Any number of mainstream celebrities participate in the poker world. The game’s allure offers few boundaries, and it attracts the well-known and unknown alike. At major events, celebrities are sprinkled everywhere, from movie, TV and music stars to prominent figures from sports and business. What’s more unusual, however, is finding someone who grinded away as an everyday poker pro, then found mainstream fame elsewhere. That description applies to Rene Nezhoda, one of the stars of A&E’s long-running “Storage Wars” series. Nezhoda and his wife, Casey, have run Bargain Hunters Thrift Store in San Diego for 12 years, and they’re in their tenth season as part of the “Storage Wars” cast. Yet before Nezhoda even entered the business that led to his mainstream fame, he was a full-time, cash-game grinder in Las Vegas. The thrift-store career came later, and as Nezhoda tells it, getting into that business was a decision to find a career with more stability.
Nezhoda still plays plenty of poker, however. Whether it’s cash-game action in card rooms and casinos near his home, forays to tournament series, or playing online, he stays busy. And for the past two years, he’s been a brand ambassador for the US-facing Americas Cardroom as well.
The “Storage Wars” star took some time recently to speak with Poker.org about his ongoing relationship with poker, beginning with his early days at the Las Vegas tables.
Poker.org: Can you tell us how you got into poker?
Rene Nezhoda: I’ve been playing, basically, since I was 21. I used to play in the good old days at the Horseshoe in Las Vegas. That’s where I started, at Binion’s. I just [spotted] tourists giving the money away. Like every 21-year-old, I was interested in gambling a little bit, because when you’re 21, it seems like it’s free money, right? And then I discovered poker and they used to have a game of the Horseshoe that was like, $1/2 blinds, but no cap. So I would buy in with two, three, four, or five thousand, and literally sit there all day long. And
When I got the nuts, it seemed like 50% of the time somebody tried to bluff to get you all in. And it was like free money. So when I was 21, my goal was first, like, to make 500 bucks a day. And that was probably in the early 2000s — 2001, 2002. And it just seemed really simple. And then I really got into poker and started doing it full time. I did it professionally for three years where all I did was play cash games.
So now remember, I’m only like 22 or 23 years old. There was one weekend where I started with like two or 3000 by the end of the week, and I was just killing it in cash games in one tuple limits. And I want to turn them and that was when the huge hurricane, Hurricane Katrina, was going on and they let regular players buy in it was supposed to be for sports betting software. And at the end of the week, I was sitting in the Nugget at the coffee shop at six in the morning with two friends of mine, the Duke of Fremont Street, who is a well-known poker player, and Robert Mercer. And I had $17,000 profit, like for 48 hours or 72 hours. Back then at 22 it was a lot of money. Then I won a tournament for like 10 grand. I bought it for 215. I was killing the cash games; it was pretty crazy.
PO: And yet, poker is no longer your full-time occupation. How did that change for you?
RN: Actually, I just had a daughter born and I was playing at the Bellagio — a higher-limit game, $10/$5 no-limit. And there were these guys from Israel that I was playing — super nice guys, but terrible poker players. But all of a sudden something happened to me which a lot of poker players probably can relate to. All of a sudden the money mattered because I was married. I had a newborn baby. Listen, everything matters. These guys weren’t very good poker players, but they were just throwing the money around. And I was making the wrong decisions based on the money because all of a sudden I played scared poker.
So I decided like what a lot of the older poker players always used to tell me: playing poker for a living is great. But you should have another source of income to accompany it where your money comes in steadily, and then you can play your best poker. So I stopped playing poker for probably seven or eight years, for any kind of serious poker. And then I slowly got back into it at San Diego Ocean’s 11. Then I play in a lot of private games; private games are obviously much much better than anything in the casino. And then of course, I like to play online on America’s Cardroom.
PO: What’s an unusual interaction you’ve had at the poker table with someone who knows you from “Storage Wars”?
RN: Most people are always super nice to happy to meet us. But of course, we do get the occasional young guys. And once in a while, if you beat them out of a pot or you overbet against them aggressively, then they try to get in your face…. One time at Ocean’s 11, this young guy said, ‘You’re a sellout,’ because I’m on television. And I’m like, ‘I’m a sellout because I get paid a lot to be on television? How does that work?’ He’s like, ‘All you care about is money.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re over here acting like a complete idiot because you lost $500. So what are you talking about?’ Sometimes people will try to be aggressive with you if they lose to you. And they try to insult you but it doesn’t really matter. 99% of the people are super nice. They’re happy.
PO: What’s the most distinctive poker- or gambling-related item you’ve ever found in a storage unit?
RN: We have some old slot machines. I’ve got slot machines from the turn of the century on. I got old gaming devices from the turn of the century, a lot of old casino chips, which I used to collect. And old card decks and stuff like that. I guess the coolest thing is, which we have in a video on our YouTube channel, too, we bought a unit. And it had three old slot machines in it. But they weren’t like super rare ones, more like a couple of thousand dollars apiece. I still have one that I kept.
PO: Does Casey [Rene’s wife and “Storage Wars” co-star] play poker?
RN: Oh, yeah. She does anything organized. She’d play in tournaments or anything like that. She played a bunch of charity tournaments and she actually did well; she played at the Jennifer Harman tournament and she came in second place. And she cashes. She’s actually a good poker player. She doesn’t play often enough, but she plays. I’m sure once our daughter goes to college, and we get a little bit more time, she’ll play a lot more.
PO: Let’s move on to your relationship with Americas Cardroom. How did you end up hooking up with them?
RN: I can tell you I’m a brand ambassador for them, so I’m signed on their team. I hooked up with them through another friend of mine, Scott Ball. We met in a private home game we started playing in and he’s like, ‘Hey, you know, one of my clients is Americas Cardroom. You’ve been onboard for them playing poker, and that might be a good marriage there.’
And I told him, “Oh, yeah, I really play on ACR because it’s one of the best sites to play on in America these days.” You know, how many sites you can play on? I really like the action on there. So I get an account, and just after staking it and talking with them — I’m with Phil [Nagy] one day; we’re both huge sports fans. Then, when they had the opportunity to get me on the team, they signed me right away. And it’s been two years now.
PO: How often do you get the chance to play online these days?
RN: Once or twice a week when I do have the time. I always try to play the Venom. Last year I played four Venom tournaments, and I cashed in three of them.
If people have never had a chance to play the Venom, they can go to our YouTube channel, which is BargainHuntersThrift, and they use the stream. Then we give away 10% of our winnings to different people that are in the chat as we go along in the tournament. If they never had a chance to experience the Venom tournament and just want to watch it, they can watch us that way.
PO: And how about live poker?
RN: Not really. In most of our home games, nobody is playing because everybody was afraid of the virus. So we played a couple of times in one game, but yeah, the last two years been really sucky for my poker life. I’m not happy. Before I played one game, which is the crazy game, and I played once or twice a week, which is fun, and it’s really good people. You know, nobody plays to make a living out of this. They all have fun, but it’s a crazy game, and it’s really good.
PO: You sat out the 2021 World Series of Poker as well, right?
RN: Yeah, I was supposed to go ahead and set up with ACR and do a bunch of stuff with them. But at the very end, everything kind of got pulled in. I was talking to Chris [Moneymaker] and he said he wasn’t going either. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m not gonna go and we were going to do some stuff together. So then I just changed my production schedule a couple days before [the Main Event]. And then he’s like, ‘You know what, I changed my mind. I’m gonna go to the Main Event.’
For me, it was too last-minute, I couldn’t change any more. But I also have to be careful because obviously in our stores we employ probably another 60 people behind. So if we get outbreaks, we have stoppages, and that’s not good for them, so it’s for their paychecks and stuff. I just did the responsible thing and didn’t go but hopefully next year, I can definitely go.
Featured image source: YouTube / BargainHuntersThrift