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Pair of Aces

Feb. 09, 2009
Feb. 09, 2009

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Feb. 9, 2009

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Pair of Aces

The next chapter in the Casey Martin story involves pal Dusty Schmidt (another golf prodigy halted by health woes), high-stakes online poker, and the lessons each man learned on the course

CASEY MARTINleans across the table and rakes in the chips. He's just won a $30 pot, but hisself-conscious smile advertises that he's not a hardened gambler. Across thetable, an amiable old-timer in a ball cap winks at one of his pals. "Willsomebody tell Casey," he says, "that the experienced player puts hisbig chips in front of his white chips?" ¬∂ Martin, acknowledging the needlewith a grin, rearranges his stacks. ¬∂ It's Saturday night at Full House Poker,a card room in downtown Eugene, Ore. Condensation clouds the windows. An NFLplayoff game flickers silently on two wall-mounted screens. No one is watchingthe football, but players at adjoining tables keep glancing in Martin'sdirection. He doesn't seem to notice—and why would he? There was a time whensatellite trucks parked outside his town house, a time when U.S. senators, Hallof Fame golfers and Supreme Court justices debated his future.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2009 issue

But the playersaren't buzzing about the former PGA Tour pro with the prominent limp. They'rebuzzing about the young fellow to Martin's immediate left, a cipher in acollared sweater whose elbows seem glued to the table, moving only when hepeeks at his hole cards or discards them with a flip of the wrist. Word hasspread that Martin's soft-spoken pal is Dusty Schmidt, a.k.a. Leatherass, anonline poker pro with a seven-figure income and a reputation for mentalgymnastics.

Meanwhile,there's a skinny kid at the other end of the table—tall, fidgety, head bobbing,knees pumping like a drummer. He has on baggy jeans, a white hoodie and a ballcap, and he's drafting on Leatherass like a NASCAR qualifier on JimmieJohnson's bumper. "Come and get in close," he urges a pressphotographer. "I want people to know that I played against a famouspro." When he wins a pot from Leatherass, the Kid yelps and fires a fist atthe ceiling. "I don't even know what I'm doin'," he chortles, raking inthe chips. "I just play this game for fun!" When the Kid wins again, heleaps out of his chair. "I got you! Yeah!" The Kid looks back at thephotographer. "You want to get a shot of the pro going to the ATM?"

"That's thething about the Kid," the old-timer drawls. "He's humble."

So the Kid winsfive straight hands and practically wets himself over his castle of chips.Leatherass merely smiles, folding hand after hand until he disappears like theCheshire Cat. Then, just the way it happens in the movies, the Kid draws thepro into a big pot—"I'm just so excited now!" he squeals, leaping tohis feet for the river—and then reels in anguish as Leatherass calmly turnsover his hole cards: an ace and a king. The Kid has lost about half his stake,maybe 150 bucks.

"There's thepro," says the old-timer. "He waits and waits and finally springs thetrap."

The Kid sags intohis chair and pulls the hoodie over his head, silenced for the night. Andthat's the very predictable end of the story, until you see Dusty Schmidt, thepoker millionaire, the online poker guru—Leatherass!—struggle to organize hiswinnings. "I don't know how to stack chips," he confesses to Martinwith a rueful grin. "Most guys know how."

Dusty, you beginto suspect, doesn't get out much.

NOT TO beoverdramatic, but there was always another side to Casey Martin, a side thepublic didn't know. Outwardly he was the cheerful, courageous athlete whoplayed professional golf despite a congenital circulatory defect that forcedhim to hobble on a withered right leg. In Eugene, however, he was somethingmore prosaic: a landlord. He rented out the guest room in his town house.

Three years agoSchmidt moved in, referred by Martin's next-door neighbor Matt Amen, aUniversity of Oregon golfer. Schmidt, 27, had a tale of frustration to rivalMartin's. A former junior golf star who grew up in Whittier, Calif., Schmidtwas a five-time mini-tour winner, and in May 2004 he was top dog on the GoldenState tour. But that's when fate, in the guise of a heart attack, flipped himonto the discard pile. "I was only 23, and I was playing the best golf ofmy life," Schmidt recalls. "Suddenly I was in the hospital, and thedoctors were telling me I'd need at least a year to rehab."

It figured to bea very dull year, but on Christmas Day, Schmidt's good friend, theaforementioned Matt Amen, showed up at Schmidt's tiny Newport Beach, Calif.,apartment carrying an expensive golf shirt in a gift box. "I'll give youthis shirt if you'll give me $50," Amen said. Within minutes, Amen was bentover Schmidt's PC, and the $50 was out there in the ether.

"Andthat," Schmidt says with a smile, "was my introduction to onlinepoker."

MARTIN PICKS upthe story in 2005, when the wannabe poker pro moved into his spare bedroom.Schmidt set up his laptop in the room and began tiling poker tables on thescreen, playing four to eight hands at a time and earning more on some daysthan Martin was averaging per tournament on the Nationwide tour. "Dustybasically never left my home," Martin says. "He'd literally play pokerall day and all night. I'd come home in the afternoon, and I'd hear thissound"—Martin pounds his fist hard on the table, thud, thud,thud—"which was Dusty grinding away at small stakes. Getting frustrated,but always getting better."

Schmidt says hewas simply trying to improve: "When I moved in, I think I was making asmuch as I'd made working for my father, about $40,000 a year."

What does Schmidtmake today? "About a buck a hand," he says—which sounds like nothinguntil he explains that he now plays 12 or more hands at a time on two monitors.As Leatherass, he racks up 1,200 high-stakes hands per hour and 7,000-plushands a day. "If you play 200 days a year," he continues, "that's1.4 million hands per year. I actually play 1.5 million to two million hands ayear."

At any given timeSchmidt has 50 or 60 thousand of his dollars spread across the tables. "Wework on incredibly small margins," he says, making his dollar-per-handsound like a supermarket chain's annual report. "On a given hand the mathdictates that I'll make a $40 profit in the long run. But I have to risk$10,000 to make that $40." Which, he quickly adds, he doesn't hesitate todo. "I'll take that edge every time. I play enough hands to make itstatistically significant."

To Martin, whowatched his oddball tenant study poker manuals and memorize math tables forhours on end, Schmidt was a model of entrepreneurial drive. "Most people,they'll put in some hours," Martin says, "but Dusty has probably playedmore online hands than anybody in history. He went from amateur to top 10 in avery short time, and the money went from a hundred grand a year to amillion."

If someone hadwhispered those numbers to the Kid on Saturday night, it might have occurred tohim that a man accustomed to calling a $10,000 raise on one table while runningalgorithms for another 11 tables in his head probably isn't going to crumblewhen you shout, "All in!" over a $50 stack of chips. On the other hand,those watching Leatherass school the Kid that night would have been wrong tothink that the game was too slow and cheap for the online pro. "I have sucha competitive desire that it wouldn't have mattered if we were playing fornickels," Schmidt said afterward. "I had fun."

THEY'RE STILLgolfers, but golfers consigned to the What If tour. Martin, 36, retired fromtournament play in 2006 with one Nike tour victory, a successful campaign touse a motorized cart on Tour, and a crowd-pleasing 23rd-place finish at the1998 U.S. Open as his signal achievements. Now in his third year as men's golfcoach at Oregon, Martin plays enough rounds at Eugene Country Club to notice animprovement in both his ball striking and putting—trends that have him toyingwith the idea of joining the Champions tour when he turns 50. (Mark yourcalendar: June 2, 2022.)

Schmidt, too,loiters at the edge of his former profession. He plays to a plus-four handicap,averaging a round a week at Pumpkin Ridge's private Witch Hollow course. He isalso a founder and the president of 10thGreen.com, a year-old social networkingsite offering interactive content to amateur and professional golfers. Thecofounder and video star of 10thGreen is one Casey Martin—because, according toSchmidt, "I couldn't come up with anybody in golf with morecredibility."

They are verydifferent people, even if they share the common thread of golf careers thwartedby circulatory failure. Martin is, by his own admission, a nit—the term pokerplayers apply to those who cling to the wall at the shallow end of the pool."I'm a tightwad," he says. "I'm scared to death. Poker is soemotionally and mentally draining that I can't sleep afterward." Schmidt,by way of contrast, has acquired a mathematician's detachment, a focusedtranquillity that allows him to manage tens of thousands of dollars on aconstantly changing digital landscape. "I had to build up to it," hesays, crediting chats with Jared Tendler (10thGreen's COO and mental-gamecoach) for his equanimity.

Anotherdifference is that Schmidt's coronary arteries have responded to medication("I'm close to 100 percent"), but Martin's infamous leg—a skin-wrappedtube of leaky veins, atrophied muscle and dissolving bone—has not. "My hopewas that my leg would benefit from not standing all day," Martin says."But the first couple of years at home were really terrible. I've talked toa couple of doctors about amputation, but it brings in a lot of unknowns. WouldI be in less pain? Would the quality of my life improve?" This winter, headds, the pain has eased slightly—"so those fears haven't been on my mindso much lately."

The sting ofdisappointment is harder to dismiss. Press coverage in 2001 of Martin v. PGATour, Inc. tended to skirt the fact that his Tour ambitions were neither apublicity stunt nor a political contrivance. "It wore on me," he says."I was getting lots of attention, but I wasn't achieving my goals as aplayer." Now Martin gets very little attention—unless you count the highschool and junior college golfers who write to him, hoping he'll seescholarship potential in their four-handicap games. "Deep down, I believedI could get it done, but I didn't," he says. "That burns me alittle." He launches a wadded envelope toward the corner and makes a facewhen it falls between the wastebasket and the wall. "My athleticability," he says drily, "has waned."

Schmidt'sathletic ability, meanwhile, has become irrelevant. The poker pro lives withNicole, his grad-student wife of two years, in a four-bedroom house on a leafycul-de-sac near the Nike campus in suburban Portland. The walls of his homeoffice—his friends call it the War Room—are covered with classic golf photos.Golf books fill the bookcase. It is only when Schmidt puts on his sunglassesand starts tiling virtual poker tables on his 40-inch and 28-inch monitors thatthe true nature of his work is revealed.

"The firstthing people ask," Nicole says, "is, 'How much does he make?'"

It's a rudequestion but one that Dusty feels compelled to answer because it goes to hiscredibility as an equity partner and online coach for stoxpoker.com, a pokertraining site. "My baseline is a hundred grand a month," he says,making his cursor dance across the screen like an angry blackfly. "I'll goa hundred thousand hands without making money, but I've never had a losingmonth." Sensing skepticism, he adds, "A hundred thousand hands, that'sthree years for a live poker player. That's why they tend to bottom out anddie. But it's less than a month for an online player." His eyes fix on aparticular table for a moment; then he clicks his mouse. "Doyle Brunson islike the Babe Ruth of poker"—he clicks again—"and I figure I playedmore hands in my first year than he played in 35 years."

Asked who are thebetter poker players, Schmidt votes for his pixel-popping brethren. "Thebest online players tend to be MIT math majors or securities traders who figureout how to beat the game," he says. "We're technically perfect, likegolfers with perfect swings." The live players are "more about the flowof the game, reading people. They play more by feel." Reminded that feelhas propelled more golfers to the Hall of Fame than technique has, Schmidt nodsin agreement. "I'm not saying we're that much better. But I get 1,200 handsan hour, while a live player only gets 25 or 30. So I'm not picking on thoseguys when I say the learning curve is steeper." He shrugs. "It's adifferent kind of poker."

("Did Dustytell you he doesn't even own a deck of cards?" asks Tendler. "Hedoesn't own a deck of cards!")

The word maniacomes to mind, but Schmidt's demeanor is as bland as his wardrobe. "I tellhim to wear gold chains and put his hat on sideways," says Martin, "buthe ignores me." Ask Schmidt how he got his start in golf, however, and apattern emerges.

"When I wasabout eight, I told my mom and dad that I wanted to do something great inlife," he recalls. "I said, 'What do you think I should get into? Maybesports?'" His parents, who own a company that distributes nonfood items togrocery stores, played golf, and Dusty was undoubtedly moved by the example ofhis father, George, who competed on the national long-drive circuit. "Idecided golf was my best bet," Dusty says, "because I could work alone.Nobody was going to outwork me." The Schmidts lived near the Big Tee GolfCourse in La Mirada, Calif., so Dusty's indulgent dad dropped him off at thedriving range one morning, handing him a hundred-dollar bill ("becausethat's what he had in his wallet"). Dusty bought bucket after bucket andhit range balls until 10 that night. "When my dad came to pick me up,"Dusty says, "I only had $8 left."

Schmidt'sthousand-balls-a-day habit forced him to work out a deal with the rangepro—unlimited practice balls in exchange for policing the tee line—and nearlywrecked his hands. ("I still can't straighten my fingers.") But itpropelled him to the top ranks of the American Junior Golf Association, wherehe wore knickers in honor of Payne Stewart and outplayed squirt versions ofcurrent PGA Tour players Jeff Quinney, Charles Howell, Hunter Mahan and hisclosest Tour pal, Kevin Na. "[Dusty] was an outstanding junior," saysAmen, who played and practiced with Dusty's younger brother, Tyler, anotherlong-drive practitioner. "From age 10 to 15, Dusty won everything."

Then Schmidtstopped winning. Some blame his brief association with the outré swing coach,Mac O'Grady. Others say he was blindsided when Oklahoma withdrew a scholarshipoffer on signing day. Whatever the reason, Schmidt endured one forgettableseason at UC Irvine before turning pro. He played the mini-tours for severalyears while moonlighting at the family business, and he had begun to pile upwins on the Golden State tour when, figuratively speaking, the horn blew.

"It was May2004," he says, reliving the moment. "I was moving product at a grocerystore when I felt my heart going crazy. I didn't keel over, but it was verypainful, and the thought kept running through my head: Is this it?"

He rolls hischair back and looks at a photo of Ben Hogan. He says, "I talked to Jaredabout my disappointment. 'All that effort,' I told him, 'it went to waste.' AndJared said, 'It didn't go to waste. You couldn't have had success in poker ifyou hadn't worked so hard at golf.'"

THE KID wouldprobably go all in to be as respected as Martin or as well-off as Schmidt. Butpoker will teach him there's no point in counting yesterday's chips.

Martin, forexample, is absorbed in reviving an Oregon golf program that hasn't won thePac-10 since 1959. "Casey's life has quieted down," says hisstockbroker brother Cameron, "but he channels his competitive nature intowhatever he does." Casey's job would be easier if Eugene had palm trees andbermuda grass, but he maintains that a little fog and rain never hurtanybody.

Schmidt hopes hispoker income and business spin-offs will make him rich enough to pursue hisgoal: philanthropy. "I'd need three weeks of practice to be competitiveagain on the mini-tours," he says, "but now it seems selfish to playgolf, because I have the ability to make money." Bluffing now—he is, isn'the?—Leatherass predicts that his and Martin's 10thGreen website will lower thenational men's handicap average, which, he concedes with a grin, has been stuckaround 15 for decades.

"I tend tohave visions, and my visions are always grandiose," says the man who made afortune at cards without the cards. He adds, "Casey is more realistic anddown to earth. It's a nice balance."

Which leaves youeyeing your pile of chips and wondering: Do I bet against these guys?

For an archive ofnews and opinion about the Casey Martin case, go to GOLF.com.

"I was 23 and playing the best golf of mylife," Schmidt recalls. "Suddenly I WAS IN THE HOSPITAL, and thedoctors were telling me I'd need a year of rehab."
"Deep down, I believed I could get it done, but Ididn't," Martin says of his brief Tour career. "THAT BURNS ME ALITTLE."
PHOTOPhotograph by Rich FrishmanSITTING DUCK Martin rode into the spotlight (above), but now he's happy watching hoops with Schmidt (near left).PHOTOLM OTERO/AP[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Rich FrishmanCOACH CASEY Now in his third year at Oregon, Martin channels his competitive drive into the program.PHOTOPhotograph by Rich Frishman[See caption above]PHOTOROB WISE (SCHMIDT)OLD HABITS Martin (right, with Tiger Woods in '98) harbors Champions tour dreams, but Schmidt plays just for fun.PHOTOVINCENT LAFORET/GETTY IMAGES (MARTIN)[See caption above]