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Deal or no deal? 19/7/2008
Robert Blincoe

It may not be what your family dreamed of when you set off for university - but the poker boom and modern approaches to financial risk management have led to real opportunities in becoming a professional gambler.

But then - in the view of former management consultant John Conroy at least - one person's gambler is another's City trader. Both require a professional, disciplined approach from talented and clever people, backed by a supporting infrastructure (not that our financial markets are one huge casino).

Conroy has formed the poker sponsorship business BadBeat, which bankrolls, trains, and mentors poker players, and splits their online winnings half and half. As an illustration of intent, BadBeat operates out of the offices of the Knightsbridge-based financial trading company Manro Hayden.

"There are lots of similarities with traders," says Conroy. "We provide the risk management team; all the players have to do is trade."

The undergraduate life allows the time, online access, peer encouragement and mental approach to get to grips with the game. John Tabatabai, 23, graduated in law from the University of Reading and also from Ladbrokes' online poker rooms. There he met Luke Trotman, 26, who graduated in English from Oxford University and then funded his MA in screenwriting at Bournemouth University through poker. At university, Trotman borrowed £1,000 and turned it into $250,000 (£125,000) in a year. He joined BadBeat after blowing $100,000.

"BadBeat instilled good money management in me," says Trotman. "A lot of the guys I used to play with became millionaires playing poker, but 90% of them have lost that. They can quite easily drop $1m to $2m in a couple of months and they're bust." He makes a good living and spends a lot of time involved in charity work.

To join BadBeat you have to provide trading evidence from your online account that you can consistently not lose - it will teach you to win. But where BadBeat really develops talent is through the discipline of money management. "There are lots of full-time poker players, but not many professional poker players," says Conroy. Trotman feels it's a key skill. "You can be an average player but have good bankroll management and make a living from poker."

It works even better if you're good. Tabatabai, who won $1.7m last year, was known as a reckless but talented player until he came to BadBeat. Even after joining he was a loose cannon and needed a second chance after losing $24,000. He was made to come into the office and work business hours in a suit, with a restricted bankroll.

The company is looking to grow to 500 players by the end of next year, and Conroy estimates they lose 30% of trainees because they don't perform while on trial. Software allows mentors to view all the hands trainees play and give advice through instant messaging and Skype.

The amazing sums of money that Tabatabai and Trotman have made make playing poker for a living sound easy and glamorous. Tabatabai has recently been in Las Vegas, playing in the World Series of Poker with the world's best players. Before that the pair were in South Africa playing tournaments and cash games. Tabatabai won $126,000 in the All Africa Poker Championship.

However, the reality is that most winning players grind out small profits, playing full-time on their own. Though online poker sites don't announce what proportion of their customers actually win money, professionals estimate around 98% of players lose. And talented though Trotman is, he thinks standards of play are rising and that it's harder to make the money he was making four years ago. "Everyone I meet says they're making $50,000 a month, and they're not," he says.

Dr Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University's International Gaming Research Unit, has researched problem gambling among students. His 2007 study revealed a worrying trend. "We had a large proportion of people who were coming out as problem gamblers, but these were people who were winning money. But it's very small amounts and they can't make a living out of it. You had individuals playing 14 hours a day, but it was significantly impacting on their life."

Trotman also works as a mentor for BadBeat, advising trainees on technique, lifestyle and mental approach, and recognises this behaviour. He's currently taking a rest from playing and says: "Because of the isolating nature of poker, and the swinging nature of winning and losing, it's important to take breaks. You can sit in a room and not see anyone for months, and just be addicted to the game."

BadBeat insists its traders play either 40 table hours or 3,000 hands a week. Because good players can play several tables simultaneously it doesn't take as long as is suggested, but Harminder Akali, 19, expects to play four to five hours a day to complete his 3,000 hands. Akali will go to Birmingham City University to study quantity surveying in September. "I'll have to fit both in, but my priorities are with quantity surveying," he says.

Akali came to BadBeat via its sister company, the University Poker League, which promotes online competitions among students, but also creates a way for it them to spot promising players. Akali will have a daily limit of $50 to bet and has been assigned his own mentor. "Becoming a professional is a dream," says Akali. "If it was going somewhere I'd put in as many hours as I could. I've seen the lifestyles of some of these guys - it's just great."

But like the experience of high earning City traders, there is a price to this level of success. Trotman, having lived the dream, is feeling a little jaded. "I wouldn't recommend it to someone I cared about," he says.
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