The clacking of poker chips in Brent Kallman’s hand punctuates the low, murmuring hum that fills Canterbury Park on a Wednesday night. Hundreds of participants in the Mid-States Poker Tour (MSPT), sit with jaw in hand, thrumming fingers on the table to wordlessly indicate a check to the dealer during hands of no-limit hold ‘em.
For Kallman, there is almost a comical difference between the hushed competition and the atmosphere he is most used to. As a starting center back for Minnesota United FC, currently playing its debut season in Major League Soccer (MLS), Kallman is accustomed to walking out of a tunnel to the roar of tens of thousands of fans, both hostile and friendly.
At one end of his table, a man watches an episode of “The Sopranos” on his phone, while the older woman on Kallman’s other side keeps laughing as she tries to photobomb our photographer. Kallman sits in the middle listening to a ‘90s alternative rock mix in one earbud.
The most attention he draws tonight is a brief and mildly excited conversation as the Canterbury floor boss explains to the table that a journalist and photographer will be observing the game tonight. Kallman pulls out an earbud to answer questions, “I’m a professional soccer player.” The middle-aged man next to him asks how long the season runs and Kallman explains “March through October.” After a minute the table has returned to the circular routine of folding, checking, and raising.
Kallman, 26, has played soccer professionally for the last four seasons, but he has been making money as a poker player since he was 13 years old. At first, he explains, it was play money that he and his oldest brother, Brad, would play with online. “But by the time I was 16,” he says, “I started with $50 and made it up to a few thousand.”
After his first successes, he says he didn’t know what to do. “After I won my first tournament, it was like $2,000, and so I called my brother Brad and asked, ‘What do I do now?’” His brother told him, “I think you play bigger games.” That’s when Brent ran into better players who quickly took his money. He says it was his first lesson in playing smart.
He played under the watchful eye of his father, Rich Kallman, but Brent says his parents weren’t worried. “My dad was into it too, he likes poker.”
Poker stayed a part of Kallman’s life as he attended college at Creighton and then signed his first professional soccer contract with Minnesota United FC in 2013. His first salary, he says, was a pittance. Minnesota United were still playing in the second division of U.S. Soccer, where some players make just over $1,000 a month. As a rookie, too, he wasn’t playing much, just 90 minutes that season.
December after that first professional season, though, Kallman won his first big prize: third place in the Mid-States Poker Tour. He took home around $34,000, more than he made that whole season playing soccer.
“The money messed with my head a bit,” he explains, particularly in those early days when he was making next to nothing as a soccer player. “You make all that money after two days of work and then show up the next day and make what I made. There was never a time I was thinking about not playing soccer,” he says, but he knew it affected him. “That’s when I made the decision that when I play poker, it’s going to be for fun.”
The best poker games are played Friday and Saturday nights, running well into the night. Kallman knew it wasn’t good for his schedule. Though he wouldn’t become a fixture in the Minnesota United squad until 2015, Kallman knew he had to focus on his day job after his first big poker wins.
He stopped playing poker every week and focused on just the big tournaments that didn’t conflict with his schedule. This weekend, though, the Loons have off, so he knew he could enter the MSPT again.
At the table tonight, Kallman slouches with a sort of bored intensity. Like many players, he rhythmically flips two chips over one another with one hand. Two seats down from him, a guy running low on chips has gone all in after a flop of 2♥, 6♦, and Q♦. Before deciding whether to call, two minutes pass as Kallman alternates his gaze from the three cards face up on the table and his own cards. He hardly notices the player who just went all in.
After he folds his face turns flush with anger.
Kallman describes himself as an aggressive player, not in attitude but in his manner of play. He makes bigger moves and takes some risks. But tonight, he plays conservatively. After folding, he walks over and I ask about the hand. Kallman had pocket 10s he liked and figured his opponent had a flush draw, tempting Kallman to call. But with the flop, his opponent could have scored a pair of queens or three of a kind, which would have made Kallman a sizable underdog.
Brent’s intensity is second-nature. He comes from a family of competitive athletes: his sister Kassey plays center back for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit, his brother Brian was a longtime fixture for all the iterations of modern professional soccer in Minnesota: the Minnesota Thunder, NSC Minnesota Stars, Minnesota Stars, and then Minnesota United FC, and the others (Brad, Krystle, and Kylie) were all standouts in college.
The parallels to his aggressive conservatism at the poker table and his on-the-pitch play are clear. Paired next to the Costa Rican international, Francisco Calvo, Brent is there to be the safe option. Calvo will push into the midfield and break up a pass, while Kallman sits backs and muscles the opposition’s striker to where he wants him.
Brent relishes those battles with the big men. On two occasions he has matched up against two of MLS’ best strikers, Portland’s Fanendo Adi and Kansas City’s Dom Dwyer, and he marked them out of the match. He doesn’t smile when he describes those successes, but there’s a deep pride in his voice.
If a professional athlete moonlighting as a poker star is improbable, Kallman’s ascent to starting in MLS seems even more. Brent came into the 2017 season as perhaps the fourth- or fifth-string center back. Ahead of him was the team captain, Vadim Demidov, seasoned from European leagues, the rising star Calvo, Jamaican international Jermaine Taylor, and the bright prospect of Joe Greenspan.
The Loons started their season disastrously, being blown out 5-1 and 6-1 in their first two matches. It was an embarrassing start for the team in a new league. Captain Demidov took the brunt of the blame for the team’s terrible defense and Kallman found himself starting his first MLS match three games into the season. Minnesota drew that match, but more importantly they only gave up two goals.
More than halfway through the season, Kallman has surprised everyone with his consistent play. “As a center back, I want to be reliable. I want all of the guys around me to count on me. I don’t need to be the guy that does too much myself, I need to be solid.”
As the night continues, Kallman’s chip count rises and falls, but at this point he seems to be at the low end, about $16,000 (he started with $20,000). The monotony has gotten to me and my attention drifts away, but a guy at the end of the table calls me over. “Why don’t you guys have video? This is the big stuff, Mr. Soccer,” he says, having given Brent a nickname.
Brent has just called two other players who have gone all in before the flop. Unbeknownst to them, Brent has pocket aces. This is a rare moment of hubbub as a few players stand up. The other two players will eventually reveal their hands as ace and queen and two queens, respectively. As the deal comes out, the flop, the turn, and the river reveal just a pair of 10s. Brent doesn’t smile as he rakes in a large stack of chips, knocking out his second player of the night.
Late into the night, Brent’s luck and well of chips run dry and he’s knocked out of the tournament. He reenters on Saturday only to go bust again, but it’s no matter. Monday, he’ll be back on the pitch, returning to his day job. He’s got a match in Seattle coming up, after all.