Making the jump to poker full time. That notion has crossed many players’ minds at some point. While most stick to their day jobs and play recreationally, Pennsylvania grinder Jeff Stellwagon celebrated a year of playing professionally on Aug. 15.
The 25-year-old from Mohrsville ditched his regular job and took to the online poker tables full time. So far, that’s been a good decision and some nice live wins in Las Vegas during the World Series of Poker padded his bankroll – and his confidence. That included a fifth-place finish at the Venetian this year for $64,000 and 10th in the WSOP Colossus in 2021 for $25,000.
“Poker has been going better than I could’ve imagined,” he told USPoker. “In my first year I made over three times what I would have made in a year at my restaurant management position. Having two successful 10-day trips to the WSOP out in Las Vegas has really helped confirm with me that I can compete on a global scale against some of the best in the world. I truly feel like I’m learning something new every day – whether it is about the game, theory, exploits, or just learning more about myself and how to stay motivated.”
Learning the game
After graduating with a degree in business management from Shippensburg University in 2019, Stellwagon began working as a restaurant manager. But the lure of hitting the tables on a daily basis eventually proved too much.
At age 10, his mother bought him a Nintendo Gamecube for Christmas. The system came with the World Series of Poker 2005 video game. He was soon playing the $10,000 Main Event nearly every day.
Stellwagon may not have won the big one on Gamecube, but learned and enjoyed the game. He added playing on free sites and began checking out streamers like Jason Somerville, Parker “tonkaaaap” Talbot, and GGPoker ambassador Kevin Martin.
When online poker launched in Pennsylvania in 2019, Stellwagon jumped in the action. A tough turn of events made the game even more important.
“My dad had just been diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer, and as he got worse until passing away in September 2020, poker became more and more of an escape to help get me through,” he says. “I began to be slightly profitable without really studying like I knew a lot of my opponents were, and fell in love with the game.”
Making the leap to poker full time
Joining some Pennsylvania player groups also helped make some connections with fellow grinders and coaches.
“I learned how much money they were making and thought if I truly dedicated myself, that it could be a great opportunity for me,” he says. “I was also at a crossroads in my career with Red Robin, between either a promotion or moving locations. So the timing just lined up.
“I told myself, and my mom to hold me accountable, that if I wasn’t making as much money as I was at Red Robin that I would go back to the restaurant industry after six months. It gave me great comfort to make the leap knowing I could always do what I’d done previously.”
Playing full time may not go over well with every player’s friends and family. But Stellwagon found some support among both.
“My mom was very supportive of my decision,” he says. “She is truly my number one fan and is always trying to hear about how I’ve done. Having her support has been invaluable.
“I do not think my dad would have been able to get behind me leaving a career in restaurant management to play a game where I’d previously shown results that weren’t worthy of leaving my career behind. I was following in his footsteps (in the industry) and he was my role model. However, I think if he had been able to watch over the last year he’d be very proud of all that I’ve accomplished and is probably secretly sweating every all-in.”
Officially 1 year now playing Full-Time and happy to report that I crossed the $100k milestone on @TheHendonMob for live tournament earnings!!! In the last 365 days I have went from ~$1800 in earnings to over 110k. More to come in Year 2. #StayTuned pic.twitter.com/05UZKw7Rta
— Jeff Stellwagon (@ARJeff_) August 15, 2022
Finding success and overcoming obstacles
Between live and online play, Stellwagon’s six months of success turned into a year recently. Some of his better scores include:
- 1st – $100 Big Sunday (WSOP.com), $12,780
- 4th – $360 Mini Rush Rivers Philadelphia, $11,560
- 1st – $215 WSOP.com $50,000 guaranteed, $11,520
- 5th – $300 PokerStars SCOOP Main Event, $10,560
- 1st – $400 BetMGM Grand Slam PKO Main Event, $9,156
Not every day is a winner however, and there are definitely struggles. Online player pools are small and reviewing skills is a constant process. Variance is another challenge.
“I’ve found having different people to study with reviewing hand histories and garnering different perspectives to be very beneficial,” he says. “A lot of people outside of the poker world don’t realize how much discipline it takes to play poker full time and be profitable.”
Staying focused is critical. And now that Stellwagon has reached the second year of his poker journey, achieving more life balance is a major goal.
“Discipline is so important in regards to bankroll management, game selection, playing schedule, study schedule, and proper eating and health,” he says. “By the end of a good poker session my brain and mind are exhausted from the amount of focus required to play my ‘A’ game.”
Another medical challenge surfaces
Away from the tables, Stellwagon and his family now face another challenge. In April, his mother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
“This news was truly a dagger to my heart after going through a similar process with my dad a little under two years ago,” he says.
A $12,500 online downswing followed. Heading to Las Vegas in late June saw a bit of a turnaround however.
“Going to Venetian and getting fifth for $64,000 truly felt incredible after this negative blip in my career,” he says. “I felt more emotions than ever when I was finally taken out of the event.”
A $15,000 online upswing followed in July and Stellwagon’s back on track.
“When I was distracted in May/June and not at the top of my mental game, I felt the quality of my play dropping as well,” he says. “Dealing with the ups and downs has taught me so much about myself, and has been invaluable to my growth at this stage of my life.”
Hitting the online poker tables
As a player located in a state with legalized online poker, Stellwagon takes advantage of this opportunity to turn his love of poker into a career. He plays tournaments at least five days a week across all three regulated sites including
Stellwagon’s routine involves playing six to eight tables at a time with tournaments in the $15 to $525 range. He plays from about 6:30 pm to 1:30 am. When not playing poker, Stellwagon enjoys traveling and recently began working out with a personal trainer.
Looking back, poker has led to quite an interesting life. He remembers watching Somerville on Twitch and using the “!PA” command for a link Pennsylvanians could use to contact their representatives and urge them to legalize online poker.
A decade later that’s become a reality and his own poker life has mirrored that track.
“By the time I turned 22 we had legalized online poker here, so the timing worked out just right,” he says. “I cannot wait for online poker to come to more states and to have interstate poker. But I truly love battling against the Pennsylvania player pool every day and the community feel that we have here.”