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Poker Stories With Lee Markholt

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Oct 20, 2021

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Poker Stories is a long-form audio podcast series that features casual interviews with some of the game’s best players and personalities. Each episode highlights a well-known member of the poker world and dives deep into their favorite tales both on and off the felt.

To listen, visit www.cardplayer.com/poker-podcasts or download it directly to your device from any number of mobile apps, such as Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play, or Spotify. Catch up on past episodes featuring notables such as Doyle Brunson, Antonio Esfandiari, Daniel Negreanu, Patrik Antonius, Justin Bonomo, Nick Schulman, Barry Greenstein, Michael Mizrachi, Bryn Kenney, Mike Sexton, Layne Flack, Chris Moneymaker, Maria Ho, Jason Koon, and many more.

Age: 58
From: Tacoma, Washington
Live Tournament Earnings: $4.5 Million

Top Live Tournament Scores

March 2008 WPT $7,500 World Poker Challenge 1st Place $493,815
June 2013 WSOP $5,000 Six-Max
No-Limit Hold’em
2nd Place $374,960
April 2005 Professional Poker Tour Bellagio 1st Place $225,000
Jan. 2006 WSOP Circuit $10,000 Tunica Championship 4th Place $183,160
Nov. 2009 WPT $10,000 Foxwoods
World Poker Finals
6th Place $166,069

Lee Markholt has been a professional poker player for the last three decades, competing in some of the biggest cash games around while racking up $4.5 million in live tournament earnings along the way. The Washington native had aspirations to continue the family business of bull riding, but a long string of injuries ultimately derailed his career. Fortunately for Markholt, he found his father’s poker books and was a quick study.

Markholt cut his teeth in Washington limit games before switching his focus to pot-limit hold’em in the years before the poker boom. In 2005 he won the PPT main event at Bellagio, taking home $225,000 which bankrolled him for high-stakes cash games. He ultimately found himself playing in games as big as $200-$400 no-limit, while continuing to travel the tournament circuit. In 2008, he won a WPT title at the World Poker Challenge in Reno for $493,815, and for many years held the record for most cashes on the World Poker Tour. In 2013, he narrowly missed out on a World Series of Poker bracelet, finishing runner-up in the $5,000 six-max no-limit hold’em event for $374,960.

Highlights from this episode include his first summer off in 30 years, farm life, the luck and variance of bull riding, broken ribs and punctured lungs, chasing an adrenaline rush, borrowing his dad’s poker books, Daniel Negreanu’s styrofoam cup habit, getting backed by Erik Seidel and John Juanda, the unlikely win that kickstarted his career, winning a WPT title, the hole in his résumé, waiting a whole day to play $200-$400 in Bobby’s Room, losing a $570k pot to Rick Salomon, a timely swap with Ben Lamb, the 24-hour swimming pool prop bet, Haralabos battles, duck head antennas, and the missing social aspect of poker.
The Transcript Highlights

The Downside Of Being A Professional Bull Rider

Lee Markholt: Injuries are a big part of it, of course. And part of it is luck. Like, you’re going to get hurt, it’s just a matter of how bad and how often. [Even] world champion bull riders have been killed or disabled for life, so it’s a dangerous sport.

I got on my first full-sized bull, I believe, when I was 13 years old. Which was too young, but it was hard to tell me no back then. The bulls average 1,600 pounds, and you’re just a skinny, undeveloped, 110-pound kid. Of course it’s going to wreak havoc. I still have torn up groin muscles from injuries.

Julio Rodriguez: So you were eager to get on.

LM: Yeah, I was eager. There was nervousness, but it’s an adrenaline sport. Once that adrenaline is flowing, you’re not thinking about the dangerous part of it. In reality, you could lose your life every time you do it, but you just block those thoughts out.

I didn’t realize this until later on, but [the reason] why it was so hard for me to walk away from bullriding was because I was addicted to the adrenaline rush. There’s no drug that could get you as high as making a good ride, at least for me.

JR: Let’s talk about the injuries. You mentioned you tore your groin?

LM: Like I said, part of it is luck as far as injuries. Because a bull can step on you or they can step right next to you, you know. It’s kind of a game of inches. And I, unfortunately, had more than my fair share of injuries.

When I was 16 I dislocated my right shoulder really bad, and I remember having to go to the emergency room. Neither my mother or father were available so they couldn’t even put my shoulder back in place until they could get ahold of them because I was under age. I was in the hospital for hours before they finally got my dad.

After that first dislocation, I didn’t let it heal good enough and I was eager to ride some more. So I dislocated it again, and then again playing basketball. The last time I dislocated it, I actually just rolled over in my sleep and it came out. At that point I knew I had to have surgery.

When I was 18 I broke my ribs. The bull stepped right in the middle of my back. This was pre-vests and helmets… that wasn’t a thing yet. Immediately I couldn’t breathe. I just thought the wind was knocked out of me, but they took me to the hospital, and I had seven broken ribs and a punctured lung. I couldn’t talk for a week and had internal bleeding.

Five weeks after getting out of the hospital, I was crawling on the back of another bull.

JR: You did it for another six years after that!

LM: I had another really bad injury where a bull stepped on my ankle and broke it all the way through. I had a pin and a plate holding it together, it was basically just crunched. That was another funny story. I knew I had been stepped on, but because of that adrenaline rush and the fact that you have to get out of the way… I got up to take a step and it just folded over. Like I was on a stump.

So I get back behind chutes and the medics are there. I had bought some brand-new boots the week before, and I had paid good money for them. They wanted to cut the boot off, but I wouldn’t let them. I said, ‘No, just pull it off.’ Looking back, that was a pretty bad idea.

The Unlikely Win That Jumpstarted His Career

JR: Moneymaker wins, the WPT rolls in with their hole card cameras, and you’ve just been sitting there in poker for over a decade and now it’s blowing up. Were you licking your chops?

LM: I really was. The timing couldn’t have been better for me because I had already honed my skills pretty good and I think I was one of the better players. Then came the perfect storm with Moneymaker, the lipstick camera, online poker. Not only were the tournaments great, but the cash games were beyond belief.

I didn’t have a significant enough bankroll at the time to play all of the WPT events, so Erik Seidel and John Juanda backed me for a year or two. When the smoke cleared, I think we about broke even or I might have made them a tiny bit of money.

But my big breakthrough was when I won enough to start bankrolling myself and play bigger cash games. In 2005 I won the Professional Poker Tour main event at Bellagio. When the PPT started, there was this list you had to get on to play. There was certain criteria, and you had to qualify.

JR: That’s right, it wasn’t open to everybody.

LM: I wasn’t on the initial list. I saw the list, and there were a lot of people who didn’t have my results on it. I thought, ‘How come I’m not on this list?’

So I had to do a little bit of politicking on my own behalf. I reached out to a couple of people, Mark Gregorich and Linda Johnson, and they agreed that I should have been on the list. I missed the first couple of events waiting, but when I finally got approved, I won the first event I entered.

That was very gratifying to have been excluded and then win my first event. It was huge for me, not only confidence wise, but also because I had 100 percent of myself and it was a nice boost to my bankroll. I started playing bigger games, which were just unbelievably good at the time, and it just snowballed from there. I never looked back.

Waiting A Day To Play In Bobby’s Room

LM: I think the biggest game I ever played was in was in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio. It was $200-$400 no-limit with a $1,000 button ante. Minimum buy-in was $100,000.

It was a crazy game. Rick Salomon was there, and he’d been on a two-day bender. But the rest were all pros. I put my name on the list and I didn’t get into the game until the next day. Those guys have been playing all night, and I got in the game the next day when I was fresh. I thought, ‘Okay, this is a good spot.’

I got the worst seat. Of course, I had Rick right on my left and he’s straddling every hand, anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. I bought in for $100,000 and I lost a small pot, so I added on another $50,000. Then I ran it up to about $270,000, just because Rick Solomon bluffed off to me when I had quads.

So the game goes on. I have a pretty good, decent amount of chips in front of me now, and a pot comes up with Rick. I think I must have been small blind, and he was big blind. David Peat (Viffer) opens for a raise. I think somebody else called, and I look down and I have two aces.

I three-bet. Salomon four-bets, and Viffer calls. The bet is like $18,000. And I make it $60,000. I’m hoping Salomon just rips it in. He calls instead and Viffer folds, so we’re heads up to the flop.

By the way, Salomon could have anything at this point. I mean, I watched him bluff it off preflop with 10-4 offsuit. So flop comes the worst flop ever of J-10-9.

But now there’s already, what $150,000 in the pot? And I’ve got not much more than pot-size bet left anyway. I know he’s going to bet if I check and I’m planning on check-raising to get full value. Sure enough, he bets. But his bet sizing scared me. Like he bet like half pot. But I mean, what do I do? I’m not folding aces to him. He could have A-Q. He could have two queens.

I rip it in and he calls. He had flopped a set of jacks.

So now I’m stuck $150,000 in the game. I rebuy $100,000 and the game breaks two hours later. I was able to get back a little of my money, losing ‘only’ $110,000. I had been at Bellagio for ten days grinding the $10-$20 and $25-$50 no-limit game and was up a little over $100,000, so that was [all my profit for the trip.] ♠