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Sunday, November 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Rob Kaiser
CHICAGO Nate Silver quit his $55,000-a-year financial consulting job in April to play poker.
So far it's been a wise career move: The 26-year-old Silver expects to make more than $100,000 this year playing the card game, mainly on the Internet.
Silver belongs to a new generation of poker players who feast on the growing number of novices taking up poker after watching televised contests.
While few players go to the extreme of quitting their jobs, many spend their evenings stalking sites like PartyPoker.com and PokerStars.com, pocketing an extra $20,000 or $30,000 annually on top of their regular salaries.
And as more novices keep appearing, opportunity grows for experienced players.
"You'll see people make terrible plays routinely," said Silver, who lives in Chicago. "For the most part, these people call too much and play too aggressively."
Online poker has exploded along with the recent surge of interest in the game.
In January 2003, $11.1 million was wagered on the major poker sites. That number rocketed to $136.1 million in September, according to PokerPulse.com, which tracks activity on 21 of the largest poker sites.
Total gambling at poker sites will easily clear $1 billion this year, based on PokerPulse's figures, which likely undercount total betting since they do not include popular online poker tournaments that charge entry fees.
Rather than making rapid-fire stock trades online, these gamblers seek profits by leveraging small advantages with their poker experience, discipline and statistical savvy. While their gains and losses vary widely day to day, experienced players say the odds are heavily in their favor in the long run.
Still, the easy money could quickly disappear if the current poker fad fades.
Mike Kim, who lives in Chicago, said he plays online poker every day, sometimes for a couple of hours and sometimes for 12 hours straight. He said his average winnings are $15,000 a month.
"I had no idea it would become my full-time job," said Kim, who started playing online nearly a year ago while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois. "I didn't find a job when I graduated so I just kept playing for money."
The 23-year-old Kim is no longer looking for a job, although his family is concerned he will lose money.
"At first they didn't like it because they thought I was gambling," Kim said. "When I told them how much money I made, they kind of understood I couldn't go back to a regular job."
Neal Salmen, 28, a Chicago real-estate investor who said he has made about $25,000 this year playing online poker, noted the anonymity of Internet games often makes new players more aggressive. In casinos, Salmen said, "You don't want to look too stupid so people play more conservatively."
Internet poker offers experienced players some advantages, particularly the ability to play at multiple tables at the same time. Online games generally go faster than casino games, and by playing three or four tables simultaneously, players can easily participate in more than 200 hands an hour.
The main disadvantage of Internet play for poker pros is the inability to "read" competitors noticing small ticks and other mannerisms that can reveal if somebody is holding a strong hand or bluffing.
Even at in-person games, pros often have more trouble reading the novices.
"It's hard to read someone if they don't know if they have a good hand," said Jim Karamanis, a Chicago attorney who plays online and in-person poker recreationally.
Nobody tracks how many people play poker for a living, but the number appears to be growing.
"Certainly at this point there are thousands," said Greg Raymer, who left his job as a patent attorney at Pfizer after winning $5 million this year at poker's biggest event, the World Series of Poker.
The lure of Internet poker has intensified since Raymer and the 2003 World Series winner gained entry into the casino events, which were broadcast on ESPN, by winning online tournaments.
To prosper at Internet poker, players must be technically strong and quickly assess the thousands of scenarios that arise betting aggressively on strong hands and folding when they're in a weak position.
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