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August 24, 2015 No Comments

Written by Jamie Miles

Miles Mediation Team Leader Joe Murphey can read a poker face. A skill he developed in the mediation conference room by day and in his living room at night. This is because his wife of 25 years and fellow attorney, Susan Murphey is a ranked amateur poker player.

In talking with Susan about her hobby (and passion), I admitted my knowledge of card playing comes from the ‘70s game show Joker’s Wild. And that was just a big slot machine.

So I asked a lot of questions and raised my Poker I.Q.

Susan plays both “limit” and “no limit” Texas Hold ‘em. As we talked, complex card strategy tripped off her tongue as a Shark Tank judge sizes up a contestant.

In tournament poker, there are two main circuits: The World Series of Poker (WSOP) and The World Poker Tour (WPT). The annual WSOP tournament in Las Vegas runs for 6 to 8 weeks every summer. Events range from a buy-in of less than $1000 up to $100,000 buy-in events with the pros. The goal for most players is “to cash” in the event. Susan said typically to make it into the money, players need finish in the top 10 percent of the entry pool. So out of 300 people in a tournament, the top 30 finishers can expect to get paid. If 5000 entered, the top 500 make money.

The first time Susan played in a WSOP event in Las Vegas, she played 12 hours straight. She explained how they play for two hours, get a 15 minute break, then play for another two hours and so on for as long your luck holds. Of that first tournament she remembered, “It was a grueling day.” Her run ended when she played a good hand, only to have a fluky set of cards at the table beat her. As she left, the announcer stated that everyone still seated made the money. “I was heartbroken knowing that if I had thrown away those cards and not played that hand I would have cashed the first time had ever I sat down at one of these tournaments.” When playing in a Vegas tournament, there’s a good chance your competition is a professional; someone good enough to make a living playing. “It’s a challenge to play against people who play a whole lot more than I do. And obviously take it a lot more seriously.”

In addition to the larger, high profile tournaments, the WSOP has circuit events. These are smaller tournaments at casinos around the country typically with a $365 buy-in. The prize money is not as much but gives “weekend warriors” more opportunities to play. “I think the word has gotten out about these tournaments,” Susan said admitting the competition has become more robust. This July, Susan travelled to the 2015 WSOP National Championship Series at Harrah’s Cherokee. Phil Hellmuth, who’s won more WSOP bracelets than any other player, was there. “It gives an amateur player like me – one who is dabbling in it – a chance to try my skills against the people you see play on T.V.”

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This got me to thinking. How do they decide who sits at table for the start of these tournaments? If you’ve got the buy-in, does that mean you could end up sitting next to Phil Hellmuth or Daniel Negreanu? In Susan’s observation, the seating assignments seem pretty random. She supposed that as people buy-in, a computer assigns a table and seat. This random selection helps (or hurts) everyone equally. Not only does it affect the caliber of players at your table, Susan said, “In poker, it makes a big difference who sits at your left or right.”

She explained. “If I’ve got someone really aggressive to my right that means they are going to act — whether they call a bet, raise a bet or fold — before I have to act.” She continued, “If someone raises every hand no matter what they are holding and they are seated on your right, you can see what they’ve done before you play your hand. But if a crazy aggressive person is on your left, then you have to decide what you are going to do first.”

What Susan loves about tournament poker.

The excitement. The mental challenge. “It’s very draining.” She can play 12 hours straight, not take any breaks, bust out on an unlucky hand and have nothing to show for all her effort. She laughed that her husband Joe asks, “And you find this fun?”

She also likes meeting the interesting people at her table. “It’s a great social time but it’s also a lot of analyzing what people are doing.”

The psychological element of poker.

“Playing poker is like golf, you never get to be perfect. You are always learning new ways to play.” For instance, a player might do a certain behavior when he has a strong hand. Susan laughed that if he does that behavior again, you start second guessing your assessment. Do they have a strong hand or are they bluffing and really have a weak hand this time? Not only do you observe other players mannerisms, you need to be sure your behavior doesn’t transmit anything to the table. “If you’ve got pocket aces, you can’t start breathing heavy and shaking your hand.”

Some players wear sunglasses to hide their pupils dilating upon seeing a strong hand. Susan typically wears sunglasses on her head as she finds it harder to see in the cards darker casinos. When playing an important hand, pros will often pull a hood over their head and pull down the sunglasses. “They want to give as little information away as possible to make it harder for the person playing them to decide what to do. A lot of poker players won’t talk at all when in a hand because they don’t want to give any information away.”

“It’s fun. You get some crazy people at your table. Then you get some folks who don’t want to say anything or do anything. And then you get a bunch of nice people who are like you just out to have a good time.”

Women in poker.

“Very few women have won a WSOP event.” At this year’s Main Event, the Last Woman Standing, 27-year-old Kelly Minkin of Phoenix (also an attorney), was eliminated in 29th place out of 6,420 who started. Susan has noticed more women players in tournaments. Out in Las Vegas recently, there were five women at her table, which she said was unheard of when she started. High profile celebrities like actress Jennifer Tilly winning a tournament helps chip away at the Boy’s Club image.

Susan said that while playing in the WSOP Women’s Event this year, she met an 82-year-old lady playing with her daughter in law. It was her first time playing and was a big deal for her.

Poker, a young person’s sport?

“There are lots of 21 year olds winning big tournaments.”

Which got me to wondering why she thought that was the case. “With poker the more hands you play, the more you learn how people act and the more you learn how the cards are going to fall. So you get better — by playing more.” A lot of kids played online before it became illegal. They could get on the internet and play four games at once, playing thousands of hands. They got a lot of experience quicker. “The old time people who don’t play online and just go to the local casinos, it takes years to get a thousand hands verses these kids who could get it on the internet in a couple of days.”

“A lot of these are smart kids who are math majors in college and they use the math side of poker to decide how to play and how to bet. Whereas a lot of the older players do more on gut feeling and instinct verses the math.”

This year the WSOP November Nine whittled down from this July’s Main Event in Las Vegas (the final table played in November to decide the 2015 WSOP champion), has a 61 year old and 72 year old. Well, besides one fellow at 36, the other five players are in their 20s. Early 20s.

How did her love of the game start?

“My mom loved to play games. We played Gin Rummy and Rummy 500 all the time when I was a kid.” When her family would visit her grandmother in Connecticut, they would frequent card parties at the local hall. They played a game called High Low Jack. “Four people would be at a table. You’d play some rounds, then move around the room to another table.” The highest scores (and lowest scores) would get prizes. Playing these card parties at a young age, Susan learned to enjoy the competitive nature of card playing and the atmosphere.

Susan’s tournament payouts.

In 2013 at a Cherokee WSOP event, she finished in 36th place. There were 542 participants at the start. The winner in that tournament won $27,000.

In 2011, she finished in 410th place in a tournament with 4567 entries. In that event there were 468 paid spots and the winner took home $648,000.

As for hitting the big money in a tournament, Susan remains an optimistic realist. “I need a little more luck. I’m not quitting my day job to go play poker. It’s a fun hobby. One of these days, I’m hopeful I’ll get lucky and make a deep run in one of these tournaments and get a six-figure pay day.”

The couple met at Emory Law School graduating with the class of 1989. They have two children, 20-year-old Jacob a junior at Northwestern majoring in Journalism and History. And Audra, 17 and a senior at Marietta’s Walton High School. They practice law together with their firm, Murphey’s Law Firm, LLC.