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Game Faces: A Story of Deer Hunting and Poker

deer playing poker
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

From public land to private, beginners to novices, we take a look at deer hunters from a different perspective: The Poker Room.

If you have been in a social media group or forum that revolves around hunting, you may understand where this is coming from. People hunt for several different reasons. Many claim to hunt for meat, while some can go years passing up mature bucks in hope of scoring the buck of a lifetime. The common denominator here, though, is we are all hunters. So, why is there so much controversy over who is shooting what?

I spent the last month looking over conversations in a few of the groups I follow on social media, watching as happy new hunters post their first deer kill. I then watched an overwhelming amount of support from other new and experienced hunters on every new hunter’s first kill. Occasionally, there were also a few “internet trolls” who would join in and badger the hunter for shooting something that was “too young” or “too small,” and it made me really think about the status of hunters today.

I’ll never forget watching the American Hunter: Big Game Extreme Hunting VHS tapes when I was growing up and listening to the members of the NRA discussing the importance of recruiting and retaining new participants in the sport of hunting. They discussed taking someone who may fear guns or not understand the sport to the range to familiarize them with what it is we’re doing. Since then, I have introduced dozens of new people into the sport of hunting, and I have been there to witness a handful of people shoot their very first deer.

People’s definitions of a “new hunter” versus an experienced one differ, and people have different opinions about those who is hunt private versus public land and those who have killed several bucks versus none at all. What it really boils down to is that we all hunt for various reasons, and even though we know this, it can be hard to explain, even to other hunters, the reasoning behind someone not wanting you to shoot anything under four years old or the reasoning behind just wanting to fill your freezer as a new hunter.

That’s when it clicked, and I figured out a way to explain it that gets us out of our stubborn shells and shows a different side of hunting.

Here’s a tale of the different “game faces” that both poker players and deer hunters put on over the course of their lives.

Life to a professional poker player.

Poker Player With Chips

When I was in my second year of college, I found myself very good at poker. So good that my uncle actually sponsored me every Tuesday to play in a poker tournament at the Turning Stone Casino in Upstate New York. The buy-in fee wasn’t much, but it was more than a college student could afford, even if I was winning.

Let me back up first and explain how I became a professional poker player. Ok, well, not a professional poker player, but if you get paid to do it, I guess that makes you a professional, right? Let’s just say I was semi-pro and playing small entry fees around $100 a game with nearly 100 players in each tournament.

Before I started playing at the casino, we played poker at least three to four nights a week in my parents’ garage. Yes, three to four nights a week, my buddies and family members would come over after dinner and we would play Texas Hold ‘Em. The games were built for fun, and often times, we played for a few dollars or got crazy and made the entry fee a twenty-dollar bill. The excitement of just being able to play with my friends, my father, sister and family members, was enough for me. It was something to do and a way to have fun while passing the time making memories.

I took to poker like most things in my life, diving in headfirst. I began learning more about betting strategies, poker tells, where someone making a repeat bet could be a sign of a bluff, and was able to read people at a poker table better than if the words “I’m Bluffing” were written on their faces. It took hard work to get to the level I was at, and after years of poker in the garage, I moved to the casino, where I would play poker for a living.

Let’s play some cards.

Most people some time in their life have played cards. I know I made it seem as though I was a professional poker player, but at a much lower scale than you could think, almost to where I feel guilty calling myself that. If you have friends and family, board games or poker may be something you pick up during the holidays or have a day set aside each week for game night. You may travel to casinos and have a horrible addiction or you too may be a professional poker player and play poker for a living. All-in-all, we have all once in our lives played cards and have played at different levels.

Hunting is quite similar to cards in many ways, but to get the overall idea in your mind, take yourself back to your first day of hunting. Someone probably took you out hunting, or maybe you had no friends or family in the sport, and you decided you wanted to learn it all on your own. Your reasoning may have been “it looks fun and it can pass the time during the fall months.” No matter your reason to begin hunting, you started, and you’ll never forget your first experience.

Poker may not be that memorable, but if you have played cards with your buddies or family members you get the idea. We are all at different levels in the poker world, just as we are at different levels in the hunting world.

Level 1: Newbies

true talker grunt call
Author Dustin Prievo with his first buck kill in 2006

Let’s start from the very beginning. I will break this down into five different levels and compare the hunters to the poker players. So, you want to hunt, and you set out for your first weekend with the boys at hunting camp. You know the rules, because you read the rule book and you’re excited to hunt. You head to camp with your best friend who has been hunting for six years and has killed a few nice bucks.

His father and uncle have been hunting for 50 years combined and are joining in on the hunt this week. They set you up for your first hunt, and just like that, a small spike horn walks under your tree stand the very first morning and you begin to shake. You go over the steps that you practiced, and you remove the safety, aim, squeeze and watch your very first deer fall to the ground.

You are so excited you call your buddy on the phone and tell him what you just did. His uncle and father both leave their stands early to join in congratulating you with a handshake and an offer to drag your deer out of the woods for you. You head back to hunting camp, take some photos, toast with some nice cold beer, and instantly you are hooked for life as a hunter, especially because everyone made you feel great about taking your first deer.

That evening after you sat the night watch, everyone ate dinner and got the cards out. You turn to your buddy and ask him if he wants to play, and he says, “I’d love to, but my uncle has never played before.”

You explain that it’s easy to learn, and if you can do it, so can he. So you begin to show him how to play.

At first, he is a little nervous to play some hands but then, he all of a sudden gets real excited and you can see it in his eyes. He bets way too much, forcing everyone out of their hands and everyone folds. He flops over two cards, “Ace, Ace” he says. This is the best pre-flop hand you can have in Texas Hold ‘Em and he knew it. You, being an experienced poker player, knew there was a better way to play that so he could have made more money but it was just as exciting for him to rake his blind back in as if it was to win everyone’s money. He won a hand and it was exciting. He was hooked and forever a Texas Hold ‘Em poker player.

Level 2: Just for fun

hunting group together poker
On Milwaukee

When I was in high school, my father or grandfather would pick me up every Friday after school after the opening day of hunting season, and we would head to hunting camp for the weekend. While we were there, we didn’t practice deer management. Heck, if someone said they saw a “150,” that meant the deer weighed 150 pounds, as “scoring” a buck was a foreign language. There was no doubt we hunted hard, hiking miles within the Adirondack park and hoping to, at the very least, cross a deer track.

After 10:00 a.m., the walkie-talkie radios would always crack open with the guy who was the coldest: “Hey, anyone got their ears on?”

This was the opening message before we began our morning deer drives. What followed was a strategic plan to get some deer on their feet and if we had a tag for it and an ethical shot, we would take it. Hunting back then, was fun. Before I got into management or made hunting a semi-career, I enjoyed those days the most. Often times I reflect on how just much fun those days were and even though my mother always wondered if we ever went to hunting camp or took our guns out of our case with our lack of venison back straps, it was some of my most memorable moments in my life.

Poker can be just that: Fun. Some people just enjoy the company and the memories made together. The pickup game in the garage or at hunting camp is just for fun and to pass the time. Sure, you always have one guy who takes it too seriously, but the bottom line is, he’s just in the wrong place to play his professional tactics.

Level 3: Let him go, watch him grow

I’m talking here about the poker player, of course. The guy that watches it on TV and says, “I can do that.” He buys the bulky headphones and hooded sweatshirt with the large sunglasses and joins as many poker games as possible. He spends countless hours studying poker and strategies to grow as a player and make himself more successful. He really wants what he sees others have and will do whatever it takes to get there.

A deer hunter can strategize the same way. “Let him go, watch him grow” is the idea that runs through his mind as he sits and watches a nice two-and-half-year-old, eight-point buck walk under his stand for the first time. Sure, he wants to shoot it, but he knows if he lets that deer go, next year, he could get a shot at a more mature buck. He spends a great deal of money on new camouflage and a brand-new bow and begins to tell everyone the reasons for proper deer management.

Level 4: Right mindset, wrong location


The guy from level three wants nothing more than to be a superstar poker player. He wants the opportunity to play big high end poker games and win big money. The problem is, he doesn’t have much money himself and can’t afford to get into the big tournaments. With that, he has to resort to smaller cash games and play at people’s houses during game night. He finds himself frustrated when someone limps in a bet with a 2-7 unsuited hand and somehow wins.

“Why would you make that bet? Are you kidding me? You were under the gun, first to act after the flop, and you had nothing! You are a horrible poker player and should be ashamed of yourself.”

The guy he just yelled at has been playing for a few years, but has enjoyed playing every week during game night. He is taken back by the comments this kid made to him and follows up with, “If you’re such a good poker player, why didn’t you win the first game? Mr. Superstar you are, stop acting like you’re the best thing here. You couldn’t play cards if your life depended on it.”

Public land hunters, does this sound familiar?

Are you the guy there for fun, or the guy who wants to manage the property for better opportunities? Are you trying to get meat back home for the holidays and to make your famous jerky, or are you trying to put antlers on the wall that your friends can drool over when they come over to visit? Trying to push management on public property can be very hard when you and everyone else that hunts the property, do not share the same views. It can drive frustration to both sides of the playing field and do nothing but tear apart the best group of men and women in the hunting community.

Level 5: I’ve made it and got it figured out, here I go!

If you have made it this far in the article, you may already see things from a different perspective and may have an idea where some people are coming from, no matter what side of the fence you are on. For a poker player to feel or be successful, he may think he needs to be in the biggest tournament, or place in the top tier. For another, it may be a substantial income that he can support his family with.

As for hunting, today it seems if you haven’t killed a Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett buck, you are not successful. If you don’t have your own television show or successful YouTube channel, you are not successful. How many “likes” did that video or Instagram post get, anyway? The idea of success in hunting is in the eye of the beholder. When I first began writing and getting paid to participate conversations about hunting, whether it was about tips for late season hunting or a successful hunting story, I finally felt comfortable in what I wanted to do. Sure, it would be nice to make money and be on the big screen, but already I can see that I’ve turned hunting from fun into a job, and that’s really what sparked this article.

I help manage several farms in Maryland because I worked very hard to meet new people, obtain permission, spent countless hours helping farmers and let several young deer walk. Does this make me a commercial hunter? No, and I stay true to myself by continuing to hunt public land and going further and harder than others do around me. Really, though, I don’t compare myself to other hunters. I find challenging myself is the best way to evaluate my success.

The solution.

Hunters Shake Hands

If you’ve stayed with me through this whole article, I want to thank you. Thank you because you actually care and want to see the other side of the fence. You may be the guy who wants to manage property or the guy who is heading out to just shoot a deer and head home. The bottom line, is we are all hunters, and it may be difficult to say who is right and who is wrong.

The solution to both sides of the problem isn’t necessarily an easy one. It’s not stating that someone else is right and you are wrong, but giving a little. You may be the meat hunter who posts the pictures of your spike buck and caption it with, “You can’t eat the horns.” If you really feel that way, maybe its time to hold off on shooting a spike and place your scope on a mature doe instead.

You may be the guy who wants to pass on everything four-and-a-half years old and younger, and shun those who do not. If you take the time to understand the other side or realize you may be metaphorically playing at the wrong poker table, you can better understand how to overcome the issue.

No one individual is correct in this matter. We all got into hunting for the same major reasons, yet we find ourselves continuing to banter and badger others that aren’t following your practices. Regardless, take a moment to see if you are part of the problem. Could you give a little bit in your hunting practices to make the overall hunting experience a little better for everybody? Often times, it takes a great deal of skill, when it comes to hunting, and more times than not, luck is the deciding factor. When it comes to management practices, just take a moment and ask yourself, am I playing professional level poker at a game night garage pick up game? Or ask yourself if you are the person who is playing every hand in a group of poker players who are all playing with professional level ethics?

More often than not, we will find there may not actually be a problem at all with others, but a problem with understanding others’ beliefs. You can help others reach their goals by giving a little bit on your end, and ultimately, everyone will find a way to be happy.

When it comes to hunting, I’m slightly addicted. There may be a hotline for it, but at the end of the day, I’m all in.

Like what you see here? You can read more articles by Dustin Prievo here. Follow him and his hunting team, Top Pin Outdoors, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


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Game Faces: A Story of Deer Hunting and Poker