By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
Wade Woelfel doesn’t remember exactly when he realized he was a pretty good poker player but he’s narrowed it down to sometime around his senior year of high school or soon after.
Like a lot of people, he started playing nickel-dime-quarter poker with friends. His fondness for the game coincided with the U.S. poker boom that started around 2003.
He found himself winning more times than not. When he reached 18 he was legally allowed to play online and stepped up his involvement.
“When I got out of high school (at Mankato West) I played a lot online and that really helped me advance my skills,” he said. “When you’re able to play a lot of hands of poker in a short amount of time, you learn a lot.”
Woelfel has always been fond of numbers and, upon graduation from West, he enrolled at South Central College with the idea of eventually becoming a CPA. He enjoyed college but the poker bug kept pulling at him and he had to make a choice.
“I was playing poker until 2 or 3 a.m. and then I’d have to be at class by 8 a.m.,” he said. “It wasn’t working out very well. After about a semester and a half, I left SCC.”
A short time later, Woelfel realized he’d found his niche. He continued to make some money and, at age 21, when he went through a stretch where he made about $200 every day for a month, he decided to try to do it for a living.
He remembers being nervous about telling his parents and his girlfriend of his decision but it was something he really enjoyed and wanted to give it a shot. The girlfriend wasn’t too sure and moved to Colorado and his parents came to terms with the idea of their oldest son pursuing his passion.
Woelfel, now 28, has been proclaiming himself a professional gambler on his tax returns for the last seven years. There have been some successful and some not-so-successful times during that stretch but he says he’s never had a losing year.
He weathered the poker community’s Black Friday in April of 2011 when the U.S. government stepped in and shut down all the major online gambling sites for being in violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.
“A lot of people lost money that day,” Woelfel said. “Full Tilt still hasn’t paid out its customers. I lost about $5,000 or $6,000 with them but I was able to get all my money out of Poker Stars, which was the other big site a lot of people were using.”
At that point, Woelfel came to another crossroads. If he wanted to continue making poker his livelihood he had two options: He could do as many of his associates did — move to Canada or Mexico or Costa Rica — and continue to play online, or he could devote his time to playing the live tournaments offered throughout the country.
“I didn’t want to move so I went the other way,” he said. “It’s a lot of traveling but you get to pick your spots, too. From November through March I try to get away and take advantage of the weather by playing in California or Florida or Las Vegas.”
The boom may be over but poker remains popular. It’s hard to go through the cable channels on television and not find a tournament being broadcast from somewhere.
A couple of weeks ago Woelfel experienced his single biggest payout when he finished second at a World Series of Poker circuit tournament in Atlantic City, N.J. The buy-in was $1,600 and his cut of the prize money was $120,000. That assured of him of another winning season in 2012.
His girlfriend is also back and his parents are fine with his decision. Poker, specifically Texas Hold-em, is just what Wade does. He enjoys his flexible schedule and the freedom his chosen profession affords him.
There are drawbacks, however. The travel can be a little wearing and his social life can get monotonous.
“Whenever I get together with friends all they want to do is talk poker. It gets a little tiring because that’s what I do every day, and I’d like to talk about something else.”
As for his long-range future with poker, Woelfel thinks he’s in pretty good shape. He believes the U.S. will eventually reinstate online gambling because it’s missing out on a lot of tax money that’s changing hands everywhere else.
But even if it doesn’t he should be fine.
“As long as it remains popular poker tournaments shouldn’t be hard to find,” he said. “Now if I get married and start having children I might have to re-think things.
“And if the action dries up I wouldn’t be afraid to do something else. I think I could get a job in sales or something. I’d be fine with that.”