BUDAPEST (Reuters Life!) - Peter Traply graduated from college in February, but the babyfaced Hungarian is in no rush to join the rat race for ever scarcer jobs. He is making a killing in poker.
So far this year, Traply has earned north of 100 million forints ($531,900) at poker tables around the world and online, and he shows scant sign of stopping.
In Hungary, ravaged by the recent economic crisis, poker has become something of a national pastime, and for some people, a source of income.
The Poker Association of Hungary reckons some 50,000 people out of 10 million Hungarians play poker live, and 200,000 more do it online. Most took up the game in the last few years.
That draw gets stronger as job opportunities dwindle. The crisis has sent Hungary's unemployment to nearly 10 percent, its highest in 13 years, and prospects remain dim.
By now, as many as two percent of fresh university graduates hope to follow in Traply's footsteps and make at least part of their living from poker, said Gergely Tatar, chairman of the poker association, quoting a recent survey.
"Online, you can start with a few hundred dollars and if you are good, you can make as much as $10,000 per month in a year or two," Tatar said.
The average monthly income in Hungary is $640.
"Eastern Europeans are used to taking risks ... they have always lived this way," Tatar added.
As the crisis intensified, so did Traply's celebrity. In April he played a marathon session of online poker to earn $132,000 in two days.
Since then, as the government unrolled tough spending cuts to keep the state budget in check, Traply has won a first-place bracelet at the Las Vegas WSOP World Championship of Poker, netting $350,000, and scored other prizes around Europe.
Popular as poker is in Hungary, only about 5,000 people make a steady living, experts said. But their numbers are growing, despite the obvious risks of losing heavily.
"When I worked last year, I still played poker two hours a day," said a student in Budapest who goes by the screen name Wibescu. He declined to give his real name because, like most other players, he pays no taxes on his winnings.
"In a good month, I won $2,000 easily," he added. "It kind of deflates your motivation to go out and find a job."
Poker site operators charge fees on everyone, including the "fish," or inexperienced people who tend to lose to the "sharks," or seasoned players. Business is brisk.
Eastern Europe is an outstanding growth area for poker, and Hungary is one of the most active places, said Adam Szakmary, who does marketing for a number of local online poker outfits. Poland and Bulgaria are also strong, he added.
He estimates that his employers, whom he declined to name, make 70,000 to 130,000 euros per month in each of the nine Eastern European countries they operate in.
Poker, online and off, continues its rapid growth worldwide. According to global data from Pokerpages.com, live casino buy-ins grew to $705 million in 2008 from $225 million in 2004.
The online poker market is more difficult to measure as poker site operators do not share information.Party Gaming Plc., one of the few listed operators, estimated global gross gaming yield at $3.7 billion in an annual report.
"This growth is unstoppable," said Gyorgy Korda, a singer famous in Hungary for his poker broadcasts as much as for his crooning. Nearly all Hungarian poker enthusiasts agree that Korda's broadcasts helped make poker wildly popular in Hungary. "I'm sorry I'm 70, and not 50," Korda told Reuters. "Then I would forget singing, travel the world and just play poker."
Reporting by Marton Dunai