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Isaac Haxton, Poker Nomad, Keeps Beating the Game for Millions

Black Friday Uprooted the High-Stakes Specialist, A Blessing In Disguise

by Erik Fast |  Published: Feb 01, 2014


There is in an unexpected earnestness in Isaac Haxton’s voice as he explains why he loves to play games. “There is something that happens to my brain when playing a game. It makes so much sense. The rules are so clear, your objective is so clear that everything else sort of melts away and you get to focus in on this one thing and it is simultaneously the most stimulating and most relaxing thing in the world.”

Games, especially poker, have proved profitable for Haxton.

He has amassed more than $5.7 million in tournament winnings, and, as one of the most successful cash-game players in the history of online poker, additional millions beating up the best ring-game players on the virtual felt.

Born in New York in 1985 to a psychiatrist and a college professor, Haxton discovered his obsession with strategy games at the age of four when he first learned to play chess. By the age of 10 he consistently beat his father and began to play in chess tournaments. In his teens his attention wandered to Magic: The Gathering, a card-based strategy game. In games he found a comforting structure that focused his mind.

“Navigating high school did not make any sense and was both stressful and boring. What I found in chess and Magic: The Gathering was really important to me, my favorite thing in the world. Even as I’ve gotten older and made better sense out of the rest of my life, playing games has continued to be my favorite thing to do.“

Haxton saw that the top Magic players could ply their craft professionally and hoped some day that he might be able to make a living playing games. His wish took shape in the form of the poker boom. Friends from the Magic community introduced him to online poker and Haxton never looked back. He dropped out of Brown University and took up poker full time. He worked his way up to some of the highest-stakes games online and cashed for millions in live tournaments, making final tables on the World Poker Tour and at the World Series of Poker. Together he and his college sweetheart Zoe moved to Las Vegas and in many ways were living out his dream. Then on April 15, 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the major online poker sites in America. In one day the status quo was destroyed.

Leaving America

“I didn’t really consider the possibility of continuing to play poker professionally without being able to play online,” said Haxton. Over the years he had built a skill set that worked best online, playing high-stakes heads-up and shorthanded games that are much harder to arrange in brick-and-mortar casinos than online. Haxton knew if his dream career were to continue, he would have to leave the country.

“When I first started looking into moving, I thought, ‘Oh this is going to be easy, I can just pick the place in the world I would most like to be and go there.’ I had never really thought about visa requirements until then. I had no idea that you mostly could not just turn up anywhere you like and stay indefinitely,” said Haxton. “In retrospect that sounds really stupid because obviously I’ve heard of illegal immigration, I just hadn’t really pictured scenarios in which I was an illegal immigrant.”

Canada and Mexico where two of the first places on the list because of proximity, but cold weather in the case of Canada and what Haxton considered to be somewhat overstated safety concerns regarding Mexico (that would have “freaked out their parents”) prevented he and Zoe from moving to America’s closest neighbors.

The young couple looked into various places around the world, from Australia and Asia to Europe before hearing about a permanent residence scheme in Malta that seemed to fill their needs.

“You basically just had to demonstrate that you had enough money to support yourself, that you weren’t going to take a job in Malta, and that you didn’t have a criminal background. Simple stuff like that, in addition to spending a certain amount of money on buying or renting property there and you got permission to live there indefinitely.”

At the time Isaac was 26 and Zoe 28 years old, going through piles of paperwork together that were most often undertaken by pensioners looking for a place to live out their twilight years on the Mediterranean.

“It was pretty weird. I was looking at these bureaucratic structures and dealing with law firms that are normally for people getting ready to retire. In fact, most of the people in Malta who are taking advantage of that residence scheme I talked about are British retirees.”

The two had been dating for nearly eight years at that point. During the 2011 World Series of Poker while Isaac was playing tournaments Zoe went to Malta, with somewhat low expectations, but willing to give it a chance because on paper it was their best option.

“She went there and ended up actually loving it and came back really high on the idea. After that we started looking into the exact details of the permanent residence thing a bit more I realized that in order for us to qualify we would need to be married.”

The two were were married on September 1, 2011 and were in Malta by the 15th. After months of work with law firms and Maltese bureaucracy, it seemed that they could finally start settling into their new life thousands of miles away from their home country. In one more twist of fate, however, the newlyweds found out that the permanent residency scheme that was one of the key factors for their deciding on Malta was shut down.

“Literally the day we arrived it was in the newspaper. ‘People have been taking advantage of the permanent residency program to get free health care, we can’t let that happen anymore, so now you have to give the government half a million euro.’ They gave me nothing, so I only spend half the year here,” said Haxton. “I have just the standard visa waiver that lets an American spend 90 out of every 180 days in Europe, so I spend half the year other places.”

Despite this setback, the Haxtons have been pleased with the change in lifestyle since making the move. Haxton has gone so far as to say that Black Friday might have been a blessing in disguise for him.

“I’ve definitely broadened my horizons and grown up a lot in the past few years because of Black Friday. I wouldn’t want to use a word quite as negative as stagnant, but life in Vegas was very predictable. It was great in that I was having a really good time and doing well at poker and was in a good environment for that, but it was pretty one-dimensional. I didn’t do much except play poker and hang out with other poker players.”

With a newfound sense of balance in his life away from the tables, Haxton has been able to return his professional focus on being the best poker player he can be.

Back In Business

After some years of uncertainty in the poker world post-Black Friday, it seems that globally the game continues to grow and change. One of the big trends on the tournament circuit the past few years has been the increase in the number of six-figure buy-in “Super High Rollers.” As a member of the online high-stakes community with plenty of experience in live tournaments, Haxton has been one of the players to frequent these small field, big money events.

“I think there may have been more than 20 super high rollers in 2013, but it seems like there is this sentiment that these events are unsustainable, that everybody playing them is playing above their bankroll and will eventually go broke. I really don’t agree at all. There is a large enough percentage of the field made of recreational players that, if you look at the professional poker players as a whole, that group is very likely to turn a profit. [They] are incredibly likely to turn a profit in each individual tournament, and it’s approaching a certainty to turn a profit annually if there are enough of them.”

Haxton notched the biggest tournament score of his career this June when he finished fifth in a $1 million Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) ($128,833 USD) buy-in event in Macau for $1,313,879. He had finished runner-up in a $250,000 HKD ($32,208 USD) event for $332,205 at the same tournament series just over a week earlier, and together these scores brought his lifetime live tournament earnings to more than $5.7 million.

More and more of these larger buy-in tournaments keep popping up around the world, and Haxton seems to be more than happy with that trend. “I think that these things really just represent a huge infusion of money from recreational players (who wouldn’t necessarily play similarly high-stakes cash games) into the poker economy.”

Speaking of recreational players and high-stakes cash games, we asked Haxton if he was able to play in the gigantic games that have been running the past few years in Macau.

“I did not actually play any cash while I was there. The really big games are effectively private and I don’t think I’m invited. There are reasonably big games that are public and are running at the Wynn, the equivalent of $100-$200, that are on the threshold of being worth me making the trip instead of playing online from home, as far as my hourly rate. But in terms of personal enjoyment, I’d much rather be playing online.”

The ability to play online cash games was the driving factor behind Haxton’s move around the world, and the action has been worth the effort.

“I’ve been playing whatever there is online, which recently has included a lot of $50-$100 no-limit six-max. I’ve been playing some very high stakes no-limit heads-up cash against Viktor Blom [best known as Isildur1], I think he’s the only person I’ve played heads-up at higher than $100-$200. I’ve played a bunch of capped $500-$1,000 and a bit of $300-$600 and $400-$800 deep against him. For a few months $400-$800 was running regularly against one guy from Macau. I’m just trying to play the games that look good, whatever those happen to be month to month.”

Looking Ahead

In addition to success on the live tournament circuit, Haxton has crushed online, where he has profited more than $3.5 million over the years according to various tracking sites.

Haxton has also been able to secure a sponsorship deal with international online poker giant PokerStars.

“I had been having a dialogue with PokerStars ever since making the final table of the 2007 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure main event, and that dialogue was renewed around the Isildur1 heads-up challenges that where taking place in 2011-12. I was playing him from Malta, and it was around the middle of that year that we came to an agreement. I’m very glad we did, being a part of Team PokerStars Online has been great. I’ve really enjoyed the past year of working with them.”

Haxton has been involved in a number of events and promotions through PokerStars. “I did a thing recently where I played a bunch of micro-stakes cash games and sit-n-gos and there were extra prizes for people who won pots against me or won matches. I played in a series of heads-up matches between Team PokerStars and Full Tilt’s “The Professionals.” I played Durrrr, ElKy played Viktor Blom, and Daniel Negreanu played Gus Hansen and that was a lot of fun, especially because we crushed them so badly.”

Haxton is glad to have found success since leaving the States, because unlike many other young pros, his earnings are more than a way to keep score or the means to live a high-stakes lifestyle.

“Fancy cars or flashy watches and that sort of thing have never really been my style, but with all of the traveling I do and liking fancy restaurants, I spend plenty of money. You know, I’m planning on having a family, and that’s not going to be cheap. The money I win playing poker definitely has practical value for me beyond keeping score.”

With the prospect of building a family around the corner, Haxton is happy that the potential disaster of Black Friday has turned out to be a catalyst, leading him to a more balanced existence while still letting him pursue his lifelong dream of playing games for a living.

“I’m in a very good place in terms of my poker career right now. I’m really happy with how things are going online right now, how things are going on the live tournament scene and my relationship with PokerStars. Everything is good and I’ll be very happy if everything looks about how it does now in a year.” ♠