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What is life like as a professional poker player? Three pros reveal the ups and downs

Jesse Sylvia celebrates as he goes all-in and doubles up during the World Series of Poker Main Event final table at the Rio Wednesday, October 31, 2012.

VEGAS INC coverage

The best poker players don't share much at the table. At most, maybe a joke or jab to lighten the mood.

So it was a treat when a trio of World Series of Poker veterans sat down to talk about the game and their lives during the 15th International Gambling & Risk Taking Conference this week at Caesars Palace.

Katrina Jett of Las Vegas has made the WSOP final table four times. Married to fellow poker star Chip Jett, she splits her time between the card room and her garden.

Jesse Sylvia of Martha's Vineyard was runner-up in the 2012 $10,000 WSOP Main Event, taking home $5.3 million.

Jason Somerville of Long Island won a WSOP bracelet and garnered national attention when he became one of the first openly gay poker stars.

Here are some of the highlights of what they said:

How did you get into poker?

Jett: I moved to Las Vegas in 1977, and I have been here ever since. The reason I got into poker is because my parents played poker. My mother and father still play to this day. My mother's office is at the Venetian.

I used to say to myself, "You guys have no life." But I basically took after them.

I'm really happy about my choices because poker has allowed me to do what I wanted to do, which was travel the world. I knew that I wanted to get into some type of profession that would allow me to do that. I could go to any poker room in the world and pretty much know somebody or see somebody who I've met.

As a parent, we don't teach our kids poker. We've chosen to focus on their education first and then later, if they want to learn, that's fine.

Sylvia: I have been a professional poker player for about five years. I considered myself a professional once I finished college and I started living off the money I made and paying taxes on it.

Before that, I made money and put myself through college, but it really didn't feel like I was a professional. Scholarships paid for housing, and you don't feel the stress you feel once you depend on the money you make from poker. It's just a totally different world. For the past five years, I've been learning what it's like to be in that world. It has been a very interesting ride that took me several different places.

Somerville: When I was 16 and poker started becoming very popular, I started playing home games with friends for like $20 and $5. I was losing a ton, and the more I lost, the more annoyed I was that I wasn't winning. I started putting a lot of time into poker, read every book, watched every video, just dedicated myself to really trying to understand poker.

Eventually, I won $5 in a free promotional giveaway on a website. My parents wouldn't let me deposit with their credit card. So from that $5, I played nonstop. I treated that $5 like it was my child. I played for nickels and dimes online until a month later, I had $100; a month after that, playing a little bit higher, I had $1,000. Three months after that, I had $10,000, and a year later, I had $100,000.

So I'm a 17-year-old kid who never really left his parents' house to go play poker who has a $100,000. It wasn't real to me. It was one of those things that just kind of happened.

What made you decide to become a professional poker player as a career?

Jett: I actually picked up another profession after the online gaming crash. With my poker winnings, I used to invest in real estate, so I decided to become a Realtor. I felt like, "Oh, I can sell houses to all my poker player friends because they have money." Real estate is gambling, too.

Sylvia: I'm kinda going into real estate, too. I feel that same thing, where it's the idea of risk management, and you get to play with numbers all day long. It's so much fun to play with numbers when there's a dollar sign in front of it.

Somerville: I always felt it was important to have a balance, especially as I got older. I have really tried in the past few years to find things outside of poker that I enjoy doing that give back in some way. I've done several charity events this year. I feel that I have been very lucky to play a game for a living for the last 10 years, so I feel it's important for me to do those kinds of things.

I also love making videos. I really enjoy that type of thing — telling a story and putting together interesting stories for people to watch.

How do you keep your game fresh?

Jett: Poker has changed so much in the last 10 years. When I first started, there was no such thing as no-limit poker in the casino. I played 1-to-5 stud. You won't even see that game anymore.

I'm constantly having to read materials all the time to keep up with the game. It has changed so much.

I think just having an open mind and listening to opinions helps. We are lucky because we have people on phones to get those opinions. But if you don't follow through with it, it's never going to happen.

Sylvia: Poker is not a job; it's a lifestyle. At this point, the game has progressed so far, and it's progressing so quickly, that if you're not just obsessed with it, it's very hard to be competitive at the very top levels.

Somerville: Studying is a huge part of poker, and those who study the best will be the best. Play a session, and then review the session.

I was lucky enough to where the friends I would ask were the elite of the elite. Having those voices really helps shape the game of poker players.

During the World Series, if you walk through the hallways of the Rio, you'll hear endless talking about hands. It's almost like a different language.

Is it hard to split time between poker and your personal life?

Somerville: I intentionally bought a place in Long Island, N.Y., which has no casinos within two hours of it. There are no poker players really around me.

When I was home, I was just home, with high school friends and people from the old days, and I just liked being disconnected from poker. If I wanted to play online, it was always there for me.

When it comes to playing at a table, it feels so good to take your friends' money. It's so nice. It's literally the best feeling in poker when you just punish someone.

Sylvia: I have a love-hate relationship with my obsession with poker.

I love poker, and I love that it's constantly going on in my life, but sometimes you wish you could go home and not think about the hand that you lost. I think it's something that just comes with the territory. I don't hate it, I don't love it. It's just a part of me, and I have accepted it.

Jett: Poker is a part of my life; it's just not my life.

It has afforded me what I want to do. It gives me the freedoms that I like. I work my own schedule. You get to do what you want for a living, and you love your job. That's what I really strive to achieve.

But my daughter says, "I wish online poker was back so you could be home with me more." So that stuff comes up. But it has also brought me some really good friendships.

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