Type to search

FRONTLINE: Profile

Share

Main Line Hold’em
For one Bryn Mawr family, poker has reaped unexpected rewards.

Dan and Beth Shak have what many might see as the ultimate Main Line life—sprawling home, nice cars in the driveway, interesting jobs and a house full of great-looking kids. But if you’re betting that this seemingly average Bryn Mawr couple spends their free time hitting the links at the country club, bet again. For the Shaks, poker is the family game.

Dan, 47, traces his interest in poker back to his teen years in New York playing with friends. It wasn’t until three years ago, after he noticed the surge in poker websites and TV programming, that the full-time hedge-fund manager thought about getting back into the game.

Already successful in his chosen profession, Dan first approached the game purely as a hobbyist. “I just viewed it as a challenge to myself. It wasn’t something that I was doing because of anyone else, for anyone else. It isn’t even about the money to me,” he says. “It’s like trying to attain a good score at golf or trying to prove to myself that I’m good at it.”

The downside was that commuting from Bryn Mawr to New York for work, and then to Atlantic City and Las Vegas for tournaments, left him limited time to spend with his wife, who owns a high-end vintage clothing business. “It’s like if I was playing golf, if my wife wanted to join me she has to learn to play, so I taught her to play. And believe it or not, she happens to be very good at it,” says Dan.

“It’s funny, because initially it was daunting to me,” says Beth, 39. “I taught myself, and he came in and coached me from there. I opened my own online account and said ‘I’m doing it.’ I realized that you don’t have to be a genius. You have to have skill; you have to have intuition.”

Dan credits that intuition both to his wife’s success and his own. Last fall, he came in fourth at the 2006 United States Poker Championships at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, bringing home $157,926 from the $9,700 buy-in event. “I think it’s something that takes intuition. I’m a commodities trader and I trade by intuition, and I think a woman naturally has intuition. And Beth has very good intuition, so I thought it was something she could be good at—and she actually turned out to enjoy it.”

“Good at it” is a bit of an understatement. After playing for only six months, Beth finished eighth in the 2005 36th Annual World Series of Poker Ladies Event. When she cashed out of the $1,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em tournament at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas, she took home $16,405 in winnings. Since then, she’s performed respectably in a number of other events.

“I definitely think I’m good at reading people, so that’s probably one of the most important things when I sit down at a table. I have a very good sense of other people,” she says. “In poker, you really use your mind. You really have to use psychology; you really have to think about what the other person has, try to outplay them and try to think what to do.”

Those are skills that serve Dan well, too. “I think it keeps my mind active. If I’m not working or trading, I’m playing poker. It just sort of keeps my mind working—it’s not like I’m turning my mind off,” he says. “In the three years I’ve played poker, my work has only maintained or gotten better. If I saw that my work was becoming affected, I would stop playing.”

That focus on career, as well as family, requires them both to take scheduling into account while planning for tournaments. Dan focuses on events that begin at the end of the week and go into a weekend to minimize the overlap between work and play. He also keeps the frequency of his play at a level both he and Beth find agreeable.

Both also keep in mind the mental toll that can come from 12- to 14-hour days of poker, broken up only by 15-minute breaks every 90 minutes. “I’ve made mistakes and gotten to [five-day] tournaments, and then two days into it realized I’m really not prepared for five days,” Dan says.

Work, too, can have a significant effect on how he plays, even in the weekend events. While there’s still trading to be done, that’s what Dan is doing, rather than preparing himself for play later in the day. “By 2:30 in the afternoon [on Friday] when my work is closed, then I’m 100 percent focused on poker,” he says.

Holding Down the Fort
As the one who runs the household, Beth limits herself to about half as many tournaments as her husband. Dan also maintains a strict policy that puts work and family before poker at all times.

“My rule is I’m always home immediately after a tournament. The second I lose, I’m home to my family and my career—and it’s a policy I’ve kept 100 percent,” he says. “I’ve never stayed longer than the earliest flight I could catch.”

That family vibe not only helps them reconcile their home lives with those at the table, it also makes them better players. “Our friends know we play as a couple,” Beth says.

Lately, more and more of their friends are being made around poker tables at tournaments. Their pals on the Main Line, meanwhile, don’t really understand the attraction. “They think I’m crazy,” Dan says, laughing. “Our friends are normal; we’re not normal. We sit down and play poker with our family, not for money but for fun. Other families go golfing together. People look at us like we’re nuts.”

“They think I’m even more crazy,” Beth adds. “They think I’ve completely lost my mind. They don’t get it.” A closer look, though, might reveal couples poker as a new method for building marital conviviality. Beth notes that the two of them coach each other constantly when one is playing and the other isn’t. It’s also an advantage, given the long, exhausting hours at the table, to have some support on the sidelines. “You get tired. Clearly, after putting in so much time, you get mentally exhausted, so we coach each other through it,” says Beth. “If he goes to a tournament without me, people will say, ‘Where’s Beth?’”

No surprise there. Petite and attractive, Beth is the sort of player who becomes a good-looking good-luck charm for some players and cash-out kryptonite for others.

“I have men that gun for me because they don’t want me there—and I love it because ultimately I wind up taking them out when they gun for me,” she says. “Then I have men who like to have me there because they like the way I look. And then I have the men who know me and have played with me and respect me. But I definitely have people that just don’t want me there.”

It’s part of an inherent chauvinism that still permeates the game, says Dan, even though more and more women are getting into the game. Still, the potential rewards are far greater for female players than for men.

“They say that this is a career that benefits men, but the women who get far in a tournament are much more successful with endorsements,” says Dan. “TV loves a woman to be successful in poker, even though some of the male players might be jealous of that.”

The opportunities have diminished with last year’s passage of a federal law making cash payout Internet poker sites illegal, but they’re still out there. “They do want to see women,” Beth says.

And it never hurts if those women are easy on the eyes.

As far as skill levels go, however, Dan believes men and women are pretty evenly matched. “There are many more men on the World Poker Tour. But if you take the top men and the top women, there’s not a great big discrepancy,” he says. “There are some men that might not like me saying that, but I don’t think it’s really a man/woman thing.”

For her part, Beth says she’d rather be in the game. “If it was shopping or a poker tournament, I’d probably pick poker—unless it was Paris,” she says, laughing. “I do have my priorities.”