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David Sands: Finding Balance in a Poker Life

by Brian Pempus |  Published: May 02, 2012


David SandsIt’s all about balance for poker pro David “Doc” Sands.

The 27-year-old from Montana has been crushing poker, both online and live, for years, but has also managed to live a well-rounded life.

It’s been the key to his success.

Sands was recruited to play tennis at Hamilton College in New York, but a back injury sidelined him permanently.

He found poker at home games with friends during his freshman year and took it to the next level at Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York.

“Poker filled the competition void for me nicely,” Sands said. “I embraced poker right away because it was a way to compete, where my body could physically stand it.”

Even though he found a new activity to pursue, Sands maintained his focus on school. His ability to learn and study on his own propelled his game.

“My story is different than a lot of other poker players in that I taught myself 100 percent how to play poker, at least for the first three years.”

Sands dabbled playing online, bought a couple books, browsed Internet resources, and slowly improved.

Years later, he now sits with $4.8 million in career earnings, nearly 150 tournament cashes and is firmly established as one of the best in the game.

“One thing that I’ve always taken pride in is having a balance in life. Now, as a full-time professional, I try not play an amount that is going to burn me out. I try to exercise regularly, spend a lot of time with my family and have social interactions with people outside of poker.”

Not a Math Guy

Sands was doing well enough in poker during school that he flirted with the idea of dropping out. He’s happy he didn’t.

“Even though I don’t use my degree at all, I have a sense of accomplishment. I am glad I have it, but it was a tough internal battle at the time.”

Sands hated math in high school, but he exists in a math-based profession. He didn’t take a single math course in college.

“Poker is definitely a math game, but it’s not at a high level. You don’t need anything more than basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. You just need to do it quickly and be able to deduce what numbers you are inputting into your questions.”
Sands said he isn’t good at advanced calculus. “At least in the poker I play, advanced calculus isn’t relevant.”

Sands is the only one in his family who hasn’t been to graduate school. A bachelor’s degree is considered “undereducated” in his family, he said.

Going Pro

Sands moved to Las Vegas after graduation to play in the World Series of Poker.
He rented a place for six months, but it didn’t turn out too well. “It was a really tough time in my life.”

It was at this point that Sands realized the importance of balance. He couldn’t simply play all the time and find happiness.

“If there was a time in my life when I was actually depressed, it was those six months. I literally knew no one in Vegas. I just lived in a condo off the strip. I was in almost total isolation.”

Sands eventually became fed up with the life as a loner poker pro and took a job for an Internet marketing firm in California.

During his year in Silicon Valley, Sands began destroying online. He said it was the routine of a normal job that helped him play well.

He won major tournament after major tournament, just playing on Sundays.

He soon quit and moved to L.A. with his girlfriend, Erika Moutinho, who would play a big role in his poker career.

Moutinho was working in television casting, and Sands wasn’t prepared to move back to Las Vegas yet.

Finally Playing High Volume

Sands had tremendous success before ever putting in serious hours on the felt. However, he said it was Moutinho who gave him the confidence to take a “leap of faith” to leave his full-time job and give poker another try.

Although he was good at Internet marketing, Sands said it was obvious that poker was his true passion.

In 2009, he made $100,000 from work at his company, while he raked in about $600,000 playing online one day a week.

“The only reason not to quit my job would have been if I was running exceptionally well, and I wasn’t as good as my results indicated,” Sands said. “In hindsight, I was running hot and it’s hard to make that much money any year playing poker. At that time I had friends who played online, and I talked with them enough to realize I was good enough to make money in the long run and do this for a living.”

If he didn’t take the chance with poker, Sands was worried about regretting the decision later.

The couple eventually moved back to Las Vegas, and it’s been quite the success story.

The Main Event Run

Sands and Erika MoutinhoSands and Moutinho both made super deep runs in the 2011 World Series of Poker main event. Sands finished in 30th, and Moutinho exited one spot later in 29th.

The field was 6,865.

“It brought us a lot closer together,” Sands said. “I was so proud of Erika. It was her first $10,000 buy-in event. I felt as good about being her teacher as I did for my own run. Obviously a ton of positives came out of it; great exposure and it was a great story for the WSOP.”

Despite the excitement, Sands said it wasn’t that much fun sitting at the table together. “I wish we had been at separate tables,” he admitted.

“There is no good outcome when I play a hand with her,” he said. “It was just awkward.”
With nearly $9 million on table for first, there was a lot of emotion going on as well.
Sands said he’s always disappointed with a tournament if he doesn’t win, but more so if he doesn’t play his best. He enjoys the pressure he puts on himself, but he understands the context.

“You are going to go insane if you actually get mad at yourself every time you don’t win,” he said. “The nature of poker tournaments is that you are going to lose 99 times more than you win.”

Sands has the style to put himself in a good position to make the top three when he does go deep, which is a necessity to survive in poker since payouts are top heavy.

He also has the bankroll that allows him to play aggressively at the end. He’s been very meticulous with his bankroll and has never been backed before.

U.S. Online Poker

It’s been a long, slow battle toward online poker becoming legal and regulated in the United States. While there appears to be little hope of it happening at the federal level in the near future, Sands is ready for Nevada implementing an intrastate system.
The way the online poker issue has played out has not surprised him, but it’s been discouraging.

“It’s something similar to what we saw during prohibition,” he said. “If the government doesn’t feel it has control over an industry, and it doesn’t feel like it’s getting income from taxing an industry, then they often make it illegal until they figure out a way to regulate.”

“As a poker player, it’s exasperating that to make it illegal, the government said poker was a game of chance,” he added. “As someone who studied history and politics, this is all logical, but it’s disappointing. At the same time, I think online poker will come back in the near future. It’s such an obvious revenue stream.”

He’s concerned about the speed that progress will be made.

“There aren’t enough poker players out there who are voters to make it a primary issue,” Sands said. “Individual politicians can attack online poker without losing any significant part of their voting base.”

Sands anticipates online poker in Nevada by the end of the 2013 World Series of Poker.
Sands was in good shape when Black Friday happened in April 2011, since he was already playing live and doing well.

In terms of player sponsorship, the former Doyle’s Room pro thinks the practice will be a factor once again. “Casino operators will be looking to get traction somehow and appeal to random consumers out there who don’t have an online poker account,” he said. “The easiest way to do this is to sponsor recognizable faces.”

However, it remains to be seen how it will compare to the latter part of the past decade.
“The poker landscape is fundamentally different than it was in 2006 or 2007,” Sands said. “I think sponsorships will come back, but they probably won’t be as lucrative as they were back in the glory days.”

Poker Scandals

As one of poker’s stand-up guys, Sands said some of the scandals of online poker’s past are “disgusting.”

However, he has one important point.

“The reality is that there are shady entities in every industry,” Sands said. “We went through this with the traders on Wall Street in the last couple years. You just have to surround yourself with good people and do your due diligence before investing in a company or putting your name on something.”

Sands said unethical decisions in poker are more pronounced because people are gambling for a living.

“[The scandals] put a black mark on poker, but I don’t think it’s something the industry can’t overcome,” Sands said. “For every Howard Lederer or Russ Hamilton, there are some really good people out there in poker who have the players’ best interests in mind.”

Poker players are still reeling from the industry’s worst heist of all-time – the alleged Full Tilt Poker Ponzi scheme.

The company was allegedly run into the ground by some of the game’s brightest stars. Sands sees the tragedy as an opportunity.

“With the passing of Full Tilt there has been a changing of the guard from the older players, who unfortunately have a lot of black marks around them,” Sands said. “It’s too bad some of the younger players who have clean histories aren’t getting more attention. It’s just a matter of the WSOP having so much coverage of the older guys. The public opinion of who the best players in the world are is so skewed to those between 30 and 40.”

Part of poker’s future falls on his shoulders, and those of his peers.

“I definitely feel a sense of responsibility,” he said. “I just consider myself a very ethical person and try to lead by example. I’ll continue try to make the right decisions every time I get the opportunity.”

He said all of poker’s problems don’t change his “perception” of himself in the game. He tries to stay “insulated” from the dark side of the industry.

Despite his best efforts, Sands had inkling that something was going wrong with Full Tilt Poker when the site implemented multi-entry tournaments.

“It was obvious to me that multi-entries hurt the poker economy in the long run and the individual site,” he said. “The good players win more often when they are putting in more entries relative to the bad players. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I had a feeling that there was something wrong with the company.”

Sands said Full Tilt Poker was “free-rolling” its players.

Looking Ahead

Sands said playing poker at high volume is “grueling on your body and your mind.”
He doesn’t see himself keeping up the current pace indefinitely. Whenever he starts a family, the time at the table will dwindle.

Sands said he continues to like poker more and more every day.

“People from the outside don’t really believe this, but I don’t go to tournament X or tournament Y to make money. I don’t think very often about my ROI over the series. I go there to compete and get better. As long as that’s still my mindset I’ll continue to play poker.”

He admits that it’s more difficult to have the passion during a downswing. If his interest in tournaments falls off, he tries to change things up by playing pot-limit Omaha cash games.

In the exclusive world of high-stakes cash games, Sands obtains a seat because he gives a lot of action. He sees a lot of flops. He also networks well.

There are some cash games he won’t sit in, which is a contrast from his fearlessness to enter any tournament. He is cautious with his progression in the side games.

But Sands really hasn’t had a big downswing. Ever.

He’s also not nervous about the amount of money on the line in big tournaments. Before the final table of the 2012 L.A. Poker Classic, Sands was standing to win between $200,000 and $1.3 million. He slept for 11 hours the night before.

This balance has also led to some consulting work and consideration of running for public office some day.

However, for now, he is concentrating on the upcoming WSOP. He plans on playing almost every event.

“I feel like I’m playing real well, and trying to do all the life-balance stuff now,” Sands said of the WSOP grind. “I’m trying to accrue life-balance, so I can go into the Series playing a lot.” ♠