They Know When to Hold, Fold 'Em

Wild Cards

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To David Tuthill, playing professional poker is like running away to join the circus. “You’re kind of isolated from the real world,” said Tutill, 27, who lives in Tallahassee when he’s not traveling to tournaments. “You’re living by your guile and intelligence. No one fully grasps what you’re going through day to day.” What he and other serious players are going through on a daily basis may vary, but most can agree on one factor: This game, this life, is certainly not for everyone.

“Playing poker looks glamorous on TV, but it’s a lot more stressful than people realize,” said John “Jake” Dollinger, 28, a math whiz who graduated from Florida State University in 2012. He earned degrees in actuarial science, applied economics and computer engineering, but he has never worked in any of those fields.

“I don’t do anything but play poker,” said Dollinger, taking a break in Tallahassee before hitting the road again. “The freedom is awesome, but there’s a lot of work in it. There’s a lot of traveling. It’s hard to keep relationships. I’ve lost two serious girlfriends over it.”

Dealing with big wins — and losses — can bring triumph or tribulation.

“If you work a job, you know at the end of the week that you’ll earn a paycheck,” Dollinger said. “I could drive 500 miles to play eight to 10 hours a day for two straight weeks and make absolutely nothing.”

But then there are the rewards that keep players in the poker world. After barely missing big payouts on other tournaments, Dollinger won $181,117 at the Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park Best of the Beaches event in March. So he’s still all in.

“I love it,” Dollinger acknowledged. But “ideally in the future, I’ll have a regular job and play poker on the side.”

Ryan Dunn had a regular job as a self-employed environmental soil sampler in Tallahassee before he decided to make the move from recreational to professional poker. Now the Leon High graduate is a rising star in the high-stakes gaming world. Dunn won a total of $230,000 in his first two pro circuit events.

Tuthill, Dollinger and Dunn are part of a sizable cadre of professional poker players from Tallahassee. Many spend a big chunk of their days and nights sitting in smoky casinos, addicted to the adrenaline rush of riding an emotional and financial roller coaster.

But there are also a lot of players in the region like Mary Darnell.

She juggles roles as a mother of two teens, a student pursuing degrees in psychology and behavioral analysis and a full-time Tallahassee mortgage broker working 45 to 50 hours a week. But on many nights and most weekends, you’ll catch the dynamic Darnell pursuing her other passion — poker.

“There were times that I depended on my poker winnings to make ends meet,” said Darnell, the Florida State Ladies Poker Champion in 2012. “I won’t call it a blessing, but it’s helped a lot.”

Yet Darnell, an aggressive player in a traditionally male realm, has no ambition to make poker her full-time job.

“It does not cover my benefits, my insurance, my retirement,” said the 38-year-old native of Laredo, Texas. “I play religiously every weekend, but I’m a professional mortgage broker, not a professional poker player.”

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