Gonzaga University law school professor Scott Burnham spent three hours Sunday working on his game.
It wasn’t golf or tennis.
Burnham, who teaches commercial law and contracts, studied other players intently at a poker table during a Texas Hold ’Em tournament at Northern Quest Resort & Casino.
The stakes were relatively low: $50 to play.
When the game ended, the mild-mannered Burnham was among the final six players, all of whom left with $151 in winnings in what’s called a split pot.
“That’s not a lot of money for three hours,” said Burnham, who’s 68. “But as we say in Montana, it’s better than a kick in the head.”
Burnham is a regular at Northern Quest’s poker room and at other regional casinos. He considers himself a “serious amateur” player.
“I’m a competitive guy but I’m too old to play baseball,” said Burnham, who moved to Spokane in 2010 after teaching law at the University of Montana for more than 25 years.
He also teaches gaming law at GU, and considers the broad reach of the gambling industry both fascinating and worrisome.
From his years inside casinos, Burnham has witnessed firsthand the social problem of compulsive gambling. The gaming industry reaps the rewards of the activity, but doesn’t address its negative consequences, he said.
“I often think that we’d be better off without legal gambling,” he said, while admitting that’s not realistic. “People are going to find their way” to vices like gambling, he said. “We can only hope that if people do indulge in them, they will do so in moderation, and we can all find ways to nudge individuals in that direction.”
Burnham says poker is important to him. “But so is work, family and a spiritual life. It’s all part of living a balanced life,” he said.
In 1982 he moved from New York to Missoula and soon began playing poker frequently at legal card rooms. He enjoyed it because it requires mathematical skills, plus the ability to read other players’ styles, he said.
His own style is to play tight and aggressive – he’s cautious most of the time but ready to push bets when he has an above-average set of cards.
That conservative style is why he never wins big money or finishes high in a tournament. “That’s a weakness,” he said. “I’m likely to last a long time in a tournament but not reach the top because I’m not willing to take big risks.”
Janet Chavez, the poker room supervisor at Northern Quest, has watched Burnham in tournament games. “He’s a good player who plays his hands carefully,” she said.
Chavez, an experienced player herself, said “not-so-good” players tend to look only at what they have or could have. “The good players can quickly see when other players probably have better hands,” she said.
Burnham tries to play poker three times a week, and when possible, play tournaments outside of Spokane. That’s taken him across the country and to Uruguay, England, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Macau, Burnham said.
His net poker earnings have seldom topped $5,000 per year.
He avoids tourneys requiring a substantial entry fee, such as the World Series of Poker’s $10,000 buy-in.
“If I had to take money out of savings, I would tighten up and not play my game. … You have to find the level you’re comfortable with, where it hurts to lose but not so much you are spending money you need for food and mortgage,” he said.
His wife, Theresa Burnham, is also a law professor, teaching at Arizona Summit Law School.
“I’ve learned it’s a wifely duty to listen to his ‘bad beat’ stories and his great victories,” she said, referring to hands that a player mathematically should win but ends up losing.
“His memory for the details of each hand never ceases to amaze me,” she said.
Having written a number of texts and books on law, including the 2011 book “Contract Law for Dummies,” Burnham said he’s working on a novel involving poker.
But he has no plans to write about poker strategy or psychology.
“I’ve read a lot of the poker literature and I really don’t think I have any contribution to make there,” he said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.