Sound familiar? If not, then you’ve been missing a fascinating self-portrait of the professional poker lifestyle. In June 2014, Tim Watts drove from Jacksonville, Florida to Las Vegas. His goal, along with building a bankroll and escaping an exhausting career in the restaurant industry, has been to document his life in a series of YouTube vlogs. Holding a Canon point-and-shoot in his outstretched right hand, Tim talks to himself—and to us—as he roams Vegas. He edits and uploads this content to TheTrooper97Vlog, which has attracted thousands of subscribers.
When I first watched Tim’s vlogs, what intrigued me wasn’t the repetitive content—long drives around town, endless cups of Starbucks coffee, strolls through casinos and parking decks and poker rooms—but what was missing. I had questions:
- How did Tim even get into poker?
- When was the birth of TheTrooper97?
- Why put so much time, effort, and care into the vlogs?
- What’s the purpose of it all?
I spoke with Tim on a steamy June afternoon at the World Series of Poker. We met, appropriately, at a Starbucks inside the Rio, where he sipped iced coffee and wore a black flat-brimmed hat that shouted VILLAIN. As I turned on my recorder, Tim glanced at an empty table beside us and pondered creative opportunities of his own.
Tim Watts: “I should put my camera right there. We wouldn’t even need audio, we could—oh, but I don’t have a tripod.”
Ben Saxton: “We can try if you want to.”
“It’s fine. I’m just thinking about what new content I can put in the vlog. Why don’t we—we’ll worry about it later.”
“Sure. So I’d like to start by hearing about how you got into poker, since the vlogs start after you got into the game.”
“My pathway to poker started a long time ago, way before YouTube was created. I don’t really know where to start, but I will say that I used to gamble. I used to gamble a lot.”
“What were you gambling on?”
“Video poker, mostly, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.”
“Is that where you grew up?”
“I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. There was quasi-legal video poker in the state, and I hit four deuces one night and won $400. That was all it took for me. I was hooked.
Gambling is its own story, which I’ve explored psychologically for years. And I have some good theories as to why I gambled in the first place.”
“What did you find?”
“Consciously, my attraction to gambling was escapism. I never drank, I never used drugs, I never smoked. I had worked for years in the restaurant industry, where everybody does those things. In Myrtle Beach, while everybody was at the bar drinking after work, I was at the big three-seater blackjack machine getting a thrill and chasing a big win. Now I know—and I probably knew then, subconsciously—that even if I did win big I would keep gambling and lose it all.”
“Was the attraction to poker because of the gambling nature of the game, the strategy, or the money? Or all of those things?
“I saw Rounders in 1999 because it was gambling-related. I had read tons of gambling books, and most of them explained that poker is a game that can be beat. I wanted to beat blackjack or video poker or craps, which were all fantasies. But knowing the reality that you can beat poker, between Rounders and the poker boom [in 2003], I thought that I could probably make it if I moved to Vegas.”
“How did you make the transition to poker?”
“In 2005 I got a job at Chophouse 47, an upscale casual steakhouse in Greenville. One of the managers told me about a home game, just two blocks from my apartment, in some guy’s garage. So I went there and everyone saw I that was a natural at handling cards—at this time I was really into gambling. I would deal blackjack to myself in front of the TV when I didn’t have money to go out—and one of the guys invited to me to deal in his underground game. I dealt two nights a week, and then five nights a week, and I played on the side. Eventually, I quit the serving job and was an underground poker dealer for two years.”
“When was the birth of TheTrooper97 and the vlog?”
“I named myself The Trooper because I’m an Iron Maiden fan, and when I’d play online, my favorite song to play at a final table was “The Trooper.” And the nine-seven of hearts was my favorite hand. The vlog started in 2011 in Jacksonville. I went to a Starbucks, started watching YouTube, and couldn’t believe that people were making money from it. I decided to go to Biloxi with my friend Harry and started vlogging. I didn’t know how to edit at all, and the videos were terrible, but I thought they were really fun.”
“Your vlogs are very unique, both in how they’re shot and how they capture the lifestyle of a low-stakes poker pro. What are you trying to communicate through them?”
“I tried to answer that question for about two-and-a-half years. I had no idea why anyone would watch them. Because who gives a shit about an unknown person in Jacksonville who’s playing poker, you know? Then I realized: if I move back to Vegas, I’ll have a story. The vlog will become something completely different. I think the overall purpose of the vlog is to say that, no matter what it is that you want to do, stop what you’re doing today and go do it.”
“Something that isn’t emphasized in the vlogs is poker strategy. How did you build the foundation to become a winning player?”
“The book that changed my whole opinion of poker was No Limit Hold’em: Theory and Practice by Miller and Sklansky, which taught me that betting people off a flush draw is not the right thing to do. When people talk strategy, all that shit is fine. I’ll always know that all-in on the flop with a flush draw is 1.9 to 1. But I can’t stand hand histories, I don’t want to hear a story about a hand because the fact of the matter is you’re only giving me about 10% of the information. Have you read Doyle Brunson’s Super System? He talked about how, sometimes, he doesn’t know how he knows what to do, but he just knows. Well, that has to explain it. Some people are better at listening to their gut, which is basically processing information between your subconscious mind, your memory, and your conscious mind.”
“And you feel like you’ve gotten proficient at that.”
“Yeah. This isn’t something to brag about, but I’m one of the best restaurant servers that I’ve ever known. And the reason is because I can walk by the table for a second, you can tell me everything’s great, and I’ll know if you’re telling the truth. That’s it right there: poker is communication in life. I’m not the greatest poker player in the world, and I’m not the greatest at reading specific tells, but I’m better than most people at Planet Hollywood. If you’ve ever seen a kindergartener try to lie, then you know what I see at Planet Hollywood every night.”
“You mentioned on Two Plus Two that the obstacles you face now are very different from what they would have been five or 10 years ago. Now that you’re back in Vegas, what are your chief obstacles these days?”
“One obstacle that people don’t talk about is effort. People say, ‘Hey, I can go play poker for a living and no one will ever tell me what to do. I can play when I want, I can leave when I want, no one is the boss of me.’ People see that as freedom. But I have lazied myself broke on more than one occasion in poker. So I try my best to put in the effort every day.”
“You also wrote that, ‘For the record, (1) I’m here (Vegas) for the money. (2) I’m in search of freedom. (3) I enjoy making the videos. (4) I make no promises as to content. It’s a vlog, not a roadmap into the way I view or play the game.’ Is this an accurate list of your goals now?”
“It is. I also feel like, while I want to continue to beat poker, I do have other life goals. I would like to find what’s-her-name, wherever she is.”
“Find the partner in crime.”
“One of my self-imposed roadblocks to moving back to Vegas was that I find it difficult to believe that I’ll find her here. I know that’s probably not true, but everybody’s up to something here, everybody’s hustling here. If I do find her, and she’s into the YouTube thing and being on camera, I think that would take the story to a different place.”
“I’ve been feeling for a long time that I’m running out of time. I feel like I’ve wasted too much time, you know?”
“Do you like the path you’re on now?”
“I love the path that the YouTube is on now. I think I’m always going to have a slight moral question of whether poker’s the right thing for me to be doing.”
“What are the moral qualms that you have with playing poker?”
“Whether I’m doing anyone any good by taking money from people. Sure, I’m offering entertainment in a game. But am I just doing the same thing as the casino?”
“So you’re wondering if you’re complicit in a casino system that’s exploitative.”
“Yeah. And I’m also struggling about the fact that, on my YouTube channel, I sort of promote running away to Vegas to play poker. When people have said, ‘You’re inspiring me to move to Vegas to play poker,’ I have said to quite a few of them, ‘Please do not do that.’ There’s about a million reasons why you’ll fail. One’s gambling, one’s drinking, one’s drugs, one’s hookers—there’s a million of them, and the basic reason that no one wants to see is that you won’t be a winning poker player.”
“You mean in terms of fundamentals?”
“Total skills overall. Not just fundamentals, not just reading people, but also tilt, knowing when you’re playing bad, detaching yourself from daily results. I give daily results on the YouTube channel because that’s what people want to hear. On the surface, what you’ll see is “Guy moves to Vegas, here’s his daily progress.” But if you look deeper, what you’ll see is that I don’t want to be a waiter in Jacksonville, Florida. Period. Ever. I did that shit for too long, so I’m leaving to go do what I want to do. Which happens to be using my poker skills as a vehicle to get somewhere. And I’m still not sure where I want to go, but it involves developing a more well-rounded life, and creating shit that people get a thrill from. I love that I’m the only person doing what I’m doing on YouTube. And if you want to go spend 20 fucking hours a week editing to keep up with me, go right ahead.”
“Is that how much time you spend every week?”
“It’s getting a bit shorter now, but it takes about four to five hours to edit and upload a video. And I try to do three videos a week. I’d also like to get a better camera. I don’t like to see any distortion or graininess. So…I don’t know. That’s it. I don’t usually talk too much about myself, but I feel like I’ve talked about myself a lot.”
“That was the point, that was the goal! I really appreciate it.”
“I know, I know. I’m still kind of unsure what you’ll do with this. But I know you’re writing a book too. What’s the book about?”
“I’ve been doing some shorter-form interviews and articles about poker, and the book is a longer project. The goal—which might come through from the conversation we’ve been having—certainly isn’t a strategy book. It’s really more about what it feels like to be a poker player.”
“‘Why do you do it?’ and all that.”
“Yeah. It’ll be anchored in this one room in New Orleans, in this one physical space, but I also hope to get into the history of the game, which originated down there.”
“On the riverboats.”
“Yeah, on the riverboats. It evolved from a French game in the 1800s. So that’s the long-term goal. My interests aren’t really in line with the majority of poker media. I’m not trying to talk to Tom Dwan or Phil Ivey, everyone’s trying to do that—which I think is valuable, and I love those guys—but I’m interested in a different part of the poker population.”
“I think I’m interested in that too. Because what you see in most poker media is not the reality of playing poker for a living. It’s nowhere near.”
“Definitely not. It’s nothing like what you’re trying to represent on the vlog.”
“People are always saying that what they love about my vlog is its honesty. And the reality of it. You know, if you’re interested in being on there, we can do it.”
“I’d be happy to. Want to do it?”
“Well, I don’t know what we’ll want to do.”
“Let’s just say ‘what’s up’ to the world.”
Ed. note: Ben Saxton appears between minutes 5-6 in Tim Watts’ video, below.