Matt Calhoun doesn't get to bluff much at his day job. Maybe that explains his yearly pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the vaunted World Series of Poker. It's his hajj. His Halloween. His $10,000 buy-in.
"It's the one thing in my life that my wife isn't all that ... crazy about," the Scottsdale technology executive says, choosing his words with henpecked care. "But we have an understanding. I gotta go."
Last weekend, Calhoun competed in a high-stakes pot-limit Omaha tournament at the World Series of Poker, one of several lucrative but lesser-known undercards to the No-Limit Texas Hold 'em Main Event, which starts today. Known for anointing such poker stars as Chris Moneymaker and Jamie Gold, it's the world's most illustrious poker competition - and one increasingly dominated by skilled amateurs such as Calhoun.
But is it the allure of an eight-figure payday that beckons Calhoun back to the series again and again? Or simply the comfort of a beloved hobby?
Perhaps the answer can be found inside the futuristic north Scottsdale office building where Calhoun works. As chief technology officer at i/o Data Centers, a "co-location" boutique for information-hungry clients, the New Jersey transplant leaves nothing to chance. The servers are fail-safe. The power that feeds them is unimpeachable. All of it is stashed behind reams of security glass and metal, not to mention the cylinder-shaped air lock in the lobby that looks like it was swiped from the set of "The Andromeda Strain."
No wonder the smooth-shorn Calhoun likes to let his figurative hair down and put his God-given math skills to more recreational use. After all, nothing shakes off the cobwebs of a busy workday like an out-of-position reraise.
"I certainly think that mathematical aptitude has a lot to do with poker success," Calhoun agrees. "You know, we come from all walks of life: psychologists, actors, tech guys. Some guys go with gut feelings. Some rely on reading the table. But you have to know the odds."
Knowing the odds is why Calhoun hasn't devoted himself professionally to poker. Though he claims to be "in the black," or profitable, since ramping up his poker activity five years ago, he also knows that a streak of bad luck can scuttle the pro dreams of even the most savvy player. And with a wife, an 18-month-old child and a baby on the way, that's one wager he can't afford to make.
"The other problem is the lifestyle," laments Calhoun, who has played in upwards of 40 tournaments. "I know several people who play professionally and it requires very long hours in the casino. Overnight hours. It's not an easy thing to do."
Still, Calhoun plays often enough - and at a high enough level - to have been knocked out of a tournament by professional Daniel Negreanu, one of the best and richest players around. In 2005, he competed in the WSOP Main Event and finished "in the money" - meaning he earned his money back (at least) and was among the top 10 percent of the players.
Alas, 2008 wasn't Calhoun's year at the series. In the Pot-Limit Omaha event, he lost most of his stash when his aces-over-kings full house got trounced by an opponent's four kings. He finished roughly in the middle of the field.
Still, it's the exquisite uncertainty of poker - far removed from the computerized clockwork oranges of work - that keeps Calhoun and devoted amateurs like him coming back for more. Who knows? Maybe he'll bluff Negreanu or some other big shot off a winning hand someday.
"Put me in a ring with the best boxer and I'll always lose, but on any given day, I can beat the best professional poker player," he says. "There aren't too many sports where you can say that."