Thursday, November 22, 2012

You’re never told about these things. They don’t exist until they happen.”

Jason Tompkins could be talking about a lot of things because at just 27, a lot of things have happened that make him unlike any other 27-year-old. He still lives in his home-town of Athy and walks and talks like anyone his age but you’d never guess the half of what he has to tell you.

Around Athy, people often hear about him because big news travels fast in a small place. Outside his drive is a silver BMW and on the odd day that the weather and his conscience allows, he roars into town behind the wheel of his Toyata Supra convertible.

The ‘novelty’ car boasts a three-litre engine but it’s hard to brag about a motor that drinks petrol. His big-boy toys could give you the wrong impression. He’s earned his money fair and square and if any person ever deserved a lucky break, it’s the boy who never knew his mother.

He was only five-years-old when his mam, Patricia (Pat), was cruelly taken from him. Cancer struck and her life ended all too soon. His dad, Seamus, was left to raise two boys – Jason and his older brother, Keith – and just as Jason was stepping out into the adult world, cancer came again and took his father away.

At 19, he was left to fend for himself but work was plentiful and the pay was good on the building sites where he worked as a labourer with Sisk. Most weeks he’d take home €700 and if he worked an extra day there was the guts of a grand with his name on it. The next step was to get himself a trade but there was no rush with all that money to be made.

He certainly wasn’t in a hurry the night his life flashed before his eyes. Strolling home one evening, eight years ago, his breath went short and then, very suddenly and dramatically, it felt like the air was being sucked out of him. He could hear the sound, ‘Essssssssssss,’ as the oxygen escaped his lungs and he crawled the last 100 steps to his front door.

After his brother called the ambulance, he was rushed to Naas General Hospital and before he knew where he was, his lung was being re-inflated. In ways it was a relief.

What had felt like a heart attack was actually Pneumothorax – a collapsed lung. Air pockets had formed behind the lung. It felt like there was something inside him, like he was being strangled, the way a snake wraps around its prey.

When he woke there was even more pain. A hole the size of a golf ball had been cut into the side of his chest. A tube, bigger than the gap between his ribs, was pushing between his bones and through muscle to get to his collapsed lung. This torture continued for five days until the lung was back to normal.

Nine months later he went back to work but his career with Sisk came to a premature end when the same, freakish malady struck again.

You’re never told about these things. They don’t exist until they happen.”

With a past full of sorrow, now his future was full of uncertainty. This ‘thing’, this rare lung condition that doesn’t have a name nor an explanation could have crippled Jason Tompkins but then he had already been dealt terrible hands. Now he was going to play his own cards.

****

AT the start it was just a bit of craic. A Friday night with friends, playing poker and drinking a few cans. Nothing serious, purely social.

When Jason Tompkins had to give up work, a Friday night habit quickly turned into his daily routine, minus the drink and the company. He was home alone with nothing to do and almost without realising it, the game of poker – Texas Hold’Em – had consumed him.

It was just before the poker boom, when the game went mega in terms of public appeal and pot-prizes. For the first while, Tompkins didn’t even realise you could play the game online.

It (poker) was something I really enjoyed. I started researching it more. Once you found out most of the information, you took off playing five nights a week. We learned as we played.”

Together with another friend, poker became their sole pursuit. They played at clubs in Naas and Carlow, took in any number of games in Athy and spent as much time as they could playing to learn.

At the start you wouldn’t even notice you’d be playing six or seven nights a week basically,” he says. “It does consume you at the beginning and you have to learn to back off and manage yourself better – if you play too much you won’t survive in the game.”

As well as time and patience, it costs money to survive. His first year playing he reckons he lost up to €3,000, but it would turn out to be the best investment he ever made. After a year he was beginning to win having gone through a phase of winning and losing and soon it wasn’t one, big gamble every night.

You’re always learning the game,” he believes, “but you get to a point where you know how to beat the game. That probably took over a year.”

If he hadn’t been winning at that stage it would have been time to think about an alternative career. His friend quit but Tompkins was lighting up flash bulbs in his head, even as his day became night and night became day.

It was a pretty weird schedule, getting home at 4 or 5 in the morning. You’d be getting up late in the day. I think it’s probably curiosity that drove me. The ‘aha’ moments make you reailse that you actually have something for the game.”

One of those ‘aha’ moments came when he was playing online.

It was where somebody raises and you re-raise but you don’t actually have a good hand. It was learning how to smartly bluff people without them ever really knowing.”

The scenario went something like this: Player A raises (increases the bet), Player B calls (matches the bet) and you, Player C, re-raise (increases the bet again). Now Player A has to fold because he doesn’t know what Player B is going to do and Player B isn’t going to call because he’s already matched (flatted) Player A.

That was probably one of the bigger things I realised,” says Tompkins. “It immediately just grabs your attention and you just want to learn so much more so quicker.”

Armed with the advantage of being an unknown quantity, his first year playing full-time in Ireland netted him a cool €100,000. He had to endure a dose of second season syndrome the following year – or variance as they call it in the trade.

You always know you’re going to lose some. Variance is the best way of dealing with it. There’s so many variables – somebody playing their hand wrong and getting lucky against you. It’s just random occurrence. There’s nothing you can do, you can only play one, exact line. Even if you were playing perfect, it (the game) could still kick you in the ass.”

Still, with almost €40,000 banked by the end of his second full year as a pro, he was by no means beyond his means. His poker education was continuing at a hectic pace but unlike other trades – and definitely not like any one he might have entered while working with Sisk – his earnings were more akin to that of a fully qualified graduate.

Last year his winnings topped €100,000 and 2012 has taken him to an even higher plane. He’s like a returning contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, coming back each time armed with more knowledge, edging closer to the million-pound question. In October at the European Poker Tour’s (EPT) second major event of the season at San Remo, Tompkins won his way through to the final table.

The first four days were a slog, working through the also-rans and never-to-bes before putting the chips down for big stakes. While it might not be a taxing pursuit in physical terms, your mind must be razor sharp to stay alert for the 12-hour stints that are a regular feature of tournaments like this. Play begins each day at 2pm and will likely finish at 2am on the opening day. The futher you go the less time you have to concentrate but then there’s more at stake.

In the final eight, Tompkins was playing for a first prize of €800,000. He bowed out in fifth and departed the Italian coast €171,000 richer than he arrived. And yet the feeling was far from euphoric. It was almost as if he had gone for the million-pound question and got it wrong.

Because I came fifth, you’re so gutted at the same time as winning such big money that it’s kind of hard to celebrate. It’s surreal.”

On the way home someone joked that for all that he’d won, his six-days of intensive labour probably only matched the wages of a Man City soccer player. While Tompkins is smart enough to bank most of his winnings, ultimately he stands to lose his week’s wages every time he goes out to work. There is no guaranteed income each month and given the shady characters who occupy his world, there are always pitfalls.

At the moment Tompkins is trying to hunt down a young protege who convinced the Athy-man to stake (pay his entry fee) him for a tournament. Tompkins’ supposed ally decided to go on an exotic holiday instead. Other times he’ll receive messages on Facebook from random strangers, asking for loans.

It’s as if the principles of good poker play apply just as much away from the table.

You have to self-aware mostly of what you’re doing because obviously everybody else is watching what you’re doing. If you’re not realising what hands you’re playing with and everybody’s seeing you can be at a serious disadvantage,” Tompkins says, explaining what it is to play poker at his level. “That’s another level where you know what hands you’re after showing to the guys if they call you down – you can use that against them next time knowing whether to bluff or not to bluff.”

Such is the current state of poker that there’s an online tool available which will monitor how you play. Just as you can look for tells and trends in your opponents, so you become vulnerable if you get sloppy.

Skill is only one element in this game, though. Without mental strength, belief and discipline, there’s no point even sitting at the table.

If you don’t believe in your own abilities, you’re drawing dead. If that day comes, it’s game over. You should quit there and then if you’re smart enough to realise but most people don’t. That’s why there’s so many people who go broke because they don’t have the discipline.”

Right now Tompkins is living a strange kind of dream. He’s had success and tasted riches he could not have imagined eight years ago but it’s a lonely journey at times, whether playing online or travelling across Europe for big tournaments. Writing a blog (http://jason-tompkins.blogspot.ie/) helps him interact with other pros – who, naturally, are thin on the ground in Athy – and his discussions with other players help him develop his game.

Somehow, despite all life has thrown at him, he’s managed to find a way to prosper in the poker world when at various times it seemed like he would be lucky to survive in his own world.

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