Career change turns up aces for Virginia Tech alumnus
More than four years ago, Adam Hendrix gave up a job working for a government contractor to become a professional poker player — and his gamble continues to pay off.
In the summer of 2017, Adam Hendrix found himself facing a high-stakes decision regarding a possible career change.
He worked a well-paying, albeit mundane, position for a government contractor in Northern Virginia. The job offered steady income and nice benefits, but the drudgery of working 8 to 5 and dealing with traffic gridlock every day dulled Hendrix’s enthusiasm.
Ultimately, he decided to ante up, pushing all his chips to the center of the table and going all in on a new venture.
“It was a combination of me proving myself in online poker that I was good enough to play against these guys,” Hendrix said. “And winning at a rate that made sense to switch over – a rate that was outperforming my government contracting job.”
Hendrix bet on himself and joined the world of professional poker — and has been adding to an ever-expanding bankroll ever since. A 2015 Virginia Tech graduate with a degree in economics and a minor in statistics from the university’s College of Science, he finished 2021 ranked No. 10 in the Global Poker Index rankings and No. 6 among American players.
His earnings nearly reached seven figures, which more than justified his decision and certainly assuaged the concerns of his parents.
“They were always supportive,” Hendrix said. “The conversation was data driven. I tried to explain to them the differentiation between poker and blackjack. People always think they’re similar, but they’re very, very different. In one, you’re in control of your cards, and you have to beat your opponent, whereas in blackjack, you’re strictly playing against the house.
“I had to show them my online play, and over 1,000 individual tournaments, how I was doing … I think they saw that I was very passionate about it, and they always told me to be responsible about it. If it’s not working out, or if you’re not taking it seriously as a job, then come back to your degree and do something in that. I always took that to heart and treated this as a business.”
Mason Malmuth understood the risks associated with Hendrix’s decision. Malmuth, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and added a master’s degree in 1975, made the same move in 1987, leaving a job with Northrop Corp. to pursue a career as a professional poker player and a writer of gambling-related topics.
Malmuth now is the author or co-author of 20 books, sold more than 2.5 million copies, and owns his own publishing company called Two Plus Two Publishing LLC. He said that good players can win in poker, but they need to be very knowledgeable about the game to make it a long-lasting career.
“One of the things that happens in poker games is the short-term luck factor is very, very high,” Malmuth said. “I could be a much better player than you at the poker table, but there will be nights you would win a lot of money. That’s just the way it goes, but in the long run, the expert player is going to win.
“A lot of people can’t handle the types of swings that the game offers, so they’ll learn how to play pretty well and play well when they’re winning, but on those occasional nights when they’re big losers, they play very poorly. That’s one of the things you have to overcome. You have to learn how to play very well and then have to be able to play very well all the time, even when the short-term results aren’t that good.”
Hendrix first picked up the game as a child when he and relatives played for small change at his grandmother’s home in Homer, Alaska – Hendrix’s birthplace. But he somewhat lost touch with it while bouncing around the world. His father worked in the oil and gas industry, and his job took the family to places such as Aberdeen, Scotland, and Cairo, Egypt.
Hendrix attended an international school in Cairo starting in the ninth grade and ultimately graduated from that school. He thought about going to college and playing soccer at the Colorado School of Mines, but the death of a good friend led to him realizing that he wanted to be near family. The combination of being near relatives in eastern Tennessee – his parents went to the University of Tennessee – and Blacksburg’s small-town vibe made the university a perfect fit.
“Cairo is 22 million [people] once everyone comes in for work,” he said.
While at Tech, he came across some friends playing poker in a community room at now-demolished Thomas Hall, where he lived. He tried his luck and ultimately won big that night. That rekindled his interest in the game, and he later joined a poker club started by one of the guys, playing once a week.
He gradually played more frequently, particularly at nights throughout his college days while remaining on top of his studies. In 2015, he graduated and found a position working for the government contractor in Northern Virginia, but poker was never far from his thoughts.
“I’d play maybe six hours every night as a side income, and I’d be accruing money to hopefully one day become professional,” Hendrix said. “It’s a higher risk market than a consistent income because you have to put your own money up to do this job. Most jobs, you show up and they pay you a salary. You just have to invest your time. In poker, you have to invest your time and money. It’s one of those few, very strange jobs where you can go a few weeks and lose money.
“I was trying to rationalize this and accrue money to play the game eventually. But I knew that you’d need a bankroll – the amount of money for poker to go through the swings of deviation with your chances of winning.”
Hendrix quit his job in July of 2017 and joined the world of professional poker. He headed to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, and at his first tournament, he joined a tournament playing Pot Limit Omaha 8 or Better. Out of 850 players, he finished second for $137,992.
“That really propelled my career and made my parents somewhat see or feel more comfortable about the profession I was going into,” he said.
Today, Hendrix plays in tournaments all over the country – everywhere from Las Vegas, where he and another player rent a home on “The Strip,” to California to Cherokee, North Carolina (home of the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort). His schedule varies, but he has played seven days a week in tournaments that last 10- to 12-hour days.
Therein lies a big draw for those wishing to pursue a career in professional poker, according to Malmuth, who does not know Hendrix. Obviously, players can win big money, but the game also offers successful players the freedom to pick and choose when they play. There is no 8-to-5 in the world of poker.
“When I left my job, I kind of wanted more freedom,” Malmuth said. “That was what was important to me. I didn’t want to get up early in the morning and go to work. I wanted to do what I wanted to do at the times I wanted to do it, and I actually thought that I would make less money than I was when I was working. Even though I had a very good job, I wanted more freedom.”
Hendrix himself enjoys both freedom and success because of his personal set of strict guidelines. He maintains a consistent bankroll, managing his bankroll relative to the stakes to which he’s playing, and maybe most importantly, he makes analytical decisions, not emotional ones.
Emotional decisions usually equate to big losses.
“Once the money gets too high for a person, your emotional senses in your brain start changing how you’re playing,” he said. “You’re not making strong mathematical calculations. You’re making emotional calculations. Sort of keeping your emotions in check, bankroll management, and being a studier of the game, like chess and other games — you actually have to study at this.
“Even though it’s a silly card game, there are mathematical programs that people use to become the best in the game. They talk to other people about hands they play and try to introduce new theories. It’s an ever-evolving game, but the main principle is you’re your own boss and treat it like a job and treat it seriously.”
Hendrix has found that his career choice creates interesting dialogues among friends and family members and serves as a conversation starter with strangers. How often does someone ask the average citizen, “What do you do for a living?” and the response be, “I’m a professional poker player.”
The quizzical looks he gets from his response usually bring forth a good laugh.
“I usually respond with, ‘I’m a professional poker player, but that doesn’t mean I’m a degenerate gambler,’” Hendrix said, laughing. “It’s fun when I get the question because you can explain poker and show it in a new light. It’s an occupation in the world that people don’t know much about.”
Four years ago, Hendrix decided to gamble, switching to an uncommon profession and hoping to be dealt winning hands. That certainly has happened. Life has dealt him a series of straight flushes — and the young man has been collecting the winnings ever since.