The thought of betting one’s lifetime savings on one hand of cards would be terrifying to most, but for the Dang brothers, gambling hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars playing online poker is just another day on the job.
The “grind,” as they call it, has been very good to Di and Hac, with some estimating their total winnings at over $15 million since 2004.
“It isn’t really gambling. It was more of a grind,” said Di, who is 28 and the older of the two by a year. “It was very strategic and numbers based. We’re gamblers like people who invest in real estate or the stock market. They buy a ton and win 55 to 60 percent of the time. In the long run, the wins make up for the losses and more. We win 55 to 60 percent of our sessions.”
The two Vietnamese-Americans started playing online poker while engineering students at the University of Virginia (U.Va.). At first it was small bets, but they soon realized they could do pretty well.
They say their timing could not have been better. When they started, online poker was fairly new, the economy was doing well, and there were a lot of “fish,” a poker term for someone who really doesn’t know how to play but is eager to risk money.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” said Di, who goes by the handle “urindanger” online. “We have a strong math background, we’re very competitive, and we like strategy. We just chose to play poker in our free time.”
They initially started by opening an account with $200, which they soon lost. They decided to try another $200, and they “never looked back,” said Hac, whose handle is “trex313” in the online gambling world.
Their competitiveness against each other helped spur them on.
“We were making $10 an hour playing online poker. [Di] started making $15, so I decided I had to get better, and it just kind of snowballed from there,” said Hac.
And while competitive, the brothers, who are celebrities in the online poker world, pool all their winnings, which they say allows them to play for bigger stakes.
Working together, the two were making more than any of their classmates who were doing regular college jobs like waiting tables, and the winnings began to pile up. They found themselves with over $100,000 in the bank. During one spring break from school, they won $40,000, and their winnings soon hit $500,000.
The two freely admit the poker interfered with their studies. It took Di five years instead of four to graduate, and Hac nearly failed a course he needed to graduate on time.
The brothers say Chinese New Year was a major contributor to their love of gambling.
“If Chinese New Year didn’t exist, I don’t think Asians would be that much into gambling,” said Hac. “When we were kids, we’d learn blackjack, betting quarters and dollars, and if I won a couple of bucks, I’d be ridiculously happy. Without it, it’s 50 percent less likely that we’d become professional poker players.”
Despite learning gambling in a family environment, the brothers’ parents, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975, were not supportive of their decision to turn poker into a profession.
“In most Asian families, you have that one uncle who lost all his money playing blackjack or lotto tickets,” said Hac. “When my parents heard we were at U.Va. playing poker with all our free time, my dad said, ‘I didn’t send you to U.Va. to play poker. I sent you to get a degree and get a job and do well. I don’t want you wasting my money to become a gambler. You can do that without a degree.’”
Their dad went so far as to forbid them from playing in the house, so they’d go to Korean PC cafes in the area to play.
The extended family was not thrilled either.
Shortly before graduating college, the brothers went to a family gathering where they were peppered with questions about what they were going to do after graduation. When they said they were going to pursue gambling, some thought they weren’t making a good choice.
But eventually their parents and family came around, probably helped by the fact that Hac and Di are pretty good at what they do. The brothers bought their parents a house in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, and bought another one for their grandparents.
The cashflow from poker also allowed their father to leave his government job years before he was due to retire.
“It was good to give them a break because they worked so hard to get us where we are,” said Di.
While the two have had a great run with online poker, there are signs they may be looking to walk away.
A major factor is that gambling on the Internet is increasingly illegal in the U.S. In 2006, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which placed severe restrictions on online gaming. In April 2011, the government shut down three of the top online poker sites in the world.
This forced the brothers to establish residency in Vancouver, Canada, where Hac goes from time to time to play online. Di also makes trips to to the Asian gambling hub of Macau, and both regularly visit Las Vegas.
The sluggish economy has also made the really big pots increasingly rare, the brothers said. Furthermore, as the game has matured, a lot of the “fish” have been weeded out, leaving only very skilled gamblers at the table and making it more difficult to win big.
“Those million-dollar days aren’t around as much anymore,” said Di.
This is an actual online poker game played by Di Dang with a pot worth over $588,000.
Di added that over the long term, the grind is unhealthy.
“It’s too stressful,” he said. “The losing days hurt too much and the winning days are like a high. It’s a rollercoaster.”
Di says he made $1.1 million on his best day playing poker, but lost $900,000 on his worst day. Hac says he’s lost “seven figures” in a day.
“If you play big enough, you get a charge. As long as there are interesting games, I’ll still play, but I don’t know that I’ll be doing this for the next 50 years,” said Hac, adding that he’s scaled back to playing “about 80 hours” of online poker this year, partly because he's on a losing streak.
The two currently are testing the waters as restaurateurs in Virginia, which Di says some consider a bigger gamble than poker.
“In restaurants, you need to count the pennies,” said Di. “With poker, you click one button, and you’re $700,000 richer. It’s two totally different games.”