What do you do if you’re an accomplished MIT engineer who graduated with high honors, had a near-perfect SAT score of 1,580, achieved chess master ranking, and are slightly bored with your cushy job? If you’re like Niman Kenkre, you could decide to use those brains and calculating powers to become a high-stakes poker player. That’s exactly what Kenkre decided to do more than a decade ago when his online card games began yielding big payouts. Known online under the name Samoleus, Kenkre, who lives in Belmont, found that his affinity for combinatorics and probabilities made him well-suited for poker, which requires luck but also strategy and skill. He spent hours perfecting his game, formulating mathematical models, discussing hands with top professionals, and dissecting sessions and possible card combinations.
At the height of his career, Kenkre faced off against celebrities such as Ben Affleck, Kevin Hart, Michael Phelps, and Tobey Maguire at casinos like the ritzy Borgata in Atlantic City. “I love the fact that I can play a game for a living,” says Kenkre, 45, who also achieved fame in the online poker universe. His devotees followed his tournament results, paid for his instructional advice, and asked for his autograph when he appeared in person. Then Black Friday hit: April 15, 2011, the day the government shut down Internet poker. Kenkre’s world was turned upside down. A lot of his poker colleagues decamped for Canada, England, or Mexico. That wasn’t an option for Kenkre, who went back to playing in casinos or organizing home games. He says poker games are getting tougher and smaller. Still, Kenkre earns substantially more income than he once made as an electrical engineer, even when he plays only a few days a week. The Globe spoke with him about earning a living from gambling.
“I’m lucky to have a toolset that aligns very well for success in poker. I have a prolific mathematical background and a very good memory, but also a good sense of human psychology. A player who relies only on mathematics will miss many important psychological cues relating to player frequencies and tendencies. To be a successful poker player, especially at high stakes, you have to be detached from the money while you’re playing.
“There is no clear definition of ‘high stakes,’ but generally, a game in which you can lose more than $1,000 in a single hand would be the minimum requirement. I’ve played as high as $100 to $200 blinds in no-limit Texas Hold ’Em, with a six-figure stack in play. I’d rather not say what’s the most money I’ve won, but I did win six figures in a single cash game session three times. My biggest loss in a single session was just under $100,000.
“Poker is one of the only vocations in which you can work hard for a period of time and lose money. Of course, after 12 years as a professional player, I’m used to these stretches, but it’s still no fun when you’re going through them. And the learning curve in poker is a reverse exponential. In the beginning, there’s so much to absorb and so many ways to improve, but when you are as far along in your career as I am, there is less space to improve dramatically, and as such it has lost a bit of the intellectual stimulation for me.
“The poker economy has also gotten a lot tougher in recent years, and the biggest regular game on the East Coast now is only $5 to $10 blinds. I’m hoping that the games will get bigger once the Wynn casino opens in Boston next year. Having said that, I still enjoy this job a lot more than I would anything else I can think of. I now only play on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when my son is with his mother, putting in 12-15 hours each day.
“My casino of choice is Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., a rather depressing place, but it’s convenient for me.
“I typically like to sit in the one seat, but that is less about superstition and more about being able to easily observe the other players at the table. I used to regularly use a card protector that my son made for me when he was about 5 years old. It was a turtle he made out of painted rocks and was cute while it lasted, but eventually it fell apart.”
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at email@example.com.