A betting man

Profile of an online poker pro

Reluctantly, he awakes to a stray beam of sunlight peeking through the heavy curtains of his bedroom. It must be late morning - or is it early afternoon? Michael Wilczynska runs a pale hand through his dark, floppy hair as he wanders to the kitchen for breakfast. Then it's time to get to work. Still dressed in the clothes he went to bed in, Wilczynska rouses his business partner, a state-of-the-art computer sporting dual 20.1" LCD monitors, and another day begins.

Wilczynska, alias 'pokermike', is a professional online poker player - and he is very good at what he does. His usual two hours a day on high-stakes limit hold 'em tables yield an easy US$300 per hour on sites like PartyPoker.com, a pay rate 15 times that of the average Australian. That's not bad for a 23-year-old undergraduate physicist and philosopher from South Sydney High.

"It's pretty surreal," he laughs. "I'm still pinching myself."

Wilczynska's poker career began just under two years ago. His best mate of three years, James Cox, alias 'Zero', remembers the day well:

"We were playing cards and we saw an ad for poker on the net," he recounted. "Mike said that there was no chance and that it was a scam. But I decided to give it a go."

Online poker worked out well for Cox, a 21-year-old law student from Sydney University. Six months later, Wilczynska decided that he would have a go too.

"I did a search on Google and then that was it," Wilczynska said. "I just started reading and learning and I thought, alright I'll give it a shot...I said I'd put 50 dollars into it and if I lose that 50 bucks then I'd never play again."

Wilczynska's poker career took off like a rocket. Over the past year, he has played online against Ben Affleck, poker celebrity Erik Sangstrom and a Manchester United soccer player who goes by the alias "Steve". When he was in Vegas last December, Wilczynska was having beers with World Poker Tournament champion Joseph Hachem and pitting himself against the authors of the very books that taught him the tricks of handling the flop, turn and river.

So how does gambling get so rewarding? According to Cox, it's not about gambling, but about "exploiting an edge" over other players.

"Most people that try to play are really bad at it because they don't take the time to study," said Wilczynska, explaining that poker is "just plain maths".

"Expected value calculations basically tell you what to do in a certain situation," he said. "What you do is you go over certain hands and certain situations when you're not playing and when that situation comes up, you remember what to do cause you've done it before. Anyone with above average intelligence - not even much - can do really well. If they focus."

But for there to be winners, there also have to be losers. The key factor separating a good player from a bad one is discipline, and controlling one's emotions is not always easy.

Fellow online poker shark, 24-year-old Jim McEvoy, alias 'HotPants', said: "some players are addicts who don't realize they suck; they actually think they are good players just getting unlucky.

"It makes me feel bad when I think I am potentially ruining lives of gambling addicts."

Wilczynska agrees: "When you're playing with someone who you think can't afford to lose their money, you feel a bit sad.

"But when you gamble you go into a contract where you're saying I'm responsible for my own money and this is what I choose to do with it, so I think all obligation is relegated to them."

When Wilczynska's family first heard about his chancy new hobby, they were understandably apprehensive.

"When I first started playing, they were a little bit concerned," he admitted, but his mathematical approach and obvious success soon put their worries at ease.

"I bought my mum a new car a few weeks ago and now she's loving it!" he laughed.

Wilczynska's success has bought him an emancipated, jet-setting lifestyle, but despite the rewards of professional gambling, he is determined to aspire for something more. Although he is uncertain of what he will do after graduating from the University of New South Wales, he refuses to be "just a poker player".

"It's not enough. You need more than that in life, I think.

"I mean, it's got depth...but at the same time, it's just a stupid card game," he said.

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