Full House

Raising a family on poker.

When my husband, Cero, first started playing poker for a living, the question was, “Aren’t you worried he’s addicted to gambling?” Now people say, “When will I see him on TV?” Thanks to shows such as the World Poker Tour and Celebrity Poker Night, we can now tell our relatives what Cero really does for a living. And I won’t lie—the lifestyle can be great: flexible schedules, the ability to be generous with friends and family, and, for Cero, the freedom to pursue his passion. But, for a young family, living on poker isn’t a game.

The highest-paying straight job Cero had ever had was managing an independent video store, for which he made about $300 in take-home pay every week. Adding that to my grad-student stipend, we lived comfortably. But even recreational poker-playing was clearly a better income stream. Although Cero liked his job, he felt like he was wasting time when he could be making more money doing what he loved most. How could I argue with that? 

Before quitting, Cero agreed to amass a $10,000 bankroll. That amount was vastly larger than the recommended starting bankroll for the $10-20 limit games he was playing, leaving room for error. Next, we socked away four months of expenses into an account we called “the cushion.” This money was untouchable, to be used only if Cero went broke. The last proviso was that we would also put away as much as we could for savings, to have an extra-cushiony cushion.

If you make your living playing poker on the Internet, your only expenditures are a decent computer (or two or three) and your broadband connection. However, the travel expenses of live-game players can mount up quickly. For Cero, trips to casinos are worth the cost only if he’s able to stay for a couple of weeks. A plane ticket, car rental, and two weeks of food raise the stakes considerably, and there’s no expense account to be had. So, he needs time at the tables to recoup travel and hotel costs, and then bring in some income. There are benefits, though: Some hotels offer a “poker rate” for players who log a certain number of hours in the casino, and all of the trip’s costs can be written off on our taxes. (And yes, we do pay taxes. Oh, do we.)

For members of a poker family, tournament time means one of two things: a lonely couple of weeks away from your loved one, or making a casino your home. We’ve tried both. With a 2-year-old, it’s usually easier to stay home. When our son Dario was 7 months old, he and I flew to be with Cero while he played in a World Poker Tour tournament at Foxwoods in Connecticut. As Cero was busting out of the tournament, Dario was learning to crawl in a hotel room in Mystic.

That’s not to say that poker keeps us apart. Because Cero can choose his own schedule, we can share care of Dario. Poker has also brought us more money than either of us has been able to make at any other job. (I’m a poet, so you can guess how much I’m banking.) The bursts of cash are admittedly fun to spend. When Cero began playing and would have a big win, he’d come home and say, “Let’s go somewhere nice for dinner.” He’s never been a worrier. He saved money because he knew it was important to me, but he didn’t sit around wondering if it was really wise to spend that $15 on a CD when he’d just bought a few the week before.

Cero keeps a tally of his daily wins and losses, but I don’t look at it. I’d ask him how his day went when I felt like it, and sometimes he’d tell me if he felt like it. But I’ve never grown comfortable enough with the amounts of money that he tosses around in a day—hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars—to keep it all in my head all the time. Early this year,I noticed that Cero was acting more withdrawn. He’d come down from his computer sighing heavily, and sometimes I’d hear him shout and hit a wall while he worked upstairs. His interactions with our son and me clearly cheered and pained him at the same time.

We sat down on the couch one morning. I asked how much money was left. “Seventeen-hundred,” he said. My chest tightened. The last time I could remember asking him this question, there was maybe $15,000 in the bankroll, much lower than its high of $65,000, but still sufficient for his purposes. Seventeen-hundred wasn’t enough to pay a month’s bills. “What about the cushion?” I asked. It was gone. I had some vague memory of conversations about needing to borrow from it, that we’d put it back. At the time, despite the “rules” we’d made about it, I thought it was OK. We were doing fantastically well. How could there be a problem?

I began to totally freak out. The day Cero told me that we had only $1,700 left happened to be my birthday and we had friends in town. One of them bought Chinese food for a celebratory supper and the next night I maniacally insisted that we eat the leftovers for dinner, even though there wasn’t enough for all of us. I don’t think I slept at all that night, or for a few nights after that. So, what happened then? A miracle. Cero made a miracle comeback. Suddenly he began winning several hundred or a couple thousand in each session at the computer. Incredulous, giddy, I felt our boat begin to float again.

We are getting by now. We cook at home more and buy fewer things. We still like to tip on the big side. The budgeting that families on a regular paycheck learn has taken us a little longer, in some part because of our good fortune. Our cushion is back in place, with iron bars, concertina wire, and an electric fence around it. We check in about our money situation every day. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s better than ignorance. During that awful time I might have questioned Cero’s sanity, but I certainly questioned my own. How could I have been so blissfully spending money, never balancing a checkbook? Money had become unreal not just to the poker player, but also to the poker player’s wife. Once again Cero has won a seat in this year’s World Series of Poker, currently under way in Las Vegas. This may be the year I get to say, “Look, Dario.  Daddy’s playing poker on TV.”