Commentary

A Silent Assassin

Updated: September 10, 2008, 3:33 PM ET
By BLUFF | Matthew Kredell

A shirtless man takes his position behind the leopard and puts his arm around one of the two naked women at his side.

"Grab her boob like you mean it!" shouts his fiancee.

This is when most men might wake up. And to say it's another day in the life of a professional poker player, we're sorry to say, would be a misrepresentation. Especially when that player is Lee Watkinson.

Most people are used to seeing Watkinson … well, most people aren't used to seeing him at all. That's his style.

In an era when many tournament players will do anything to catch the attention of the television camera, from outlandish outfits to running around with chairs on their heads, Watkinson disappears at a table. He's the silent assassin, cloaked by a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses, who goes unnoticed until he's announcing a reraise. Even those who have played regularly with Watkinson have trouble distinguishing him.

"Is that 'Chimpanzee Lee' or 'Rodeo Lee'?" asked Phil Laak, who saw Watkinson almost daily at a pot-limit hold 'em game at Commerce Casino near Los Angeles in 2002. "It's funny, because I've known them both for so long, and I still get them mixed up."

Rodeo Lee is Lee Markholt, Watkinson's good friend and fellow professional poker player, who shares not only his first name but also his shaved head and quiet table demeanor.

Many confuse the two players, although they should be easier to tell apart now that Watkinson, the 2007 World Series of Poker main event final tableist, is stepping out of his shell and showing another side of himself. Perhaps Watkinson now can be known as "Leopard-Spot Lee." Las Vegas residents might have seen billboards of Watkinson (promoting a jewelry line) with racy photos similar to the ones in Bluff.

"He looks like he's some sort of pimp," said Timmi DeRosa, Watkinson's fiancee. "It's so natural, it's hysterical. He's so much different in regular situations than he is at the table. You need to have a lot of confidence and really feel comfortable in your own skin to pull these pictures off, or they would come out phony and ridiculous. When people see the photos, they'll say it has to be part of his personality or he couldn't pull it off."

Watkinson, 41, is the all-time money winner in Omaha at the World Series of Poker, with a bracelet in pot-limit Omaha in 2006. He has nearly $4 million in tournament earnings, even though he started on the tournament circuit less than five years ago. Yet, he has less name recognition than many players who don't possess near his credentials but have talkative table habits and catchy nicknames.

"I didn't try to stay out of the spotlight; I just didn't seek it out," Watkinson said. "I didn't get a shark and shove it in people's faces or whine on TV when I got busted out of a tournament. I wasn't hiding or anything; I was just being myself. I didn't do anything for the cameras and didn't not do anything because the cameras were there. I know I can try to put on some kind of fake persona to garner more attention or be outrageous, but I always felt like I should concentrate on winning and then the rest will follow."

DeRosa has convinced Watkinson that it is OK to place himself in position to get attention and that putting himself out there could help generate interest for his other ventures, which include a jewelry line, a record label and a charitable foundation that helps chimpanzees.

If he would let people see what she sees every day, DeRosa knows they would find a cool guy buried underneath that gray hood and expressionless stare.

Hang 10

Before he hit the tournament circuit, Watkinson was a California surfer dude, his long hair blowing in the wind as he caught a wave. During much of the 1990s, playing poker in live cash games was his means of getting by financially while doing what he loved.

"Surfing was the priority when I lived at the beach, whether it was Oceanside, San Diego or Manhattan Beach," Watkinson said. "Poker would fit around the waves. If there were no waves, I'd play poker in the daytime. If there were waves, I would play a few hours at night until I got tired. That was really the best thing about poker, aside from not having a boss, was it fit your schedule. It gave you the freedom to play where and when you wanted. Now, with the Internet, I'm really envious of the young people today who can go anywhere in the world and make a living playing poker. They're not just limited like I was to places that had casinos."

Watkinson would rent a house right on the beach in Oceanside or Carlsbad, near San Diego, for $1,000 a month during the fall and winter months. Between surf outings, he would hit the Ocean's 11 or Sycuan casinos for limit hold 'em games.

"I kind of had a beach-bum phase for a lot of my twenties," Watkinson said. "I wasn't a competitive surfer, but I could surf in pretty much any conditions. Maybe not everywhere in Hawaii, but pretty much anything that hits San Diego or L.A."

Another reason surfing, not poker, was Watkinson's focus: the tedious side of limit hold 'em.

"I didn't enjoy playing limit," Watkinson said. "It was just a job. I would play enough to pay my rent and live comfortably. The first time I started playing pot-limit, which was similar to no-limit, was when I found a game in Oceanside in 2001. I really started to enjoy poker again. I started to make a lot more money, too. I see pot-limit and no-limit as more of an art, while limit is more of a science. In limit, there's a right way to play and a wrong way to play, and if you have too much imagination, you're going to wind up losing."

Origins of a poker player

Watkinson had played nickel and dime games with his friends in high school, although it was a different game that made him pack up and head out to Reno, Nev., in 1993, the summer after he graduated from Eastern Washington University with a bachelor's degree in economics.

During a job fair at the college Watkinson's senior year, a recruiter came through looking for blackjack dealers for Harrah's. Watkinson got a book on blackjack and started to read about counting cards, then headed to Reno for some summer fun before starting graduate school. When he arrived at Harrah's, he found the blackjack dealers school already had filled up. The hotel hired him to carry change around the slot machines, but it was a job he couldn't stand. He left after two weeks when he got a job as a bellman/security guard/parking attendant at a small timeshare hotel. All the while, he was playing blackjack on the side, but he found it hard to make money on a small bankroll.

"Your edge is like 1 percent," Watkinson said. So he gave poker a try and quickly turned $600 into $4,000 in his final weeks before he was supposed to head back to Eastern Washington to get his teaching credential or master's degree -- he hadn't yet decided. But Watkinson never made it to class. He found a casino nearby and won 30 days in a row. Poker was his new career.

Catching tournament fever

After he discovered pot-limit hold 'em, Watkinson's interest in poker picked up. He moved to Los Angeles and started playing six days a week in a big game at Commerce Casino that included such poker professionals as Laak, Antonio Esfandiari, Bobby Huff and Gabe Thaler.

"He was very quiet and very reserved, but a cool quiet," Esfandiari said. "He had personality. He just didn't turn it on very often. He was very patient and seemed to win money all the time. I'm down lifetime to Lee for sure."

Although he had played poker professionally for nearly 15 years, Watkinson had never gotten into tournaments.

"Back in the '90s, if you look at the prize pools and buy-ins, Phil Hellmuth was probably barely getting by," Watkinson said. "After 2003, now he's a multimillionaire. But in the '90s, I was making more money than him playing cash games."

When he saw the tournament poker explosion in 2003, with the ESPN coverage, the hole cards and amateur Chris Moneymaker taking home the loot, Watkinson's opinion started to change. Then Paul Spitzberg, another player in the Commerce game, offered to back Watkinson for tournaments.

"It wasn't a hard decision," Spitzberg said. "Lee didn't have enough money to be entering into all these things in the beginning until he started winning, and I was able to do that. Lee's as good as they come at tournaments. He's unreadable and very good at reading other people and always has been. I was working then and had no time to be able to play myself, so I'd get my thrills that way. He made me a lot of money."

Spitzberg paid half of Watkinson's entry fees as he started on the tournament circuit in December 2003. Watkinson immediately took third in a WPT pot-limit Omaha event, then broke through for a second-place finish to Ted Lawson in a pot-limit Omaha event at the World Series, the same event he would win a year later. In August 2004, he finished second in back-to-back WPT events for more than $1 million in earnings, and his tournament career was off.

Even with his success, Watkinson has continued with a backing deal, although he now has a different investor.

"It's good to lay off some of the risk in a tournament," Watkinson said. "It's like paying commission on the sale of a product. It's the best check I ever write. I'm always happy to pay my backer, and my backers have always been friends."

WSOP memories

Watkinson's greatest success but biggest disappointment might have been outlasting 6,350 people for his eighth-place finish at 2007's WSOP main event. As he was the only well-known professional at the final table, there were high expectations for Watkinson, who entered with a somewhat short stack that ranked sixth among the final nine. But Watkinson never was able to capitalize on his advantage in experience as amateur Jerry Yang bulldozed the table from the get-go.

"I was pretty surprised," Watkinson said. "I had played with him some the last day before the final table, and he came in as a totally different player. He's not a great player. He had virtually no experience. But, whether by accident or not, he just played the perfect strategy for his skill level. If he continued to try to play tight and outplay the players who were at the final table, he had really no chance. But by taking that hyper-aggressive, fierce style, he maximized his potential. It really showed the role confidence plays in no-limit hold 'em, whether it's confidence in your playing ability or confidence in God or luck or whatever he had. That confidence was really hard to deal with."

As Yang ran over the table with raises and reraises preflop on nearly every hand, people expected the pro to step in and stop him. Finally, a little more than an hour into the final table, Watkinson took a stand when Yang raised from $240,000 to $880,000 from the small blind after the table folded around. Watkinson pushed all in another $8.7 million with an off-suit A-7. Yang, who already had a tremendous chip lead, made the call with A-9, and his hand held up. Watkinson collected $585,699, his second-biggest payday, but could have had so much more.

"I think it was a small mistake," Watkinson said of pushing. "I don't think it was a big mistake either way. I talked to Mike Matusow at the Poker After Dark table about it recently. He said, 'Why did you want to tangle with somebody who had been pushing every pot? Why don't you wait and pick your spots?' But, to me, sitting at Yang's left and with him pushing every pot, whenever you play, you're going to be going against him. If I wait for a spot I know I have him dominated, I might have anteed off half my stack and would only get back to where I was. I figured pushing at that point, I'm probably going to get him off the hand and maybe slow his momentum down -- try to stop the steamroller and maybe get something going for myself. I felt like, at that point, if Jerry kept going where he was going, he would dominate the table and I wasn't going to have a shot to win."

Watkinson also was playing a different strategy because winning was his only focus.

"In a normal tournament, I probably wouldn't have done that because I'd want to move up in the money," he said. "But I was getting $10 million from Full Tilt if I won because I came in through a Full Tilt satellite. $18 million plus winning the main event, which is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. To come in third wasn't even 5 percent of coming in first. So I was playing like it was winner take all."

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