By the time he was 21, online poker pro Haseeb Qureshi had raked in almost $2 million and was living the high life.
He stayed in a Las Vegas hotel luxury suite. He vacationed in Gibraltar. He bought investment properties, hobnobbed with celebrities and once bet $300,000 that his friend couldn’t run 70 miles in 24 hours.
For five years, the Austin man was a respected high-stakes player who routinely won or lost more money than most people make in a year.
But after being caught up in a 2011 cheating scandal, Qureshi’s poker career imploded. Some former admirers called him a sociopath, a narcissist and a liar. They say he set out to scam his fellow poker players and would have stolen thousands of dollars if he’d gotten the chance.
None of that is true, Qureshi says. Except the liar part. And that was just a one-time deal.
Disgraced and humiliated, Qureshi walked away from the game in August 2011. He says he hasn’t played a single hand of poker since, although he does teach the game. He says he’s given away most of his winnings to his parents and four national charities. And after lying low for more than two years, Qureshi has resurfaced with a book on how to play the game.
“How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker,” has spent months as one of the top-selling gambling Kindle books on Amazon.
“Poker taught me a lot,” Qureshi said. “I wanted to honor that part of my life without having to regret anything.”
Online poker has changed vastly since his heyday. In 2011, the FBI and federal prosecutors swooped in and froze bank accounts and shut down several gaming websites, charging those who ran them with illegal gambling, fraud and money laundering. The frozen accounts included hundreds of millions of dollars that belonged to players, many of whom have not yet gotten their money back.
The crackdown has made it extremely difficult for American poker players to play online poker, both recreationally and professionally.
“To be the darling of a little world, and then its most despised villain: Not many get to experience that, and have to learn to live in spite of it,” he said.
Qureshi was 16 when he played his first hand of poker in 2006, when online poker was in its prime. As a high school student, he had never even thought about the game. His parents were conservative immigrants from Pakistan, his father an electrical engineer, his mother a stay-at-home parent at their Dripping Springs home.
After a serious poker thrashing by his friends, Qureshi says he walked away feeling stupid and determined to learn more.
At that time, poker players were celebrities online, on television, in magazines. When an accountant named Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker in 2003 and walked away with $2.5 million, thousands of amateurs were drawn to the game. The Web gave them an easy way to become serious players.
After his brother refused to lend him money to hit the virtual tables, Qureshi got his hands on an online poker promotion that promised $50 to those who scanned their driver’s license online. Qureshi says he went online, found the license of an old lady in Maryland and started gambling.
From there, he quickly climbed the ranks. By the time he was 17 years old, he says, he had earned about $75,000. He had a bank account in his brother’s name. He started buying toys — an Xbox, an engraved iPod, televisions — and had them shipped to his brother. Eventually, he says, he fessed up to his parents.
“Their heads exploded,” Qureshi said.
He became a specialist in heads-up no-limit Texas hold ’em and heads-up Pot Limit Omaha. He knew the rules, recognized player patterns, kept his emotions in check, employed the right strategies at the right time and had the right instincts. His screen name was DogIsHead.
“He was very successful,” said Jason Rosenkrantz, producer of the online poker documentary “Bet Raise Fold.” “I guess the word ‘prodigy’ is thrown around. He was very well regarded. People respected his poker intelligence.”
The money kept rolling in. Back then, online poker was easy money for skilled poker players, Rosenkrantz said. There were so many amateurs out there that the pros cleaned up.
While he was 19, Qureshi said, he made $1 million. He bought four houses, he bought his mom an $8,000 robotic massage chair. He lost, by the way, that bet over whether a fellow gambler could run 70 miles in 24 hours.
Qureshi wasn’t living as ostentatiously as most of his poker friends. “Bet Raise Fold” shows one young player talking about how he had toyed with buying a private island.
“At that point, you can’t think of money as what it is in the outside world,” Qureshi said. “Five thousand dollars is not a fancy suit and watch; $20,000 is not a car, $50,000 is not a down payment on a house. It’s just chips at a table. It’s only on the outside that it translates into money, but at a poker table, it’s just part of the game. Money is just a tool — the weapon du jour.”
Still, Qureshi says he struggled with depression. Every day he woke up around 1 p.m., sat at a computer and started playing 12 games at a time. He worked at home and gained 100 pounds eating Sonic and pizza.
For a while, he went to the University of Texas to study philosophy. But he quit because he spent so much time on poker. Why sit in a classroom when he could make thousands of dollars at home?
After the federal crackdown on April 15, 2011 — dubbed Black Friday by the online poker community — some poker pros went to play in Europe. But for those living here, the easy money was gone.
Qureshi was among the luckier ones. While some players lost millions of dollars in winnings, Qureshi lost $35,000. He had invested much of his money in real estate and still had about $600,000 in assets and cash.
So Black Friday didn’t destroy Qureshi’s career. He destroyed it himself.
The story of Qureshi’s 2011 undoing centers around another player, known online as “Girah” or the “Portuguese Poker Prodigy.” Qureshi says he and a player called Jungleman12 became friends with Girah through poker, tutored him and agreed to stake him money for a part of his future winnings.
In August 2011, Girah was accused of cheating and stealing money from other players. That’s when his relationship with Jungleman12 and Qureshi came under the microscope. And that’s when Qureshi says he started lying.
He wouldn’t admit that he had backed, coached and helped Girah with his career. Then he said he did.
He wouldn’t admit that he broke rules by funneling money to Girah by intentionally losing games to him because it was faster than following the required protocols. Then he said he did.
And on and on it went.
“The web of lies was insane,” Rosenkrantz said. “After he was caught, he’d come clean. Then he’d lie more and get caught again.”
The poker community tore Qureshi apart online. Although he was never accused of stealing money himself, his critics say he set out to scam his fellow poker players and would have stolen thousands of dollars if he’d gotten the chance.
None of that is true, Qureshi says. Except the lying part.
“I had never been through that kind of public anger and shame and aggression ever in my life,” he said.
Disgraced, Qureshi quit poker and swore he’d never play professionally again. He set off on a trip across the world to clear his head, traveling to France, Germany, Italy, Lisbon and Croatia. He says he lived and worked on a farm, took a 10-day vow of silence, started meditating and went back to college to study philosophy. He lost that 100 pounds he’d gained.
The poker debacle has transformed Qureshi from an introverted, anxiety-ridden player to a more contemplative person with a better understanding of what real life is like, said Marek Zwick, who has known Qureshi for six years. In some ways, he said, poker stunted Qureshi’s emotional and social growth simply because of the vast amount of time he spent online.
“He’s done a complete 180,” Zwick said. “I have had the best seat in the house of watching this unfold.”
Late last year, Qureshi says he decided to give away the half-million dollars he had left. He wanted a fresh slate and to prove he could live without the big money of online poker, he said.
According to receipts provided to the Austin American-Statesman, Qureshi split $75,000 between four charities, including the Indigenous Cultural Conservation Society and charity: water. He signed over three houses to his parents for their retirement and lives in one of those homes with several roommates, he said.
Late last year, Qureshi — who set aside $10,000 for living expenses — self-published his poker book and works as a “mind coach” for players, teaching them the skills he says he learned from poker: “how to master your mind, control your emotions, and take control of your fears.”
As for his own future, Qureshi says he wants to write a book about his life. After that, all bets are off.
“Becoming an entrepreneur is high on that list, maybe law school, maybe more writing and coaching,” he said. “I’m open to possibilities, but right now I’m just trying to do my best with what’s in front of me.”