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A Poker Life With Kevin Schulz

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jul 22, 2015


Kevin SchulzKevin Schulz has never done anything the traditional way. The 28-year-old poker pro from the northwest suburbs of Chicago spent his childhood playing a non-traditional sport and his adult life with a non-traditional hobby. When it came to selecting his profession, he of course went with the unconventional choice of poker.

Schulz has now been playing the game for about a decade, and during that time, he has amassed $2 million in live tournament earnings and another few million online. Although he has experienced more than his fair share of up and downs, Schulz is currently riding high after winning the 2015 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure main event for $1,491,580.
Here is a look at a player who is finally ready for success.

A Competitive Background

Schulz grew up as the younger of two boys in Palatine, an upper middle class town just 30 minutes from Chicago.

“I had a great upbringing,” Schulz recalled. “My mother made sure to get me into one of the better school districts and I had what I guess is a typical childhood. I played a lot of sports growing up, a little bit of everything, but when I was 14 I got really into table tennis.”

The fact that Schulz calls it table tennis and not ping pong should clue you into just how serious he was about the sport.

“I always thought it was a fun game just to play in the basement with buddies. I saw some table tennis highlight videos and realized that the top players were playing a very different game than I was playing. After that, I Googled some local clubs, walked into one, and saw a scene that I didn’t even know existed. It wasn’t anything like I expected. This was like a training facility with very serious players.”

By a struck of luck, Schulz just happened to live only 15 minutes away from Mark Nordby, one of the best table tennis coaches in the country. Nordby worked closely with Hall of Famer Dan Seemiller, who is widely regarded as one of the best table tennis players of all time, having played on the U.S. World Team and served as president of USA Table Tennis.

“I was really fortunate to get the best instruction right from the beginning, so I got really good, really fast,” said Schulz. “My peak in the game came just as I was graduating high school at the 2004 Junior Olympics, where I won a gold medal in singles and a silver medal in doubles. I want to stress that the Junior Olympics doesn’t feature the very best international competition, so I’m not claiming I was the best in the world. I just happened to eke out a victory against some of the best players in the U.S.”

Trading Table Tennis For Poker

Schulz first experienced poker on a school trip when he was 17. He doesn’t remember the game, but figures that he must have been playing for a few dollars, at most. After graduating from high school, Schulz enrolled at the University of Illinois to attend business school. It was there that he put table tennis aside and found his passion for poker.

“When I got to college, I spent a few months playing PokerStars play money tournaments,” he recalled. “My buddies and I started playing $5 games after that, but it wasn’t until I saw people on television actually making money playing poker that I became entranced by the game.”

After finding a few strategy articles online, Schulz began to regularly beat the small-stakes game in the dorm. Then a buddy of his told him about an online promotion where he got a free $50 bankroll, which he ran up to $250.

“Around this time, Barry Greenstein came to campus to speak, because he was an alumni, and I got my copy of his book Ace On The River signed,” said Schulz. “After Barry’s speech, I noticed Faraz Jaka walking around with a clipboard signing people up for his $1-$2 home game. I went to the game and it was really professionally run. They even had Rounders playing on the TV. I took $100 with me and somehow managed to win $500 that night, which put me on top of the world. I was elated. Of course, I lost it all back the next week, but that’s where I met a lot of the crew.”

The crew at that time was comprised of some of the best players in the world today. In addition to Schulz and Jaka, other regulars in the game included Andy Seth, Ty Reiman, Ravi Raghavan, and Mohsin Charania. It was in this game that Schulz’s game really took off and his dream of becoming a professional poker player began to take shape.

The Growing Pains

It wasn’t long before Schulz began to concentrate more on building his bankroll than his classes. He even admits that at one point, he skipped a final exam just because he was tired. Eventually, the university sent him to the rail, so to speak.

“My parents were furious with me, so I went ahead and made things even worse by telling them that I was going to be a professional poker player. They of course, told me that I was throwing my life away, but nothing could stop me from doing what I wanted to do.”
It may have seemed like a giant leap of faith for everyone around him, but Schulz had no doubt about his decision.

“I’ve always been drawn to the unconventional,” he explained. “If it was something that not many people did, then I wanted in, which is probably why I was drawn to table tennis. When I was younger, I was always in love with the idea of Las Vegas, being a big time gambler and living the high roller lifestyle. I don’t feel that way now, of course, but I was just 18 at the time and didn’t know any better. The truth is that the reality of playing poker for a living is very different from what I imagined.”

Schulz continued to play online and his results were solid, but his lifestyle represented a major leak in his bankroll.

“For most of my career I had a problem of thinking that the game was easier than it actually was,” said Schulz. “I also had a bad habit of only playing when I needed money. I didn’t have the right work ethic, and poker was just a way to get money to party. I was frequently backing myself into a corner by winning money, spending it all, and being forced to win immediately in order to keep going. I must have blown through a six-figure bankroll at least three times.”

Turning It All Around

After Black Friday, Schulz was at the lowest point of his career. Not only was he broke, but he no longer had the ability to rebuild his bankroll with online play. He was also about six figures in makeup. Without many options, he moved down to Playa Del Carmen in Mexico, joining pros such as J.C. Alvarado, Aaron Been, and Jon Aguiar to run it back up.

“I came down to Mexico, worked super hard, and managed to clear my makeup. Then I won an FTOPS (Full Tilt Online Poker Series) event for $255,000. Later that summer, I final tabled a $5,000 buy-in event at the World Series of Poker for another $267,000.”

Schulz continued to turn his game around online, then in early 2015, he topped a field of 816 entrants at the $10,000 buy-in PokerStars Caribbean Adventure main event for $1,491,580, by far the largest score of his career. Despite the life-changing score, Schulz insists that his life hasn’t really changed at all since his windfall.

“It’s the most money I have ever had at one time, but it hasn’t affected me that much,” he admitted. “I guess the added security is nice and I am finally at the point in my life where I can make better decisions with it. In some ways, I’m happy that I didn’t win all of that money when I was 21. I honestly don’t think things would have turned out as well for me. I needed that time to struggle and grow up, so now I can approach the game from a much more professional standpoint.”

In order to come away with the victory, Schulz had to overcome a final table that included excellent players such as Dylan Linde, Pratyush Buddiga, Rami Boukai, and Chance Kornuth. But Schulz credits his ability to stay calm for his win.

“A lot of people told me that I looked really relaxed at the final table, despite the fact that it was a major tournament and we were playing for a lot of money. I think I credit that to the fact that I took up sky diving and have made like 150 jumps by this point. In order to get certified, you need to be able to stay completely calm in these very stressful situations during the learning jumps while you’re falling to the earth at a very high speed. Once I learned to relax, I was kind of able to do it on demand. I think I’m able to do the same thing at the poker table as well. I can manage my stress.”

Moving Forward

One of the biggest positive changes for Schulz is that he’s trying to stay process-oriented at the table.

“Sometimes you might catch yourself imagining what you will do with the prize money or something like that, but you have to snap back and be able to just take each hand decision by decision. You have to focus on making the right move and that helps you to keep those distracting thoughts at bay.”

When asked what his plans were for the future, Schulz explained that he’s taking that day by day as well.

“Poker has always been about the money for me,” he admitted. “I’ve never cared about fame or the thrill of victory. I don’t have enough money to retire, so I’m going to keep playing. That being said, if it all ended tomorrow I’d still consider it a success. I spent ten years in an industry where I got to be my own boss, travel the world, and meet some amazing people. No matter what, that’s a win in my book.” ♠