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Poker pros hibernating, waiting for games to return in Las Vegas

Chris Konvalinka lost his livelihood this month, just like thousands of workers across the Las Vegas Valley.

He doesn’t work for a casino, but he works in casinos. Konvalinka is a 21-year-old professional poker player, and he’s dealing with the shutdown from the coronavirus pandemic the best way he can.

“I’ve just been drinking and playing a lot of video games,” he said with a laugh. “… Probably just going to try to hibernate for a while.”

Konvalinka and his fellow professional “grinders” have made peace with riding out the ups and downs that come with gambling for a living. They’re used to having losing months. But the shutdown has been akin to an unprofitable run of cards that they couldn’t see coming. They’re adjusting by playing more online poker and trying to expand other income streams while living off savings.

Benton Blakeman is at a different stage in his life than Konvalinka. Blakeman, 38, has been a poker pro since 2004, with two stints in Las Vegas, this one starting in 2015. He is married, with a son who is about to turn 9.

“Life’s pretty different when you’re having to have a virtual birthday party,” he said. “It’s a really interesting, tough time. Scary in a way. Some people are in a really tough spot.”

Blakeman and the other players interviewed for this story make their living in No-limit Hold’em cash games on the Strip. One solution during the shutdown would be to play online, but the transition isn’t that easy, they said.

Fewer recreational players play online poker compared to live casino games, even with a recent boost after the shutdown. Blakeman said the skill level required to win in a $2-$5 live game with a $1,000 buy-in might only be good enough to beat a $0.50-$1 online game with a $100 buy-in.

Konvalinka said he plays six tables of $0.50-$1 online simultaneously that in the aggregate amount to a “small” $2-$5 casino game. But beyond the difficulty of the games, he said he just doesn’t find online poker appealing and struggles to put in more than 10 hours a week, compared with his normal 40 at casinos.

“Going from playing live $2-$5 at the Wynn to going to playing a dumb, stupid app on my phone, I can’t do it. I can’t take it seriously,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like real money. I just torch it off.”

Andrew Neeme, 40, went from grinder to online sensation in the poker world as he built a YouTube following (141,000 subscribers) over the past three-plus years by chronicling his adventures in Las Vegas cash games.

That has given him another income stream to draw from with his normal games unavailable. Neeme and Blakeman also offer coaching through their subscription discussion group, the Hand History Lounge. Konvalinka also generates side income through coaching with Solve For Why Academy.

Neeme has started live-streaming his online poker sessions and has created YouTube videos out of the highlights. However, he also said he wants to use the shutdown as a chance to “take a breath” after years of steady content creation.

“There’s no excuse not to take a break right now,” he said.

Neeme said that if poker players have been responsible in their profession, they should have cash reserves and be in a much better place than the general public to weather the shutdown.

All the poker pros shared concerns about the future. How long will it take before the games return? And when they return, will the recreational players come back so soon after the pandemic?

“It’s really hard to predict,” Neeme said. “It all depends on what the guidelines are. If they say the risk is pretty far down, then I think people will get right back in there. … But poker games could take a hit and take awhile to revitalize.”

Blakeman said he is worried about the future of the ecosystem and that he might have to drop down in stakes and play more hours to maintain his same level of income.

“I’m not enthusiastic about going back and just playing with people who play for a living and hoping that one or two tourists show up,” he said.

Konvalinka, who said he “felt overwhelming despair” when he drove down an empty Strip last week, said he tries to maintain a positive outlook that live poker will return sooner rather than later.

“I think the casinos will open and the poker rooms will open. Even if that’s not what’s going to happen, I just choose to believe that,” he said. “What productive thing can possibly happen from expecting the worst?”

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.

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