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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 11:04 GMT
'My job? I play poker online'
Despite having attended one of the world's best universities, Mark Maxwell prefers to play for a living. Play poker online, that is.

When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, I just say 'I play poker'.

I used to have more of a problem with it, not least because I'd end up explaining it at length, as people are often more interested in online poker than in talking about what they do.

I make about $40 an hour on average and play poker 30 hours a week - it's not quite a full-time job, and it leaves me time to do a bit of web consultancy, read a lot of books, and go off on holiday without having to arrange leave.

A poker hand and chips
Mark's tip: only bet if your hand is good
I just got back from several weeks in Puerto Rico, and I'm happy to say that I didn't miss playing poker at all - that was quite reassuring.

If you're familiar with gambling in casinos, playing poker online is essentially the same thing.

Unlike at a bricks and mortar casino, online you can play at more than one table at a time. So sometimes I log into more than one poker site at a time, which means that I don't have to be as good a player to make the same amount of money.

'My poker face'

But in some ways, online poker is a very different game. It's a lot faster, as there's no banter around the table. For casino players, this interplay is a central element of the game, whereas for me it's more mathematical.

In fact, at a casino I'd be at a disadvantage because these people know all about body language. I don't even know if I've got a poker face.

Poker hands
Royal flush: high cards (ace, king, queen, jack) of the same suit in number sequence
Straight flush: cards of the same suit in number sequence
Four of a kind: cards of the same value (e.g. four kings)
Full house: three cards of one value, two of another
Flush: all cards are of the same suit
Straight: cards are in number sequence, but not of the same suit
Three of a kind: three cards of the same value
Two pair: two pairs of cards with the same value (e.g. king, king and ace, ace)
Pair: two cards with the same value
One of the few times I went to a casino, I got a royal flush - it does happen occasionally - and my hands were shaking so much that everyone realised something was up. [The odds of being dealt this winning hand are about 650,000 to one]

But online, I could be shaking like a leaf in front of the computer, yet it would just look like I was making a normal raise.

I'm trying to write a computer program to help me play better. While I could try to program it to play while I'm not there, I'm not sure this is my aim. I don't think I'm a good enough player to write a winning program, and other players probably wouldn't like playing against a robot.

There's nothing secret about the way I play. The most common mistake that beginners make is not folding [stopping betting on a weak hand] early enough. I had to get over that and learn to sit a hand out.

'I lost $5,000'

My biggest wins have been about the same as my biggest losses - just hopefully they occur a bit more frequently. In one day I've lost close to $5,000, but I've also won about the same amount. One day I'm buying the beer, the next I'm getting my friends to buy it.

My first big loss came when I had first started to get cocky. I thought I was doing very well, when in fact I wasn't.

Phil and Frank play poker on EastEnders
Body language is another factor in poker
Over about three months, a friend and I had built up about $4,000 from an initial pool of $300, and I lost $1,500 in one day.

I had a huge loss of confidence. I read a bunch of books and joined a couple of online forums on poker strategies. Armed with that new knowledge I went back to playing about a year ago.

Even now, I'm constantly evaluating if I really know what I'm doing. But there's always days when I can do no wrong, when every bluff I make goes my way. I just have to treat each and every hand exactly like the one before.

I consider gambling as something to tide me over while I figure out what it is that I want to do next. So far it hasn't worked out quite as I'd hoped - having no direction isn't a great way to get direction - but it's been a wonderful vacation.

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