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A Poker Life: Kelly Minkin

The Always-Busy Kelly Minkin Finds Success With Two Careers


Kelly MinkinThere just aren’t enough hours in the day for Kelly Minkin. The Phoenix, Arizona native spent her childhood bouncing from one activity to the next and that go-hard mentality followed her into college, where she excelled in the classroom.

Intending to go to medical school, Minkin instead took the LSAT on a whim and scored well enough to get into law school. After passing the bar, she took a job at a law firm as a medical malpractice attorney. But despite the demanding schedule her profession requires, she has never strayed away from her other passion of poker.

She burst onto the scene in 2013 and has already made a World Poker Tour final table and was the last woman standing at the 2015 World Series of Poker main event. In total, the 28 year old has more than $750,000 in live tournament earnings, which isn’t bad for a part-time player with a challenging day job.

A Bright Mind

Minkin was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin and grew up in Milwaukee, but moved to Phoenix when she was just eight years old with her real estate agent mom, property manager dad and two brothers, Ronnie and Donny.

“Growing up I was definitely a tomboy,” she admitted. “I was really into sports. I played softball, basketball, volleyball, and ran track. I was even into water skiing. The bottom line is that I was very active. Then I played piano and got really into painting. I’ve never had a problem keeping myself busy.”

After deciding to stay close to home by attending the University of Arizona, Minkin opted for dual majors in Molecular and Cellular Biology.

“It’s known for being a party school, but I don’t party at all,” said Minkin. “I went to one frat party during my entire undergraduate career and I hated it. It wasn’t my scene. I was more in to having friends over for game night. I guess you could say I was a bit of a nerd.”

Despite her intentions of becoming a doctor, she found herself looking at law school as her undergraduate studies came to an end.

“My whole life I wanted to be a surgeon, so the plan was to get good grades and get into medical school. I ended up procrastinating though. I had a lot of anxiety about taking the MCAT, so I just kept putting it off. Someone told me that the LSAT was more like an IQ test in that it’s more based on logic and reading comprehension, so I decided to take that as kind of a practice and also just for fun.”

She doesn’t remember her exact score, but Minkin did well enough to be considered a lock for most law schools. Suddenly, she changed course and enrolled at Arizona Summit Law School nearby.

“I figured I’d give it a try,” she recalled. “If I hated it, I would just quit, take the MCAT and go to medical school like I originally planned. But I ended up loving it.”

Poker Beginnings

While in school, Minkin would occasionally visit the local casino with her college boyfriend to play limit hold’em for fun. Once her boyfriend went overseas to play basketball, she found herself at the casino more and more, hoping to find a cure for her boredom.

“I had played poker with my family growing up, so I was familiar with the game. The more I went to the casino, the more I won. I started moving up in stakes going from $3-$6 to $4-$8. Then I switched from $1-$3 no-limit to $2-$5. I was slowly grinding my way up.”

Then in 2013, Minkin’s father encouraged her to play in the $1,000 buy-in Arizona State Poker Championship. She ended up finishing in second place to Joe Kuether for a huge score of $151,983.

“I really had no idea what I was doing because, at the time, I was just focusing on cash games,” she admitted. “My dad was excited to see me play, so I did it mainly for him. But after that, I decided to start traveling the circuit and playing more tournaments.”
With her competitive background, it was only natural for Minkin to be interested in tournament poker.

“My personality is drawn to anything that is competitive. When I played cash games, I enjoyed that aspect of it more than the gambling. I’ve never had any desire to go play blackjack or anything like that because then I wouldn’t be playing against other people.”

Getting Her Law Career Started

Minkin began traveling to various regional stops on the tournament circuit, but she never considered abandoning her day job. After passing the bar, she took a job working at a Phoenix law firm as a medical malpractice attorney at Kent and Wittekind.

“The key to happiness and success is balance,” she says. “I love playing poker and I love my day job. Having both of those things makes me appreciate the other even more. When I play poker, I can enjoy the highs that come with winning. When I’m experiencing the lows that come with variance, I have stability and consistency to come back to with my job. Then, when the job is feeling a little monotonous, I have the excitement of poker waiting for me.”

Minkin’s firm is very generous with her hours and allows her to schedule poker trips so that she can continue playing. She also believes that her poker skills come in handy when she’s working, even if it means just being extra competitive when it comes to negotiating a settlement for a client.

“I wish there was more hours in a day and days in a week so that I could do both things full time, but that’s just the way it works when you are trying to find that balance. Poker is great for building up my confidence and for feeling a sense of accomplishment, but it can also be very self-serving. Law is rewarding in ways that poker can’t be. When I’m able to help other people who can’t help themselves, that’s a feeling that I can’t find in poker.”

More Tournament Success

In January of 2015, Minkin won a $500 preliminary event at the L.A. Poker Classic for $54,630. Then in February, she earned the largest score of her still young career when she took third in the $3,500 buy-in WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open Championship for $262,912.

“I play poker by adapting to my surroundings,” she said. “I’m a naturally aggressive player and I like to be the one applying the pressure, but I realize that sometimes you have to pull back a bit and respond to what the rest of the table is doing, even if it seems a little passive.”

Then this summer, Minkin added another $211,821 by becoming the last woman standing in the WSOP main event, eventually busting in 29th place overall.

“I’ve busted in some pretty big spots before, like when I made the WPT final table, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling of busting the WSOP main event. I’ve felt disappointment before, but that day I actually felt sick. I just wanted to cry, but then you have all of these ESPN cameras in your face and you don’t know what to say. I didn’t want to be rude, but I also wasn’t in the mood to do interviews either. I try not to beat myself up too much after I bust out from a tournament, but it’s hard. I think anyone with an analytical mind is going to second guess their decisions after the fact. It’s natural. But at the end of the day you have to live with the result.”

Moving Forward

Despite all of the success she’s found on the felt, Minkin isn’t in a hurry to recommend poker to the rest of her law firm coworkers.

“I would never recommend that anybody play poker for a living. It’s a tough life. If you spend any amount of time on the circuit, you are going to make friends and at the end of the day, that conflicts with the self-driven world and competitiveness you need to be successful.”

Minkin also worries about the volatility involved with playing poker for a living and is happy to have something like her law career to fall back on when variance rears its ugly head.

“Poker is very unstable,” she said. “Even if you are the best player in the world, you have to accept that there are going to be many days where you lose. For someone like me, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Thankfully I have something else to come back to on those days, which is why I can stomach when I make a bad play or run into some bad luck.” ♠