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|Raising His Game
Curt Kohlberg ’80 knows when to hold 'em—from the felt to the boardroom
|—Matt Vautour ’96
CURT KOHLBERG WANTS TO SHOW YOU HIS CARDS.
The 47-year-old University of Massachusetts graduate is on track to fulfill several of his life’s goals. He has a great family life and an extremely successful business. But he still aspires to raise his game further on the World Poker Tour, with the television cameras watching his every move as he squares off against poker legends, with hundreds of thousands, sometime millions, of dollars at stake.
Kohlberg has played against and beaten most of the standout poker players that have become celebrities during the game’s recent boom. He has won five major tournaments at Foxwoods and in Las Vegas, with aggregate earnings exceeding $700,000. In 2003, despite playing far fewer tournaments than many professionals, Kohlberg was ranked No. 54 in the world in total poker earnings, ahead of even the legendary Doyle Brunson.
But for all his success, and the rise of televised tournaments, Kohlberg has yet to play on television.
“Although my record has been reasonably good for a serious amateur player, it’s been far from great,” says Kohlberg, sitting in the Newton office of Chatham Partners, his consulting business. “I’ve won several events, yet none of them have been televised. In televised events, I have yet to make a final table, which has been a major disappointment thus far. As a result, my family, friends, and clients don’t believe I’m any good because they haven’t seen me on TV.”*
That Kohlberg is comfortable with people knowing he’s an aspiring tournament poker player says a lot about how both the game and the perception of it has changed in recent years.
In the stereotypical poker game of yore, unsavory men played in smoke-filled back rooms of pool halls, a relic of the old West. The recent boom in the game’s popularity has all but exterminated the outdated image; today’s players are more likely to be armed with PhDs than pistols.
While casinos hold tournaments in a variety of poker games, Texas Hold ’Em, and more specifically “No Limit” Texas Hold ’Em, is the game that has spawned the enormous boom in poker’s popularity.
ESPN’s early broadcasts of the World Series of Poker made for bad television. Many hands ended with all but one player folding, denying the viewers a chance to see the cards in play. But in 1995, Henry Orenstein’s invention changed the broadcasts dramatically. He created a TV-friendly poker table. Each seat featured a tiny camera that revealed a player’s hole cards. The invention demystified the game. Viewers watched players bet, bluff, and take home huge winnings. It looked easy.
In addition to ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker, several cable networks and NBC launched regular poker programming. The interest was already rising from increased television coverage, but it exploded in 2003.
That year the appropriately named Chris Moneymaker won the main event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, where entrants buy in for $10,000 to compete to be named best in the world. Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee who had only played in online tournaments before entering, won $2.5 million. To most viewers it seemed like the equivalent of a weekend golfer winning the U.S. Open.
Kohlberg’s poker roots are more traditional. He began playing recreationally as a freshman at UMass Amherst. He was good at the wild card–laden variations of five-card draw and seven-card stud that dominated play. Playing cards was a hobby, one Kohlberg didn’t let distract him from greater academic ambitions. And his ability to keep things in balance is still true today.
“When I got accepted to UMass, my goal was to prove that I was somebody. UMass afforded me that possibility,” says Kohlberg, who maintained a high grade-point average in the Isenberg School of Management. In addition to winning the school intramural racquetball and paddleball championships, he wrote a sports column for The Daily Collegian and started his own business selling T-shirts at rock concerts.
After graduating, he was accepted to the prestigious Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The rigorous academic demands of graduate school shut down his card playing as he pursued his dream of making enough money to retire by age 30.
That dream seemed to be on track when he was hired by Goldman Sachs to work on Wall Street. But things didn’t go well, kicking off an up-and-down period in Kohlberg’s life. “I managed to screw that up pretty badly, and within a year they basically asked for my resignation,” he says.
After a brief stint consulting, Kohlberg, who had recently married, took a job with Bank of New England. “At Bank of New England, things started to click right away,” he remembers. “I think I found my niche as someone who was skilled at developing and servicing new clients.”
From there, Kohlberg was recruited by Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company as a senior vice president. But the president who hired him left, and the new boss wanted to bring in his own people. Kohlberg was left unemployed and disappointed. Compounding his hardships, Kohlberg’s wife left him around that time and took their young son with her to a new job in Arizona.
In poker, when a player suffers a string of bad luck or bad cards, he often begins making bad decisions trying to overcompensate. Players call this being “on tilt.” It often leads to bigger losses and larger problems. But even with his career and family life off track, Kohlberg was never on tilt. He began consulting again, the day after he was dismissed, founding Chatham Partners. He buried himself in his work. ( http://www.chathampartners.net/ )
Chatham Partners has 40 employees and provides strategy consulting, market research, and investment banking for custodian banks, money managers, and other financial services firms. The company also provides vendor analysis and fee benchmarking analysis for large institutional funds. In English that roughly translates to helping organizations with large amounts of money (often in the billions) make sure they hire providers at the best possible terms. When Harvard University joined as a client in 1993, the business began to take off.
“We helped them select a bank to be custodian for all of their assets,” Kohlberg says. Yale and MIT followed. Things expanded overseas as well. Chatham recently opened an office in Frankfurt, Germany, which handles business in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Soon after starting Chatham, Kohlberg’s personal life took a positive turn. He married again, this time to fellow UMass Amherst grad Allegra Manacher ’83G, now a clinical social worker. They live in Weston with their two daughters, Sara, 11, and Allison, 9, and Kohlberg’s son Alex, 18, who recently returned to Massachusetts.
Poker didn’t reenter the picture until 1997. Kohlberg’s main hobby at the time was playing competitive squash, but he suffered a major knee injury that kept him off the court for a year. “I needed a diversion. Foxwoods was opening, and my wife said ‘Why don’t you go play there?’, and right away I did well,” Kohlberg says.
Dusting off the skills that won him his classmate’s beer money in Southwest, Kohlberg entered a $500 buy-in tournament for seven-card stud, a poker variation in which each player gets three cards face down and four face up to create his or her best five-card hand.
He won the tournament. Bolstered by this success, three days later Kohlberg paid $3,000 to enter the casino’s World Poker Final main event and again was victorious. He left the Connecticut Casino with $130,000.
Confident in his aggressive playing style, Kohlberg began making occasional trips to Las Vegas, hoping to continue his streak, but “I struggled against the more experienced players,” he says. “I basically didn’t win anything for three years.” Kohlberg worked to refine his style; he hired a coach and chose hands more conservatively, but he stayed aggressive when he entered pots.
“I’ve come up with a game plan for what I think is a Game Theory based approach to poker,” he explains. “There are probably 17 or 18 situations that I’m going to make a play on if everything lines up properly. Otherwise, I’m going to play a basic game that focuses on playing fairly tight, nothing tricky, just capitalizing on others’ mistakes. That’s how I play.”
That style helped him beat Poker Hall-of-Famer Berry Johnston and 2004 World Champion Greg Raymer in a three-way showdown to win the 2001 World Poker Finals main event at Foxwoods (a No Limit Hold ’Em event). He finished 116th out of more than 2,500 players at the World Series of Poker’s main event last year.
Kohlberg has had more success than quite a few players who make their living at the card table, but he isn’t quitting his day job. “I have no interest in becoming a professional player,” he says. “I love playing the major tournaments and that’s about it. My family, friends, and business are my top priorities, yet poker is a great outlet for my competitive side. There are few adrenaline rushes as great as playing well at a final table with a nice pile of cash and a trophy as potential rewards,” say Kohlberg. “Still, earning the respect of other top players is the greatest thrill, and I have a long way to go before my game is at their level.”
When Chatham was getting off the ground, Kohlberg never mentioned poker to his clients. “I was playing and winning these tournaments, but I have a lot of clients who are very conservative, so I didn’t talk about it,” he says. But as the game’s popularity increased and the negative stereotype dissipated, his poker playing became an icebreaker instead of a deal-breaker. Nowadays, there’s a bit of crossover between work and pleasure. “Only after poker started being televised was I able to tell clients that I played,” he explains. “Now when I talk with them, many are more interested in my tales from ‘the felt’ than in what we can do for them strategically.”
As he readied to leave for the 2005 World Series of Poker, Kohlberg reflected on how well things have come together for him.
“Its extremely satisfying to bounce back from disappointments and taste victory on occasion. Poker is a lot like life,” says Kohlberg. “If you do everything right you can put yourself in position to win, yet nothing is guaranteed.” ?
*At press time, UMass Amherst learned that Curt Kohlberg made the final table at the July World Poker Tour event in Paris, France. It will be aired on television in March 2006. Congratulations, Curt!
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