By Josh Katzowitz, WCI Content Director
Spencer Smith used to be an attorney. Well, he still is. He spends a few hours a week toiling his way through the legal profession, but it’s now more like his side hustle. And, frankly, it’s still a good backup plan for him if he ever needs to reverse course and return to what he trained for while in law school.
These days, Smith has taken a different path in his life. He’s now a professional poker player, and for the last 16 months, he’s been a force on the green felt. Since February 2022, he’s been on a huge roll, winning four World Series of Poker Circuit titles in a 16-month span (beating out a combined 7,500 players in those events) and driving up his career poker winnings to more than $410,000 ($360,000 since he began his Circuit-winning exploits).
Smith is a good buddy of mine from college, and his success in his new vocation has been a great story for him (and for all of our friends who used to play poker together on Sunday nights while in school).
I chatted with Smith earlier this month (a few weeks after he won back-to-back tournaments in the span of four days that earned him about $150,000), and he was preparing to head to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Josh Katzowitz: How much has your life changed in the last 16 months? Winning four circuit tournaments? I mean, most poker players won’t win that many high-level tournaments in their entire careers.
Spencer Smith: Hmm, how has my life changed?
JK: Has it not?
SS: I quit my last full-time legal job in September 2021. I decided I was going to invest in myself as a poker player. I got some coaching. I did things I hadn’t done in the past when I was trying to play professionally or semi-professionally. This time, I had pretty immediate results. Once I had the results, that allowed me to keep investing in myself as a player and as a person.
JK: Were you ever burned out with the legal profession?
SS: I was never burned out. I quit the law twice. The first time I left to run a nonprofit. The second time, I left because I knew I wanted to play poker.
JK: We played a pretty good amount of poker in college. I don’t remember you being this good. What happened?
SS: I am not a naturally gifted player. I don’t believe there are naturally gifted players, at least not at the level where you can succeed these days. Right after college, I didn’t know much about the game. I was playing with some friends, and I lost enough money one night that I had to get a second job. I would say I was playing professionally in the sense that I had to get more work to keep playing. I am not a naturally good poker player. I lost a bunch. I would go online and lose a bunch. Thankfully, I didn’t have much money to my name.
There was one time I got stuck at the casino outside of San Francisco. They had a shuttle from the casino that would take you to the subway, but it didn’t run from 11pm-6am. At 1am, I didn’t have any money left, and I didn’t have money to get a cab. I had to stay awake until 6am. Then, I got on the shuttle, and I saw a bunch of degenerate gamblers who were just getting to the casino. Then, I didn’t even have enough change to get back on the subway. I literally had to ask a guy in the subway for 37 cents. That was a pretty low point.
After that, I bought some poker books. Back then in 2003, if you knew about the game, you were going to make a lot of money. Then, the Chris Moneymaker thing happened [an amateur player named Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event in 2003 and made $2.5 million, which then started a huge poker boom]. Then, it was the easiest thing you could do. If you knew the basic rules and you knew starting hands, you were going to make money. I got better and developed some things. During law school, I paid for most of my expenses through poker. It probably would have been a better investment if I studied more.
After my first year of law school, I did an internship in Detroit at the prosecutor’s office. It was across the street from the casino. We’d usually get done at 1 and, then I’d go across the street to play. I was getting close to doing the Character and Fitness Test, and I was playing a lot of underground clubs in Atlanta, which was shady. One night, I won a bunch of money, but everybody at the table was playing on credit so I didn’t actually get the money. The club couldn’t pay me either. That’s when I decided to get out of the game. I pretty much gave up playing.
JK: You kind of sound like Mike McDermott from Rounders. Going to law school and playing in shady clubs and then giving it up temporarily.
SS: Yeah, I definitely drove the truck.
JK: It’s so funny you’re talking about the degenerate gambling thing in San Francisco. When I lived in Cincinnati, a buddy and I were covering a Cincinnati Reds game. Afterward, at about 11 or 11:30pm, we went to a casino across the state line in Indiana. I was down a few hundred bucks in blackjack. That was a lot of money to me at the time. I had to grind all night long just to get back to even. By the time it was done, it was like 7am, and the sunlight was blinding when we went outside the casino. It was like we were vampires. We were driving back home and people were outside jogging for exercise, and I felt so disgusting and nauseous.
SS: Poker probably saved me. If you got me near a casino and I had $300, it was going on the blackjack table. Poker taught me the importance of bankroll management and never overextending yourself. Mike McDermont went broke in Rounders because he had bad bankroll management.
[Smith graduated from law school in 2008 and practiced law for the next five years. He left to run a nonprofit before getting into politics and running a Congressional campaign in suburban Atlanta in 2018 and then another campaign in 2020. In between, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina and played poker professionally for a year. He married his second wife in 2022, after he got back into poker with a new vigor.]
JK: Now, you’ve left law and joined this volatile community where you can make a tremendous amount of money but where you can also lose a bunch of money. How did you wrap your head around leaving law and going to play poker full-time?
SS: I would not say it’s a volatile community. It doesn’t have to be. If you practice bankroll management, if you work on your game, if you’re willing to do the work, there are ways to make it work. I had a little bit of financial cushion to give me enough time to give it a go. To be frank, it didn’t work the first time in North Carolina. I broke even for the year, but my living expenses added up to where I needed to get some work. But I always know now if poker doesn’t work, I have something else I can fall back on. That’s really important. I know I can feed my family if things go south with poker.
We are halfway through the @HarrahsCherokee Circuit, with Rush Smith being the player of the series so far!
The Atlanta native took down Event #2 for a $104,177 payday and won his second ring just two days later!
— WSOP – World Series of Poker (@WSOP) May 10, 2023
JK: I’m not a risk-taker. It just seems that the swings would be hard for me. How did you make the leap of faith?
SS: My worst-case scenario was always going to go back to being a lawyer. To me, it was riskier not to do this. I never would have been happy if I hadn’t tried. I learned so much about myself. One thing poker does is expose every flaw and strength you have. People play the game and don’t see how that can be possible. But when you play so much, you really have to understand yourself and understand why you’re making certain decisions. If you’re making those from an emotional standpoint, if you’re not managing your bankroll because you’re tired, if you’re just trying to prove yourself among the other players, none of those are based in logic. They’re based in emotion. It will eat you alive.
There’s plenty of room for slackers in poker. But they’re not going to make any money. Finding out how I can improve, that always drew me to the game once I started to care. The fact I broke even after my first year pissed me off. I wanted another bite at it. That’s the thing I’m carrying over to other parts of my life. I want to invest in all the things that can give my wife and me the ability to be successful. My health, the adventures of life. That’s what I want to invest in. Not doing those things is more risky to me than doing them.
JK: How do you not get burned out being at the poker table so much? It seems like such a grind.
SS: First of all, I love it. But there’s certainly burnout. In addition to loving the game, I love the freedom it gives me. If I want to take a hike or take a two-week vacation, I don’t have to ask anybody. But like any job, I have to be disciplined. I have to put in the hours. I have to do all the things I laid out in a plan. But I play a lot online. I can’t spend too much time at the casino, man. Being at a table with nine gambling-addict dudes, it’s not my ideal day.
JK: Did you actually write the plan down or is it in your head?
SS: When I started playing at least quasi-professionally, I did say, “Here are things I need to do. I need to have dedicated study time. I need to have coaching. I need to get all the new software that helps me analyze my game.” I don’t have a written plan. I didn’t go into it in 2019 with a plan of what it takes to be successful. I probably should. But I am working on a plan that will lay out my entire strategy of playing poker.
JK: What about the future? Are you putting away money for retirement? It seems to me that the stereotypical poker player is going to go by the seat of their pants and live from tournament to tournament. Sometimes, they’re rich, and sometimes, they’re broke.
SS: First off, you sound like my dad. But yes, I have taken chunks of my recent wins and put them toward retirement. I’ve got a SEP IRA, and I’ve got a Roth IRA. That’s definitely on my mind. When you play tournament poker, when it rains it pours. You have these huge paydays. But even the best players can not make money for months. You have to put money toward your bankroll, toward your living expenses, and toward your retirement.
JK: How much do you think you could be making if you were still in the legal system full time? Do you have a range?
SS: I’m not entirely sure in this post-inflation environment. I’m going to guess the floor is around $300,000 per year. I could be making more money practicing law than playing poker. Let’s not ever get that twisted.
JK: Unless you win the WSOP Main Event.
SS: When I win the Main Event. But also I’ve been around a lot of lawyers, and a lot of them are very unhappy people. I love what I do.
JK: What do you tell people when they ask what you do for a living? Are you a degenerate poker player, or are you a respectable attorney?
SS: Josh, if you call me a degenerate one more time, I’ll hang up the phone. I just tell people that I'm studying game theory and applying it in a multi-faceted environment, or I tell them how it takes discipline to do what I do. The answer has changed depending on who I’m talking to. I’ve come to tell people I’m a poker player. Some people think I’m going to lose it in a drunken night, Leaving Las Vegas style, but nothing could be further from the truth. They might be concerned about me or whatever, but then I tell them how much money I’ve made the past two years, and that usually shuts them up (laughs).
Poker has brought me a level of discipline I didn’t have in my life. It really makes me be self-critical. It makes me think through every thought process I have. It can bring a lot of different lessons to a lot of different fields. Those thought processes are important, not just in poker. Poker makes you think more about life than people think. Or I could just be like you and drink beer and wait for pocket aces.
JK: I don’t get pocket aces. I’m always card dead.
Money Song of the Week
Sadly, it’s time to say a fond farewell to Tina Turner, who died on May 24 but whose music will live on for as long as people simply need to know who the best is and if they're actually better than all the rest.
In 1978, Turner released “Viva La Money,” some of the first music she had recorded since her divorce from Ike Turner. I didn’t know this song until just now, but it’s got a pretty sweet 1970s disco soul vibe with some horns and that bow-chicka-wow-wow groove.
It’s also got some fairly elementary lyrics about what money can do for you. They’re basic, but Tina Turner also isn’t wrong when she sings,
“It can make you feel good/But it can make you feel bad/It can make you happy/But it can make you sad.
It can make you do right/But it can make you do wrong/But it'll still be around/When you’re dead and gone.”
What the song lacks in lyrical sophistication is made up for with Turner’s voice and stage presence. I didn’t know Turner’s work until she exploded in the 1980s (the opening 19 seconds of “What’s Love Got to Do with It” always brings me right back to playing with my friends at the pool in summertime), but it’s easy to see why she was a star the moment she emerged into the spotlight in the early 1960s.
Check her out singing “Viva La Money” on this variety show that, strangely enough, features the backup dancers riding some sort of in-studio fake rollercoaster before the tune begins.
Turner suffered tremendous abuse during her life, and yet she rose above it to give millions of people such joy. She is somebody who should be celebrated.
As she said in a 2021 interview with the Harvard Business Review, “When I started as a solo artist, I was a female Black singer in my 40s with no money and few prospects for gigs. Still, I kept a ‘never give up’ spirit. I understood that although many people might have a limited view of me, I could help open their minds. Through hard work and determination, I showed all the naysayers that maybe their preconceived doubts were wrong. Part of my spiritual practice is to ‘change poison into medicine,’ to take negative situations or roadblocks and transform or remove them through positivity. The force of my positivity pushed all the discriminatory ‘isms’ standing in my way right out the window.”
Tweet of the Week
Yes, but how do you know when enough is enough?
The idea of having “enough” might look like conservatism, leaving opportunity and potential on the table.
I don’t think that’s right.
“Enough” is realizing that the opposite – an insatiable appetite for more – will push you to the point of regret.
— Jeremy Walter (@jeremywalter) June 5, 2023
[Editor's Note: For comments, complaints, suggestions, or plaudits, email Josh Katzowitz at email@example.com.]