According to high stakes professional poker player Mark Ashley, winning at the national tournament tables is an outcome of 60 percent luck and 40 percent skill. However, with a sly grin across his face, he adds another number to the equation.
"Only one percent of the players have the 40 percent of the skill."
Ashley, known to his opponents on the pro circuit as "Mark the Shark," considers himself to be in that one percent and his track record along with his tournament earnings might very well prove this to be true.
His best finish was a second place in the 2003 US Poker Championships for the game of Omaha Hi/Lo. Among his other cash-ins, Ashley was fifth in both the 2003 Trump Classic and the 2006 seven-card stud event at the US Poker Championships. He placed 18th out of 164 entries at the 2012 World Series of Poker Circuit Event in Atlantic City.
Now, raising his teenage daughter Madison for the past six years in Jim Thorpe, and with 30 years of experience at the table behind him, he plays two to three times a week at Harrah's in Philadelphia or at the Mohegan Sun in Wilkes-Barre where he recently won $3,000 at Omaha Hi/Lo.
Born in New York, Ashley spent much of his life in Dover, Delaware where at age 12 he met an 80 year-old man who unknowingly would change his life.
"His name was Arley and he would hang out in the back room of a restaurant all day and my buddies and I would go there to play pool and pinball," says Ashley. "One day I got fascinated watching Arley shuffle and play with a deck of cards. Next thing I knew he was teaching me how to play several different games of poker."
Several years after his orientation, Ashley's jump into the high stakes world of poker, which was nothing like what he expected.
"When I was in my twenties, I paid for my education at the table," he says. "I not only lost money, I lost my temper." Frequent swearing, punching walls, and smashing his cell phone were examples of his early behavior, but now Ashley has "total self-control" and the discipline to know when to leave the table if he has lost all the money he intended to bet.
"I'm an escape artist. If I lose my limit when I play I never let my emotions overcome my common sense so I know when to quit the game."
There is not much that Ashley hasn't experienced gambling with cards and at times his has even placed his life at risk. He played in private back rooms and garages before the casinos expanded into legalized poker games. Big money was to be made in the illegal game; he once cashed in $27,000 at an event, but serious consequences were always looming. There's an old saying that a Smith and Wesson beats four aces. To Ashley, guns and knives became as common to him as his poker chips.
"In 1991, I played a high stakes game in an Air Force officer's garage and three men kicked the door down, stuck a shot gun and hand guns in our faces and robbed us of about $9,000," he says. "I also understood that to play poker in private rooms on Center Street in Philadelphia, I had to pack a handgun to assure that if I won I could take my money and get out of there alive."
Ashley has also played against opponents who pointed a gun or a knife toward a suspected cheater, and about three years ago he witnessed a murder when two men argued over a seat at a poker table. The argument then spilled into the parking lot at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City where one stabbed the other to death.
Two-time Borgata Poker Open champion and Ashley's long time friend William "Bumper" Munley of Throop, Pa. believes that casino poker is really much safer than private games because the venues are strictly monitored by security.
"No matter what," Ashley says. "You can't go to the table afraid and you can't play poker afraid."
In regard to Ashley's game face, Munley offers high praise.
"Mark has a tremendous awareness of the game. He knows exactly where his hand is at and he knows his opponents like no one else. Mark also knows when to save his bets and fold. He's a great poker player."
Ashley discounts the images of glamour and glitz that people think come with the title of a professional poker player. He contends these images were fabricated by the Texas Hold 'Em craze when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker televised on the ESPN network.
"And Moneymaker, who won that tournament as an internet poker amateur, never really hit it big again," says Ashley, who argues that the occupation of a professional card player results in a lifestyle that is not to be embellished.
"Playing poker for a living is not a game, it's a job," says Ashley, who previously operated a custom painting business, a non-profit private poker company, and also owned a personal training site for eight years. "What is exotic about sitting at a casino table for 12 hours with known drug dealers, millionaires, doctors, judges and let's not forget the guy who hasn't showered for days and lists his address as the Atlantic City boardwalk. Then there are players who come because they have no other life and they just need people to talk to. It's not always about the money."
One of Ashley's games of choice is limited Omaha Hi/Lo in which the objective is to try to win a big pot by having both the highest and the lowest hand at the same time.
"The seasoned pros like Mark and I play limited games where there's a max to each betting round," says Munley. "Limited poker is like shooting at a target you hope to hit, but with unlimited betting, games that the less experienced play, the target can shoot back and knock you right out."
"Limited Omaha Hi/Lo where players start with four pocket cards instead of two like in Texas Hold 'Em involves more skill than many of the other games," Ashley says. "For example, a player without much experience may think a pair of kings with a seven and an eight is a good hand to start with, but it rarely wins anything. I'd rather have an ace, deuce of one suit and two other cards of another suit. It gives me more options to win both the high and the low."
Ashley, who once sat at a poker table for 33 straight hours, plays not with an obvious arrogance, but with an unwavering confidence. He claims he is a man with principal and honor, but he shows no sympathy when he takes the "mortgage money" from a foolish player. He holds a different view of playing against opponents with disposable incomes as opposed to those who come to the casino to, as he says, "blow a $1,000."
"I always know whom I am up against before a card is dealt," says "the Shark," whose list of opponents includes former national and world champions Phil Ivy, Mein the Master, and Huck Seed. "The best scenario for me is the guy who folds, but he actually held the best hand that would have won if he stayed in. Then he panics and his emotions cause critical mistakes. That's when I swoop in, go for the kill, and take all of his money. I shed no tear for a guy who expects to lose."
"Mark will cut you up at the table, but as a friend, he is what he says he is, a man of honor and if he gives you his word, it's a truth you can count on," says Munley.
Ashley claims he is a student of human nature and even if he plays poker against an opponent only once, he will remember the man's personality and playing style. This ability, in addition to the control of his game, is what keeps his poker earnings far enough in the black to return to him a nice living. As far as his luck goes, be believes that it makes good and bad runs, but like "radio waves," it will ultimately even itself out so that's why he relies heavily on his card skills to keep him on top.
In the game of life, Ashley embraces the importance of a sense of humor.
"I am in constant pursuit of the belly laugh," he says with what else, a belly laugh. "It will keep me young until the day I die."
Although he will always love his home in Jim Thorpe, Ashley intends to return to the national pro tour when his daughter gets a little older.
So poker players take warning. If you sit down at a gaming table with Mark Ashley and you hear one of his trademark belly laughs, it could mean that the "Shark" has just ripped your heart out and left you with nothing to go home with except a giant hole in your pocket.