So, your 20-year-old daughter has a new boyfriend. Here’s what you know: He’s polite, friendly, treats her well. He’s 22, has seen some beautiful places in his travels, and already owns a home outright. You’re riding high. What’s not to like?
Then you find out he plays poker for a living. It’s like a blow to the gut.
Joe Cada has been down that road. Not as the parent but the professional poker-playing boyfriend whose lifestyle makes even the most open-minded folks shift in their seats.
“I don’t blame them,” Cada said in our interview just prior to the start of the inaugural PokerStars.net North American Poker Tour [NAPT] Venetian. “It’s weird to explain to people.”
Never mind that Cada, known as poker’s ambassador since last year becoming the youngest winner of the World Series of Poker Main Event at age 21, has done lots of mass media appearances, including Late Show with David Letterman, and even earned a mention on Saturday Night Live. He’s amassed over $8.5 million and topped the 2009 Money List.
Clad in a white-hooded sweatshirt and boyishly low key, Cada is in stark contrast to the white leather couch with red pillows we’re sitting on as we converse on a patio outside the Venetian. There are gondolas, part of Vegas’ whitewashed version of Italian life, floating by. The President of the United States is speaking at a hotel across town and Tiger Woods has just issued his formal apology that very morning. Televisions all over the resort are tuned to the wholesome Winter Olympics simultaneously playing out in Vancouver.
Amidst all this is the calm swirl of the No. 2 stop on the NAPT – it launched in the Bahamas in January – with a field of 872. As Cada awaits the competition that is ahead, he tells me more about others’ impressions of him and his poker lifestyle.
“One of my ex-girlfriends, her parents were all about school,” he says.
Actually, so was Cada for a while. He was “good at math, not so much at English” and, despite developing a deep interest in poker in high school that helped him go from very shy to more social, he went on to college and made sure he always had a job.
“I knew poker was not developing my resume,” he said. “I went to college one and a half or two years and left. When I stopped going to school I had a lot of money behind me. I was traveling a lot and it’s hard to do that and go to school. I sat down and talked to my parents and said, ‘I have to choose one route, college or poker.’”
His parents were divorced and Cada was living with his mother at the time. The poker route was hard for her to digest since she was a blackjack dealer in a casino and she had seen so much loss.
“When I started making money she saw my success and kind of opened up more to it,” Cada said. “Then I got in a position to help her, especially when she lost her job.”
A loyal native of Michigan, Cada was also in a position to help himself in a big way. He got a great deal on a house in Chesterfield and bought it with cash at age 19 with about $200,000 to spare at that time.
For some in my generation, all of this card playing conjures up images of gamblers like the one depicted in the film Funny Girl by Omar Sharif. Grand gestures give way to losing his proverbial shirt and his life is eventually destroyed. But in this new world, where poker skills can be honed online before ever hitting a real table, the movie image is outdated.
It’s not that there isn’t risk, because there undoubtedly is, but it’s seen more as sport than gambling by its participants. In fact, Cada is extremely mindful of steering clear of the gambling mentality, of losing and trying to “win it back.”
“Anything where you play against the house is gambling, like blackjack,” Cada said. “I learned from my mistakes. One day I built my bankroll to 30-40 thousand [playing poker] online, then lost two thousand. I wanted to make it back. I lost 37 thousand on blackjack. It was a huge lesson. What’s the point of gambling?”
Instead, Cada sees his progression to pro as incremental – putting in a lot of hours, building a bankroll, working up to bigger stakes. Over time, his decision-making muscle has developed and that math sure is coming in handy. To parents whose child might be heading down the poker path, he offers two words of advice – monitor them.
“More people lose than win,” he said. “I know a lot of people who lose at poker. It’s tough to tell everyone poker is the way to go.”
It is, however, the way to go for him. He says poker has made him mature quickly.
“I try not to stress about anything,” Cada said. “I believe in the law of attraction, having a positive mindset. I wake up every day with a positive mentality. Don’t let things get you down. The idea is to not be able to tell running into me if I won or lost that day.”
So is it all about living in the moment? What might life look like 10 years from now?
“I’m not too good of a planner,” Cada said. “Hopefully, I’ll still be doing what I love doing.”
Magical words, especially to those of us who coach people to do just that.
Cada might just be boyfriend material after all.