More Seats at Table

Unlikely poker players spend time, money to get in big games

Poker has become a national pastime. But for a growing number of New Yorkers, it is an obsession. Much like dedicated Nascar fans, these normally sober-minded, successful businesspeople spend their time and money traveling to poker competitions. They watch it on TV, play it online and pay for courses to improve their skills. They just cannot get enough of the game.

No one knows exactly how many poker devotees live in the city.

But more than 41,000 New Yorkers have joined the Poker Players Alliance, a lobbying group made up mostly of online players who oppose federal restrictions on playing Internet poker for money.

According to the World Series of Poker event sponsor, Harrah's Entertainment, 1,043 New Yorkers this year—up from 921 last year—entered the six-week semifinals of the tournament. Still more New Yorkers showed up to watch the event or to play poker in side games and satellite tournaments held at other casinos.

The competitors included Manhattan resident Bob deLuna, known to colleagues as a mild-mannered spokesman for the United Hospital Fund, a whiz on Medicaid reimbursement payments and the like. In poker circles, he goes by a handle that could be on a Medicaid form: The Hemorrhoid. It's actually a tribute from a rival player.

"He told me I'm a real pain. He said, 'You're like a hemorrhoid,' " Mr. deLuna recalls.

Indeed, Mr. deLuna has spent countless weekends at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, and at various gambling houses in Atlantic City. But in a commitment to the game that is ratcheting up, he has begun spending thousands of dollars to fly to World Series of Poker venues, held not just in Las Vegas but in places like Tunica, Miss. His winnings have not quite kept up with his expenses, he says.

But he's getting better all the time, and believes that his poker skills make him better at his job, teaching him to read people.

Wall Street's denizens have long been likened to poker players, betting and bluffing in a high-stakes game. But the analogy seems to be popping up now with those who, like policy wonk Mr. deLuna, work in fields not often associated with risk and nerve.

The game's the thing

At TransPerfect, a Manhattan-based translating service, poker-obsessed Co-Chief Executive Phil Shawe stops short of calling the game the new golf, but says he often plays with co-workers after hours. He also seeks out poker play in casinos. And he's not just talking about Atlantic City. "New Orleans, Paris, Rome, I can always find a game," he says.

He sees his passion for Texas Hold 'Em and Omaha as a path toward self-improvement. "Poker teaches you patience when you don't get good cards, how to bluff your way into better contract terms and how to sense when the other guy is ready to make a deal," he says.

And then there's that adrenaline surge. His finest moment at the gaming table came—and went—after he parlayed a $3,000 chip purchase into a $40,000 hand against Dave Ulliott, a British player known as Devil Fish—a delicacy that can kill you if not prepared correctly.

After several hands, he lost. But to play several hands against a world-class professional like Devil Fish was worth the $3,000, says Mr. Shawe, in a tone of reverence Nascar fans might use when evoking Dale Earnhardt Sr. "It does get your heart going," he says.

Of course, the poker phenomenon has also raised concerns among those who treat compulsive gamblers.

Psychiatrist Carlos Blanco says he has treated scores of poker player patients at his Columbia University Medical Center Gambling Disorder Clinic.

"Many people overestimate their abilities," Dr. Blanco says. "They lose, they keep playing, and their obsession with getting their money back can take over their daily lives."

Skill, not luck

These serious amateurs pride themselves on being able to read other players' tics and facial and verbal cues, as well as instantly calculating the odds.

"If you play one hand, definitely it's a matter of luck who wins," says Mr. deLuna's poker buddy Leo Witt, a former portfolio manager for J.P. Morgan who also competed in the current World Series of Poker tournament. "But after you've played a million hands, as most of us have, the skilled players come out on top."