Poker Coverage: Poker Legislation Poker Tournaments U.S. Poker Markets Sports Betting

A Poker Life -- Curt Kohlberg

You Can't Keep A Good Man Down

Print-icon
 

Curt KohlbergHigh-stakes tournament regular Curt Kohlberg isn’t a full-time professional poker player, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his numbers. In just over a decade of part-time competition, the 53-year-old family man from Massachusetts has racked up nearly $2.2 million in earnings and has made four World Poker Tour final tables, along with a win at the Festa al Lago main event at Bellagio back in 2003.

Poker aside, Kohlberg’s story is one of perseverance. As a young man, Kohlberg had his life nearly stripped away from him. In a span of just a few years, he lost a string of high-profile professional jobs and his wife left him, moving his son to Arizona, leaving him with nothing but his education and determination to build from. But you can’t keep a good man down. Instead of throwing in the towel, Kohlberg learned from his mistakes, changed his game, remarried and built a highly successful international consulting business.

The truth is that Kohlberg approaches poker the same way he does business, or any of his other hobbies, which include being a world-class squash player, helicopter skier and avid guitarist. He simply keeps on going until he attains his goals. With the help of a new poker coach, Kohlberg has transformed his poker game from one of reckless aggression, to one of patience and purpose. This is his story.

A Turbulent Beginning Sparks a Poker Interest

Curt Kohlberg was born in Pittsburgh, but grew up in Newton, Massachusetts as the oldest of three siblings. His early years were spent excelling in sports, board games and mathematics but due to a rocky home life, he found himself seeking an escape for longer stretches of time.

“My early years were a bit combustible,” he recollected. “My father has a PhD in physics and is a deep, analytical thinker, yet he wound up marrying my mother, who was an artist. They married so young, 22 and 23, and as only children, they weren’t especially prepared for the world as a couple, or as parents. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very tranquil home life and my younger sister ran away from home at 13, which added fuel to the fire. Because I was so desperate to get out of the house and needed spending money, I started working at the age of 14. I took a job in a restaurant making salads and bussing tables.”

Kohlberg wound up befriending some older kids who thought they had found an easy way for him to spend his paycheck. Though he was new to poker, it didn’t take him very long to figure out that the one who had the money also had the power.

“I was invited to play in a home game that actually took place in the basement of the house that belonged to the Chief of Police,” said Kohlberg. “It was his son that hosted the game, but you could say that we weren’t too worried about getting busted. We usually played dealer’s choice for pretty much whatever everyone could afford. It was there that I learned my first real lesson about poker, which is that you can’t play with scared money. Because I had a part-time job and had more cash than the other players, I quickly realized that I could apply pressure and win pots even when I didn’t have a hand. I wasn’t the best technical player, but I won with regularity because I wasn’t afraid to be aggressive.”

A First-Rate Education Opens Wide Doors

After high school, Kohlberg enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, studying Business Management and Accounting. Previously, he was a mediocre student, but at Amherst, he found the classes to be a breeze. With so much free time on his hands, he began to spend his days playing sports. Alongside a healthy basketball habit, Kohlberg also managed to win his school’s racquetball and paddleball championships three times, but he also kept playing poker.

Curt Kohlberg“About three or four nights a week, I’d play poker,” he recalled. “For the first year, playing against the other students, I won all the time. After that, I found a bigger game that was run by some of the professors at the University. Almost immediately, I started losing. In fact, I wound up losing my meal money for the entire year and even had to return an expensive stereo system that I had purchased earlier. At the time, I contemplated driving my car off of a bridge, but looking back, I know exactly why I started losing. My game centered on aggression and being the most bankrolled player at the table, but in that game with the professors, I was just a broke college kid. They knew I was playing with scared money and they took advantage of it, just like I had done to my buddies back in high school. After swallowing my pride, I quit playing poker completely. It was almost two decades later before I played again.”

With poker out of the picture, Kohlberg rededicated himself to school and soon applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management. Despite being much younger than the other applicants, he was accepted thanks to a good score on the GMAT and an essay his dad helped him write while the two were sequestered in a New Hampshire motel.

After spending a few years with his nose in the books, Kohlberg got a job with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street in New York. The year was 1982 and the position was one of the most sought after jobs in the country. When asked about his experience and whether it was similar to the 1987 movie Wall Street starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, Kohlberg admitted that he had no idea.

“I really couldn’t say, because I was asked to leave the company before I had even finished up my first year. I accepted the job early in my second year of business school, but after graduation I spent the summer in Paris playing tennis and chasing women. I was under the impression that the training program started in the fall, but when I got back, I realized that my colleagues had all gotten a head start on me and had snatched up all of the plum positions. I was stuck with the leftovers and frankly, I didn’t handle the situation very well so they asked me to leave. Boy was that humiliating.”

When Nothing Seems To Go Right

His resume was still sparse, but at least he had a first-rate education to fall back on. After moving back home to Boston and getting married, Kohlberg decided to start his first management consulting firm. His goal was to help other companies increase sales and/or reduce costs through strategy consulting. Within two years, however, he was forced to close up shop.

“I had a great education, but I was just too young at that time to succeed,” he admitted. “I didn’t have any real world experience whatsoever and it showed. Humbled, I then took a job with the Bank of New England as the Director of Sales and Marketing for the mutual fund services division. Our division provided safekeeping of assets and record-keeping which basically made sure that large pools of money were kept safe.”

The job was far from ideal, but Kohlberg kept at it in an effort to provide for his wife and infant son, Alex. Seemingly out of nowhere, however, his world was turned even further upside down.

“After returning home from a business trip, I discovered that my home had been emptied,” he remembered. “My wife had taken everything, including my son and my dog. I wasn’t even aware that anything was wrong and she didn’t leave a note on where I could find my son. When I finally caught up with her, she demanded a divorce. She was eight years older than me and I think that she expected quicker financial stability. We dated while I was at MIT and working at Goldman Sachs, so I think she saw potential in me, but felt that I was taking too long to realize it.”

After that initial punch in the gut, things only got worse for Kohlberg. After being head-hunted by a rival bank, which is now the Bank of New York Mellon, Kohlberg was given the position of Executive Vice President. But after a change in management, he was once again looking for work.

“The president of the company left and rather than promote me, they decided to hire someone else. Shortly after that person came aboard, he cleaned house and I was terminated. At the age of 31, I had lost three jobs, a business, my wife, my son and was left with no savings, a significant child support payment and no prospects whatsoever.”

A Brighter Future

Fortunately for Kohlberg, he was saved by his second wife, Allegra, a woman he affectionately calls “Wife #2: the new and improved version.” With her training as a clinical social worker, Kohlberg found the motivation to pick himself up off the floor and start his second company, this time with much more experience.

“For the first five years, I worked seven days a week in a basement that didn’t have any windows,” he remembered. “It was just me and an assistant. My wife would bring us down food because we refused to take any significant breaks until the job was done. I didn’t even have much time to shower, let alone eat.”

Curt KohlbergKohlberg and Associates grew considerably and he renamed the firm Chatham Partners and expanded into investment banking and market research. After selling that company to the management team and a private equity fund in 2005, Kohlberg returned to his niche business of providing cost reduction strategies to large institutional funds and has since branched out into four different countries.

He and Allegra then had two daughters, Sara and Allison, as his company became more successful. With his finances in order, he began to turn back to his hobbies, which includes the sport of squash, a fast-paced game that requires stamina and finesse. Like everything else in his life, Kohlberg took the game seriously and at his peak, was ranked the no. 8 best player in the country for his age group.

A Return to Poker

After tearing his ACL and MCL during a match, Kohlberg was sidelined with no competitive hobbies to occupy his spare time. Luckily, it was around that time that the Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut had opened, allowing him to explore his prior interest in poker.

Kohlberg quickly found that poker filled the void left behind by squash and began playing whenever he could. In his first few trips to the casino, he had already won two seven-card stud tournaments for over $100,000. The money was nice, but it wasn’t life changing. For him, it was all about the competition.

In 2000, he won the Foxwoods World Poker Finals Main Event for $165,200. At the final table, he defeated notables such as Carlos Mortensen, Greg Raymer and Berry Johnston, proving that he could compete with the best in the world. It was then that Kohlberg also befriended Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey, two regulars on the circuit before poker became mainstream.

With his company running on cruise control, Kohlberg decided to try his luck in Las Vegas and even hired Card Player columnist Bob Ciaffone to teach him the fundamentals of no-limit hold’em.

“Bob’s math background really appealed to my analytical side,” he said. “After a while under his tutelage, I won the Festa al Lago Main Event at the Bellagio for $280,000. It was at that final table that I met Jim McManus, the author of Positively Fifth Street. Also at that final table was a great player named Jeff Cohen, who coincidentally used to play in a home game with me back when I was at school at UMass.”

A Long Setback

After his initial string of wins, poker exploded in popularity and Kohlberg found himself struggling to wade through the bigger fields that tournaments were now producing.

“I won almost nothing for nearly three years,” he admitted. “I attribute that dry spell to my complete lack of patience. Before the boom, I could play aggressively from start to finish and win the event on the second or third day, but once the tournaments stretched out to a week, I started pressing too hard. I hired another poker coach, Matt Matros, to help me out. Matt was a great coach, but I wasn’t ready to win yet. Frankly, I had one of the worst records on the tour during that stretch. It took a long time before it finally hit me that I needed to settle down and adjust.”

To make matters worse, Kohlberg suddenly found himself playing with a disadvantage, having never played a hand of online poker. “The average online player plays more hands online in a week than I’ve played in my entire life. They can focus entirely on poker 24 hours a day, but I’m constantly thinking about other things such as my business or my family. I once read a quote by Dan Harrington, who said that nobody over the age of 50 would win the WSOP Main Event ever again. At first I thought that was ridiculous, but I must admit that at a certain age, it becomes much harder to keep your concentration, especially for a week at a time.”

Finding the Fix

Kohlberg then befriended Todd Terry, a former criminal defense lawyer turned poker pro, who helped him get over the hump. Kohlberg calls Todd “without a doubt one of the top players in the world, an even better coach and most importantly, a fantastic human being.”

“Because I don’t play online, I have to rely on my personal database of about 600 hands to have a chance to come into an event and play well. I review the hands when I’m on the plane ride coming to the event so I can get into that poker mindset. To build this database, at the end of every night I play a tournament, I write up my key hands and email them to Todd, who responds with comments and then we will continue each hand until an optimal strategy can be deduced. I take note of what mistakes I’ve made and more importantly, I remind myself of what plays tend to work in certain situations. I used to play with blind aggression and never really understood what I was representing when I ran a big bluff. Furthermore, some of the time I didn’t even understand what other players were representing to me nor did I even care.”

The fix seems to have paid off. In the past two years, Kohlberg has been on fire. In November of 2009, he made the WPT televised final table of the World Poker Finals for $199,283. In October of 2010, he took fourth in the World Series of Poker Circuit Regional Championship at the Horseshoe Hammond for another $174,807. Then in May of 2011, he took home his biggest payday ever by finishing runner-up in the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Showdown for $586,109.

Despite his recent success, Kohlberg is still very modest when it comes to his on-the-felt abilities and instead, attributes his recent success to his willingness to play a higher variance style of poker.

“I think what makes me somewhat dangerous is that I really don’t care about the money,” he said. “It’s not because I’m better than my competition, because I’m not. However, I’m not afraid to go bust at any time in any event and that can be a problem for some opponents. It all goes back to my early days in high school and in college when I learned that scared money was dead money.”

Moving Forward

Curt KohlbergTournament poker remains just a profitable hobby for Kohlberg and he has no aspirations to become a full-time professional. He insists that his focus will remain on his family and friends and that his free time will be split among his large number of interests. With that in mind, he hopes that others can learn from his story and realize that it is possible to have a proper balance in life and still be successful.

“I have a lot on my plate, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Kohlberg. “The key is making sure that whatever you do, you do it to the best of your ability and when you get knocked down, get back up, no matter how sorry you feel for yourself. As Winston Churchill said, ‘Never, ever, ever give up.’ Kohlberg added, “Life isn’t fair, and it certainly ain’t easy, yet when you finally hit it right, which occurs infrequently, it can be pretty darn sweet.”