed at getting a return on a small margin, he gives the example of betting £5m a year - losing £2.25m will mean you'll win £2.75m and make a £500K profit or 10% margin. £500K sounds great in theory, but since the programme was made his live tournament winnings have been well short of this and have averaged around $60K per annum, c£40K; knock off the costs of travel, accommodation and subsistence, tournament entry fees etc and he's probably earning less for the hours he puts in travelling and at the tables than he would as a wage-slave bean-counter. His results also suggest his average return since 2012 has been a lot less than 10% on volume, although these figures don't include bread-and-butter online play which possibly pays the bills?
I'm sure I recall Mr O saying something along the lines of great players are just average players who handle their losses better. Sounds a cliche, but perhaps that's right? It would also explain why I'd never make it as a pro poker player; a combination of not being lucky enough to do it for a living, and not taking it too well when the variance fairy serves up the third long odds battering within a few rounds - and I go from being the table chip leader to chip bleeder. As I've written elsewhere on this site, life as a pro-gambler is one for the mavericks and certainly from the footage making up the documentary Mr O seems to fit right in there
Any advice for Mr O? I'm certainly not in a position to suggest anything with regard to playing poker, although he might wish to considering spending some of his winnings on some new threads at some stage - apart from the scenes on the golf course, when he wore shorts, across several sessions to camera he seemed to be wearing the same pair of tracksuit bottoms (with a red stripe down the legs). Perhaps he had several of the same in his wardrobe? On this note I'm still trying to fathom out whether dressing down is one of the cultural aspects of pro poker or not, or if some of the contestants at this level really do sleep rough and crawl out of a cardboard box each morning before they report to the tables.
The documentary can be viewed in full at poker.org:
There's also an interview with John O'Shea reported in the Independent: