Outside the Magnet Box: Jon Urban at the Poker Table

by Priyanka Gokhale '08

Not many jobs require you to work from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. six days a week.  Then again, most jobs don't reward you with $27,642 for a day's worth of work, either.  This August, after quitting his post as a mechanical engineer with Black & Decker, Jon Urban '98 moved to Las Vegas to pursue one such career path: that of a professional poker player.

Now, Urban's life is a little different; it's ruled by a delicate balance of luck and strategy, cash games and tournaments.  And in December 2009 and January 2010 he placed first and second in two major tournaments which earned him over $20,000 each – not bad for someone whose interest in the game developed just five years prior to his professional debut.

Though Urban is relatively new to poker, he's always been interested in games and strategy.  An avid puzzler in his youth, Urban attended private school before moving on to the Magnet program.  He says that the program "developed my mind to think" and offered "challenging classes…not your typical by-the-book 'do this' curriculum."  Urban went on to attend the University of Maryland, graduating in 2004 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

The year 2004 became another milestone for Urban: it was the year that he began watching poker tournaments on ESPN.  "At that point, I thought they just showed basketball, football, that kind of thing, but I started watching [poker]," he says.  Shortly afterwards, his job as a mechanical engineer with Black & Decker forced him to relocate to Tennessee, where he started playing regularly at local bars.

"I got interested in the game because I was bored in Tennessee," he laughs.  "A couple of the bars have free weekly tournaments … and I won more than my fair share."  Though playing poker for money is illegal in the state, bars host free tournaments to draw in patrons, and Urban was able to gain experience quickly.  He also began playing poker online, and noticed that he had a "knack" for the game.

When he moved back to Maryland, Urban began making monthly trips to casinos where he seemed to always "have a top finish," he recalls.  All the playing allowed him to sharpen his skills.  "There's a lot of strategy I kept developing," he says.  "I could see myself getting better and better.  [I was] definitely a better-than-average player."

It took some time for Urban's newfound talent to become a potential career path.  "[It] took me a couple of years to break my family down and convince myself," he says.  Though his family was skeptical at first, they warmed up to the idea once they saw that he was really serious about the game. "At first my family said it was kind of crazy, it's a huge risk," he says.  "When they started to understand that I really wanted to do it, the questions started dying down.  My family supported me … I'm very grateful for that."

Breaking into the scene was difficult for Urban, who knew nobody in Las Vegas and recalls feeling homesick at first.  Tournaments and cash games are open to all players, however, so he was able to start playing quickly, although he didn't find instant success.  He remembers being "card dead" at his first professional tournament – "I couldn’t pick up a hand or if I did I was never improving on it," he says. "[It was] pretty obvious that this tournament wasn’t meant to be."

It turned around quickly after that, and he has never suffered a major losing streak, although there's been a few week-long ones.  "It's tough to go to work some days and then lose money and go the next day and lose money," he says.  "That's not something you get from a regular job."

No, playing poker professionally is not a "regular job."  But it's one where Urban – now with a total of $50,832 in tournament winnings – is confident and settled.  Right now, he's playing $200 - $500 buy-in tournaments, but he hopes to make it to the higher tournaments, like the World Series of Poker, which cost upwards of $10,000 (winners from smaller tournaments are often awarded a seat at the table).  And his ultimate goal in the poker world is to make enough money to be able to travel to some of the international tournaments, which take place in Europe and Australia. "That would be my dream goal to just travel to all these tournaments," he says.  And maybe one day soon, we will all be watching him on ESPN.

Priyanka Gokhale '08 is looking for Magnet students who have taken the program's independent-thinking spirit and applied it in unique and interesting ways.  From day one in Research and Experimentation, we're thrust into new situations and asked to think outside the box - and if you think you know of alumni that embody this spirit, please e-mail news@mbhsmagnet.org or make a suggestion online.
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