What It's Like to Win Millions Playing Poker in Your Twenties

Charlie Carrel is 22 and has already won more money than you'll probably ever make in your life.

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Jul 29 2016, 4:45pm

Charlie Carrel. Photograph by René Velli

In May 2015, 21-year-old Charlie Carrel won almost $1.25 million playing poker. At the Grand Final of the PokerStars European Tour in Monte Carlo he beat 215 other players in the high roller tournament—a game that cost $28,000 to enter. Because he was a 21-year-old who'd just won a life-changing amount of money, papers and websites across the UK and Jersey island—where Carrel grew up—made a big deal of his win.

"It was strange seeing my face everywhere for a while," says Carrel, reflecting on articles that sprung up in places like the Sun and LadBible, which he felt described his success more like a lottery win than something that took years of practice and studying to achieve. "I don't think they were very good at capturing anything about me."

Carrel was already pretty well-established in the poker world before Monte Carlo. He'd finished fifth in a tournament in Malta, Europe two months before, winning $205,000, and won a tournament in London in November of 2014, walking away with $144,000. "The beautiful thing is nobody knows how lucky they get for winning a tournament," he says. "I can feel as though I played well, but human bias and emotions cloud judgment too heavily to really know."

Carrelwas born in Jersey island in 1993 and lived there until he was seven, when his family uprooted to London. A smart kid, he endured the same thing a lot of smart kids are forced to endure: merciless bullying for a big chunk of his time at school. "Intelligence and no social ability to hide it is not a great mix," he admits. "I was severely bullied for quite a large part of my childhood."

Thing is, he says, all that bullying turned out to be kind of helpful.

"Having no more than one friend—shout out to my best friend, Matthew Pettit—for a long period of time definitely stunted my emotional and social development," he says. "I created a defense mechanism—I can detach from my emotions. A poker example would be how I never feel stressed if I'm on a final table. I can turn it off. I'm grateful for that."

Charlie bounced from hobby to hobby throughout his teens, focusing his attention on something until he got bored of it. But the one thing he didn't get bored of was poker.

Ask any professional poker player under 30 how they got into the game and you'll get a similar story; it always starts with small games at home with friends. Then comes a small deposit on an online site. Often, beginner's luck strikes and that initial success evolves into a passion that they focus all their time and energy on. Carrel's story is the same: he made a $13.27 deposit on a poker website, won his first tournament for $39.84 and has never had to deposit again.

This part of Carrel's story is something that was covered by those tabloid articles. He turned his $39.84 into $1,328.07, then a bit more, then a bit more, and eventually a whole lot more. What they didn't cover, though, is what it took to get to that point. It's not a lottery win time and time again; it takes work to get to the top, just like in any other game. The game of online poker evolves so quickly that keeping up with the trends—and all the new software designed to help players improve—takes hours of studying, playing, and revision. Regular life is often a distraction.

"My social life was annihilated by poker," says Carrel. "I lost contact with 90-something percent of my friends because I knew that poker was likely going to be one of the most important tasks of my life."

When he was 19, and with some decent results under his belt, Carrel came up with a plan: he'd move back to Jersey to live with his grandma and only leave when he was rich. "I had a bankroll of around $2,500 and a target that I didn't want to leave Jersey before I made $100,000," he says. "So the only points of socialization I had were the various Skype groups and study groups I participated in to learn the game and develop a more rounded approach. Safe to say, my social skills deteriorated along with my social life."

Luckily, all that studying worked: about two-thirds of the way through his $100,000 goal he won $201,711 in PokerStars's biggest weekly online tournament, the Sunday Million.

"Suddenly I was getting messages from people I once met at a festival, to people that used to bully me in school, to distant family members that I hadn't spoken to, to complete strangers," he remembers. But obviously he didn't share any of his winnings with them, because that would be an extremely weird thing to do. Instead, he took some of his friends on a trip to Amsterdam.

Ben Heath (left) and Carrel after his win in Monte Carlo. Photo: Tomáš Stacha, copyright of PokerStars

There's one friend in particular who Carrel can't speak highly enough of—fellow pro Ben Heath. "I could speak about my friendship with Ben for years," Carrel says. "He's special. After two years of living and traveling together, we've never really had an argument. What I love about my friendship with Ben is the way we handle the swings of poker. When I was eliminated from my biggest ever buy-in tournament [$111,449], the first thing Ben did was point and laugh at me. And I would do the same to him. And it works for us."

As I'm writing this, Carrel is at home in Jersey instead of attending the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. The career of a poker player is often judged by the amount of tournaments they win at the WSOP, so the fact that Carrel—considered one of the best young tournament players right now—has skipped it raised a few eyebrows.

"It's been one of the hardest yet best decisions I've made," he says. "But I've been able to explore new things like Jiu-jitsu, cooking, strenuous exercise, and creative writing. Most importantly, I've been able to spend time with my family."

Now 22 years old, Carrel has more money in his current account than most of us will earn throughout our entire careers. So what's he going to do next?

"I have no idea what's in store for the future," he says. "I have so many plans it's impossible to have enough time to do them all. It's the infinite outcomes of the future that excites me."

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