How to Make the Most of Your Poker Travels

Faraz Jaka is known throughout the poker world for his many accomplishments. He has won tournaments, made numerous final tables on tours like the WPT and EPT, and he has won more than $4.5 million in live tournaments added to millions more through online poker.

He is also a world traveler.

Faraz Jaka

Though that fact is not much different from quite a few other players in poker games, Jaka has done something others have not. He has embraced the art of the travel and given up most of his material possessions, with the exception of two carry-on pieces of luggage.

CNN even took notice and profiled Jaka as a "homeless millionaire."

Jaka started traveling during his time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He recounted this conversation from the Weston Hall dormitory:

Faraz: Hey Ben (poker rounding partner and good friend in college), let's go to Vegas!

Ben: Yea man, I can't wait. We should definitely plan a trip there sometime.

Faraz: No, I mean like RIGHT NOW. Let's go to Vegas!

Ben: What?! You out of your mind? What do you mean?

Faraz: Yes, maybe, but anyway, there's a $350 direct flight that leaves O'Hare airport at 8am, it's a three-hour drive, and we just have to leave in two hours.

Ben: How will we get to the airport?

Faraz: I already talked to G. He said he'll drive your car there and back for $60.

Ben: What about this Spanish homework we have due tomorrow and actually going to class?

Faraz: We're allowed to miss attendance twice, and G is Puerto Rican. He can help us finish our homework on the three-hour drive.

Ben: Ummmm, okay! Screw it; let's go!

As it turned out, the two college students took about $3,000 each to Las Vegas that time and quadrupled their money. "I played with and beat Sammy Farha in a few hands," he remembered. "I came back to college feeling on top of the world." He went back the following weekend, and a live poker player was born.

For those assuming that Jaka came from a travel-happy family, it was actually the opposite. Jaka grew up in San Jose, and he had "absolutely no desire to live anywhere other than California." But his move to Illinois for college gave him the culture shock that changed everything. It made him curious about other parts of the country and the world. "It basically sparked the fire that turned me into the globetrotter I am now," he said.

Without a home base, Jaka is free to travel around the world. Those treks are mostly based on tournaments but also scheduled to accommodate meetings, and friends' and family members' birthdays and other celebrations. But that doesn't keep him from being an organized planner. "I'm insanely organized," he exclaimed, "even OCD about it sometimes. I have a travel schedule with my tentative plans that go about three to six months in advance."

So many choices for tournaments leads to more decisions in Jaka's travel planning. The main factor, however, is the potential profitability of the tournament because "I am going to tournaments for work, so I need to prioritize that, first and foremost." But location sometimes plays a role. "I do go through phases where if I feel like I've earned a vacation, I'll pick a location that I want to make a vacation out of, play the event, and then stay a week after and travel nearby," he added.

 

Eventually, Jaka may settle down, though at this point in his life, he aspires to calling one or two places home and still traveling 30 percent or 40 percent of the year. His parents would like to see that for their son as well. But even a relationship with the right person won't hold him back, as he strongly feels that finding the right partner includes solid communication and complimentary lifestyles.

For now, however, Jaka and his two carry-on pieces of luggage are in a constant state of transit. And he is happier than he has ever been.

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Two other top poker players have stories that illustrate the global nature of poker that was inspired by the 2003 boom that gave so many players the opportunity and desire to travel.

Andrew LichtenbergerAndrew Lichtenberger and Shannon Shorr have each earned millions of dollars in live tournaments after falling in love with the game via online poker. Each has collected more than his share of frequent flyer miles, memorized exchange rates, and learned how to pack toiletries in carry-on bags better than TSA employees themselves.

Like Jaka, each also experienced his first poker trip in his late teens, and those trips set their lives on a course that they scarcely could have predicted.

Lichtenberger was such a fan of poker in his teenage years that his father gifted him a trip from their Long Island home to Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York for his 18th birthday. It is legal to play live poker there at the age of 18.

Shorr was already gaining respect at the online poker tables and played on one of the most popular sites in 2005. As the Aussie Millions (which was the Crown Australia Poker Championships at the time) approached, he won a satellite for a trip to the 2006 series and a seat into the AU$10,000 buy-in Main Event. At the age of 19, he was on a plane to Melbourne, and he capped off the trip by taking fourth place in the tournament for AU$271,700.

Contrary to Jaka's future plans, however, Lichtenberger has actually cut back on travel in the past year or so after an increase in trips post-Black Friday, which took away his ability to play online poker from his home in the United States.

One of the reasons for his travel hiatus was the writing and completion of a recently-published book, "Yoga of Poker: A High Stakes Journey to Freedom." It was the culmination of recent life changes, including an extremely healthy lifestyle that does include yoga, as well as a raw food diet and self-reflection. In combination with simply expanding his horizons, Lichtenberger explained, "I cut back my travel to branch out into other areas of life and expose myself to new industries and perspectives, in order to have a more whole understanding of what reality and consciousness are, as well as how societies and communities are developed and maintained."

Even so, he describes himself as spontaneous by nature, and he is no stranger to deciding to jet off to a poker tournament anywhere in the world. And for a few special events, he does plan a bit in advance. He already scheduled a trip for October 2015 to Goa, India, during which he will help a friend organize tournaments for a stop on his "Yoga of Poker Series."

The future is part of the vast unknown for Lichtenberger, but he is content with that notion. "Although I have come to very much appreciate the simplicity in life, I feel compelled to share poker with other cultures where the industry is just emerging and create a fun, safe, and enjoyable platform for people to experience the game that, for me, has been an invaluable resource for introspection and self-efficacy."

Shorr has also cut back on poker travel of late, but his reason differs from that of Lichtenberger. He is now in a committed relationship with girlfriend Justine, so Shorr may be looking for more leisure than poker in his future travels.

The phrase "cut back" is relative, though. Over each the past few years, he noted that he spent three and a half to four months in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, while he traveled the rest of the time. It wasn't for naught, though, as Shorr claimed an EPT Barcelona victory in the past year and just final tabled an event at the recent Malta series. It was clear that those two destinations fit into a special category for him. "A tournament is a 'must play' for me if it is in an awesome location AND I expect that I will have a high return AND I don't have to pay exorbitant expenses to get there."

Sometimes, his successes in poker enable the young pro to go somewhere for a special event. Last year, it was the World Cup festivities in Brazil, for which he took a break from the much-anticipated World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, and he embarked upon a journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania later in the year.


It does seem that leisure trips are working their way into Shorr's travel life. And change is welcome, as he stated, "I've spent my entire twenties on the road, so it will be difficult for me to just shut it down and commit to one place. But I've been to a lot of the tournament stops so many times now that there aren't a lot of new, different things to see."

But the next poker tournament announced in a new location that is filled with tourist activities and possibly a romantic setting for Shorr and his girlfriend might just be the perfect storm.

 

All three professional players were open to sharing their most and least favorite aspects of traveling for poker, as well as some advice for fellow travelers to help minimize expenses.

Jaka, Lichtenberger, and Shorr all feel that their travels have put them in touch with other cultures and allowed the building of relationships with people all over the world, something few other jobs could have afforded. They each have a set of experiences in their repertoire that they will never forget.

Lichtenberger noted, "It's shown me that poker truly is an international game that can bring people of all backgrounds together to celebrate the mathematics and reason that poker entails in its timeless wisdom." And Jaka added that there are "hundreds of tournaments and cash games around the world and you get to choose ANY location," as well as the benefit that his chosen lifestyle and career allows for choosing the hours and days that he wants to work.

As for the downfalls, Shorr was quick to point out the isolation and solitude. "Despite the ability to make tons of new friends and hang out with them in really cool places, these relationships are often fleeting as people go their separate ways."

Jaka and Lichtenberger focused more on the difficulties of maintaining a healthy routine when traveling. The latter noted "finding good clean organic food and staying nourished while being in new terrain" as his biggest challenge, and Jaka discussed the entire exercise and food routine. "It's hard to work out, eat healthy, and be productive. There are certain things you learn along the way to accomplish those things, but it's just not the same as being set in one place and perfecting that routine."

For others thinking of following in the footsteps of these young multi-millionaires, there is more to consider when traveling besides not stealing the towels or being afraid to ask for directions.

 

poker travel

In no particular order:

  1. Book flights ahead of time, and consider no-change-fee flights on smaller airlines.
  2. Stay at friends' apartments, share accommodations with friends, or use Airbnb.
  3. Buy groceries instead of eating out.
  4. Travel with items like protein shake packages. (Jaka recommends Shakeology.)
  5. Bring carry-on luggage only to avoid baggage fees and avoid luggage check-ins and claims.
  6. Spend more on healthy nourishment rather than fancy accommodations (per Lichtenberger, because focus is more important during poker.)
  7. Track expenses and categorize. (Jaka suggests reviewing to see where to save money on future trips.)

*Author's note: From my very limited travel, I have learned a few things as well. Always have a map accessible. Collect destination information before the trip and have handy via guidebooks or bookmarked information on a smartphone. Keep accessories and gadgets to a minimum. Stuff what you can in a backpack. Check currency exchange rates prior to the trip to gauge the best method and place for getting the local currency. And bring a diary or camera for photography to record your adventures!

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Some poker players have chosen the regional tours over international poker locales. It keeps them closer to home, an0d it is far less expensive. For DJ MacKinnon, these reasons are pertinent.

McKinnon began traveling from his home in Buffalo, New York, to casinos for live poker as soon as he could do so legally. There was Turning Stone in Verona when he turned 18 years old, and then Niagara Falls became an option at the age of 19. Live poker has always been his forte, so living on the east coast of the United States made it possible to play fairly regularly, especially upon turning 21.

Since becoming a professional poker player, McKinnon branched out from a few tournament trips per year to the present day, which he describes as feeling like "now I'm constantly on the road looking for tournaments to travel to." He added, "Just playing cash in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area wasn't cutting it for me. I could go to new places, play tournaments, and then find the same (or better) cash action after my tournament day was done."

The availability of stops across America by way of the World Series of Poker Circuit is something McKinnon calls "the best asset in poker." Though he occasionally hits World Poker Tour or Heartland Poker Tour stops, he noted that WSOP Circuit offers more preliminary tournament action and more casual players who make a point to frequent those events.

With that, McKinnon has his share of final tables at WSOP Circuit events, and he scored a gold WSOP ring at the Harrah's Chester stop in Pennsylvania in 2013. His biggest score to date of more than $90,000 was even at the WSOP, though it was on a bigger stage - the 2011 $1K NLHE event at the WSOP in Las Vegas, where he made the final table of finished seventh.

One of the big perks to traveling for poker has been meeting new people along the way. "I've developed a lot of great friendships traveling with people and playing the game in different locations," he said. "Playing poker is much easier when you can go out with some buddies at the end of a long day and hang out somewhere."

He also uses the time in new cities to explore and find sporting events to attend. with some planning, he can coordinate a day off from the tournament series with a major sporting event and incorporate that experience into the trip.

There are cons to a life on the road, be it regional or otherwise, and MacKinnon is well aware of them. "I come from a big family," he relayed. "Not spending much time with my parents and nine brothers and sisters is selfish, but this is what I want to do for a living. I feel putting in as much volume as possible in the short term will eventually help me accomplish what I want to achieve in the long term, and luckily for me, they understand that."

MacKinnon is on the road for about three weeks out of each month, but he does share a place in Buffalo with two of his brothers when at home.

And on the road, roommates are key. "I usually split a room with someone for an entire series," he explained. "I've made friends from all over the place who feel comfortable with me as a roommate,"

He also minimizes expenses while traveling by bringing things like bottled water and snacks. For this year's trip to the PCA in the Bahamas, he was warned by many of the high prices of food and drinks at the resort. So, he packed bottled water and energy drinks. Unfortunately, that plan backfired, though. "A Red Bull can popped open in my luggage, so I smelled like a weird carbonated cherry most of the time I was at Atlantis."

As for the future, MacKinnon will take it as it comes. He looks to settle in a place like Florida or Las Vegas to have ample access to poker tournaments, but he anticipates that the itch to travel will not dissipate so easily.

Before you travel to play poker, improve your skills online. Here's why you should do it with us.

Not every poker excursion is land-based. Poker cruises have been a part of poker for more than a dozen years, and they continue to gain popularity as players seek new travel experiences to go with their poker passions.

Author's note: Water-based poker is so popular that Titanbet Poker writer Davida Mintz just wrote about poker cruises here earlier this year.

Poker cruises date back to the early 1990s, though the first major events were part of the PartyPoker Million series starting in 2002. It was not only the first tournament to be held at sea, but it made history when Kathy Liebert became the first woman to win $1 million in a poker tournament. The World Poker Tour soon got involved and hosted numerous tournaments on cruises, which is still happening today. The Heartland Poker Tour also recently partnered with Card Player Cruises to host an annual tournament aboard a cruise ship.


Speaking of Card Player Cruises, the company has grown into the most famous company to marry poker and cruise ship travel, all at the hands of longtime poker professionals Linda Johnson and Jan Fisher. When Johnson bought Card Player Magazine in 1993, the cruise business was a big part of the decision. She had taken a Card Player cruise the previous year to Mexico and didn't want to ever miss another one.

Since then, Johnson has been on more than 130 poker cruises. She and Fisher - longtime friends and business partners - have grown the company into one known for their repeat customers, scenic trips to some of the world's most coveted destinations, and staff and players who rave about the fun on blogs and via reviews.

Playing poker on a cruise is a unique experience, and Johnson and Fisher describe a typical seven-day cruise as a solid mix of poker and sightseeing. There are three or four port stops per trip, but the rest of the time, cash game are open for business with everything from $1/$3 and $2/$5 No Limit Hold'em to various Limit Hold'em stakes and even some $10/$20 or $20/$40 Omaha. Games often depend on customer preferences, and tournament players usually have a daily option with a buy-in of $100 to $300 and frequent nightly events as well.

Even more, there are free seminars and cocktail parties for Card Player Cruises customers. And Johnson is perhaps most proud of the nature of the events, especially the poker. "Our cardroom has a no-abuse environment, as our players are there to have a good time as well as to win money. And the staff is amazing! They are not only skilled at their jobs, but they are also friendly and welcoming."

poker travel cruise

When asked for her favorite cruise, Fisher admitted it was tough to decide, but she noted that she loved the Australia and New Zealand trip, as well as the ones to Asia, and the one to Dubai, Oman, and India. She always enjoys the Alaska cruises, too, and she's looking forward to the upcoming November trip to Indonesia and Malaysia out of Singapore.

As for Johnson, she concurred with the Dubai/India/Oman choice, as it was her ll-time favorite. "I went with no expectations at all and was touched by the people and their attitudes and smiles in spite of so much poverty." She also enjoys other destinations. "I love the Caribbean for the beaches, Mexico for the partying, and Alaska for the scenery."

Both women focus on customer service during cruises but enjoy their time as well. And their greatest reward, in addition to their own experiences, is the customer questions about the next cruise and comments about how much fun they had with poker chips in their hands and away from the tables.

Johnson and Fisher encourage everyone to try a cruise. Even those with kids will find that there are numerous children's activities on board, and parents can relax and enjoy their poker without worry.

On the schedule for Card Player Cruises is a May Alaska Sawyer Glacier poker cruise, Western Caribbean excursion in coordination with the Senior Poker Tour in August, and Eastern Caribbean trip in September with the Card Player Poker Tour. And the aforementioned Indonesia/Malaysia cruise in November is on deck as well.

*****

One more aspect of poker travel is often overlooked, though players from a few select countries are all-too familiar with it. It involves the relocation of online poker players due to their inability to play in profitable games due to new regulations.

The first and most well-known of these situations is commonly referred to as Black Friday, when the last of the major online poker sites departed the United States market. Other countries also began to implement isolationist online poker regulations in the past few years, with France, Spain, and Italy leading the way. More are contemplating the same types of laws.

This puts online poker players in a quandary, especially those who use the game to earn a living. The lack of liquidity results in smaller games, lower stakes, and much less opportunity to eke out a living wage.

Players like Elena Stover took steps to solve that problem. Upon the completion of her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California in 2009, she took poker more seriously but still maintained a position in the academic world due to Black Friday. But it was after the WSOP in the summer of 2014 in Las Vegas that she decided she wanted a more permanent change. Short poker trips to Montreal to play online were no longer enough, and she decided on Mexico.

Elena Stover

The move to Playa del Carmen was something many other poker players had done already, and Stover relished in the beach lifestyle, living a few blocks from the sand and sea, and playing a bit of poker on her private rooftop deck. She called it an "incredibly positive experience" that included making online poker a work routine and meeting quite a few poker players, locals, and expatriates from around the world.

Her location in Mexico, just south of Cancun, also allowed for frequent trips back to the United States to visit family, friends, and her cat.

But the start of 2015 brought the desire for another change. She considered several locations and weighed the options for each of them - Malta, Vancouver, Tel Aviv, and another stint in Mexico. What she discovered was that Malta was one of the most economical and had the most benefits, including the massive poker festival there last month.

So she moved to an apartment overlooking Spinola Bay in St. Julian's, complete with nearby restaurants, shops, and a casino with a poker room.

"The locals have all been extremely warm and welcoming," Stover said. "I've mostly met people playing poker at the casino, and they've been super nice and helpful." She also mentioned that English is an official language there, in addition to Maltese, so there hasn't been a language barrier thus far.

For now, Stover explores Malta when not grinding at the online poker tables. Any career related to her Ph.D. is on hold for the unforeseen future, and she looks to make a few trips across Europe, considering she has a sister in Berlin and cousins in Sweden.

For now, the US-native is an expat in Malta, and she is perfectly content. "I'm just happy to have my online grind right where I am."

*****

As illustrated by all of the above stories, travel and poker have joined to form a symbiotic relationship over the past decade.

The game began to take its current shape in saloons, bars, and homes many years ago, and the game's popularity eventually spread around the world to casinos. Online poker took the game to a new level at the turn of the century, however, and opened it to millions of new players. And the poker boom of 2003 catapulted the game to even higher heights.

Live poker tournaments had been relegated to established casinos and the customers who frequented them. But it was online poker satellites that offered more players the opportunity to compete in those casinos. Online sites allowed poker enthusiasts located anywhere in the world to win prize packages, courtesy of various online poker sites, that included travel airfare and accommodations, as well as the buy-ins for large tournaments.

Suddenly, poker players were traveling to destinations like Las Vegas, Nevada, in the United States; London, England; Barcelona, Spain; Vienna, Austria; and Monte Carlo, Monaco. Tour organizers offered multiple live poker options, players formed real-life friendships outside of chat boxes, and casinos gained new customers. It was chalked up as a win for everyone.

poker travel malta

As poker grew exponentially in the past decade, tours grew as well. The World Poker Tour expanded outside of North America to locations in Europe, events like the Aussie Millions became excursions of their own, and the World Series of Poker brought attention to relatively unknown poker destinations like South Africa.

At the same time, the game's growth in certain parts of the world garnered enough attention to warrant their own regional and national tours. The Russian Poker Tour, Belgian Poker Challenge, Asian Poker Tour, Australia New Zealand Poker Tour, and Italian Poker Tour were just a few of the series that sprung from poker's evolution, and even the demand in the United States grew to include tours like the Mid-States Poker Tour and the Heartland Poker Tour.

More action around the globe also meant more opportunities for players to compete more regularly at whatever stakes were in their range, in addition to becoming globetrotters in their own right. Traveling to a destination like Berlin or Sydney or Malta was primarily about poker but also a chance to incorporate holidays or vacations into the mix.

Locations that most had only heard about through news reports or travel magazines became real destinations for poker.

Before you travel to play poker, improve your skills online. Here's why you should do it with us.

Poker continues to evolve. The last few years have delivered more changes to the global poker environment, as countries like the United States have ousted most of the large online poker companies by law, and others like France and Spain have limited online poker options to licensed operators by regulation. While some tours have subsequently met their demise, like the short-lived North American Poker Tour, others like the World Poker Tour continue to foray into new locations.

Japan is part of the growing Asian market that online sites seek to infiltrate, and parts of China only recently opened their doors to live tours. There have even been rumblings of a poker tournament in Iceland. While players have to obtain a visa for China, get vaccinations for South Africa, and keep the passport updated for nearly all of the travel, the pros often outweigh the cons when traveling for tournaments.

Of course, the combination of airfare and hotel stays can become expensive, especially when combined with the tournament buy-ins and other expenses like food and ground transportation. Some poker players have opted out of the nomadic lifestyle, but others have found ways to do it economically and skillfully. They have mastered the art of budgeting and sharing, finding the best deals without a travel agency, and minimizing expenses to a tee. They find travel gadgets, rent a place with a fridge, and employ various savings systems to make the travel possible and even affordable.

The willingness and ability to follow opportunities for the best poker is part of many a successful player story. Whether people choose online or live poker as their hobby or career, their readiness to follow the game to where it leads often results in some of the best life experiences.

Photo credit: Image of Malta: Magnus Manske, Flickr, CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Image of poker room - Card Player Cruises. Additional images provided by the author.


Jennifer NewellJennifer Newell has been a freelance writer in the poker world since 2006, at which point she quit her accounting job with the World Poker Tour to write full time. She moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and most recently back to her hometown of St. Louis, where she continues to follow poker and write about the people and places of the game.


 

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