Shifting Sands

Unlike many, Doc Sands has been able to change with the ever-changing times

As a 10-year veteran of the poker scene, David “Doc” Sands has lived through the Moneymaker Effect, online poker’s Golden Age, the UIGEA and Black Friday. Having now risen to the upper-most reaches of the game, Sands looks back on his humble beginnings and the adaptations he made along the way.

Doc SandsI reached Sands by phone at the home of his parents in Bozeman, Montana, a town of about 40,000 residents in the southwestern corner of Big Sky Country. He described it as a beautiful and progressive town, full of youth and all the outdoor activities for which Montana is famous: hiking, skiing, hunting, golf.

None of those things appealed to 12-year-old Sands when his father retired in 1997 and proposed to move the family to Bozeman. Perceiving Montana as “backwards and full of cowboys,” he threatened to head off to boarding school if the family went through with the move.

They moved. Sands never went to boarding school.

Instead he surprised himself by how quickly he adapted to and enjoyed life in Bozeman. He became an outdoor sports aficionado, taking up skiing in the winters and golf and tennis in the summers. His interest and ability in tennis were so great that in 2002 he applied early decision to Hamilton College, a small liberal arts college about an hour east of Syracuse, New York, that has a strong tennis program. Sands was accepted at Hamilton but a degenerative back condition diagnosed during his freshman year scuttled his budding tennis career. It also left him without any competitive outlets.

Enter poker.

“Poker was a great way to compete and meet and interact with people once I couldn’t play tennis,” Sands said. “In hindsight, I realized I was pretty bummed that I didn’t have that competitive activity in my life anymore. Poker filled that void for me and was one of the reasons I was attracted to the game.”

Sands quickly graduated from home poker games with friends on campus to casino games. Turning Stone Casino is about 15 miles from Hamilton’s campus. As a tribal casino, it permits players as young as 18. It also has the biggest poker room in New York. After playing there once or twice a week for a few years, Sands nabbed his first live tournament win in 2007 by beating out 172 other players in Turning Stone’s $1,000 March Madness Hold’em Tournament. The win was worth $54,000.

“It was an unbelievable weekend for me,” Sands recalled. “I took a break from studying and thought I was just going to play for a day and come back. Instead I ended up winning a tournament that went two full days. It was a ton of money for me back then.”

It would only get better for Sands from there. He’d been playing online roughly as long as he’d been playing at Turning Stone. The online grinding paid off a month after his big March Madness win, when he won the $109 buy-in $100K Guaranteed tournament on Bodog for another $25,000. A win on PokerStars for $18,000 followed three months later. By the end of the year, Sands had racked up an additional $35,000 in online cashes on Full Tilt and PokerStars, and doubled his $25,000 Bodog bankroll by playing cash games. School was paid for.

What does a 22-year-old college graduate with money burning a hole in his pocket do next?

He heads to Vegas, of course. Sands drove to Vegas from Montana for the 2007 World Series of Poker and stayed put once the WSOP was over.

To hear Sands tell it, those first months were hard. Despite the abundance of poker rooms in Vegas, Sands played almost exclusively online. That made it impossible for him to develop any friendships. He quickly felt lonely and miserable.

“I didn’t play very well during that stretch,” he admitted. “I didn’t have very much fun, and I didn’t do much outside of poker. I don’t think the poker I played then was even as good as the poker I played in college. I guess the lack of people around me, the lack of camaraderie and support, got to me.”

Eventually, Sands hit his breaking point. His life in Vegas wasn’t making him happy. He packed everything up, moved to San Francisco, and took a job with an Internet marketing firm. It restored a balance to his life that had been missing as an online grinder.

Sands’ online play improved almost immediately upon arriving in San Francisco. In 2009 alone, Sands won an FTOPS event for almost $260,000, the Sunday 500 on PokerStars, and the $1K Monday and the Sunday Mulligan on Full Tilt. He also accumulated another 17 outright wins and a few dozen other final table appearances — all by working during the week and limiting most of his online play to the weekends.

Renewed poker success tempted Sands to quit his job and to give the life of a poker pro another try. Some people in his life were resistant to that idea; longtime companion Erika Moutinho wasn’t one of them.

“She told me that if that’s what I wanted to do, I should go for it,” Sands recalled. “I’m honestly not sure if I would have given the whole professional poker thing another shot if it wasn’t for her.”

After a brief stint in Los Angeles, the couple headed back to Las Vegas. Despite the misery of his first stint as a Vegas resident, Sands said he wasn’t hesitant about returning.

“I knew a lot of poker people in Vegas the second time around,” Sands said. “It was different. I had four or five good friends, which is all you really need, and Erika. I was also a lot more established in the poker world.”

Sands also realized that if he wanted to maximize the amount of money he could make, he’d either have to significantly increase his online volume or start playing live cash games and tournaments. Given his first experience with being an online grinder, he focused on live play as a new way of challenging himself.

That shift proved serendipitous 12 months later on Black Friday, as it left him with less money locked up online. Most of what he did have online was in his PokerStars account and was quickly returned to him.

“I was fortunate that when Black Friday happened. I felt really comfortable that I could make a substantial living and have a lot of fun playing live,” he said. “It sucks having to leave the Land of the Free to compete online in a game you love but it’s just the reality now.”

Today Sands spends about half the year in Vegas. The rest of the time he’s on the road. There are trips to visit family in Montana or Arizona; trips for high-stakes cash games and tournaments on the poker circuit; and trips to Vancouver in order to play online.

It’s not like Sands is struggling without online poker. In addition to success in live high-stakes cash games, Sands has become a regular in some of the most prestigious tournament festivals on the circuit. Three second-place finishes in 14 months, at the 2011 Five Diamond High Roller event, the 2012 WPT L.A. Poker Classic Main Event, and the 2013 PCA Super High Roller event earned Sands more than $2.7 million in cashes.

Despite acknowledging that most of the field sells action to stomach the variance of high-roller events, Sands believes they’re good for the game.

“People sometimes have an inaccurate perception that high roller events deplete the player pool more quickly,” Sands mused. “Really they give people who otherwise wouldn’t play poker tournaments at all — incredibly wealthy recreational players who don’t want to wade through a field 500 people in a $10,000 event to make it to Day 4 and cash in 27th place for $34,000 — the opportunity to play.”

None of those wealthy recreational players made the final table of Sands’ first high-roller event of 2013, the Super High Roller at the PCA. During heads-up play against eventual winner Scott Seiver, Sands had the chip lead and got Seiver all in pre-flop holding pocket 9s against Sands’ pocket 10s. Seiver spiked a 9 on the flop and eventually grabbed the title. Despite being a self-confessed competition junkie, Sands took a pragmatic view of the beat.

Doc Sands“It definitely hurts to lose. But to I felt like my play in that tournament was exceptional and really that’s all I can control. If you want to stay sane as a professional poker player, you can’t let what happens after the money goes in get to you. All of your energy has to be focused on moving on to the next hand.”

If there’s one criticism that’s been leveled at Sands repeatedly, it’s that he takes a long time to move on to the next street, never mind the next hand. He has a reputation as one of the slower players on the circuit.

Sands feels that reputation is undeserved. He acknowledged that when he first made the shift to live high-stakes play, he was very deliberate and concerned about giving off tells. He felt adrift without the reams of data that previously were available on his computer screen. As a result, it took him longer to gather all the information he needed to make a decision.

Things have changed since then, he said.

“If you ask anybody that’s played with me over the past eight to 10 months, I don’t think you could find a single person that wouldn’t say I was one of the fastest two or three people at the table,” Sands claimed. “It doesn’t bother me though. If I was a losing player, no one would pay attention to the fact that I used to play slowly.”

Even if Sands were a losing player, he’s winning at the things that matter the most in life. In April, he and Moutinho will marry in California. They finished 30th and 29th, respectively, in the 2011 WSOP Main Event, cashing for $242,000 each. Sands believes that Moutinho’s WSOP experience solidified their relationship in ways that most other poker pros would envy.

“What she learned about the emotional swings of poker in those seven days of the Main Event enabled her to identify, on a really accurate level, with every emotion I’ve had over the course of my poker career. She understands me outside of poker and within poker. It’s great to have someone like that who supports you unconditionally.”

After they get married, Sands plans to play a few tournaments in Europe. There’s also the small matter of a honeymoon. Moutinho has requested a location without any live or online poker. The couple is considering Bora Bora but hasn’t made a final decision yet.

Then the 2013 WSOP and a summer of poker will begin. Sands will probably spend a fair amount of time giving interviews to media outlets, another experience that he’s had to adjust to over the last few years.

“If I had no incentives to be a public person, I probably wouldn’t be,” Sand confided. “I don’t think I’d ever run for political office. But building a personal brand is part of being a poker pro. It comes with the territory. There are fans out there supporting me, and I genuinely appreciate that. I don’t mind giving them a little insight into my life.”

Given that attitude, I couldn’t help but ask Sands where his “Doc” nickname had come from. Was it a reference to the old adage about never playing cards with a man named Doc? Was he a big fan of “Back to the Future?” Did he envision himself a gunslinger? The answer was far more prosaic — he made it his online screen name in homage to his mother, a doctor.

“When you make your screen name at that age, you don’t think that it’s going to be your nickname. You don’t even think anybody’s going to know it’s you. You’re just a guy sitting behind a computer screen clicking buttons.”

Clicking buttons and making millions.

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April 2013