High stakes are his meal ticket

Eric Johnson is a golfer turned professional poker player in Winnipeg.
Eric Johnson is a golfer turned professional poker player in Winnipeg.

A tough day at the office for Eric Johnson looks a lot like someone else’s wilder Tuesday night.
The professional poker player tries his luck about three nights a week in casinos, looking to leave with his only source of income.
The career came about by happenstance when the 27-year-old left his job to pursue golf.
“When I graduated from university, I had dreams of being a professional golfer,” says Johnson, who was a member of the golf team at the University of Manitoba. Johnson graduated from the Asper School of Business and had a stable job before he moved to the desert to hit the links full-time.
“So my dream was to save up all my money and move to Arizona… and just play and practice every single day and try to get really good with all these pros that live in Arizona.”
While there, “I realized I wasn’t that good at golf. I’d never make a true career out of being a professional golfer. But I was going to the casino pretty often because I didn’t know anybody and I had nothing else to do, and I was just consistently winning.”
Johnson noticed he was going home with some pretty hefty sums as well.
Johnson left Winnipeg with about $15,000 in savings to make his move. “When I came back, I had almost the same amount of money as when I left. And so I realized ‘you know, I could just keep doing this and making money at it.’
“So I think the first month that I came back, I made like $6,000 in one month or something.”
That was enough for him to take a chance on playing cards full-time, which was now four years ago.
“I definitely enjoy it or else I wouldn’t still be doing it,” says Johnson, who loves the freedom of setting his own hours. “I don’t want to do it forever.
“I’m looking for something else that can help legitimize everything and provide security but that still lets me play poker.”
Johnson faces unique circumstances when it comes to big purchases or credit checks.
He hasn’t claimed income in several years because gambling earnings aren’t taxed, and likewise, he doesn’t have a stable paycheck to build up good credit.
When it came to getting a house, his girlfriend took on the official ownership.
“A lot of it’s just in her name; the house is hers and everything and I just pay in cash a lot,” says Johnson.
He feels these are minor shortcomings to an otherwise rewarding lifestyle.
“Today I went golfing because it was so nice out, I didn’t feel like playing poker today,” says Johnson. “That’s the key is the freedom to do what you want.”
The ability to play in golf tournaments during the weekdays plus the opportunities for travel are major perks of his gig.
He’s been to Vegas 14 times, and goes on average about three times a year to win some earnings. He’s playing the World Series of Poker in Vegas that runs through June and July.

World Series of Poker chips. By Logan Ingalls
World Series of Poker chips. By Logan Ingalls

Johnson recently won tournaments in Regina and locally; the earnings tipped him over the six-figure bracket in major tournament winnings.
Despite a preference and an obvious aptitude for poker play in person, Johnson makes a good living and maintains fairly consistent work hours playing online.
Most days he competes from about 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. when players in Europe are home from their day jobs. Online poker is illegal in the United States, so the majority of his opposition stems from Europe.
When it comes time for Johnson to seek steady income, he knows the job search may be interesting. “It’s polarizing,” says Johnson.
“You have to be really disciplined and understand money management and everything like that, but then some people would just be like ‘Oh, you’re just a degenerate gambler.’”
Johnson says the hardest part by far of the job is the inconsistent earnings. “I would say just 99 per cent of people wouldn’t be able to handle the money fluctuation, and it leads to bad things. Like getting in a hole and losing and borrowing money and all of the bad things that are associated with gambling.
“In Winnipeg there’re probably ten or less that do it for a living full-time, and there’s a good reason for that. For us to win, most people are losing.”

Recent tournament wins:
Manitoba Poker Open second place finish ($1,000 buy-in) – $24,458
Manitoba Lotteries Poker
Championship $600 No Limit
Hold ‘Em event – $23,500
2013 Regina Harvest Poker Classic $1,000 No Limit Hold ‘Em
Freeze Out – $51,619

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