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10 Famous Poker Players Who Started as Poker Dealers

Are you a poker dealer who is thinking about getting into playing? If so, you have some insights into the game that a lot of poker players will never have, especially if you have been professionally trained and have a lot of experience running tables. Being a dealer allows you not only to have a better understanding of the mechanics of the game, but also the behavior of players at the table. If you play now and you have never dealt a game, dealing is something to think about, because it can really enhance your edge. Here are 10 famous poker players (past and present) who started out their careers dealing.

1. Poker Alice

For those interested in the history of poker, here is a story about a famous player in the old west. Alice Ivers, known as “Poker Alice,” lived from 1851 until 1930. After her first husband died, she found herself struggling financially to make ends meet. She tried a few jobs without success, including teaching. Still unable to make ends meet, she decided to try her hand at poker professionally. She started out working as a dealer and gambling on the side. Her insights into the game gave her an advantage when she sat down to play, and she was very skillful at counting cards as well as calculating odds. She was considered incredibly attractive, and used her looks to her advantage by distracting her male opponents.

Alice was very profitable, and some nights she pulled in as much as $6,000 (a lot more in today’s terms). Over the course of her life, she stated that she made $250,000. Accounting for inflation, in today’s money, that would be equivalent to roughly three million dollars. In a made for TV movie loosely based on her life (titled Poker Alice), she was portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor.

2. Cyndy Violette

Cyndy Violette, a winner of the World Series of Poker, started out her career as a blackjack and poker dealer working at the Four Queens Casino in Las Vegas. While dealing poker taught her the inner workings of the game, she quickly realized she could make more money as an actual player than a dealer. In 1984 she won a seven-card stud tournament at the Golden Nugget for $74,000. At the time, this was a record for a female poker player. She won the World Series of Poker bracelet in the seven-card stud eight-or-better event in 2004. She won again six times the following year, and has won more than thirty major tournaments. Her winnings to date? More than $1.2 million. Cyndy Violette’s story is an excellent example of why it can pay off big to make the move from dealer to player!

3. David Chiu

Chinese poker player David Chiu started learning poker by playing home games after he immigrated to the United States. Before he became a professional poker player, he owned his own restaurant and also worked as a dealer. Describing his learning process, Chiu explained how water damage to his ears from swimming caused him to have to watch people closely to understand what they were saying. “Also, I was a poker dealer at the Gilpin Hotel in Black Hawk, and I would see how people reacted to their hands, the way they looked at their cards. A lot of people squeeze their cards when they really like their hand. I paid attention. I tried to turn my hearing weakness into a strength.”

And all that hard work to turn weakness into strength certainly paid off in spades. David Chiu holds several tournament titles, including a particularly impressive $389,140 payoff during Season 6 of the WPT World Championship. Many of his other payoffs are more than $50,000 a pop, and together, they add up to a huge amount of money. Poker has panned out to be quite a lucrative career for Chiu, and his eloquent explanation of how he learned to play from dealing is an excellent anecdote.

4. Erick Lindgren

Erick Lindgren is a famous poker player who originally started out as an all-star athlete. After he graduated from high school, however, he realized that he was on the wrong path, and that his passion was really with poker. He began playing at a California casino where he held a job as a blackjack dealer at the table. Learning quickly by both dealing and playing, he realized that he was good enough at poker that he might very well have a shot at playing for a living.

With that revelation, he quit college to focus on honing his skills. Beginning in 2002, Lindgren achieved a number of important wins, including a world Poker Championship. In 2004, he cashed in a million dollars at the Party Poker Millions III tournament. In 2006, facing off against famous players like Phi Ivey and Chris Ferguson, he managed to come out on top of the Full Tilt Poker showdown. He has since penned a book called, “World Poker Tour: Making the Final Table.” In this book, Lindgren shares his strategies with other hopefuls aiming for the big bucks.

5. Mike Matusow

Mike Matusow from Los Angeles, CA, is known as “The Mouth” because of his habit of trash-talking other players. He’s also been known to make poor calls at the table, leading to explosive tantrums (often called a “Mike Matusow Meltdown” or “Mike Matusow Blow-up.” He got his start dealing, and then started playing poker seriously in the 90s.

Before he got serious about poker, he actually had some problems—namely he was an addictive gambler. He got a strain injury in his arms from playing the video poker machine in the Maxim Casino too much (his introduction to poker). He also sometimes stole money from his mother. After a while, he enrolled himself in Gamblers Anonymous, pulled himself together, and took a new, healthy approach to poker.

Following that, he moved up to the professional echelons, achieving some pretty impressive wins. He’s won the bracelet at the World Series of Poker four times now, and he also was declared the winner of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions in 2005. Matusow has found poker to be incredibly lucrative. As of 2010, his total tournament earnings were in excess of $7,400,000.

6. Johnny Chan

Originally from China, Johnny Chan moved to Phoenix and later to Houston with his family. Originally, he was aiming to follow in the family footsteps, and was majoring in hotel and restaurant management (his family owned several restaurants). He loved playing poker, though, and he didn’t feel like being a restaurant owner was the life he wanted. So he jumped ship from the restaurant career path and switched to gambling professionally, long before he knew what he was doing.

During his first year, Chan really struggled to keep up with his losses, and gambled like an addict. At that time, he was also still working as a chef, and pulled additional shifts as floor manager and dealer. It was enough to see him make a turnaround and learn how to gamble responsibly—and very profitably. He is now one of the biggest names in poker, and has won an impressive ten World Series of Poker bracelets, which puts him at a tie alongside Doyle Brunson for most WSOP games ever won.

7. Scott Fischman

Scott Fischman grew up in south Jersey, and moved to last Vegas at the age of 12. It turned out to be destiny. When a friend at school introduced him to poker, he took to it immediately, and began working as a dealer at the Mirage and the Sahara. In 2004, at the age of 23, he made it to the World Series of Poker, where he won two bracelets. He was the youngest to do so. One bracelet was in a H.O.R.S.E. competition, while the other was in no limit Texas hold ‘em. He joined The Crew, a famous group of poker professionals, and in 2008, he finished 6th at the main event of the WSOP. His winnings currently add up to more than $2,600,000.

8. Ted Forrest

Ted Forrest got started early in poker. When he was 20 years old, he worked at a hotel in the Grand Canyon. On the weekends, he would travel all the way to Las Vegas so he could play. During his early days, he also worked as a dealer and prop player at PalaceStation. He has said that his time working as a dealer helped him to learn how to read other players’ emotions and to intuit what cards they are holding.

Eventually, Forrest made enough money that he could move to Las Vegas. Originally, he tried to get through college at Lemoyne, but when his father died, he dropped out. He did however go on to find tremendous success playing cards. In 1993, he won three WSOP bracelets (all of which were later stolen). In 2004, he went back and picked up two more. He has earned the nickname “Spooky” for his spooky ability to read others, and is also sometimes known as Professor Backwards because he utilizes strategies which are considered very counterintuitive. His live turning winnings are in excess of $5,725,000.

Amusingly enough, Forrest got into a prop bet with Matusow. Matusow bet him that he could not lose 50 pounds within a short time period (several months). Forrest weighed 188 at the start of the bet, and 138 at the end of it—having starved himself for ten days straight to make it. His winnings from the prop bet? In theory, $2 million, though Matusow insists on paying it off in monthly installments of $5,000—an anecdote that provides insight into the characters of both these impressive poker players.

9. Scotty Nguyen

Thuan B. “Scotty” Nguyen moved from Vietnam to the US when he was 14 years old. He immediately became interested in poker, playing underground games. Eventually it got him kicked out of school. Recognizing opportunity knocking instead of disaster, Nguyen enrolled himself in dealer school at age 21, and then started working in the poker room at Harrah. He spent most of his earnings on poker games.

In 1985, he headed over to Lake Tahoe to deal cards in a no-limit Texas hold ‘em tournament. As usual, he used the money he made dealing to buy in at the tables. He went home at the end of the event with $7,000, an amount which steadily increased from there. He was soon a millionaire. He struggled with addiction problems (substance abuse, not gambling) which ended up costing him his edge. Eventually, he went broke, but since has made a comeback. He is now team captain of the Expekt Poker pro team for EPT Deauville. His lifetime earnings from live poker tournaments total more than $11,250,000, making him the highest earner in our list.

10. Layne Flack

Layne Flack was born in Rapid City, South Dakota. He first learned the game of pinochle from his grandparents, experience which was later useful playing poker. He worked as a dealer there, and later in Deadwood, South Dakota, while he was in college. For a while, he took his dealer earnings and cycled them back into his night games at the tables, but eventually he realized he might make a lot more money playing full time. At that point, he quit dealing and started playing full time.

In 1993, he headed to Reno and started playing poker in earnest. He went back to Montana for a while, where he opened a card room. After befriending famous player Huck Seed, he moved to Las Vegas. It was then he was able to really concentrate on his game. In 1999, he won his first WSOP bracelet for Pot-Limit hold ‘em, and also made it to the final table for Limit hold ‘em.

There is another interesting intersection of personalities on our list as well. While in Vegas, Flack met Johnny Chan. It was late at night and he was losing (having just won a tournament), and blowing through his bankroll. Chan walked up to him and offered to stake him the next day if he would just get some sleep. He won, and the stake paid off for both of them—and also became the start of a great friendship. Flack has had his struggles, particularly with drinking, but he has done very well at the tables, and as of 2010, had more than $4,300,000 winnings on record from live tournament play.

All of these stories provide exciting and inspirational anecdotes about famous poker players who started out with modest careers as dealers. Dealing poker can certainly provide you with a great, reliable income, but if you want to make millions, playing poker is the way to a big payday.

If you are a dealer already, you’re in a great position to start playing. The knowledge you pick up while you are dealing can give you an edge over your opponents, because as David Chiu points out, you are in a unique position to see how players react to their cards—not merely guess. And if you are a poker player now and have never dealt a game, you should now be able to see why it is such a great idea to pick up some dealer training and get a new perspective on what goes on at the tables. If you’re ready to try your hand at dealing, our Poker Dealer School provides you with an excellent starting point!