A Word with Tom Fuller: A Card Shark - Shark Week

By Lisa Han

To most people, Las Vegas is among the most special, glamorous places on the map. It’s an indulgence in leisure and irresponsibility—a world where fortune is king and the rules of normal society don’t apply. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, so they say. Unless you compete seriously, most of us tend to base our ideas about poker life on films. Is it really as subversive at it seems in the movie Rounders? Do big players booze and indulge in fancy hotel suites like in 21? Are the suits and cocktail dresses as attractive as the ones in Ocean’s Eleven?

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s one thing to win a hand of hold‘em against your friends with maybe $50 and some bragging rights. The idea of signing away years of your life to the game alone, however, is something else entirely. BTR spoke to Tom Fuller, a player who has been competing professionally for upwards of eight years, to get some insights into the life of a card shark.

BreakThru Radio: How did you end up becoming a professional poker player?

Tom Fuller: My story is pretty typical. I saw the movie Rounders at a friend’s house. He was hosting a game in his basement at night—this is like junior [year] of high school. So we played and I won a lot of money. Here is a game with a ton of strategy and psychology and a chance to make money out of it. Basically, from that day on I always wanted to play…I’ve been playing professionally since the summer before my senior year in college, so that was the summer of 2004, when I started making more money out of it. I’ve been more or less professional for eight years now.

BTR: Can you give a general description of what you do?

TF: I used to play cash games online so that was a more consistent source of income. With cash games if you’re good you’re going to win more often than you lose. Then I switched to tournaments; in tournaments even the best players usually lose more than they win.

Online basically became impossible to play as an American back in April 2011. The biggest site was found to be embezzling and they were immediately shut down by the Department of Justice.And then the second biggest site immediately pulled out of the US market when it happened. Those two sites had the vast majority of the action online. So when those two were shut down it kind of meant the end of the online industry in America at least.

BTR: How often do you travel?

TF: When I was a full-time pro, I was travelling and taking maybe eight trips a year all over the world. That would also include Vegas and LA. Vegas and LA are kind of the capitals of the poker world. Every summer I go to Vegas for the World Poker Series for 60 days.

BTR: Do you like Vegas?

TF: I love it actually; it’s kind of like summer camp for professional gambling. You get to go and hang out with all your friends, and play games, and have fun and everybody is kind of on the same page, everyone understand the lifestyle and everyone sees with the same vision.

BTR: What do you think about when you’re trying to keep a poker face?

TF: I think I don’t really care that much. A lot of times, I will show legitimate emotion during hands, and most of the time that’s real, but some of the time I’m faking it. I’m usually not really trying to hide my emotions because I’m usually going to be pretty stoic, except when I have a tough decision.

BTR: Do sunglasses really help?

TF: Not really. Honestly, that can be sort of a tell, a sign of weakness actually. Most experienced players don’t wear sunglasses because they’re confident in their ability to hide their emotions and they don’t need them.

BTR: How can you tell someone is an amateur at the game? What are giveaways?

TF: When you see a guy at a table you’re looking to evaluate your opinions as quickly as possible. If it’s a young guy, he’s probably doing it for a living so chances are he’s decent. Sometimes it will be a player that you know that you’ve played before or seen on TV and you’ll be aware of their accomplishments right away. If it’s an older player, their income might be coming from something else, so there’s a good chance that he’s an amateur. The biggest thing is just seeing how they handle hands, how comfortable they are with the chips, and how they handle the cards…It’s not hard to typecast players very quickly.

BTR: How accurate is a movie like Rounders in depicting the life of an actual poker player?

TF: Rounders is really good. Rounders was made I think in the late ‘90s and I think it was very accurate. But that was right before the poker boom happened and online poker became very popular. As soon as that happened, it became somewhat archaic…The story of Rounders is about a guy who plays in these quasi-legal underground games in New York. Once poker exploded there was basically no need to play those kinds of games, but the way they treat the hands is accurate. The industry has just changed drastically.

BTR: What is your most unglamorous moment in being a poker pro?

TF: The online grinder is pretty unglamorous, you’re just basically hunched over a laptop clicking the mouse furiously, taking a break every once in a while for five minutes and going back to clicking buttons.

BTR: What is your most glamorous moment?

TF: I guess that would be in 2007 I made a televised table on the European poker tour in Austria. And then again in 2010 I made a televised finals table on ESPN and that was in Las Vegas… Just the TV exposure makes it different. There’s a lot of radio and interviews being done and the money you’re playing for is really significant too.

BTR: How do you celebrate a devastating tournament loss?

TF: Drinking? No, I like to go to the gym, especially in Vegas. When you’re playing poker tournaments most of it is out of your control, so I like to do things to kind of regain control. So go to the gym, swimming, just doing fun stuff.

BTR: On average, do poker players get girls?

TF: Hmm…that’s a good question. Most poker players are like pretty nerdy. You kind of have to be pretty nerdy to get into poker enough to be really good at it—you have to have kind of an obsessive personality. So, I mean there certainly are plenty of guys that do well in that area but I’d probably say looking at a composite, the average player has probably below average confidence in that area.

BTR: How do you feel about dinner buffets?

TF: I love buffets. You actually have a lot of choice in the matter, like a lot of players will just eat what’s in front of them…but you can kind of do whatever you want in terms of your lifestyle and hobbies and activities outside of poker.

BTR: What is the best part about playing poker?

TF: Well there are two. One best part is just basically when you own somebody. And you know when somebody is doing something as they do it, whether they’re trying to bluff you or they’re trying to pretend they have a better hand than they do. You see right through it and you just own them. The other one is getting really deep in a big tournament when the money gets really big and the excitement gets huge.

BTR: What is your end point? Do you plan on being a pro poker player for the rest of your life or is this a means to an end?

TF: Well, I’m not really a professional anymore. During almost the last year and a half, I’ve only played at the World Series over the summer. I haven’t really figured out another way of income but I always knew I wouldn’t be a pro forever. There are a lot of people who are in the same boat, especially because online poker disappeared.

BTR: What sorts of things do you do outside of poker nowadays?

TF: I’m really into board games. I really like to write. I really like to climb mountains. Right now, I’m just reading a lot about the board game industry and seeing if maybe I can break into that.

BTR: Is there a number that would make you stop?

TF: I guess no, because I mostly just play for the fun of it. I guess back when I was playing full time there might have been, but now I play about as much as I want as I would if I had unlimited money.

BTR: What would advice would you give to someone who wants to go pro and play full-time?

TF: Just to be really sure that this is what they want to do long term. The only reason to try to become a professional poker player is if you really deeply love the game and you can’t imagine going a week without playing, because later in your career, you will become disenchanted. You have to have a really strong base of passion for the game…I’m just someone who really likes to play games and got into poker not because of wanting to make money or wanting to have that lifestyle, but really just because I love it.

To see Tom in action, check out this video of him on season four of European Poker Tour (he’s in the blue shirt):