Mill Park boy and international poker pro Van Marcus is feeling the heat at the Melbourne Poker Championships at Crown
First published on 7 May 2012. Updated on 13 May 2012.
It’s an all-too familiar scene: our unassuming protagonist plunks down in front of the croupier and places down his chips (an unrecognisable sum, but you know it’s a lot). It’s a tense moment, and you wonder... is this the moment that will make or break him?
Hollywood loves a good casino drama, but what actually happens in the real world? Is the world of high stakes gambling really a game of “all or nothing?” To answer the question, we tracked down Melbourne’s equivalent of Mike McDermott – local Mill Park boy and international poker champion, Van Marcus. And yes folks, that really is his real name.
How did you get involved in professional gambling?
I’ve been playing for almost 12 years now. I loved cards every since I was a young boy. I would watch my uncle play poker with his friends at home games. I was also into magic a lot when I was very young so I had a fascination with cards... but I think I got really involved with professional gambling and poker when I first watched the movie Rounders!
What’s your game of choice?
My main game is poker, all forms of poker. I also have played some professional blackjack throughout the years.
How "real" are the depictions of professional players – do you think you're similar to Matt Damon's character in Rounders, for example?
I do believe I am similar to Matt's character, although now with online poker, it's easy for a professional to just play on various websites instead of ‘rounding’ from one casino to another, finding a game. Although if you are a live action player, you can always find home games or various limits at the local casino or travel and play the circuit depending on your bankroll and the amount of variance you can handle.
What about counting cards – have you ever seen others do it?
I have encountered counting cards in blackjack, but no, it’s not a common occurrence in poker. You do, however, sometimes count the number cards that are favourable to you and the number of cards that are out also known as outs) to determine whether or not you continue in a hand. You can calculate the probability of winning a hand and use that information to determine whether it’s profitable in the long run to continue to play in that situation.
Do you live a double life or do your friends and family know about your poker prowess?
Yes, everyone knows about it, including my family. At the beginning it was hard for them to grasp but after all the years of winning and proving my results, everyone thinks it’s pretty cool now, especially with all the luxurious things I have bought over the last 10 years – not to mention travelling and buying everyone so many gifts!
Are certain personalities better suited to gambling than others? Do you need some kind of degree?
I think anyone can do it, anyone can be taught the 'secrets' to successful gambling. I think being aggressive and fearless are two character traits that would have to be learnt in time. Patience and discipline are also key! Before playing I studied at LaTrobe University: computer science and software engineering.
What do you wear?
Because you may be playing in a game for long period and hours at a time, I usually like to wear comfortable clothes such as tracksuits or jeans and a T-shirt. For televised events I might wear pant suit and a nice shirt. I have worn at times caps and also sunglasses and I usually like to take my iPod in and listen to some music while playing.
What do you listen to? Are there particular tracks you like to play when you’re in the zone?
I like to mix it up – sometimes R’n’B, other times, slower tunes – it really goes with how I feel in the moment. Depends on if I want to play more aggressively or take it slow and play conservatively. However, if I do fall in love with a track I'll keep replaying it until my battery dies.
Is there a particular "circuit" that you play?
I play the Australian poker circuit. I’ve also played in the Asian poker tour and some European events. I also play the World Series of Poker (WSOP) event held in Las Vegas in June and July of every year.
How do the Australian players compare to the rest of the world?
I think for poker we are probably mid-range. There are some exceptional talented players. Generally, we still have a lot to learn to become top in the world.
How much money have you accumulated and how does this compare to other wins?
Officially I have made close to (AUD)$1.5m in tournaments winnings, and I’ve made millions more playing cash games. These winnings are considered up there in the top of the poker world
What’s your biggest win / loss?
The biggest amount won in a single tournament was when I came third at the WSOP and OMAHA event where I made close to (USD)$300k in one event! I have played in prize pools where first prize was nearly $10 million. In cash games I have won close to (AUD)$600k on a single day, and lost around $350k on a single day.
What's the best or most memorable hand you've ever been dealt?
The best hand I've been dealt is of course a royal flush. But it was a straight that I won the most amount – to the tune of (USD)$160k.
How do you prepare for a tournament?
I usually like to be well rested; having some good exercise is helpful and a good diet. You usually would know if you’re playing you’re a-game or not when you start. You can always take a break and come back another day if you feel you’re not at your best!
How has technology changed the game?
Poker online and now even apps on certain mobile phones has made the game less like work and more easy. In the old days you would have to go to the casino or travel and play eight-10 hours a day. At being dealt only 30-35 hands an hour, it would take you nearly 10 hours to play 350 hands. Nowadays with online poker you can easily play that same 350 hands in space of one-two hours. How? Well, online you can play up to 24 tables at the same time not one table like the brick and mortar live casinos. So for a professional it is much more appealing to play online because you have more free time and the hourly rate is much, much higher – maybe even tenfold in some cases.
Also, the online format is available to anyone who is willing to learn. You can sign up to forums, chat with pros about strategy online, read online books, sign up to a dozen different strategy and playing sites that offer hand to hand, play by play strategies on all different various forms of poker, including video instructions.
Technology has helped to track players. There are also software programs that you can purchase known as PokerTracker and Poker HUD, where you can get detailed information about your own play and your opponents to get information about every single hand played and all the strategies employed as well as percentages of when people raise, bluff, call etc.
Where do you play?
Both online and off. I was a sponsored player for many of the world’s best online websites including Pokerstars and Full Tilt Poker.
What role does strategy have in the game?
Poker is a game of millions of strategies – sort of like chess. Every game has a different set of strategies but the basics pretty much apply to them all. In order to become world class, it’s simply taking these basic understandings and developing them into your own game and style. One specific example of probability is that you might be involved in a hand where you give your opponent a certain range of hands he might have. You then assign mathematical values to each of those combinations and using the amount of money in the pot (pot odds) as well as the cards that help you win (card odds), you can work out whether it’s profitable in the long run to play a hand. Sometimes you might have a situation where you only have a 20 percent chance to win; for example, a pair of queens versus a pair of aces, but because the amount of the money in the pot from other players (including your own from previous betting rounds), you continue with only a 20 percent chance of winning, because the pot is laying you more than 5:1 on your money. So in the long run it’s a profitable investment. As a professional you’re trying to find every single edge and pushing it for maximum value even 1-3 percent edge could be worth a few hundred thousand dollars or maybe even millions in some games over the period of your career.
Is it a game of probability or chance?
There are a lot of strategies and tactics involved and they include probability, mathematics, psychology, reading players and their behaviours or patterns, reading their body language and tells. It’s also important to manage your bankroll.
Can you give us amateur poker players some pro-tips?
Make sure you always play within your means and your bankroll, so that losses don't affect your life.
Be sure to understand your expectation in a game, play when you’re rested and not emotionally fragile because of personal issues etc. Also it is important to not tilt – a word which kind of means like losing control when things are not going your way especially if they should be; you might be a 95 percent favourite in a hand and still lose (AUD)$100K dollars. It’s important to shrug it over and move on to the next hand. If you live in the past and can't shake of the beat it might affect your future play, costing you much more money in the long run.
Has the game changed much in your 12-year gaming career?
Yes, new strategies and skilful players are emerging every day with unique playing styles. More aggressive and more fearless with incredible ability to read opponents and put pressure on them through every hand. Even the seasoned pros must keep up with the changes and technology otherwise their opponents will get that extra edge on them causing them to end up broke and ending their career.
What are some of the biggest myths about professional gambling?
1. That you have to be a mathematical genius
2. That you need a lot of money or capital to start
3. That you need to be luckier than everyone else
4. The result of a previous game has an effect on the future outcome of a hand
5. Only professional gamblers can win money. In fact, anyone can make some extra cash and supplement their income with a little more knowledge.
Van Marcus will be competing in the 2012 Melbourne Poker Championship’s $1,100 Melbourne Champs Main Event this Thursday.