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How To Survive A Soul-Crushing Cold Deck

by Houston Curtis |  Published: Apr 21, 2021


Have you caught a run of cards that were so bad you thought the pain would never end? Perhaps your entire bankroll got flushed while on a bad run and took you from hero back to zero? After all, even the great Doyle Brunson has shared stories of year-long losing streaks that seemed impossible to overcome at the time.

What if your bad run lasted longer than a month, or a year? What if it were a decade? Could you still recover, or would you throw in the towel? If despite all the talent in the world, you’ve been cold decked to a point of giving up, then read on friends… and allow me to share some insight that could be your secret weapon should you one day find yourself holding on to a chip and chair.

Thank you to those of you that have noticed my absence over the past few issues. If you’re guessing I was on holiday in Rome, or perhaps aboard a private jet being whisked away to some exotic location in an effort to take down a monster cash game full of wealthy and celebrated people, sadly, that was not the case. Instead, I found myself in the emergency room spending five days in ICU as my heart ejection fraction had dropped to a terrifying 3%.

I’d like to give a special thank you to all of the great doctors, nurses and staff at Missouri University Hospital in Columbia who sprang into action before my heart went from 3% to me being dead on the table. It looks like I live to fight another day.

Historically, I hate sharing non-poker bad beat stories, but seeing as how the doctors wouldn’t allow me to leave the hospital without strapping on a defibrillator vest, I figured, what the hell, there’s a life lesson here.

My recent heart failure is not the first time I came close to heading off to that big poker game in the sky. After the crash of 2008, when my first heart related bad beat came, it was on the heels of a slew of stressful and unfortunate events. For one, my world had been rocked after Molly Bloom gave my name along with Tobey Maguire and all the players in our game to the FBI for their investigation into disgraced hedge fund manager Brad Ruderman.

My production company had been stiffed $4 million from a distributor. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was still bleeding from the Ultimate Blackjack Tour debacle that cost me a fortune when all of our advertising got pulled amidst the first round of attacks to the online gaming industry. The event not only cost me $800,000 out of pocket, but the related UB allegations hurt a lot of future business for me as well.

So, losing $1 million dollars in a single night, as seen by the character playing me in the film Molly’s Game, and making a deal with Tobey Maguire to pay it back was the least of my worries. If you’ve read my book Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist, then you know I won the loan back in a few weeks. Still, with everything else falling down around me, I had to quit playing high-stakes poker. I hope as fellow poker players, you can imagine how hard it would be to walk away from the softest high-stakes poker game in history.

Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t leave the game because I could no longer sweat the terms of the onerous deal I made with Tobey. I decided to stop playing in the game because a professional keeps his or her poker bankroll separate from the problems of everyday life, something I could no longer do. Things had gotten so bad that I literally couldn’t afford to lose, and as much as I valued having an edge, that edge can fade fast when a loss means you have to dip into your life savings in order to recover.

The hits kept coming, as Uncle Sam decided to come after me for my 2006 tax return. The IRS made a decision to disallow all of my losses in poker but accepted all of my wins. Between federal and state, they wanted a cool million. My $3 million dollar home was worth just $1.2 million after the crash, plus the Ruderman case placed another $750,000 lien to the house on top of that.

My wife and kids had already moved to Boston by the time I went into the hospital the first time, so I was pretty much going it alone with the exception of some good buddies who kept checking on me. Looking back, if I hadn’t had a heart attack, I might have just driven off a cliff. And things just kept getting worse from there! I was getting cold decked by life to an alarming degree. No matter how resilient I felt I was, I knew that I had to make some serious changes in my life to regain all of the things that my career both as a producer and a high-stakes poker player had allotted me.

In 2016, after numerous attempts to regain my fortune, I finally decided to leave the city of angels and head back to the small town in southern Illinois where I grew up. At this time in my life, I couldn’t help but notice the friends and colleagues who were once my equals or in my rearview mirror, were selling their companies and cashing out for anywhere between $30 to $300 million! Others were running major networks, or producing hit TV shows. And my pals in the poker world, guys like Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Hellmuth who I had known since they were grinders, were enjoying the fruits of their hard-earned labor as well.

I woke up one day and realized that my health problems, along with a severe dose of depression, had beaten my ass for nearly a decade! I had once been the guy who said, “If you take away everything I’ve got and leave me for dead in a ditch, I’ll find a way to get it all back in record time!” But after losing millions of dollars, and having doctors tell me that I would probably only live another five years, the man I once was had become a distant memory.

But five years after the five years I was told I would kick the bucket, I was still alive, and technically still in the game! At the very least, I had a chip and a chair. Now all I needed was to get reacquainted with my younger self again, with the guy who always knew how to win, and had the drive, determination and skill to pull off the impossible. Was that guy gone forever? I was determined to find out.

I began writing about my life. Not just what ended up becoming my first book, Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist, but I also wrote thousands of pages on my early life as a card mechanic, which contains highly-guarded secrets that I hope will one day help poker players and casinos protect their games from card manipulation experts. I also decided to start taking new opportunities one at a time, without worrying about being on top the way I was in the mid 2000’s. Before I knew it, my doctor told me that my heart had miraculously made a full recovery!

It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to move at a slower pace, play at smaller stakes tables so to speak, that my life finally started making sense again. Next thing I know, I’m engaged to a beautiful and amazing woman, I spent much overdue time with my daughters, and felt happy again for the first time in years. In poker terms, I guess you could say I’ve been running good. Not “running over the game” good, but good enough to begin building an exciting new business in addition to having a best-selling book with another being released later this year. (Hell, I’ve even won a bet with my 13-year-old daughter after officially becoming a YouTube micro influencer.)

Things have been going great, and this past year I started feeling like my old self again. Then, without notice, like a ghost from the past, I find myself back in the hospital, in an ICU for five days surrounded by doctors who are shocked that I had even survived.

Am I going to let it send me into a depressive state leaving me unmotivated and unproductive like I did before? Hell no! Since getting out of the hospital, I’ve been sluggish and slow on the trigger when it comes to work. But today I decided to ante up again and keep on grinding! So, take it from me… if you’ve been cold decked in poker or in life to the point where you feel you can’t recover, take my advice. Like Phil Hellmuth says, “Never give up!”

Once you decide to give it another go, you might get disappointed again. You might end up back in the proverbial ICU just like before. But this time, you will know, that life can be good again, and that anything worth having comes with patience, sacrifice, and the ability to handle the swings the world throws at us. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve all the things I set out to do when I was in my 30s, but I know now that I’m damn sure never going to stop trying.

If you are ever at a place in your life where you feel there’s no way back to even, I hope you will remember this column and realize that it’s never too late to get back in the game. I have monumental goals for my life moving forward. I hope you do as well! Thanks for reading and remember, stay sharp… stay Kardsharp! ♠

Houston CurtisHouston Curtis, founder of and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and high stakes poker player for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling-related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker legend Phil Hellmuth.

Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.

Curtis now resides in Columbia, Missouri while maintaining offices in Los Angeles, and Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to running a production company and independent record label, Curtis also consults as a poker protection expert to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. In addition, Houston is now available for in-person and online speaking engagements, private sleight-of-hand instruction, and a variety of media creation/production services. Houston can be contacted directly at