December 21, 2014

Betting on the house

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Williston native goes pro in poker

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The odds of Chris Kirkpatrick losing the hand before him were 1 in 436,000.

Three months ago, the 27-year-old Williston native was sitting at a Texas Hold ’Em poker table at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In his hands he held a pair of jacks. The flop was a jack-10-10. The only hand that could beat his was a pair of 10s.

He was so certain he would win, he says looking back, he would have bet his life on it. Instead, he bet $3,000 – nearly double his $1,800 monthly house mortgage payment.

His opponent turned over a pair of 10s.

“I totally felt sick,” Kirkpatrick recalls of the moment.

Playing poker for a living, Kirkpatrick is bound to experience moments when luck just doesn’t run in his direction.

“You’re going to have bad runs,” the former Williston resident said in an interview this week.

Bad runs don’t seem to faze Kirkpatrick too badly, though, as he believes the outcome of cash poker games is roughly 80 percent skill and 20 percent luck. (Tournaments – as opposed to cash games – involve more luck, he said.) With an annual income between $60,000 and $75,000 – and sometimes perhaps more – Kirkpatrick certainly wins more than he loses.

“I make money when I play cash games 70 to 75 percent of the time,” he said. “I lose money 25 to 30 percent of the time.”

Kirkpatrick’s love of poker came late in life. As a kid, he was never interested in his father’s Friday night poker games. Instead, he was into sports. As a Champlain Valley Union High School student, Kirkpatrick beat the state high school javelin throwing record (his father’s) from 24 years prior. He went on to hold the USA track and field junior record for the country.

After graduating from CVU, where his favorite subject was math, he studied for a year at the University of Vermont and then two years at Champlain College, focusing on business. Then fiancé Hannah Boucher of South Burlington (now his wife) wanted to move to Arizona to complete her studies there. Kirkpatrick got a job as the general manager of a manufacturing company.

It was a 2003 Christmas gift of a poker chip set to his father-in-law that started Kirkpatrick’s gambling journey. That night his father-in-law taught him the basics.

“I’m a numbers guy,” Kirkpatrick said. “I loved statistical analysis and that stuff. … Playing poker to me was a lot the same so I loved the game.”

He started to play on and off over the next several months. Then his wife left the country on an internship.

“I was home alone for two months,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’d go to work 9-5 and when I got out of work I’d go right to the casino. I just didn’t want to be home alone.”

Four casinos lie within 30 miles of his house; one is just four miles away. In the first couple of weeks he lost $5-600.

“I got kind of irritated and for a couple weeks didn’t go to the casino,” Kirkpatrick said.

He bought a couple of poker theory books and came up with a simple strategy. He started making money. Within four weeks, he turned $100 into $6,000. He began playing poker 40 hours a week, on top of his day job. In October 2004, he resigned and began playing poker exclusively.

His mother, Linda Kirkpatrick, said this week she giggles when people ask her what her son does for a living.

“When he was a teenager, he used to pick on us about going and wasting money at a casino,” Linda Kirkpatrick said, referring to occasional trips she took with her husband. “And now he’s a professional gambler. I didn’t ever think that would happen!”

Though a mother always worries, she said, she supports her son’s endeavors.

“If he can make a good living at it and have fun, more power to him,” she said.

Chris’s father, however, expresses apprehension a little more readily.

“He kind of hints at times ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” the younger Kirkpatrick said.

For now, Chris Kirkpatrick and his wife have returned to Vermont for at least six months (Boucher was laid off in a corporate merger), Kirkpatrick said. Since he plays primarily online, and only occasionally at casinos, there’s no interruption to his 40-60 hour-a-week poker playing schedule.

While he’s home, Kirkpatrick has high hopes of using his knowledge of poker for good causes. His organization Vermont Poker Pros will be running Texas Hold ’Em tournaments to benefit charities (organizations can readily earn $500 in a night). Players buy-in for $50, with first prize taking $1,000. His second organization – usbarpoker.com – organizes free poker teaching nights (no chip purchases required to play) at local restaurants or bars. Players can earn points toward a free trip with Kirkpatrick to the World Poker Tour.

To those who’ve never given poker a try, Kirkpatrick says this: “If you have any kind of analytical mind at all, you can be a good poker player.”

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