Tyson Marks, 26, was coming off 12 straight hours of online poker at 3 a.m. on Sept. 28. His housemates had gone to bed long before, assuming Marks would progress only so far in the PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) Main Event before falling out of the game. Another tournament in Marks' three-year career as a full-time online poker player didn't warrant an all-nighter.
But the night took a turn around 2:30 when Marks became one of the last two competitors at the virtual table. He commanded a five-to-one chip lead over his competitor—screen name: "joeysweetp"—and, as the flop came, Marks knew he'd already won the game. Three people woke back up and sat clustered around his bedroom, their eyes fixed on his laptop screen.
"I hit the nuts [flush] on the turn, best possible hand you could have, you know?" says Marks, who held an Ace-4 hearts and watched as the flop and turn revealed three more hearts. "Then I decided, because of his stack size, I didn't want him to be able to just call or raise a little bit and get away from it, so I bet really big on the turn card to induce him to shove all his chips in. That's exactly what happened."
The $2.27 million Marks won was the largest payout in online poker history, according to Poker News Daily, beating out Yevgeniy "Jovial Gent" Timoshenko's $1.7 million win in the 2009 WCOOP. Marks' bedroom erupted as the tournament closed.
"It was really cool," Marks says. "After I won, it was really nuts—a lot of screaming, a lot of high-fives, a lot of hugs."
"Trying to realize what just happened," adds Marks' longtime friend and roommate Arron Naab.
Within minutes, Marks' Facebook page "blew up" with congratulatory posts from friends all over the country—many of whom had been watching the tournament online. He estimates 30 Missoulians logged on as spectators that night.
"It's sick, 'cause now I'm ranked one of the top players in the world," says Marks, known within the online poker community as "POTTERPOKER," a nod to his Harry Potter fandom. "I feel like I belong in the top 100, maybe the top 50 in the world, but I'm going to be up there with the top five in the world, and these guys are just really good players, insane players. Some of them, I feel I don't belong up there with them."
A week after his WCOOP win, Marks doesn't look like a newfound millionaire. Sitting at a downtown café with Naab, the two chat about fly-fishing, disc golf and whether they remembered to deflate the river floating tubes they have in their garage. Touring for live poker tournaments last winter kept Marks off his snowboard, and he says he hopes to crash with a buddy in Lake Tahoe, Calif., this season to make up for lost runs.
"I'm not a huge spender guy," Marks says. "My life's pretty simple. I love Missoula; none of my friends are, like, well-off. I still go to the Rhino and play pool and drink beers—just an average Missoula guy who happens to play poker for a living and got there."
Until three years ago, Marks was just another local working odd jobs around Missoula. He moved here from Great Falls in 2002 to attend the University of Montana, but dropped out after a year and worked construction before landing a job at The Bridge Pizza. Marks slowly drifted toward the local poker scene (he learned five card draw from his grandmother at age five), playing tables at Stockman's Bar, the Oxford and the Silvertip Casino. By 2005 he was dealing cards first at the Board Room and then the Press Box.
Watching games from the house seat made Marks itchy, and he turned to online poker on PokerStars and the Full Tilt Poker Room in his downtime. Marks started winning more often after some advice on strategy from friend Eric Pratt, and finally decided to devote himself to online poker full-time in 2007.
Since then, he's racked up $1.3 million in online career winnings, according to HighStakesReport.com. He's traveled to tournaments in Aruba, the Caribbean, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and estimates he plays between 150 and 200 online games a week—about eight to 10 hours a day. But before the WCOOP, Marks says his biggest win was only $60,000.
"It was one of those things I always knew was going to happen," Marks says, "but it could have been when I was 40 or 50."
Marks has tentative plans for his winnings. After he reimburses his backer for the $5,000 WCOOP buy-in, he's looking at purchasing a boat and, maybe, a house. Obviously, he says, he'll invest. But his immediate concern is actually getting his hands on his cash. Various attempts by the federal government over the years to regulate international electronic money transfers—or deem online gambling illegal altogether—have generated a sizable gray area around Internet poker prizes. Marks says his money is currently in an offshore PokerStars account, and he's hired a tax attorney to help him navigate the cash-out process.
"Right now it's safe from Uncle Sam's hands, but if I ever try to cash it out in the states I'm going to have to pay taxes on it," Marks says. "It's still going to be a sick score."