When Isaac Haxton ’08 was a freshman, he spent winter break outside his native Syracuse, N.Y., playing poker at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino. He came away with a respectable $1,500. This year, Haxton spent part of the winter playing poker in the Bahamas, and this time, he finished $861,789 richer.
A member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, Haxton won the whopping sum when he placed second in the Poker Stars Caribbean Adventure at the Atlantis Resort and Casino in early January. He said his lifetime poker earnings now amount to approximately $1.3 million.
This tournament, which drew 937 players, was one of a series facilitated by the World Poker Tour for a TV show that airs on the Travel Channel.
“Filming for that was a surreal experience,” Haxton said. “I found out I had made the final table, and I get a stack of forms. … The first thing I see is ’10:00 a.m.: play starts, 8:30 a.m.: make-up call’ … what?!”
Haxton’s success in the world of poker has been growing steadily over the past four years, ever since he began playing when he was 17, during his senior year of high school. At first, he played only socially with friends but soon began frequenting Turning Stone, which is a 20-minute drive from his house.
When he returned home for winter break after his first semester at Brown, Haxton played poker at Turning Stone almost every day. At the start of spring semester, he deposited his $1,500 winnings into an online poker account and began playing online for about 20 hours a week, finishing the semester with a few thousand dollars in winnings.
“I didn’t sleep very much that semester,” he said. “But I got all A’s.”
Following his success, Haxton decided to spend the following summer living at home, playing online poker full-time.
“My parents were pretty okay with it,” Haxton said. “It took some effort to convince my mom that it was real money, but once the first check showed up at the house, she believed me.”
That summer, Haxton won $40,000. The next summer, he stayed in Providence and did the same thing, winning $100,000.
Haxton said he has read about 30 books on poker. “I read everything I could find about the game,” he recalled. In addition to reading, he played the game a great deal and discussed poker strategy on an Internet forum.
“The forum is just filled with 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids who have made millions of dollars playing poker. … There will be posts like, ‘I made $100,000 dollars this month, which of these cars should I buy?'”
At the end of his junior year, feeling burnt out by school, Haxton contemplated taking some time off from Brown. When legislation was proposed this past August that could soon make online gambling in the United States illegal, Haxton made the decision to take the year off to play poker full-time and cash in while he still could.
He has been living in an apartment in Boston and continues to play poker online.
Live tournaments are still fairly new for Haxton, who only became eligible to play this past September after his 21st birthday. He said they are very different from the online poker to which he has grown accustomed.
“When I’m playing online, I wake up at three in the afternoon, have a cup of coffee, play for about three hours, then hang out, have dinner, watch some TV, play for another three hours, and that’s a day’s work,” he said. “When I go to a tournament, play starts at some ungodly hour, like 11 or noon.”
Haxton said live poker tournaments consume much more time because the cards are dealt manually, meaning a competitor can play fewer hands in an hour.
“A day of playing a tournament is minimum nine, sometimes up to 14, 15 hours a day, and the tournaments can be up to six days long. … There’s barely enough time to sleep – certainly not enough to eat three meals a day.”
The World Poker Tour Web site, which classifies Haxton as one of today’s “Young Guns of Poker,” also states that one of his most striking skills is his “chill factor,” the ability to maintain calm during the game.
“It’s nothing that complicated,” Haxton said. “Keeping calm in those situations has always come fairly easily to me.”
Haxton has recently been nicknamed the Lizard King after Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors. He got the name after PokerStars.com noted Haxton’s physical resemblance to the late rock star in a photograph caption.
With a new nickname and an upcoming appearance on the Travel Channel, Haxton has found himself increasingly in the spotlight. After the Poker Stars tournament, Haxton was approached at the casino’s restaurant by a few waiters who had heard about his victory. They wanted him to sign dollar bills.
“I think they were just hoping that in five years I’d be famous and the autographs would be worth something,” Haxton said.
A few weeks later, at a tournament in Atlantic City, a fan asked Haxton to autograph his own photograph.
“He goes ‘Yeah, Isaac Haxton, the Lizard King!’ … I didn’t know what to do. Do I sign it to someone? … It was surreal. He had planned to find me. He said ‘I’m going to go find Isaac Haxton’ and printed a photograph of me.”
But Haxton said he maintains his signature “chill factor” both at the poker table and away from it.
“The attention is directed more at the character that World Poker Tour is marketing as a character on their show than it is attention directed at me,” Haxton said.
He added that fans like the man in Atlantic City often care only about his capacity as a poker player. “He just wants me to look cool in my sunglasses and sign the thing,” he said.