“I have the biggest Mexican crush on the waitress that just walked away,” say Bryce Daifuku, owner of the popular online dice betting site MintDice, as we sit at a juice bar across the street from his upscale condo overlooking the Tijuana Country Club.
Daifuku takes a sip from the green smoothie that the waitress has just delivered and squints into a midday sun. The 29-year-old Washington native is tall and lean in basketball shorts and a loose-fitting shirt, the top few buttons undone. He wears flip-flops, patchy bleached hair, and a couple of jeweled studs in his left ear. An inconspicuous black rectangular talisman hangs from his neck. He looks like he just rolled out of bed.
“My original plan was to become a doctor,” he says, his eyes betraying little more than a sense of self-assuredness. “I would still be in medical school to this day and $300,000 in debt if I had taken that route. Instead, it’s the complete opposite, and more.”
Nearing the end of his track in pre-med at Western Washington University, Daifuku was dealt three hands that would change his path completely: a bike crash, a few med-school rejections, and his introduction to online poker.
“Around 2007, I had these roommates who played online poker from their laptops,” he recalls. “I made fun of them because, to me, poker was the kind of game where you could only lose. The house would always win. And they made this very insightful comment. They said, ‘If the same people make it to the final table every year, how do you explain that? That goes beyond chance. But if you don’t believe me, try it yourself.’”
Daifuku did, and was instantly hooked.
“The first quarter that I ever played poker was the quarter I got my worst GPA. It was something like a 2.7 or 2.8 and that happened because I was playing so much poker that I literally couldn’t stop. I understand how gambling problems could arise because it just took control of my life. And obviously because I had never played before, I played really bad. I had no idea what I was doing. It just felt fun.”
Despite the allure, Daifuku was never willing to risk money of his own.
“There were ways back then to win money for free, but they would take forever. Through the course of about 30 or 40 hours of consecutive play, I was able to win 80 cents. At an hourly wage, that’s, like, 2 cents an hour. Those 80 cents I was able to micromanage up to a dollar, then two dollars, then three dollars, and back down to one dollar.”
“This would happen over the course of hours, days, and weeks. I was a big-time cyclist back then and I would go on long 60- or 80-mile rides by myself to train. I was so consumed by poker that on the ride I would know my bankroll was exactly $1.72. I was good enough to win pennies at the penny games, but I was very bad at the game itself. After that quarter passed, I quit poker and got back on the medical school track. I was too busy. I applied to four medical schools, got rejected by one, and waitlisted for the other three, which eventually expired.”
Around the same time, Daifuku went to Canada for the first race of the season. Positioned to win in the final 400 meters, his brand new $5000 bike split in half, leaving Daifuku with no skin on his left thigh. He became tilted by a deep depression. Out of school, living at home with his parents, and bored out of his mind, he took up poker again, this time more astutely. With surgical precision, he studied online tutorials, forums, and chats.
Within a year or so, his winnings rocketed from $1 or $2 an hour up to $50. His free 80 cents exploded into a five-figure bankroll. In November of 2009, he moved to Vegas to play tournament poker.
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“I consider that the first month that I started being a poker professional,” Daifuku says. “I met many friends and mentors there. I had dinner discussions with my roommate Doug Polk, who would go on to become one of the best poker players in the world. That was a very happy time.”
Then, in April of 2011, online poker hit a bad beat. The U.S. Department of Justice indicted online poker’s offshore trinity — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker — on charges including wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering, and operating in the U.S. in willful violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The law was passed by Congress in 2006, forbidding online poker sites to engage in transactions with American financial institutions.
Only eight months after the indictment, U.S. assistant attorney general Virginia Seitz issued a 13-page legal opinion that reinterpreted the federal Wire Act of 1961 to say that it “prohibits only the transmission of communications related to bets or wagers on sporting events or contests.” As a result, the Department of Justice and the FBI have ceased cracking down on online gambling, instead leaving it to state preference. So far, only Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey have put chips on the table.
In the meantime, thousands of players have moved abroad, effectively exiled by their profession. Several hundred of these “poker refugees” flocked to Rosarito, where the climate is agreeable, everything is affordable, and America is just a coin toss away. The influx was such a boon that relocation specialists came out of the woodwork with packages geared toward housing, orienting, and connecting online poker players in foreign cities worldwide. Among the Rosarito refugees was Daifuku, who didn’t want to stray far from home but wasn’t keen on Canada’s cold winters.
“I refused to learn Spanish when I first got down to Mexico because I thought six or twelve months would go by and I would be done with traveling, which, at the time, I didn’t like. I believed that online poker would be re-legalized quickly in the USA, which soon proved to be extremely false because of standard bureaucracy.”
“At some point, I realized I did like traveling and I wouldn’t be going back to the U.S. anytime soon. And when I found out around the same time that learning language is one of the best ways to build one’s IQ, I could not have fallen in love with Rosarito more.”
“When I first got to Rosarito, I was blown away by how cheap things were. Playing in Vegas, I was fairly comfortable. But making that kind of money in Mexico made me the richest guy in the city. I could have a maid come if I wanted. I could have a personal assistant. I could eat at restaurants virtually every night of the week. I could take a taxi to visit my friends.”
I became much more liberated because the cost of living was half of the United States. Mexico just feels a lot freer. And it’s made me want to explore the world. The thing with being a poker player is that you have a lot of freedom, and if you’re not taking advantage of that, I think that’s kind of dumb. As long as I have an internet connection, I can play online poker pretty much anywhere in the world, except the U.S. and about two other places.”
“Fifty dollars [an hour] is very common for good decent players, but if you live in a place like Mexico, $10 an hour is a livable wage. To take that to an extreme, you have people living in Thailand, where the cost of living is among the cheapest in the world, and these people can get by being very bad at poker. They may make $1 or $2, but because they live in Thailand, that’s totally livable. And to take it to the other extreme, for very, very talented players making up to low-seven-figure salary range, there is only space for so many people like that because the poker economy is only so large.”
A little over a year after arriving, the thrill of Rosarito wore off and Daifuku relocated from the sleepy beach town to Tijuana. Now a legal resident of Mexico, Daifuku plays up to 16-table poker for an average of 25 hours a week, at $75 to $100 an hour. In his free time, he stays current on science and emerging technology, commuter-cycles, lifts weights, and trains twice a week in boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s since learned to speak fluent Spanish, French, and some Mandarin.
“Also, it’s dumb, but I sleep a lot. I sleep, like, ten hours a day, so I don’t get as much life as the next person.”
But while the life he does get may be enviable by many, one wonders how Daifuku could continue to risk it all on a card game.
“Poker is not sympathetic. If I play and I do a bad job, I lose money. So, I have to be constantly making good decisions. It’s a game that’s a complete meritocracy, so in some sense, it’s one of the fairest professions in the world. There is an element of luck, but anyone who plays enough is going to meet their maker sooner or later. You can’t play for years and years and just say, ‘Oh, I’m the unluckiest poker player.’ That’s not how it is. It depends a lot on work ethic, bankroll management, and how smart an individual is.”
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These things considered, Daifuku notes: “I’m at a point right now where it is virtually impossible to go broke. Now what can happen is that I don’t make any more money playing poker because the games get too hard, and then I’ll have to switch professions. I think I’m good enough to go back to the workforce if I have to. But for now, I could make zero dollars for the next 12 months and really not even care. So, I’m in a position to play poker much more casually. I make sure that I have a lot of fun.”
One of Daifuku’s ideas of fun is eating out most nights of the week with friends from the online poker community, all of them transplants.
“We try not to take places like Misión 19 for granted, because you can eat very well there for $30 or $50. In Vegas it would be double that, no question. And we’re all very appreciative of that.”
Indulgent? Perhaps. But Daifuku is not one for decadence. In fact, he has no interest in smoking, drinking, or drugs. He’s been to the party block of Sexta twice, and only to accompany friends. Other poker refugees, however, are less discerning.
“Some of my friends have this really dumb rule where they’ll roll dice and if all three are sixes, they’re going to start drinking very early and they’re going to drink all day.”
Cross-eyed drunk or cold sober, Daifuku and his friends make sport of betting on everything around them. Will their buddy go home with the girl across the bar? Call the odds and place your bet.
“It’s not supposed to be this degenerate gambler thing. It’s just fun. One thing that I love about poker players and I almost want to say I hate about normal people is that awkward moment at the end of the night when you get the bill and everyone is, like, ‘Well, I owe $20.37…’ ‘No, you didn’t include tip and tax,’ and all this shit. So, when the bill comes, what we do is we’ll have some method to make it random; like, have a bunch of credit cards under the table and whichever one gets drawn will pay for the meal and everyone else eats for free.”
“We call it CCR, which is credit card roulette. There’s no tableside drama. For most people who don’t even take very small amounts of risk, losing $80 or $100 on a restaurant bill is inconceivable to them. When you’re a poker player, you learn to tolerate risk as a part of life.”
Daifuku notes that he was just reading about the five primary types of risk as outlined by Stanford professor and neuroscientist Tina Seelig: physical, social, emotional, financial, and intellectual.
“Before starting poker, I was extremely risk-averse. I could lose one or two dollars and just go bananas. Right now, I have a much better understanding of money. I understand that it goes in and it goes out. When normal life things happen to me, it’s not a big deal. It’s just money and that’s how it is. For other people, that could be catastrophic, because they don’t experience financial loss every week in major ways. But when you feel it so often, it just doesn’t matter anymore. The riskier the investment you make, the more reward in the game. And I’m always looking for maximum reward.”
Daifuku’s Mexican crush clears some plates from the table next to ours.
“Have you, uh, talked to her?” I prod, seeing his eyes dart to follow her. He shakes his head and smiles slightly.
“I’m too scared,” he says. “That girl walked by, and I think she’s so cute, but I’m so passive that I could never ask her out. Aside from the fact that I have a girlfriend, I’d be too scared, anyway. I’m too scared. Which is funny, because the risk is nothing. I could lose $5000 right now and I wouldn’t feel anything, but the thought of asking her to dinner is too much. It’s completely irrational.”