When the chips are down, professional poker players face their greatest obstacle – themselves.
The story is repeated often in the world of high-stakes poker. A young phenom comes out of nowhere, wins a major tournament and pockets a large sum of money. Surrounded by new friends, celebrated in the media, every night is New Year’s Eve.
And then it’s gone.
Mark Newhouse knows the story well. He lived it.
At 21, Newhouse, a Chapel Hill native and sometime student at Appalachian State, played in the prestigious Borgata Poker Open in Atlantic City. Stunning the experts, he won the event’s $1.5million first-place prize and immediately was branded as the next big thing in poker.
Newhouse, who started playing poker with friends from his part-time job at Staples, was now at the top of the heap. But he was young and inexperienced in the ways of a poker pro’s lifestyle. He loaned money to fellow players, a common practice. Many of them never paid him back. He eventually learned the fundamental rule of poker: When you’re running bad, the cards don’t care.
“I made every mistake I could make,” said Newhouse from Los Angeles, where he is a frequent cash-game player at the Commerce Casino. “I lost my mind, and that lasted for a couple of years. Having a lot of money at 21, you’re clueless and you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes being down and out to know who your real friends are.”
All that changed in July at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Newhouse, now 28, survived the grueling seven days of play in the No Limit Hold ’Em Main Event at the Rio Resort and Casino. A starting field of 6,352 was whittled to the final table – nine players who will return for a shot at the $8.3 million first-place money in November.
Newhouse, a graduate of East Chapel Hill High, will begin the event in eighth place and is already guaranteed $733,224.
“Your goal is to just get through each day,” Newhouse said of the weeklong Main Event. “Before I even realized it, it was Day Seven and there were just 14 players left. On the last day a lot of players are tired. You have to be able to identify that and take advantage of it.
“That (final) day was insane. I started with a short stack of chips and got up to being the chip leader with 22 million. In the next level I lost every hand with a bad run of cards. If the dinner break didn’t happen when it did, something bad would have happened.”
Getting away from the tables for 90 minutes was exactly what Newhouse needed. He visited with some friends and re-thought his strategy.
“It’s hard to keep a level head, and the break happened at the perfect time,” he said. “I went out and played super solid and treated it as a new tournament. My goal was to make the November Nine.”
When the cards settled, Newhouse achieved his goal. He will enter the final table with 7.35 million chips, well behind leader J.C. Tran’s 38 million but certainly not out of contention.
“Anything can happen in a tournament,” he said. “All it takes are a couple of big hands.”
The new breed
Newhouse is a member of the online generation of poker players. Spurred on by his brother Dan, he began to read poker books and play at sites such as Party Poker. He eventually built up a healthy bankroll of $500,000. That was followed by the big win in Atlantic City and an introduction to the wild emotional and financial swings that are par for the course for a poker pro.
“In order to succeed in this business you have to make mistakes and learn from them,” he said. “There are lessons you learn in the poker lifestyle that you can’t learn anywhere else.”
Margaret Newhouse hopes to travel from her home in Chapel Hill to Las Vegas, meeting up with son Dan and daughter Beverly when the final table begins in November.
“I knew Mark had to follow his passion,” she said. “I always had the feeling he would get back to where he was before, he just had to go through a process. It (Main Event) will be nerve-wracking, but I think it’s awesome.”
Also in the audience for the final table will be friends of Newhouse who invested in him before the tournament, helping to defray the $10,000 entry fee (he will keep roughly half of whatever he wins).
The final countdown
Newhouse knows his opponents at the final table will be a formidable challenge. The fact he has a short stack of chips will bring even more pressure under the lights of the ESPN cameras.
“I’m known as a loose, aggressive player, but I’ve lost some of the animal instincts I had,” he said. “I’m going to start out playing solid, and if I double up, I’ll have an average stack. I’m going to go in there and try to play solid poker and not get out of line.
“A good game is a well-balanced game. You’ve got to be able to change gears. There’s luck involved, but in the long run the good player is going to win the money.”
The World Series of Poker is quite different from the cash games Newhouse plays on a regular basis in L.A. and Vegas.
“There’s a lot of dead money in the Main Event,” he said. “You’re playing against softer competition and not many of them are good poker players. In the cash games, I’ve been playing against the same guys for years.”
He had a limited schedule at this year’s World Series of Poker, preferring to stay in L.A. while many of the game’s big names were in Vegas.
“It’s one of the best times of the year to be in the Commerce Casino,” he said. “I ended up playing against a lot of recreational players.”
Mark Newhouse is back where he belongs. What the cards haven’t taught him, the years have.