Casey Martin bids for a third act
Casey Martin leans across the table and rakes in the chips. He's just won a $30 pot, but his self-conscious smile advertises that he's not a hardened gambler. Across the table, an amiable old-timer in a ball cap winks at one of his pals. "Will somebody tell Casey," he says, "that the experienced player puts his big chips in front of his white chips?"
Martin, acknowledging the needle with a grin, rearranges his stacks.
It's Saturday night at Full House Poker, a card room in downtown Eugene, Ore. Condensation clouds the windows. An NFL playoff game flickers silently on two wall-mounted screens. No one is watching the football, but players at adjoining tables keep glancing in Martin's direction. He doesn't seem to notice and why would he? There was a time when satellite trucks parked outside his town house, a time when U.S. senators, Hall of Fame golfers and Supreme Court justices debated his future.
But the players aren't buzzing about the former PGA Tour pro with the prominent limp. They're buzzing about the young fellow to Martin's immediate left, a cipher in a collared sweater whose elbows seem glued to the table, moving only when he peeks at his hole cards or discards them with a flip of the wrist. Word has spread that Martin's soft-spoken pal is Dusty Schmidt, a.k.a. Leatherass, an online poker pro with a seven-figure income and a reputation for mental gymnastics.
Meanwhile, there's a skinny kid at the other end of the table tall, fidgety, head bobbing, knees pumping like a drummer. He has on baggy jeans, a white hoodie and a ball cap, and he's drafting on Leatherass like a NASCAR qualifier on Jimmie Johnson's bumper. "Come and get in close," he urges a press photographer. "I want people to know that I played against a famous pro." When he wins a pot from Leatherass, the Kid yelps and fires a fist at the ceiling. "I don't even know what I'm doin'," he chortles, raking in the chips. "I just play this game for fun!" When the Kid wins again, he leaps out of his chair. "I got you! Yeah!" The Kid looks back at the photographer. "You want to get a shot of the pro going to the ATM?"
"That's the thing about the Kid," the old-timer drawls. "He's humble."
So the Kid wins five straight hands and practically wets himself over his castle of chips. Leatherass merely smiles, folding hand after hand until he disappears like the Cheshire Cat. Then, just the way it happens in the movies, the Kid draws the pro into a big pot "I'm just so excited now!" he squeals, leaping to his feet for the river and then reels in anguish as Leatherass calmly turns over his hole cards: an ace and a king. The Kid has lost about half his stake, maybe 150 bucks.
"There's the pro," says the old-timer. "He waits and waits and finally springs the trap."
The Kid sags into his chair and pulls the hoodie over his head, silenced for the night. And that's the very predictable end of the story, until you see Dusty Schmidt, the poker millionaire, the online poker guru Leatherass! struggle to organize his winnings. "I don't know how to stack chips," he confesses to Martin with a rueful grin. "Most guys know how."
Dusty, you begin to suspect, doesn't get out much.
Not to be overdramatic, but there was always another side to Casey Martin, a side the public didn't know. Outwardly he was the cheerful, courageous athlete who played professional golf despite a congenital circulatory defect that forced him to hobble on a withered right leg. In Eugene, however, he was something more prosaic: a landlord. He rented out the guest room in his town house.
Three years ago Schmidt moved in, referred by Martin's next-door neighbor Matt Amen, a University of Oregon golfer. Schmidt, 27, had a tale of frustration to rival Martin's. A former junior golf star who grew up in Whittier, Calif., Schmidt was a five-time mini-tour winner, and in May 2004 he was top dog on the Golden State tour. But that's when fate, in the guise of a heart attack, flipped him onto the discard pile. "I was only 23, and I was playing the best golf of my life," Schmidt recalls. "Suddenly I was in the hospital, and the doctors were telling me I'd need at least a year to rehab."
It figured to be a very dull year, but on Christmas Day, Schmidt's good friend, the aforementioned Matt Amen, showed up at Schmidt's tiny Newport Beach, Calif., apartment carrying an expensive golf shirt in a gift box. "I'll give you this shirt if you'll give me $50," Amen said. Within minutes, Amen was bent over Schmidt's PC, and the $50 was out there in the ether.
"And that," Schmidt says with a smile, "was my introduction to online poker."
Martin picks up the story in 2005, when the wannabe poker pro moved into his spare bedroom. Schmidt set up his laptop in the room and began tiling poker tables on the screen, playing four to eight hands at a time and earning more on some days than Martin was averaging per tournament on the Nationwide tour. "Dusty basically never left my home," Martin says. "He'd literally play poker all day and all night. I'd come home in the afternoon, and I'd hear this sound" Martin pounds his fist hard on the table, thud, thud, thud "which was Dusty grinding away at small stakes. Getting frustrated, but always getting better."
Schmidt says he was simply trying to improve: "When I moved in, I think I was making as much as I'd made working for my father, about $40,000 a year."
What does Schmidt make today? "About a buck a hand," he says which sounds like nothing until he explains that he now plays 12 or more hands at a time on two monitors. As Leatherass, he racks up 1,200 high-stakes hands per hour and 7,000-plus hands a day. "If you play 200 days a year," he continues, "that's 1.4 million hands per year. I actually play 1.5 million to two million hands a year."
At any given time Schmidt has 50 or 60 thousand of his dollars spread across the tables. "We work on incredibly small margins," he says, making his dollar-per-hand sound like a supermarket chain's annual report. "On a given hand the math dictates that I'll make a $40 profit in the long run. But I have to risk $10,000 to make that $40." Which, he quickly adds, he doesn't hesitate to do. "I'll take that edge every time. I play enough hands to make it statistically significant."
To Martin, who watched his oddball tenant study poker manuals and memorize math tables for hours on end, Schmidt was a model of entrepreneurial drive. "Most people, they'll put in some hours," Martin says, "but Dusty has probably played more online hands than anybody in history. He went from amateur to top 10 in a very short time, and the money went from a hundred grand a year to a million."
If someone had whispered those numbers to the Kid on Saturday night, it might have occurred to him that a man accustomed to calling a $10,000 raise on one table while running algorithms for another 11 tables in his head probably isn't going to crumble when you shout, "All in!" over a $50 stack of chips. On the other hand, those watching Leatherass school the Kid that night would have been wrong to think that the game was too slow and cheap for the online pro. "I have such a competitive desire that it wouldn't have mattered if we were playing for nickels," Schmidt said afterward. "I had fun."
They're still golfers, but golfers consigned to the What If tour. Martin, 36, retired from tournament play in 2006 with one Nike tour victory, a successful campaign to use a motorized cart on Tour, and a crowd-pleasing 23rd-place finish at the 1998 U.S. Open as his signal achievements. Now in his third year as men's golf coach at Oregon, Martin plays enough rounds at Eugene Country Club to notice an improvement in both his ball striking and putting trends that have him toying with the idea of joining the Champions tour when he turns 50. (Mark your calendar: June 2, 2022.)
Schmidt, too, loiters at the edge of his former profession. He plays to a plus-four handicap, averaging a round a week at Pumpkin Ridge's private Witch Hollow course. He is also a founder and the president of 10thGreen.com, a year-old social networking site offering interactive content to amateur and professional golfers. The cofounder and video star of 10thGreen is one Casey Martin because, according to Schmidt, "I couldn't come up with anybody in golf with more credibility."
They are very different people, even if they share the common thread of golf careers thwarted by circulatory failure. Martin is, by his own admission, a nit the term poker players apply to those who cling to the wall at the shallow end of the pool. "I'm a tightwad," he says. "I'm scared to death. Poker is so emotionally and mentally draining that I can't sleep afterward." Schmidt, by way of contrast, has acquired a mathematician's detachment, a focused tranquillity that allows him to manage tens of thousands of dollars on a constantly changing digital landscape. "I had to build up to it," he says, crediting chats with Jared Tendler (10thGreen's COO and mental-game coach) for his equanimity.
Another difference is that Schmidt's coronary arteries have responded to medication ("I'm close to 100 percent"), but Martin's infamous leg a skin-wrapped tube of leaky veins, atrophied muscle and dissolving bone has not. "My hope was that my leg would benefit from not standing all day," Martin says. "But the first couple of years at home were really terrible. I've talked to a couple of doctors about amputation, but it brings in a lot of unknowns. Would I be in less pain? Would the quality of my life improve?" This winter, he adds, the pain has eased slightly "so those fears haven't been on my mind so much lately."
The sting of disappointment is harder to dismiss. Press coverage in 2001 of Martin v. PGA Tour, Inc. tended to skirt the fact that his Tour ambitions were neither a publicity stunt nor a political contrivance. "It wore on me," he says. "I was getting lots of attention, but I wasn't achieving my goals as a player." Now Martin gets very little attention unless you count the high school and junior college golfers who write to him, hoping he'll see scholarship potential in their four-handicap games. "Deep down, I believed I could get it done, but I didn't," he says. "That burns me a little." He launches a wadded envelope toward the corner and makes a face when it falls between the wastebasket and the wall. "My athletic ability," he says drily, "has waned."
Schmidt's athletic ability, meanwhile, has become irrelevant. The poker pro lives with Nicole, his grad-student wife of two years, in a four-bedroom house on a leafy cul-de-sac near the Nike campus in suburban Portland. The walls of his home office his friends call it the War Room are covered with classic golf photos. Golf books fill the bookcase. It is only when Schmidt puts on his sunglasses and starts tiling virtual poker tables on his 40-inch and 28-inch monitors that the true nature of his work is revealed.
"The first thing people ask," Nicole says, "is, 'How much does he make?'"
It's a rude question but one that Dusty feels compelled to answer because it goes to his credibility as an equity partner and online coach for stoxpoker.com, a poker training site. "My baseline is a hundred grand a month," he says, making his cursor dance across the screen like an angry blackfly. "I'll go a hundred thousand hands without making money, but I've never had a losing month." Sensing skepticism, he adds, "A hundred thousand hands, that's three years for a live poker player. That's why they tend to bottom out and die. But it's less than a month for an online player." His eyes fix on a particular table for a moment; then he clicks his mouse. "Doyle Brunson is like the Babe Ruth of poker" he clicks again "and I figure I played more hands in my first year than he played in 35 years."
Asked who are the better poker players, Schmidt votes for his pixel-popping brethren. "The best online players tend to be MIT math majors or securities traders who figure out how to beat the game," he says. "We're technically perfect, like golfers with perfect swings." The live players are "more about the flow of the game, reading people. They play more by feel." Reminded that feel has propelled more golfers to the Hall of Fame than technique has, Schmidt nods in agreement. "I'm not saying we're that much better. But I get 1,200 hands an hour, while a live player only gets 25 or 30. So I'm not picking on those guys when I say the learning curve is steeper." He shrugs. "It's a different kind of poker."
("Did Dusty tell you he doesn't even own a deck of cards?" asks Tendler. "He doesn't own a deck of cards!")
The word mania comes to mind, but Schmidt's demeanor is as bland as his wardrobe. "I tell him to wear gold chains and put his hat on sideways," says Martin, "but he ignores me." Ask Schmidt how he got his start in golf, however, and a pattern emerges.
"When I was about eight, I told my mom and dad that I wanted to do something great in life," he recalls. "I said, 'What do you think I should get into? Maybe sports?'" His parents, who own a company that distributes nonfood items to grocery stores, played golf, and Dusty was undoubtedly moved by the example of his father, George, who competed on the national long-drive circuit. "I decided golf was my best bet," Dusty says, "because I could work alone. Nobody was going to outwork me." The Schmidts lived near the Big Tee Golf Course in La Mirada, Calif., so Dusty's indulgent dad dropped him off at the driving range one morning, handing him a hundred-dollar bill ("because that's what he had in his wallet"). Dusty bought bucket after bucket and hit range balls until 10 that night. "When my dad came to pick me up," Dusty says, "I only had $8 left."
Schmidt's thousand-balls-a-day habit forced him to work out a deal with the range pro unlimited practice balls in exchange for policing the tee line and nearly wrecked his hands. ("I still can't straighten my fingers.") But it propelled him to the top ranks of the American Junior Golf Association, where he wore knickers in honor of Payne Stewart and outplayed squirt versions of current PGA Tour players Jeff Quinney, Charles Howell, Hunter Mahan and his closest Tour pal, Kevin Na. "[Dusty] was an outstanding junior," says Amen, who played and practiced with Dusty's younger brother, Tyler, another long-drive practitioner. "From age 10 to 15, Dusty won everything."
Then Schmidt stopped winning. Some blame his brief association with the outre swing coach, Mac O'Grady. Others say he was blindsided when Oklahoma withdrew a scholarship offer on signing day. Whatever the reason, Schmidt endured one forgettable season at UC Irvine before turning pro. He played the mini-tours for several years while moonlighting at the family business, and he had begun to pile up wins on the Golden State tour when, figuratively speaking, the horn blew.
"It was May 2004," he says, reliving the moment. "I was moving product at a grocery store when I felt my heart going crazy. I didn't keel over, but it was very painful, and the thought kept running through my head: Is this it?"
He rolls his chair back and looks at a photo of Ben Hogan. He says, "I talked to Jared about my disappointment. 'All that effort,' I told him, 'it went to waste.' And Jared said, 'It didn't go to waste. You couldn't have had success in poker if you hadn't worked so hard at golf.'"
The kid would probably go all in to be as respected as Martin or as well-off as Schmidt. But poker will teach him there's no point in counting yesterday's chips.
Martin, for example, is absorbed in reviving an Oregon golf program that hasn't won the Pac-10 since 1959. "Casey's life has quieted down," says his stockbroker brother Cameron, "but he channels his competitive nature into whatever he does." Casey's job would be easier if Eugene had palm trees and bermuda grass, but he maintains that a little fog and rain never hurt anybody.
Schmidt hopes his poker income and business spin-offs will make him rich enough to pursue his goal: philanthropy. "I'd need three weeks of practice to be competitive again on the mini-tours," he says, "but now it seems selfish to play golf, because I have the ability to make money." Bluffing now he is, isn't he? Leatherass predicts that his and Martin's 10thGreen website will lower the national men's handicap average, which, he concedes with a grin, has been stuck around 15 for decades.
"I tend to have visions, and my visions are always grandiose," says the man who made a fortune at cards without the cards. He adds, "Casey is more realistic and down to earth. It's a nice balance."
Which leaves you eyeing your pile of chips and wondering: Do I bet against these guys?