It was November 2014, and Mark Newhouse was on the run of his life again.
The 29-year-old Chapel Hill native was in Las Vegas, playing at the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event for the second year in a row. Given the size of the field, the odds of accomplishing such a feat — two straight final tables — were precisely one in 524,079.
After looking down at a pair of tens, Newhouse found himself one-on-one against Will Tonking, who held a pair of queens. Tonking bet; Newhouse called. Newhouse bet; Tonking called. When the final card hit the table, Tonking checked to Newhouse a second time, who paused for the slightest beat.
“All in,” he announced, plopping his chips onto the center of the table.
Newhouse, with his short, jet-black hair and plain white tee, was motionless now, left hand planted on his right shoulder, red sunglasses hiding what was either a look of genuine fear or one of supreme confidence. With poker players, you can never be sure.
After an agonizing 60 seconds or so, Tonking finally called Newhouse’s risky bluff, ending the latter’s tournament run. That meant Newhouse was out at ninth place and would walk away with the not inconsiderable sum of $730,725. Combine that with the $733,224 he made the year prior, and you’ve got yourself a decent payday.
Then, consider the back-to-back final table appearances, one of the greatest achievements in World Series history that made him something of a celebrity in the sport. Magazine cover shoots. Endorsements. Autograph requests.
It was all a poker player’s dream. If only Newhouse saw it that way.
“I still get random people coming up to me and trying to congratulate me,” he said, “for, like, the worst thing that ever happened in my life.”
Even though he was out of debt by the time he collected his prize money, it would take a little longer for Mark Newhouse to break even.
Sheldon Newhouse still remembers a young Mark getting into Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card-trading game. Of all the kids in the neighborhood, Mark — already intent on holding the best hand — took it the most seriously.
Small wonder that years later, when a college-aged Mark called up his dad and told him he wanted to drop out of Appalachian State University and become a professional poker player, Sheldon knew he was for real. He didn’t think it would work out, sure, but he knew he was for real.
“I fully expected that within six months, he’d be saying ‘Okay, Dad, I’ll go back to college,’” Sheldon said. “But it didn’t happen.”
Instead, Mark took the $200,000 he had won in two months on PartyPoker.com and ran it up. He went to Atlantic City and won his first career World Poker Tour event in 2006. At that point, Sheldon was feeling pretty good about his son’s career move. At that point, Mark said, “Everybody’s happy.”
Suddenly, Mark was 21 years old with $2 million in the bank. Sheldon told him he could quit right then and there if he wanted to, invest his money and retire to a more than comfortable living.
“No, Dad,” Mark told him, “I’m gonna take this and win real money.”
A few months later, Newhouse was dominating an online opponent one-on-one, turning $60,000 into more than $200,000. A friend watching suggested he quit while he was ahead, but Newhouse felt it unethical to cut and run. He decided he might as well take the rest of the guy’s chips.
Instead, 45 minutes later, he was down $280,000. That moment, Newhouse conceded, is when the downward spiral began.
“I learned a lot of lessons in the poker world the hard way,” he said.
Suddenly, it was bad beat after bad beat. $30,000 lost here, $40,000 blown there. It didn’t help that Newhouse was doing “all the wrong things” as a college-aged multimillionaire — smoking, drinking and partying too much and definitely, definitely gambling too much.
One week he lost $80,000 betting on shuffleboard, of all things, with friends in the Bahamas. Eventually, Newhouse felt like taking whatever cash he had left and setting it on fire.
“When you have a lot of money, you can have a very different perspective just based on where you’re at and where you were before,” he said. “If you’re coming from literally nothing and you get $5,000? Nice! You came up. Life is good right now. If you’re coming from $2 million and you’re down to $400,000, you’re dead broke. It’s the end of the world. You want to kill yourself.”
So Newhouse blew that last $400,000, too, going broke in the span of a year. Now he was just another cautionary poker tale, grinding away in low-stakes casino games trying to get back on his feet. He did that for about six years, getting help along the way from pros like Huck Seed, a former champion with a similar story.
All the while, though, Newhouse found ways to buy into the World Series, still holding out hope for another life-altering run at the table. In 2013, six years after hitting rock bottom, he got his wish, finishing ninth in the Main Event. He was back on the map.
The 2014 World Series Main Event had 6,683 entrants. ESPN's Norman Chad remembers joking on air that if Newhouse somehow made the final table again, he’d swim across the Hudson River naked.
“It was statistically improbable, and it was realistically impossible,” Chad said. “At the time, I compared it to the top three or four achievements in Main Event history.”
In July, it was Newhouse himself who knocked out the 10th-place finisher and secured his spot in the “November Nine” — then decided not to play a single hand of poker in the four-month tournament hiatus. His 2013 winnings were mostly used to settle old debts. In 2014, he couldn’t bear to consider what was at stake for him, how the money from even a seventh or eighth place finish ($1.2 million and $950,000, respectively) would change his life.
How cruel, then, that Newhouse’s ill-timed bluff against Tonking meant a second straight early exit.
“When you consider the money involved,” he said, “it’s definitely the worst mistake I’ve ever made at a poker table.”
It took Newhouse a while to absorb the sting of what he saw as another career failure. For years, he bristled when strangers would come up to him to tell them what big fans they were.
Somewhere along the way, though, Newhouse realized that in order to move forward — and to live a happier, healthier life — he had to make some adjustments.
Sheldon remembers when his son would excuse himself twice in a single dinner and step outside for a smoke break. There were points where Mark was going through two or three packs a day, a way to cope with the ups and downs of the poker game. But Nov. 4 will mark two years since Mark's last cigarette, a moment that kickstarted what’s been a major shift in his life.
“That was kind of the most important thing for me,” he said. “Ever since then, I’ve slowly developed a routine.”
Newhouse now makes it a point to work out daily, having learned proper weightlifting form from people like Seed. He’s eating healthier, and is in the best shape of his life. Not coincidentally, it seems, he’s having his best year on and off the felt in more than a decade.
“I’m playing smaller games than I was 10-plus years ago,” Newhouse said. “But as far as progress in my life, it’s for sure the best year I’ve had since 2006.”
That’s also because he's slowly developed better financial habits, living a more modest lifestyle and practicing bankroll management. He learned the value of game selection: “There’s no use being the ninth best player in the world if you’re at a table with the other eight.”
“Part of surviving in poker is forgetting the ego,” he added.
Newhouse knows he’ll likely always be a footnote in poker history, or the answer to a trivia question. But he’s largely given up his dream of becoming a high-stakes tournament legend. He was thinking about moving to San Jose and getting into the Silicon Valley poker scene, but those plans were scrapped. He's in Vegas for the foreseeable future, the place where he's lost so much but gained so much more.
It took almost 15 years and more than $3.5 million of tournament cash. But Mark Newhouse is finally in the money.
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