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Chasing the dream

Columnist Stephen Allan is foregoing the 40-hour workweek to make it as a professional poker player.
Columnist Stephen Allan is foregoing the 40-hour workweek to make it as a professional poker player.

Last summer, I sat in the chilly offices of the (Raleigh) News & Observer, listening to former Duke women’s soccer player Christie McDonald tell me about her life plans.  

Specifically, that since overcoming a brain tumor—the same type of tumor that killed one of her childhood friends—McDonald was defying the expectations of a Duke degree and going to try to make it as a professional actress.

McDonald’s story has been covered before in The Chronicle, but her impact on others since her recovery has not. At least for me, after listening to her, I knew I couldn’t just be an office-man for the next 40 years of my life. When I went home and wrote out a list of expectations for the next 10 years, one of the items was, “I am probably destined for an unconventional life. What that means remains to be seen.”

I finally know what that means, and I hope when you read this and look up McDonald’s story, that you too will find the side of you that does whatever you really want to do, whether it conforms to the norms of your degree or is completely unrelated to anything Duke has to offer.

To cut right to the point, I’m moving to Las Vegas this summer to be a professional poker player.

I’m not completely dependent on poker yet, as I’ll definitely be getting at least a part-time job to have some supplemental income. But at this point, the real goal is to become one of the best poker players in the world and I figure the best place to do that is where the best players are. I love the psychology and math of the game, how no two situations are alike and how anyone can beat anyone on any day. Skill ultimately decides who wins, not luck, and I’m confident that I can develop that skill to someday play in the highest-stakes games in the world.

I know half of you are going, “Dude, that’s awesome!” and the other half are saying, “Are you out of your mind?” To both crowds, here’s why I’m ultimately playing a game of cards for a living.

First, I am graduating debt-free, for which I owe my family a huge thank you—obviously, this would probably not be possible without their contributions. Second, I just haven’t found another career passion in my life. Journalism was too much of a high-work, low-payout job for me, and philosophically speaking, I would rather be the news (for the right reasons, ideally), not writing it. But really, it just boils down to the fact that I love the game of poker and could play it for 80 hours a week without getting burned out.

With that in mind, I’ve just got to go and pursue my passions, no matter how utterly absurd or outlandish they may seem. But like any other outlandish plan, it’s doomed to fail if it is not properly prepared for.  

Poker is inherently a game of skill, but as anyone who’s played more than two weeks can tell you, it’s a game full of variance and swings. I figure two years out on the Strip is more than enough time to figure out if I can handle it or not. If I’m consistently turning a profit and playing higher stakes, I will have found a new home. If not, I can go home with a Duke degree in my back pocket, plenty of years in front of me to accomplish all the “adult” stuff and have one hell of a story to tell.

The question I get asked the most besides “When do you actually move out?” (which is hopefully in time for the Main Event) is how nervous I am about this. The answer is I’m terrified. Anyone who does something like this and tells you otherwise is full of it. McDonald told me she was scared of moving to Los Angeles, and while other athletes will tell you they aren’t nervous before championship games, their initial performance suggests otherwise.

But how do you respond to that fear? That’s another big reason I’m doing this—I find it to be a huge test of my guts and how well I can overcome fear. Duke Basketball did just that this month, finding a way to gut out a tough victory over Butler for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s fourth national title. Our standards of success will differ—even the world’s unquestioned best poker player, Phil Ivey, doesn’t own a world championship yet—but the test of wills and determination remains the same.

You can follow me in a few weeks on the website Zach Lloyd—who is pursuing a career as a professional guitarist—and I created this website in the hopes that other people who want to do something insane but are told otherwise by society would find the courage to follow our example and do what they really want to do.

Look, if what you really want is to be a doctor, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a tenured professor, go all-out for it. It’s what you will love doing and it’s how you will make the best impact on the world.

For people like Lloyd, McDonald and me, though, conventional isn’t enough. And if it’s not for you, either, then join us and follow your own ambitions.

I’m all-in. Are you?


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