NEW YORK — Nestled in an industrial strip of Chelsea just a stone’s throw from the Hudson River, a small group of strangers meet to try their hand at No Limit Texas Hold ‘em. The barbed wire and warehouse surroundings give the Saturday evening a clandestine feel. It’s the perfect location for a smoky, dimly lit poker room full of notorious gamblers.
But there’s only one card shark this evening and his name is Blake Eastman. He’s teaching an introductory poker class at the newly formed School of Cards — the first brick and mortar poker school in the United States.
It’s a one-room schoolhouse complete with chalkboard, projector and bookshelves. Instead of basic arithmetic, the chalkboard outlines advanced bankroll management, the textbooks all focus on counting cards and game strategies, and the projector broadcasts live online poker games. The lounge chairs, mini-fridge, boxes of candy and corner bar give the space a sense of a college dormitory more than a sober learning environment. But at the School of Cards, poker is no frivolous pastime – it’s a serious business.
Eastman, a 25-year-old professional poker player and psychology professor, first started playing poker at 18 after seeing the 1998 cult classic “Rounders.” He gave up the game completely after casual play only found him losing money, be he found a renewed focus when he entered graduate school for forensic psychology at age 20.
“I treated the game academically, like I was in grad school for poker,” Eastman said. “I read every book. I talked about it nonstop. I played nonstop. I won and lost enough times because I wasn’t really practicing proper bank roll management, and once I did that I started playing with more stakes and started doing better.”
Eastman did well enough to pay off grad school through poker and earn a living with his winnings as his primary source of income.
“I wasn’t making incredible money, I was probably doing better than most 20-year-olds of course, but I wasn’t playing as significantly,” he said. “The plan was that I was supposed to go to law school, … but poker was bringing so many opportunities and I knew that I could make more money playing poker over the three years that I would be in law school.”
Born and raised in New York City, Eastman said he always had a desire to be an entrepreneur and playing poker gave him the freedom and the funds to invest and create his own start-ups.
“I realized I wanted to start doing more things than just playing poker, because playing poker is really like a grind,” he said. “You are always playing, always playing, you’re up and you’re down. And I wanted to hedge my poker playing abilities, so I started teaching.”
After giving private lessons and hosting Profitable No Limit Hold ‘em courses at the Grand Hyatt and W Hotel for the past couple of years, Eastman’s teaching turned into full-time work this summer when he rented out space on 28th Street and opened up the School of Cards. The school currently offers an introductory class; a 21-hour profitable class for more advanced players; and frequently hosts private poker parties and free events that allow students to come back and refresh their skills.
Saturday night’s Introduction to Poker class is made up of a hodgepodge of young professionals from New York City and the surrounding suburbs: a military man, a magazine designer, a special education teacher, and a foreign couple. The experience level ranges from not knowing the difference between a straight and a flush to fanatic Facebook poker players and occasional casino gamblers.
Over the course of three hours the session covers the basics of No Limit Texas Hold ’em – what makes up a hand, what generally you should play and what you should fold, how to responsibly and strategically place bets, and the etiquette and procedure of the game. The goal is to make a novice player feel comfortable enough to walk into a casino and sit down at table.
The class (much like a real poker table) is only as interesting, challenging and fun as the other people at the table. With an absence of stakes, one or two poor listeners can make the lesson draining at times. But everyone gets a chance to show what they’ve learned at the end with a winner takes all tournament round. Those who were listening will last the hour, while those who don’t heed Eastman’s advice are stuck watching for the remainder of the course.
Eastman’s plans for School of Cards include adding Black Jack courses and offering a reputable dealer school program. Eastman said he is open to the idea, but isn’t really interested in offering classes on other casino games. He just doesn’t see the point in playing games like Roulette or slots.
“Why would you want to play a game that you will lose in the long run — it really just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “Poker is number one in terms of long term profitability, at least in my opinion. Right underneath that is Black Jack.”
Poker has the unique perspective of not having a house edge. The game is played against other players at the table not against the casinos.
“The reason I love School of Cards is because people at [casino] poker tables – at the lower stakes games – they are so bad that we can teach some core fundamentals to teach people to play what we call ABC poker,” Eastman said. “It’s a fundamentally aggressive and tight way of playing poker, and [our students] can make money – if they stick to what I taught.”
Written on every chip at School of Cards is the motto: “We never gamble.”
“If you’re not thinking you’re gambling. I say that we never gamble because we don’t,” Eastman said. “Any given day we are making a gamble, but at the end of the year we’re not gambling. We are making decisions that have positive expectations. [Those decisions] are going to win us money over the long run.”
While many of Eastman’s intro students go on to take his advanced classes and make profit off of online play, the fundamental game play isn’t for everyone. Some people at the introduction class said they missed the thrill of a Roulette wheel or would probably still prefer to play the craps tables on their next trip to Atlantic City.
As one student put it, “If I’ve learned anything today, it’s that you fold a lot.”