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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Interviews

Vaughn Sandman – Part I

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Vaughn Sandman is your typical professional poker player except for one trait that is quite rare: an honesty and candor he uses to examine what's gone wrong and now to tell us the real story of going pro. It has been far from perfect, but his story is a powerful one of what it means to make a go of poker, to stumble, and then try again.

CC: Tell us where you are from originally and where you live now.

Vaughn: I was born in NYC and lived there up until age 13 when my mother got remarried and we moved to the Philadelphia suburb where she grew up. I lived there through high school, went to college in New England and then moved to L.A. right after graduation where I stayed for nine years. This spring I moved back to Philly and have been staying with my mother and step-father, but I just rented a house downtown where I will be moving within the next few weeks. I am single, devoted owner of a Siamese cat, have one brother and three step-brothers (Zak is the oldest) spread around the country.

CC: What did you do before you found poker?

Vaughn: Originally, I moved to L.A. to be a television comedy writer, and that is more or less what I pursued for my first few years out there. I worked for agents, producers, writers and the like, eventually getting as far as writing jokes for a sit-com no one ever watched and a couple of pilots that never made it to series. I just never seemed to catch that one break that would get me into steady writing work.

CC: How did you start playing poker?

Vaughn: I had always liked gambling and enjoyed blackjack, betting on football games etc. I also come from a family where everybody played cards, though poker was rare (lots of bridge). And I was a pretty competitive chess player as a younger kid, plus both my parents are therapists; so looking back, I guess it's no surprise I wound up where I did. I always knew the rules and hand rankings for poker and played once every long while with friends (you know, silly home games with wild cards...) but I never gave it much thought.

Sometime around 2000 I was flying back from LA to Philly to visit my folks, and I had to switch planes in Vegas. It was the last flight out and fog delayed the LA departure and I missed the connecting flight in Vegas, which meant I could not get the next one until 7am. It was about midnight so I put my bags in a locker at McCarron and took a cab to the Bellagio to kill off the time. It was too many hours to be playing blackjack, so I tried my hand at 1-5 spread limit 7 card stud (I did not know anything about holdem). I played all night, finished $13 up and found myself thinking a bunch about strategy in the cab back to the airport. So I stopped in a bookstore at the terminal and bought a very basic book on poker strategy and started reading.

CC: What stakes and where did you play after that?

Vaughn: The book mentioned that poker was legal in L.A. (I had no idea) so once I got back in town, I eventually got curious enough to head over to Hollywood Park where I played 3-6 stud. My results were very up and down, but I did recognize fairly quickly that I had a mind for the game--I seemed to improve every session, had a natural trickiness, had no problems being aggressive, things like that. Also, I had played a ton of contract bridge over the years with my brothers, so I was pretty good at keeping track of the cards and knowing which were live--I did not think my opponents in 3-6 were doing likewise and felt it was an advantage. Eventually, I began splitting my time between the 3-6 and 6-12 games at Hollywood Park. It seems a little odd looking back on it, but that 6-12 game was actually really tough and had a lot of regulars who could really play. I held my own, but it was just a hobby that sometimes led to more spending money--I was not building any kind of real bankroll.

CC: Zak told me that you made an attempt to play professionally once, and it didn't work out. Tell us first how you went into it.

Vaughn: During this time I was working on the Sony lot in Culver City, which was close to Hollywood Park. During the weeks we were in production, I was working 80 hours and played no cards. But in non-shooting weeks, I got to leave by 7pm and would usually cruise down to HP. A player in those games told me about the 4-8 stud game at Commerce and how much money was on the table, so I gave that a shot on the weekends. That game was crazy--with a $1 ante the pots got huge and I started to win a few hundred dollars in a night. The TV business was also really frustrating me, as I was tired of being an underling and annoyed that the projects I was writing on weren't turning into television shows and elevating me to more status and money. It all seemed very unfair, and for some reason the unfairness of poker seemed more reasonable. It was more up-front than TV, which to me presented itself as some sort of meritocracy but was every bit as random as a shuffled deck.

By this time I had read Sklansky's book on 7 stud and felt like I could play with anybody (haha!). When my TV contract came up, I had been winning in the 4-8 game and had $2,000 in my checking account and decided I was done with work and could make my living in low limit stud. What a silly young man I was.

CC: What happened?

Vaughn: Things started off with a bang and then fell apart. One night, I hit a jackpot in the 4-8 game at Commerce and pocketed $3,500. The next night, I moved to the high limit side of the casino and sat down in the 15-30 game, where I had a great night and made $1,800. It was weird but I actually did better in the bigger game. I had learned a lot of technique from Sklansky but those moves were mostly useless in the 4-8 game where everybody pretty much played their own hand and chased to the river. In the 15-30, there was real money to be lost by chasing, so all of a sudden, it felt like the chains were off and I could actually read hands, bluff, slow play etc. I likened it to an NCAA senior who averages 18 ppg and then winds up scoring 25 a night as an NBA rookie. Freed from the poker equivalent of a restrictive system, zone defenses etc., I could actually make use of my full arsenal and I began to enjoy the game in a new way. I was sure I would never work a real job again.

The problem was I had no conception about bankroll management. I was woefully undercapitalized for that game, never maintaining a bankroll of more than 5k, which meant I was putting about 15% of my holdings in play every night, sometimes more if I fell behind early. Eventually, I hit a span of about 6 weeks where I could not make a hand stand up and I was broke. I had gone 4 or 5 months supporting myself rather well without working and at the time, I felt like only a terrible run of luck derailed me. Eventually, I came to realize that it was a miracle I survived so long playing on such a short bankroll, and that I had probably been lucky not to go broke sooner.

CC: It must have been quite sobering. What did you learn from that experience?

Vaughn: Not to treat myself to so much sushi. I also learned that I loved playing poker and not having a job, and that I wanted to keep at it. The next 2-3 years, I seemed to run through the same cycle: get a temp job, play on the side, get hired permanently, save up money, quit my job, go back to playing, do well for awhile, go broke again, go back to temping. I worked in a ton of different industries (real estate, bond trading, selling collectable nutcrackers) but always went back to cards. At a certain point, I switched to holdem because I realized no new, dumb money ever sat down in a stud game. Pretty quickly, I came to think holdem was much more fun to play. I also started playing tournaments but did not have much success.

After Moneymaker won the WSOP, I put $200 onto PokerStars and turned it into $12,000 in a weekend by winning a $20 multi, a $50 multi, and finishing 3rd in their Saturday $200 limit multi. But I lost plenty of it back playing $30-60 and by that fall I was looking for work again. But getting on Stars really got me started learning how to play NL tournaments. It only took me 18 months to duplicate the success of my first three days.

By the summer of 2004 I had my head on straight (finally). I found a good job which I enjoyed and which paid me well, and I played in my free time. It was a lot of hours, because I was working 50 a week at my job and playing tournaments on Stars in the evenings and cash games at Commerce and Hollywood Park on the weekends, but I felt like I was in a good spot. I had finally gotten my mind around the fact that supporting oneself at poker without a healthy bankroll led to inevitable failure, and I had gotten myself to a place where I was comfortable with my life. I knew I wanted to play, but I was cool with the idea that I might be working a day job for awhile until I won enough to leave it. I was determined to pay my bills through legitimate work, and play on the side to build up a bankroll sufficient to avoid going broke during bad swings. And if that took two years, or five years even, then so be it--work was not going to kill me. Settled in emotionally, I began to relax and play better, grind it out. Of course, once you stop worrying about the money and just play, the money starts flowing in.

CC: Things started to click for you.

Vaughn: Yes, they did. In January 2005, I was killing 20-40 cash games all over LA, and in February I hit the final table of the PokerStars Sunday end of the month $500 tourney and won $31,000. In the spring I won a WSOP seat and then another just a couple weeks later. I left my job in time for the 2005 WSOP Main Event and have not worked since. It has not been easy though. I won two seats to the PCA this winter but ran horribly starting in November 2005. I got KO'd three spots out of the money at the PCA (thank you Mr. Corkins...) and continued to run poorly through the winter and spring. By May, I was pretty short on funds and needed a change of pace, so I headed back to Philly and slowly began working on turning it around again.

CC: So what do you play now?

Vaughn: I am a fairly rare breed, I think, because I play exclusively NL tournaments and limit cash games. I play a lot of 10-20 and 15-30 short handed limit on PokerStars, UltimateBet , and PartyPoker and try to get down to Atlantic City a couple times a month to play 20-40 and 40-80 ring games. I would say that short-handed limit cash play is my best game, still pretty far ahead of my tournament NL game.

Since the WSOP I have cut back my online tournament play because I realized that my ability to read players actually sitting in front of me was much better than I thought and also that I need to take a lot of time with my hands in tournament play. When PokerStars starts running PCA qualifiers I will likely be playing a lot of them. I'll also be playing a few events in Atlantic City in September, and trying to win my way into either the WPT Borgata or the USPC at the Taj.

CC: What have been the toughest challenges for you personally since you started playing professionally?

Vaughn: Well money and bankroll management have always been tough. I see games I feel I can beat and charge into them even though I know I am not properly capitalized. When bad game selection eats into my bankroll, I can get emotional and try to get it back in chunks instead of moving back down and rebuilding slowly. Usually a day job follows. I hope I have learned my lesson, but I am too wise to think I am not too stupid to wind up broke again. That said, I have come a long way in those areas and have been pretty careful with my bankroll since I left Vegas. Hopefully, that will continue.

Playing poker for a living has also affected my personal relationships. I do not really get along with my father, and while that relationship was troubled long before I started playing, my career decisions have certainly exacerbated the strain. Most of my family and friends, though, have come to accept my choices and maybe even believe that I am not out of my mind for pursuing this thing. If nothing else, I have been at this for long enough that they realize it is not going away. Poker has also certainly affected my dating life, as plenty of women are (quite reasonably) not into the idea of dating a professional gambler, and practically speaking, I do not meet people socially as often as normal folks who have co-workers as part of their social network.

*This article is presented in two sections, please check back*

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