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A Poker Life -- Todd Terry

Terry Finds Relief In The Form Of A Career Change

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Sep 21, 2011


Todd TerryThe life of a poker tournament professional can be very stressful. Variance has a way of kicking a man while he’s down, especially when there is thousands, if not millions of dollars on the line. At times, seemingly great plays are punished and a beginner’s luck is rewarded. If you factor in the long days of travel, the sometimes shady company and the stretches of time spent away from family, you can see why so many upstarts fail to survive more than a year on the tournament circuit.

But what if you are Todd Terry, a pro in his fourth year with a background in a highly stressful profession such as a criminal defense lawyer? Terry knows that poker is a cakewalk compared to his former gig and so far, with nearly $2.4 million in earnings and a few high-profile televised final tables under his belt, the 37-year-old knows he’s holding more than his own out on the felt.

Even more impressive than his poker skills is Terry’s willingness to fight for what he believes in. While others quietly complain in the corner, Terry doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind, becoming a voice for the entire poker community. In late June, when he saw that Full Tilt Poker was failing to honor cashout requests by U.S. players, he decided to file a lawsuit against most of the site’s executives and their roster of pros in an effort to get back the estimated $150 million that is currently owed. This is his story.

A Short Career in Law

Terry was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating high school in 1992, he moved on to Harvard University, earning his degree in applied mathematics. In 1999 he graduated from New York University law school and almost immediately began working as a criminal defense lawyer in Manhattan for some of the most high profile cases in the country.

Todd Terry“I had a lot of notable cases,” Terry said. “One of the last cases I worked on was as defense for Ben Odierno, a guy who had stabbed his wife to death. We claimed it was self defense and the jury agreed, allowing us to win that trial. I also worked on the Oliver Jovanovic trial, a man who was falsely accused of kidnapping and sexual assault against a woman he had met online. We lost that case, but it was eventually overturned on appeal a year later.”

When asked if he ever had a guilty conscience for putting potentially guilty men back on the street, Terry explained that it was all part of the job.

“To be a good criminal defense attorney, it can’t matter to you whether a person is innocent or guilty,” he explained. “The fact is that a good chunk of the people you are representing are guilty, but it’s your job to protect their right to a fair trial. It’s how our system works. That being said, I’ve tried four murder cases in my life and the victim’s family is always in the court every single day, giving you the stares of death and hating your guts. It’s not the reason I don’t do it anymore, but it certainly takes it’s toll on you.”

Terry didn’t leave the field because of guilt or because he didn’t enjoy the work. Instead, it was a matter of preserving his health. “I enjoyed law, but a number of very lengthy trials really affected my health. I’m significantly better now, but I was a real mess back then. At the time, I had no idea that I was allergic to wheat, dairy and potatoes, so I wasn’t doing myself any favors with my eating habits. If you throw in the stress that comes with the job, it becomes easy to see why a change was in order.”

Poker Beginnings

Fortunately for Terry, his part-time passion was slowly developing into a lucrative career option. “I played a miniscule amount of poker in law school, but after graduation, I started playing in a home game with some of my school buddies,” he said. “In 2004, I started playing some online tournaments and found a little bit of success. The next year, my wife and I moved from Manhattan to Hoboken, New Jersey and I started to make the occasional trips to Atlantic City. Later that year, I finished third in a $1,000 event at the U.S. Poker Championship at the Trump Taj Mahal for just under $27,000, by far the most money I had won up until that point. My interest in the game only grew from that point until February of 2006, where I won a $1,500 WSOP Circuit event for over $96,000. It was at that point that I began to consider playing professionally, although I didn’t quit practicing law until a year later.”

Todd TerryWith his former career behind him, Terry jumped head first out onto the tournament trail. After a series of small cashes, he geared himself up for his first ever trip to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

“It was the first event I had ever played there,” Terry remembered. “It was a $2,000 no-limit hold’em tournament with just over 1,500 entrants. I wound up finishing second to Will Durkee and cashed for just over $350,000. That was actually a pretty good final table. A lot of us weren’t really well known at the time, but looking back at a final five of Michael Banducci, Justin Bonomo and Hunter Frey along with Durkee and myself, you can see just how tough it was. Considering the fact that I had just left my law firm, that score was really a great confidence boost for my decision.”

Terry continued to do well, cashing with a remarkable consistency and increasing his travel schedule. In September of 2007, he added a win in a $500 event at the Borgata Poker Open. In 2008, he made his second WSOP final table and in early 2009, he finished runner up for $434,767 in the $3,000 main event of the Borgata Winter Open.

The Convenience of Online Poker

“I was doing well playing live, but I needed something to fill in the gaps between events. I was playing online poker way before most of the big name pros were back in 2004, but I wasn’t taking it very seriously. Then, when I started playing professionally, I pretty much cut out online poker altogether. It wasn’t until 2009 that I began to put in significant volume and seriously grind out tournaments.”

In between two World Poker Tour final table finishes, Terry did well enough online, making a number of deep runs in the Sunday events and even winning a couple of the higher buy-in rebuy tournaments. All of that, of course, went away after Black Friday.

“I really didn’t understand how much travel I’d be taking on,” Terry said. “When I first started, I was really sticking to tournaments on the east coast along with the summer in Las Vegas. But since 2009, the smaller preliminary events have really died off. You used to be able to go to the Bellagio and compete for a month straight before the main event. Those events were still around, but they were getting 40-50 players and hardly made the trip worthwhile. A big Sunday winner online was earning way more without the added expenses, so it made sense to play just the big buy-in events on tour while lowering variance with online play.”

Fighting for What’s Right

Todd TerryOf course, after Black Friday, U.S. players were forced to get back on the road, playing any and everything they could find between the $10,000 buy-in events. To make matters worse, many pros found themselves cash poor, unable to get their money off of sites like Full Tilt Poker, which has been unable to refund their U.S. customers.

In an effort to get back the nearly $150 million that is owed, Terry and three others decided to file a lawsuit, naming the major entities of the company along with their roster of sponsored pros. “I’m not doing it to get my money back,” said Terry. “I’m doing it for the benefit of the online poker community in general.”

Black Friday has virtually shut down online poker in the United States and though Terry hopes for its return, he doesn’t see it happening any time soon.

“I gave an interview a few days after Black Friday and stated that I didn’t think online poker would ever be legalized in the United States,” he admitted. “I still stand by that, but I’m less confident about it. There are many in this industry who feel that we are nearing something big and I can’t say that they are wrong to feel that way, but personally, I don’t think that the political climate will ever be right for change. There are just too many pressing issues in our country right now for the government to even begin to focus on online poker. People say that it will become licensed and regulated simply because the government needs the tax revenue, but in the grand scheme of things, that money is just a drop in the bucket.”

Though his viewpoint may be bleak, Terry is considered by many to be a white knight within the poker world, unafraid to share his opinions and concerns. “I take a great deal of pride in being a voice within in the poker community. There are a lot of shady things that happen within this industry, but so many players are content to sit on the sidelines complaining, rather than stand up and demand change. This industry doesn’t have an overall governing body, so it’s up to us to police ourselves and express to those who have influence what we want. Furthermore, the various entities within the poker world should band together to enforce penalties. A recent example is Ali Tekintamgac, the guy who was disqualified for cheating during the Partouche Poker Tour. There is no reason that he should ever be allowed to play in a poker tournament again, worldwide. If a league has sufficient evidence to ban him from participating, then the other leagues should follow suit. Unfortunately, we still have a system that evaluates players on a tour by tour basis.”

Moving Forward

“I’m very fortunate to have a backup plan and experience to fall back on if poker doesn’t work out, but there are many players out there who quit school entirely to play online and now have no other options. We have guys who are moving abroad just to continue their professions, but the professions themselves will never be the same. The fact is that online poker is not just tough to access now, it’s even tougher to beat without all of the casual U.S. players juicing the prizepools.”

Todd TerryTerry plans to keep playing poker professionally for the foreseeable future, even without online poker to break up his hectic travel schedule, but admits that he’d like to spend more time with his wife Andie, who works in television and must also travel. That being said, he isn’t complaining about his current line of work.

“I was involved in some cases that ran 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week for months at a time, not to mention the weight of the responsibility that rested on my shoulders,” he said. “It’s tough to live out of a suitcase and deal with the stresses of being a tournament pro, but compared to what I was doing before, this is a walk in the park.”