Josh Brikis went from baking dough to banking dough. A lot of dough.
Since 2008, the former pizza shop owner has earned $1.8 million playing the increasingly popular poker game Texas Hold 'em.
Others may play as a pastime, but it's more than a game for the 33-year-old Murrysville man. "Professional poker player" is the job he lists on his federal income tax return.
And the Penn State University graduate has been successful, winning big in cash games, live tournaments and online tournaments. In 2009, his best year, he won $750,000, including $619,000 in one tournament alone. He finished 25th in Card Player magazine's Player of the Year roundup.
He's appeared on national poker TV shows and in poker magazines and wrote a blog for Card Player. He has an agent and is sponsored by Ivey Poker, the instructional poker website founded by renowned pro Phil Ivey, and is in a partnership with DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports website.
He's filmed a pilot talk show being shopped to TV networks. And he has his own website (joshbrikis.com) and a Twitter account (@jbrikis) with more than 3,000 followers, including the likes of Olympic champion Michael Phelps and New Orleans Saints wide receiver Steve Breaston.
The money he's won has provided an exciting lifestyle -- cars, jewelry, travel, fine dining, concerts, sporting events.
But like any poker player, he loses, too -- in 2011, his worst year, he lost $100,000. For 2013 he's probably on the plus side of the ledger but not heavily.
It's a tough, unpredictable grind but such is the life he's chosen -- and one supported by his wife, Kristen.
He's made lifestyle adjustments since the birth of their first child, Brayden, in May 2012; he's cut back on travel to poker tournaments to be with his son. He watches Brayden during the day and sometimes his mother baby-sits so he can play poker at Rivers Casino.
He also has other sources of income -- he's an occasional salesman for Rivertowne Brewing in Murrysville, in which he has an investment; he's involved in nine fantasy football leagues; he's making poker instructional videos; he's exploring teaching poker at corporate events.
But while he's diversifying, he plans on playing poker for the rest of his life. And, if you ask him, why wouldn't he?
"A poker player is not on a schedule, other than tournaments, which we can be late for anyway," he says. "Other than that, we're free people. We're spoiled by poker because of the money we make from it.
"I've gotten so much from poker. We're able to party, go to nice dinners, concerts. I've been to the Bahamas, Vegas, every Penguins playoff game. I've sat right behind the Los Angeles Lakers bench. I've gone on the spur of the moment from a tournament [in Atlantic City] to a Jay-Z and Eminem concert in New York in a limo.
"In a regular 9-to-5 job, how could you do that? It spoils you a little bit, but I love that kind of stuff."
Riding the 'Moneymaker Effect'
Texas Hold 'em began its ascendancy as poker's most popular game when it was featured in the first World Series of Poker in 1970. Since then, the proliferation of TV coverage and online poker sites have contributed to the game's meteoric rise.
But the popularity explosion is mostly due to the "Moneymaker Effect," the 2003 phenomenon when accountant and poker amateur Chris Moneymaker -- yes, that's his real name -- won the ESPN-televised World Series of Poker Main Event and its $2.5 million prize. Anyone who ever played poker began to believe that if an Everyman like Mr. Moneymaker could do that, so could they. The year he won, there were 839 entrants who paid the $10,000 buy-in. This year, there were 6,352.
"It affected everyone who had an interest in poker," Josh says of the revolutionizing win.
His own foray into poker began that same year in Delaware, where he had moved with his future wife after graduation to work in a bank. He became hooked when a co-worker invited him to a friendly home game.
"I didn't know how to play or even how to shuffle, but it didn't take long for me to get it. I liked the competing and told them to raise the stakes from $20 to $100. They laughed."
He began playing on weekends at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City and online during the week. He left the bank and bought a Fox's Pizza Den franchise and when that didn't pan out, he sold the equipment to bankroll his poker play. He'd win and lose and never really got a lot of traction until he moved back to Pittsburgh. While working part time in a bank here, he won $18,000 in a tournament. Two months later, he won $29,000.
"I quit the bank and never looked back."
Nice guy, but fierce competitor
Josh is a fun-loving sports fanatic with a wry smile, quick laugh and friendly demeanor. But sit him at a poker table and he's inscrutable. Oh, he periodically chats up competitors about sports and current events. But while he may be friendly, this is no friendly game. For him to make money, others have to lose.
His job is demanding, requiring math, psychology, instincts, patience, stamina, focus. And, of course, luck.
At the 2013 World Poker Tour Borgata Open in September, he needs all of that to win any of the more than $3 million in prize money, including $825,000 for first place. He is coming off a trip to Canada during which he lost $15,000 over three days playing 12 simultaneous games online with players the world over.
Some 1,189 players from throughout the U.S. each pay the $3,500 buy-in to get 30,000 in tournament chips, which have different denominations depending upon color but no monetary value.
The televised tournament is a five-day elimination event. Josh and the other players are dealt their first hands about 11 a.m. It's going to be a long day -- 12 hours to be exact, with only a few 20-minute breaks and an hour for dinner.
Clad in a black Ivey Poker cap, jacket and sunglasses, Josh is in his assigned seat finishing a cup of chicken noodle soup and a pepperoni roll and sipping a Fanta orange soda. The players are clad in everything from dress shirts to T-shirts. Some wear headphones, baseball caps, sunglasses or hoodies with the hoods up. Some are talkative and cheerful, others quiet and dour. There are a handful of female players, but this is a predominately male event, most in their 20s and 30s, some in their 60s or older.
There's the constant click-click-clicking of the chips, sounding like chirping crickets. Josh adeptly shuffles a stack of chips with one hand.
Initially, good cards aren't coming, so he keeps folding, or quitting, the hand. That's not unusual because, on average, players stay in a hand only about 20 percent of the time.
Waitresses deliver drinks, mostly coffee and water. Players munch on sushi, salads and Reubens from a cafeteria in the event center. A massage therapist works the neck of a player with her elbow. Josh rubs his own neck.
He used to get massages while playing -- which over a tournament could add up to $200 -- "but I don't like spending money on it anymore," he said. "Expenses add up. I never used to care about it, but when you have a kid you look at everything in life differently."
As the day wears on, he wins some pots but he's not making any headway. By the dinner break, he's down to 24,000 chips.
When play resumes -- as the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Monday night football game airs on the hall's TV monitors -- he quickly loses more than 10,000 chips. With only 39 minutes remaining in the day's play, he has only about 5,000 chips remaining. With 21 minutes to go, he's dealt another lousy hand and snaps the cards before folding and sailing them to the dealer.
The Steelers make a big play and he's momentarily excited, but it's called back on a penalty.
"It's torture," he says, but it's unclear whether he's talking about the Steelers' game or his own.
With 13 minutes left, he's kneeling on his chair. He folds again, hangs his head and clenches his hands. But on the last hand, he goes "all in" -- betting all he has -- and wins, ending the day with 9,850 in chips. He's lost more than two-thirds of his beginning stake.
If he's disappointed, he doesn't let it last long. After putting his chips in a bag for the next day's play, he's laughing and having a beer with fellow gamblers in a hotel bar downstairs.
On Day 2, he loses all of his chips within two hours. It's a long drive home.
Back at home base
Any time Josh returns from playing poker, his wife knows immediately if he didn't fare well.
"I can tell by his demeanor. I kind of let him decompress. I go do my own thing. I tell him 'When you turn the corner, come back around.' "
And when he wins?
"Of course, I know if he won by the smile on his face -- and when he brings me something, like designer shoes, designer bags, stuff that he knows I like."
They began dating in college -- she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh -- and they married in August 2010. By then, she and his parents, George and Debbie Brikis of Murrysville, were long over their strong reservations about Josh's career choice.
So much so that the couple had their engagement photographs taken at the Rivers Casino. At their wedding, guests were seated at tables named for the Rio, Wynn, Rivers and other casinos. Among the wedding pictures are those of Josh and his groomsmen sitting around a table playing poker.
There's even a poker room in the couple's comfortable, five-bedroom brick home, replete with a poker table and framed photographs of Josh's big wins. Sometimes, Brayden plays on the floor there with poker chips.
As for her career, Kristen, 32, sells surgical instruments for Johnson & Johnson, demonstrating to surgeons in operating rooms how to use them. She's able to support her husband's poker career with health care benefits and emotional backing, but doesn't do so financially. "I do not give him money to play or invest in tournaments. His career is separate."
So separate, in fact, that he has a tax accountant who specializes in professional gamblers. Being self-employed, Josh is able to write off poker-related expenses, such as travel, meals and lodging.
Kristen doesn't gamble at all but uses a poker term to describe her support: "I'm all in on this. People wonder how it works, but it does. I think if I didn't have the job I have, I'd probably worry ... but I know I can provide and also be supportive of my husband, too.
"It's not all ups, for sure. There's a lot of money you have to spend to get that win that you can thrive on for months. He's due for something big. That will be good for the soul, good for everyone."
Tight times in Texas Hold 'em
The problem is, winning at Texas Hold 'em is becoming increasingly difficult. More people than ever are playing and more are studying the intricacies of the game, notes Greg "Fossilman" Raymer of New Jersey, an elite pro with $7.5 million in career earnings, including the $5.7 million prize for winning the 2004 World Series of Poker main event.
They're improving their skills through books, DVDs, online instruction, individual tutoring and seminars, such as those that he conducts. Add in the luck factor in such a complicated game as poker, and competition is fiercer than ever.
"My edge is much smaller. Everyone is so much better," said Mr. Raymer, who adds he's having a "horrible" year and is down about $100,000.
He competed at the Rivers Casino for the Pittsburgh Poker Open Winter Series Championship main event from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2. The event will be shown next year on "Poker Night in America," a new TV series. It was Rivers Casino's first poker tournament broadcast.
Josh, who has played against Mr. Raymer and the other top pros in the past, is among the record 296 players from about a half-dozen states who each buy in for $1,100. That produces the casino's largest poker prize pool ever of $287,000, with a $71,000 first prize.
Unintentionally adding an exclamation point to his analysis, Mr. Raymer doesn't make it through the first day. Josh does, amassing 75,000 in tornament chips, or 2 1/2 times his initial stake of 30,000.
His luck doesn't last. Within two hours on Day 2, he is eliminated.
He doesn't dwell on the loss, however, viewing it as another investment that will pay off. The sooner, the better, of course.
"I think all of us know poker has gotten harder over the years," he says. "I don't like losing, and you lose a lot in this game. I want to win so bad. The feeling of winning a poker tournament is like nothing else."
He'll soon get another chance to cash in -- the Borgata Winter Open is a little less than a month away.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968.