James Obst

James Obst to “Retire” From Poker and Plans to Pursue Pro Tennis Career

From the category of young-gun poker pros getting the seven-year-itch and deciding to try something else comes one of the more interesting of such tales, a brief announcement by 28-year-old Australian pro James Obst that he plans to cut way back on his poker-playing activities to pursue a lifelong dream: to become a tennis pro and attempt, some day, to play on the fabled grass courts at Wimbledon in England.

Obst announced his planned career switch in a brief post on Twitter, modestly titled “Thanks.” Obst type-wrote the post, took a picture of it, and then posted that, though we’ll transcribe at least a part of it here:

I never even conceived the possibility of sharing this publicly, but after feeling all of the support and interest in the last couple of days, I realise that if I all but disappeared from poker that some people would want to know why — and I’m out of reasons not to share. My dream has always been to a professional tennis player, and to play in Wimbledon. Despite a wretched history of health problems since [age] 16, I always believed I’d make it eventually, just as I wholeheartedly believe it today. Now that I’ve finally gotten on top of most of the issues, it’s time to commit properly. I’m still an incredibly long way away physically, but the dream can’t coexist with playing much poker anymore. The most powerful part of my transformation, though, is that if I’m ultimately proven to be delusional and never get close, I’m OK with people seeing that. It’s still going to be a fulfilling path to go down, and worrying about what people think is no longer a priority.

That’s the heart of what’s a generally cool and modest statement about what Obst admits is something of an outlandish dream. As he fully knows, for a 28-year-old with a history of unspecified health problems to suddenly be able to take on the physical challenges of one of the most demanding of all professional sports — tennis — is highly unlikely. (Obst may or may not have been battling a long-term digestive issue; he hints at something in that direction but doesn’t elaborate.)

Even for an elite amateur tennis player, however, which Obst may already be, he’s likely three to five years of full-time, dedicated work away from getting his game to a professional level. All the specialized training that tennis pros receive during their formative years is something Obst never received, as he was otherwise occupied being an Australia junior chess champion before becoming one of those underage online-poker players that freerolled the online community for years, simply by playing. While many of those underage players have gone on to successful pro poker careers, most of them have brought along plenty of character issues. Obst has been an exception to that general truism, however. Modest, well-grounded, and exceptionally skilled, he’s generally been a force for good in poker, rather than the other way around.

Besides that, he’s won millions. If he wants to take a few years’ break from poker to give a childhood dream a thorough fling, he can afford it. Given that he’s 28 now, and supposing his body does hold out long enough to increase his tennis skills to the pro level, he’d be 31 to 33 by the time he’s ready. That’s unfortunately a normal retirement age for pro tennis players, simply from the wear and tear on the joints. There’s also the question of his physical stature: Tennis skews tall, and Obst is just a tad over average height, I’d guess, maybe five-eleven or six-feet-even. Lacking Agassi-like ground strokes, he’d be at a physical disadvantage against most other pros.

None of that matters, though, if Obst is willing to attempt the challenge on the terms he’s described. Playing at Wimbledon doesn’t have to be limited to the open men’s-singles draw; Obst would have a much better chance of reaching that stage in a seniors division some years down the road, should his body hold up that long. Obst could also become part of a doubles team, another likelier route to Wimbledon.

As always, poker goes on. It”s more than likely James Obst will indeed depart the scene for a few years, then show up again at major poker series, that seven-year-itch well scratched. And so we wish him well.

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