The Poker Player



IT’S an hour before the fifth Kings-Canucks playoff game, and Players Chophouse on Beatty, around the corner from GM Place, is abuzz with alcohol, testosterone, and anticipation. The room is packed; hockey fans—mostly buff guys, many in Canucks jerseys—order drinks, ogle the comely servers, and keep an eye on the Washington-Montreal game on the screens above the bar. In the middle of the din sits the gregarious, six-foot-four, 225-pound, freshly Buddha-domed Greg Mueller. “Hey Baumer,” he calls to Canuck defenceman Nolan Baumgartner, in suit and tie. “How come you’re not dressed tonight?” “Sprained my MCL,” replies Baumgartner glumly, joining utility forward Matt Pettinger, also in civvies, at a table nearby.

Along with Garth Snow, Mitch Berger, Jason Strudwick, Len Barrie, Darryl Sydor, and several other current and former athletes, Mueller, 38, is part owner of the sports bar, as well as of Players Chophouse in Whistler. Born in Germany, he grew up in White Rock (“My parents had a fish and chips place, Moby Dick, on the beach”), where he still lives when he’s not keeping a schedule that takes him all over the world (he’s just back from a poker tournament in Indiana). It was during a nine-year pro hockey career in Germany that he became adept at poker (“all those 10-hour bus rides”). He quit hockey and returned to Canada to spend time with his mother, who had terminal breast cancer. He tried acting, and eventually devoted himself to poker. His ascent through the ranks has been remarkable; he’s racked up some $1.7 million in tournament winnings along the way. Last year at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas he won two bracelets (and $587,906)—the legendary Phil Ivey was the only other player to win two. Tonight, as he eagerly awaits the Game 5 faceoff, those diamond-studded bracelets accent the cuffs of his Kyle Wellwood jersey, sparkling each time he raises his glass. He hopes to pad his totals at this year’s World Series, which runs from the end of May until mid July, then breaks until the final table of the main event reconvenes in November.

Mueller nibbles beef carpaccio and Caprese salad while greeting pals, happily bantering with the servers and frequently checking his BlackBerry. “Excuse me,” he says, “but my buddy Shawn Buchanan’s at the final table in the World Poker Tour event at the Bellagio right now. We’ve got 10 percent of each other”—meaning Mueller stands to pocket about $58,800 of the $587,906 Buchanan will eventually collect for finishing third. “Shawn’s from Abbotsford and we worked our way up together. We’re roommates when we travel.”

Like many top players, Mueller—FBT (for Full Blown Tilt) to his friends—fancies himself an excellent “reader,” able to divine the strength of an opponent’s hand from the subtlest clues: a remark, a hesitation, the slightest change in posture. Though he’s sponsored by Full Tilt, the online gaming outfit, he’s not really comfortable playing on his computer because he has no access to such visual tells. But he attributes his success at the table to less nuanced factors as well—physical fitness, for one.

“In a tournament, say you end the day with the chip lead. What are you going to do? Go out to a strip bar and get drunk celebrating with your buddies? Or go to the gym, ride the bike, eat properly, get a good night’s sleep? You need to feel great, mentally and physically, to be able to concentrate for 13 hours straight without making a mistake.” Mueller works out regularly, eats carefully (“no coffee, no Red Bull”), runs, and plays on two rec-league hockey teams against talented kids half his age.

Self-knowledge and self-discipline are also integral to his success. “In a cash game, when things aren’t going well, you have to be able to get up and walk away. Somebody’ll say, ‘Hey, Greg, why you leaving now? You’re down 10 grand, just like me.’ You go back in the morning and the same guy’s still at the table, only now he’s down 40 grand. You have to stay in your financial comfort zone. People get in over their heads. I’ve never played the big cash game with Doyle Brunson, Jennifer Harman, Phil Ivey, and all those great players, because I can’t afford to lose half a million bucks in a night. I stick to games where I know I can do well—and if the cards don’t come my way, I can handle the loss.

“It’s amazing how often you’ll hear from somebody who’s looking to borrow a thousand, and you say, ‘Wait, didn’t you win the tournament and $1.5 million three weeks ago?’ ‘Well, yeah, but I lost it playing craps and baccarat.’ You have to stick to what you’re good at. Sure, I like to bet sports—I’ve got some money down on the Canucks-L.A. series because it makes the games more exciting. But if I lose, I pay cash and don’t worry about trying to win it back. I’ve never been broke. You’d be surprised how many well-known players are always borrowing money.” Is Mueller looking forward to having a new casino adjacent to BC Place, not five minutes away? “Actually, I don’t play much poker when I’m in Vancouver,” he says.

“I find it kind of boring. But it’ll be good for business at the restaurant, once they get the new roof on BC Place and the Lions and the Whitecaps start playing there. We need to get through the construction phase, then things will really pick up.”

It’s 20 minutes to start time, and Mueller eagerly joins the throng streaming along Dunsmuir to GM Place. “Should be a great game tonight,” he says, oblivious to the rain. “I get seats from a season-ticket holder who’s down in Phoenix right now, best seats in the house. I’m flying to L.A. to watch Game 6 on Sunday.

I love competition. I love playing hockey and love watching it. During the Olympics I rented Dave Scatchard’s penthouse in Yaletown and went to all the games, had a few beers with my friends, just a fantastic time.

“Attending sports events is what I really enjoy. Poker’s what lets me do it.”VM