Let it ride
Rob Schnelle has been a UPS deliveryman in Vail for 12 years, but he gains his biggest thrills playing poker. What started as a few nickel and dime games with neighborhood kids has become his chance at comfortable retirement.
Schnelle, 39, has taken his seat aside nearly 6,000 other players in the biggest event at the biggest poker tournament in the world. He began the no-limit Texas hold ’em World Championship at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas July 7.
For Schnelle, what started out as a $39 buy-in to an online, satellite tournament could turn into more than $5 million (last year’s winner’s pot). He has even named his journey – “Making Brown go green.”
“I want to be aggressive and try to win it, that’s normally what I do online,” Schnelle said.
Online poker drew Schnelle in and tournaments are what made him excited about playing. Schnelle admits he spent more than $800 in online qualifying tournaments before winning one.
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Dennis Koller, 53, of Vail, also qualified through Pokerstars. Koller has played in the World Series of Poker’s smaller events, but never the main event.
Koller, who is an avid golfer and skier, as well as yoga practitioner, says it takes endurance to be a good poker player – especially in games that can last as long as two days.
“It takes calmness of mind and stamina, as well as empathy,” Koller said. “Empathy is the most important. Most people get into their own head and ego, but you can get knocked off base (that way). You have to see the information and how it’s affecting other players, and you have to really be out of yourself in that situation.”
Koller has been playing most of his life, he said, including his 30 years in Vail.
Schnelle also has a long history of play, but began playing online in 1998, when most of his poker buddies had moved away or weren’t as serious about poker as he was. He lost money at first, but pretty soon had “a couple thousand bucks” in his account. He cashed out, excited about the extra money, and didn’t play for two years. But the thrill and increased popularity of tournaments soon drew Schnelle back to the computer.
“I really liked how the tournament’s played, it’s a totally different concept. There’s a lot more bluffing involved. You don’t even have to have a hand to win a pot,” he said.
After winning an online tournament at pokerstars.com, the site is paying his $10,000 buy-in and giving him an extra $1,000 to wear their logo.
In Vegas, he’ll have to keep it cool to take a shot at the biggest money of his life. Tournament organizers of the 36th annual WSOP estimate total prize money for this year’s events to reach $100 million. That’s not only a large amount; it’s also a new record. Last year’s tournament set the previous mark with more than $40 million in total prize money. The no-limit hold ’em event will deal out nearly $50 million in prize money.
Don’t ask Schnelle too much about his strategy for playing tournaments, though. His mathematical equations and savvy strategies are top secret – designed to take another player out of a big pot.
“I play really tight and really smart and put myself in good positions with good cards,” he said. “The whole key is just keeping chips in front of you.”
With the luck of the draw on his side, Schnelle could beat out more than 6,000 other players and protect his chips all the way to the final table on July 15. Though most poker players would tell you there’s very little luck involved.
“If it were all luck, you wouldn’t see the same people at the final table every time,” Schnelle said.
Most of us recognize a least a few players from T.V. Televised poker is everywhere when you’re flipping the channels – even the Travel Channel has games on the tube. So increased participation in the game and the celebrity of its greatest players are no surprise.
“I would never have thought that televising a poker game would be that big of a thing,” Schnelle said. “You learn a lot (watching televised games). It’s sort of an advantage for all the rookies that go in there.”
One man that often takes the big stack into a televised game is Chris Moneymaker, 2003’s World Series Champion. Moneymaker was not a favorite in that tournament, however. He actually qualified in the same way Schnelle has this year – through on-line tournaments at pokerstars.com, one of many internet poker casinos.
Some think Moneymaker changed the game of poker like no other professional could have done.
“Chris Moneymaker catapulted poker to being what it is right now,” Schnelle said. “An average person paid his $36 and won … It gives hope to all the average Joes like me.”
Thousands of people are searching for greener pastures online and in live tournaments. The World Series of Poker, however, is the biggest stage of them all, and Schnelle has been preparing. He played in two Central City live tournaments just to get some practice. He even has a friend help him out to make sure he doesn’t, “make bug eyes at a good hand.”
Is it legal?
Playing live is different than online, especially in the gambling Mecca of Las Vegas. Poker faces are not the only thing different about playing on the Internet. It’s also a crime.
Colorado Bureau of Investigations Agent Mark Hodges pointed to a Colorado statute that shows “anyone transmitting or receiving gambling information by telephone, telegraph, radio, semaphone or other means,” including by internet, he said, is committing a misdemeanor.
It is also illegal to own the equipment for gambling transactions, but Hodges believes most of those operations are “off-shore.”
“(Online gambling) is real common right now, especially Texas hold ’em, but by and large it is illegal,” Hodges said.
He compared enforcing the law to enforcing the FBI warning at the beginning of a home video.
Which means Schnelle and other internet bettors aren’t too worried about their journey toward poker stardom. They’re more concerned with the gold bracelet (the winner’s “trophy”), and trying for their part of the green.
” Chris Black is a frequent contributor to The Vail Trail and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
” Tom Boyd contributed to this story.