Poker face

R. Jeremy McLaughlin traded in his badge and gun for a seat among the professional poker-playing elite. And more than $1 million later, the 33-year-old former U.S. Capitol Police officer says he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

McLaughlin says the “world-class” training he received with the Capitol Police has helped him become a rising star in the professional poker world. As an officer protecting the Capitol, McLaughlin was taught to trust his instincts and watch people’s body language for signs of possible threats. 

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“You have to look to see whether someone’s comfortable,” says McLaughlin, who, at nearly 6 feet, 6 inches in height, towers over most of his competitors. 

“If someone’s comfortable, they’re not bluffing, they’re not afraid,” he says. “One of the key signs [that someone’s comfortable] is if they lean back and they’re talking freely. Then they almost always have it.”

McLaughlin pays attention to his own mannerisms as well. When he left the Capitol Police three years ago to play poker full-time, he was much more nervous at the table. But over time, he says, he’s gotten better at concealing his hand. 

He likens the process to learning how to fire a gun during his Capitol Police training. As a novice, he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking, he says. But after some practice, he could fire off rounds with ease.

McLaughlin quit the Capitol Police in 2007 after being disciplined for violating the department’s screening procedures. He was in a hurry to get to work, and a semi truck was being screened at an inbound lane of the Capitol grounds. So McLaughlin drove through a lane meant only for exiting vehicles. 

“I was put on one year probation just for driving the wrong way up the street,” he says. 

Probation prevented McLaughlin from applying for one of the force’s specialized divisions, such as the intelligence or threat-assessment teams. It also came after three years of mounting frustration with the force’s management, he says. 

“It was always an adversarial relationship between officers and supervisors,” McLaughlin says. 

A Capitol Police spokeswoman declined to comment, saying the department does not discuss personnel issues. 

Deciding it was time to change careers, McLaughlin, who was making about $60,000 a year with the Capitol Police, headed to Atlantic City for the weekend. He entered the famous Borgata poker tournament, facing off against approximately 1,000 other players. 

He won the competition, collecting a nearly $200,000 prize.

“I remember calling my family at around 5 a.m. and waking them up,” he says. “They asked me what I was going to do. And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to quit my job for sure.’ I had no doubts about doing that. It was a perfect opportunity to get out. I put in my two weeks’ notice.”

McLaughlin says he treats poker like a normal salaried job. He tracks his hours and his earnings so that he can calculate his own hourly wage. But he won’t share that information, he says, because it’s too personal. And unlike some poker players, McLaughlin doesn’t drink on the job and makes sure he gets enough sleep the night before a tournament. 

McLaughlin is a Northern Virginia native who grew up playing poker games at friends’ houses during high school. He continued playing house games during the time he worked as a prison guard in Manassas, Va., and later while he was on the Capitol Police force. 

He stopped playing nearly all house games after one of the games he was planning to attend was robbed at gunpoint. McLaughlin missed that game because he had to work overtime. But had he been there, he surely would have had his gun nearby, he says, and he worries that someone could have gotten hurt.

“That was an eye-opening experience, and I’ve played it out a number of times in my head,” he says. 

For all of McLaughlin’s frustration with the Capitol Police management, he says he misses the camaraderie that came with being a part of the force. He became close with a group of officers who would play an informal poker game every so often, with pizza or drinks as the stakes. 

“All of my co-workers were just terrible,” he says with a laugh. “We wouldn’t even play for money. I literally had to write down what the ranking of the cards were and what hand beat what. But it was fun.”

McLaughlin joined the Capitol Police in 2005 after working for several years as a prison guard at the Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center. He sought out the prison job after having a hard time finding a job in social work, he says. 

Eventually he found the Capitol Police.

“I never really saw myself as a jail officer or a police officer, but I always had a desire to help others,” he says. “I guess that’s what attracted me to the police force.”

His new job can be “really lonely,” he says, since getting to know his competitors can be an occupational disadvantage. He splits his time between a Capitol Hill apartment and an apartment in Florida.

A former volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, McLaughlin says that while he loves poker, he wants to figure out a way to give back to society. 

“I’m always struggling with not really providing much for society,” he says. “One thing that helps me feel better about myself is donating a good bit of my winnings to worthy causes … But eventually, I’d like to do something more directly positive for society, other than just taking other people’s money, basically.”

McLaughlin also gives back in another way. There’s one house game that he can’t get out of playing. Every Christmas a good friend named Joe hosts a poker game for local friends, called Play Poker With the Pro at Joe’s, where McLaughlin’s the titular pro.

“I usually am one of the first people to get busted out,” he laughs. “It’s basically just a fun time to drink and be social with friends. We’re still playing for $20 like we did 10 years ago when it was a lot of money then. And it’s still just as much fun.”