Former PokerListings Writer Gets Professional with Debut Novel

Owen Laukkanen (middle) photo courtesy Benjo Gallen
Owen Laukkanen, photo courtesy Benjo Gallen

Crime fiction writer Owen Laukkanen’s critically acclaimed debut novel The Professionals comes out in bookstores across the United States today.

So what does that have to do with poker?

As it happens Laukkanen worked for PokerListings from 2006-2009 traveling the world writing countless live updates, blogs and interviews for the site.

The Canadian author was kind enough to sit down with us in Vancouver and talk about poker, his new book and everything in between. The Professionals has already gotten some pretty spectacular reviews. What’s that been like for you?

Owen Laukkanen: It’s surreal and kind of overwhelming. I get kind of caught up in the procession of things I have to do before the book comes out so I don’t really sit back and appreciate what’s happening as much as I should.

It’s something I’ve always dreamed of though. This whole process is literally a dream come true for me and I have to keep reminding myself to enjoy it.

PL: What’s the basic premise of the book?

OL: It’s about four kidnappers from Seattle, they are recent college graduates, they can’t find jobs, so they sort of jokingly suggest kidnapping someone for a big ransom and it snowballs into this scheme they develop where they kidnap rich businessmen for low ransoms over a really short period of time.

The Professionals
The Professionals

When the book starts they are in Chicago and have been kidnapping people for a while now. When they move to Minneapolis the police finally start to catch up.

It’s around that time the gang finally kidnaps the wrong person, someone who has mob connections and it becomes this cat-and-mouse game around the United States.

PL: Did you draw on your experience in poker at all for the book?

OL: There are lots of young poker players, and poker writers for that matter, and I think the kidnappers kind of reflect that generation of kids.

The ones who have come out of school, reached their mid-20s, and realized that even if they have a degree, jobs aren’t going to fall in their lap. They have to hustle to make a living.

There are plenty of young poker players who are playing poker in lieu of a traditional job and the kidnappers in the book are kind of the same way.

PL: Are there any poker scenes in the book?

OL: There aren’t, but there are in the second book, which should be out next year around this time. It features an underground poker game stickup. The third one will also include some scenes at the big casinos in Las Vegas.

When I started writing these books I didn’t want to be seen as a guy who was just going to write poker-themed books.

You don’t want to be in a niche market. You want to appeal to everyone.

PL: What are your plans to promote The Professionals over the next few months?

Yeah the book tour starts this week. I’ll be hitting seven cities in seven days, which is actually something I never did while working in poker. I’m quite excited about it. I’ve never really enjoyed having the spotlight on me so it’s going to be interesting.

I’ll continue this as long as I can. It’s kind of like poker writing in that respect actually. I’m doing it in hopes that I don’t have to get a real job.

Owen Laukkanen Foxwoods
Laukkanen at Foxwoods Casino in 2007.

PL: Can you tell us about how you started with

OL: Yeah sure. It was 2006, I was getting out of school, applying for a lot of jobs. I found this Craigslist ad for PokerListings for six weeks worth of work at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and I thought it had to be a scam. My parents thought it was a scam, too. I applied anyways and got an interview.

The day I was supposed to start working a warehouse job PokerListings called me and told me I had the job in Vegas.

I blew off the warehouse job, went to Vegas and at the end of the summer it turned into a full-time gig.

PL: Had you ever played poker before the 2006 WSOP?

OL: I’d played with friends. My preparation for the job was to read Chris Moneymaker’s autobiography and play about a week’s worth of play money on PokerStars.

PL: What were your immediate thoughts about getting into the poker industry in 2006?

OL: It just seemed like a fantastic opportunity and such a fantastic world to discover. I’d just graduated from University with a creative writing degree so I really had no path whatsoever. Going to Las Vegas and seeing how poker players operated was really exciting at the time.

In 2006 it was still a huge spectacle, all the major poker sites had hospitality suites, there were booth babes everywhere, tons of swag, free drinks and parties with celebrities. It was an amazing thing to be a part of.

Owen book headshot
Owen Laukkanen in 2012

PL: What did your job for PokerListings entail?

OL: We would fly to tournaments and walk around with a pen and paper and then report what happened live on the Internet. At the end of the day we’d post an interview and a recap.

We were basically sports writers at the tournaments.

PL: How many tournaments did you cover back then?

OL: It was at least a couple tournaments a month. January we pretty much went non-stop. There was the PCA in the Bahamas, the Aussie Millions and even Tunica.

It was probably 20-26 tournaments a year plus the six weeks that you spend in Vegas for the WSOP.

It was pretty grueling. I was home basically for a week every month. It was just long enough to do laundry and get back out on the road.

PL: How did that lifestyle work for you?

OL: I’ve always tried to live as though I was having an adventure. The idea of going into work every day at the same place never really appealed to me.

As a 23 year old who had never seen the world, never left North America and always wanted to live out of a suitcase it was fantastic. I really liked it. Sometimes I would hit three continents in a single month.

Obviously it’s impossible to have a normal life back home but it was wonderful.

PL: Who were the people that made an impression on you in the poker industry?

OL: Media-wise the staff at the Crown Casino was probably the best in the world. Mad Harper for PokerStars was the heart and soul of the EPT media room when I was there.

As far as poker players, Jason Mercier and Bill Edler were great but there were a lot of nice guys. If you’re not from the poker scene you might see a lot of wild degenerates but really there’s a community and most of the players I dealt with were wonderful people.

Owen Laukkanen at EPT Prague
Owen Laukkanen at EPT Prague

PL: Do you have any favorite experiences from poker?

OL: Besides the travel, which I really enjoyed, my favorite thing about working in poker was the people that you meet. There are a lot of really nice poker players but there is somewhat of a detachment to them because you spend so much time with the other writers.

You go to a tournament and all your friends are in the media room, no matter where you go in the world. It’s fun because you’re all next to each other and bullshitting the whole day and you go out afterwards.

That was my favorite part of the experience. That, and glomming on to some poker player’s entourage after they’ve won a huge tournament and drinking champaign, eating Kobe beef and actually getting to live the lifestyle.

I remember when Neil Channing won the Irish Open I was friends with a lot of his entourage and we ate and drank so much. We put a pretty big dent in his prize money.

PL: Why did you leave poker?

OL: I remember after three years in poker, I was in a casino in London and being utterly exhausted and wiped out, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve been to this casino several times before, I’ve seen pretty much all of them.’

What I really wanted to do was write fiction and I tried while I was working but with the schedule it was tough.

I left PokerListings after my fourth WSOP in 2009 and started to write full-time.

The first thing I wrote was this hardboiled poker-themed mystery set in Vegas but as soon as I finished that I had this pressing idea for a book after I saw a TV show about gangs of professional kidnappers in the third world.

I wondered how it would work in America and set about writing it. I finished it in about six weeks in the fall of 2009 and it eventually became The Professionals.

I got an agent and we sent it out about a year later and got a publisher. That was 2010. The book is finally coming out now.

The Field
The 2007 WSOP

PL: Do you still follow the poker industry at all? If so, do you have any thoughts on Black Friday?

OL: I do follow it. A lot of my friends are still in poker and I read PokerListings and Wicked Chops Poker.

We’ve seen some huge changes with some of the major poker media sites. Some of the people that were there the longest, and arguably the most talented, get rolled over in favor of new people as a budget measure.

I would hesitate to judge anyone’s decisions or talk out of my ass about it but I always thought that with these young poker players who dropped out of school to pursue a poker career they didn’t have anything to fall back on.

I’ve wanted to be a writer almost my whole life and my parents always cautioned me to have something to fall back on.

I think that after Black Friday there were a number of people who didn’t have an exit strategy and were forced into tough positions through no fault of their own. I was very concerned for some of my friends, who are poker players.

PL: Where do you see the poker industry in 10 years?

OL: From everything that I’ve read I think regulation is only matter of time and there will be a re-entry into the U.S. market.

PL: Do you think it will be anything like 2006 when you first covered the WSOP?

OL: I don’t. I think poker has reached its saturation point. It’s a cheap money buy for TV stations. It’s almost damagingly ubiquitous these days. There’s poker everywhere. I think you only get one supernova.

That said I think it will be possible for poker to find a steady middle ground where it can thrive. There are millions of people who love to play poker and that’s not going to change.

PL: Where can people find your book?

OL: It should be available everywhere including your favorite independent bookstore, Barnes and Noble, Chapters, Amazon and on Kindle. It’s also available as an audio book. It’s out March 29 in the U.S. and April 3 in Canada.

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Hank 2012-03-30 09:37:35

Excellent stuff, congratulations on your success Owen. I'll be reading The Professionals shortly.

Thomas Vedel 2012-03-30 03:32:58

The reviews has been great and Owen is a great writer. Looking forward to read the book.

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