The straight and narrow

Professional poker's a hard way to make an easy living.

“WHEN YOU’RE DOWN, you never think you’re going to be up again,” says poker player Christian Van Hees. “And when you’re up, it’s never as good as you thought it would be.” On a gray Tuesday afternoon, Van Hees issues this bit of bettor’s wisdom while he sits in the back of Diamond Lil’s, a small, unassuming cardroom tucked into a clutter of chain stores on a busy stretch of Rainier Avenue in Renton.

With nothing but a few card tables and a small bar and restaurant, the interior is as spare as a banquet hall, offering no distraction from the game. A slight, shy man, Van Hees is waiting for a spot at the front table, which seems afflicted by the discontent he just described. Under lights that would make a surgeon squint (and in smoke that would have the surgeon general gasping), the players—all men—look wan and sullen, as if they’d rather be anywhere else. “I take my friends down here,” Van Hees says, “and they go, ‘All these faces, man, they’re so bored!'”

It may not be glamorous, but it’s a living. At 41, Van Hees has managed to accomplish what few attempt with a game constructed on luck: For 20 years now, he’s relied exclusively on poker for his income. “[What I do] is very rare; it’s very hard,” he says. He isn’t bragging, just stating facts. “I did try one time to get a job doing other things,” he adds. “It didn’t work out.”

A full-time, card-playing pro, who calls his style “deceptive and aggressive,” Van Hees regularly cleans up at local cardrooms and wins Western poker tournaments, such as the Oregon Open. He also happens to own one of the top prizes in the game—a 14-karat gold bracelet that bears his name, awarded to him, along with $315,000, for placing first in a Texas Hold’em tournament at the 26th World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 1995. This year he wasn’t so lucky. He just returned from the 33rd WSOP in Vegas, where he “lost a lot of money,” he says. “I’m kind of regrouping right now.

“I kind of envy the people who get paid every Friday,” he says. “But at this point in my life, it’s way too late to consider anything else. . . . The money is the validation of it all. One day at the cardroom I make $4,000. Why would someone go to work all week for $500? It almost ruins a person, in a way.”

The winnings can be big, but Van Hees shuns any displays of extravagance, keeping instead an appearance you might associate with a cash-strapped grad student—ill-fitting jeans, cotton sweaters, clunky black shoes. He won’t even wear his championship bracelet to the WSOP. “It’s too flashy,” he says.

Since he was a kid in Salem, Ore., Van Hees has made money from bets, starting with the old coin-matching game in fifth grade. Taught poker by his grandfather, who ran a home game, Van Hees discovered his skills among high-school friends and, after reading some classic how-to books, developed killer instincts in the Navy. He became so good there, he says, that he began loaning money to shipmates at rather high rates of return, a practice called “slushing.” The Navy tolerated the poker but didn’t like the loans, and Van Hees was discharged early. (Years later, according to Van Hees, the Navy officially upgraded the exit to honorable.) Afterward, in Los Angeles, he discovered the thrill of tournaments, often riding the gambler’s swing of boom to bust but winning enough to live on. “That’s when I realized the extraordinary potential of single-mindedness,” he says. “I was only concerned with poker. Nothing else interested me at all.”

These days, Van Hees plays Texas Hold’em regularly at Diamond Lil’s, though he admits to frequent boredom there. Daily poker can be a grind, its risks a burden. “A typical player needs a bigger game,” he says. “There’s not a lot of action here.” The pots in the Seattle area, averaging $300 to $400 and rarely bigger than $1,000, are chump change compared to what he can take home from the poker tournaments, such as the Oregon Open, that he regularly wins.

But with a 7-year-old daughter (whose cardgame interest, so far, runs only to crazy eights) and an interest in keeping his cash (“my inventory”) at a certain comfortable level, Van Hees tries to reduce his risk by finding backers—wealthy investors, such as one local cardroom owner, who are willing to front him a tournament’s buy-in fee for a 50-50 split on anything he makes. “I’m on a free roll,” he explains, meaning that if he loses, he doesn’t pay back a dime, a pretty good deal that only someone with his skills could put together.

As with all high-stakes players, his “bad beats”—seemingly strong hands that lose by a fluke—have sometimes been huge. His voice goes lower when he recalls the night in Vegas, at the Mirage in 1996, when he lost $48,000. “It’s not a healthy lifestyle,” he states. “I don’t recommend this to anyone.” Ask him about his most memorable hand, however, and he brightens like a kid just reminded about his birthday. “It was against Eskimo Clark,” he begins, remembering the cards that led him to his gold bracelet win. “One of the best players in the world.”

It was ’95, Van Hees’ first year at the WSOP, and he had entered the $1,500 buy-in tournament of Hold’em, in which each player holds two cards facedown while five other cards are dealt faceup (the first three come all at once and are called “the flop”). You make the best hand of five cards from the total of seven.

“I got pocket nines,” Van Hees recalls of his face-down cards. The flop came two small cards and a jack. I check. He bets. I raise. On the turn comes another jack, and I come out betting right away. He thinks a long time now. But he just calls. On the end, a nine peels off like butter.” What would have been a losing two-pair for Van Hees suddenly became a full house—a knockout winner, an entire vat of butter—and gave him enough chips to advance to the final round, which he won, anticlimactically, on a middling pair of sixes.

If he’s smart, Van Hees says with great seriousness, he’ll win a big one and quit. “But,” he adds, speaking of those, like himself, whose blood runs red with diamonds and hearts, “nobody does that.”

The floor manager at Diamond Lil’s is signaling. A spot has opened up. Van Hees slips him a $100 bill and takes his seat at the table to start his day’s work.