QUINCY -- It wasn't too long ago that Dr. James Magner didn't know the meaning of a big blind. The Quincy native knew next to nothing about poker until his wife suggested that he play the game while they were on a weekend trip to Atlantic City in 2007.
"I'm not a gambler," Magner said.
Magner, a 1969 graduate of Quincy Christian Brothers High School, would have a hard time convincing anyone who does a quick Google search for him these days. After a surprising run at this year's World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Magner will be seen more for his part-time hobby than for his nearly 40 years of work as a endocrinologist.
In the coming weeks, the poker world will get a look at Magner. He finished in the top 27 at the World Series of Poker's marquee game, the main event, in July. He outlasted hundreds of other players, staying alive for a week until he finally busted out in 27th place. Magner wound up pocketing $262,574, a healthy return on the $10,000 buy-in.
ESPN will soon start broadcasting play from the main event as it leads into live coverage of the final table in November. Magner was seated at a TV table for part of Day 6 and made a play there that surely will be shown when ESPN does its broadcast. With the number of players dwindling on the sixth day, Magner decided to play it safe on a hand in which he drew two queens to start. He was in the big blind, a spot on the table where a player has to put in the maximum bet to start a hand. Thomas Cannuli, a young pro from New Jersey, forced Magner's hand after he made a bet more than three times what Magner already had in the pot.
At that point, Magner's motivation was mainly about survival and getting into the top 27, which was worth an extra $50,000.
"If I folded pocket queens and showed him, they would think I was only trying to make the next pay jump," Magner said.
Not only did Magner fold his hand, he showed it to the rest of the table, which is considered a poker faux pas. His play drew plenty of criticism from those poker enthusiasts who were monitoring the action online. Several players on one message board called Magner's play the worst they had ever seen.
And while the motivation of an extra $50,000 was there, Magner also was setting the table up. He later came back strong with a lesser hand to take a bigger pot. He said that earlier play forced others to lay down their cards when he bet so strongly.
"I wound up making a profit on those two hands combined," Magner said.
His profit from the week of play was much more than he bargained for. After playing in some tournaments close to his Woodbrige, Conn., home over the years, Magner wanted to enter the main event last year, but his wife, Glenda Pritchett, fell ill and he couldn't make the trip. This year, he and his wife scheduled a trip to see one of their daughters in Los Angeles. He told his wife that he was going to stop in Vegas on the way home and try his hand at the main event. He only expected to be there for a few days.
"I just wanted to win my entry fee back," he said. "I know I'm a good player, so maybe I could double my money or something like that."
He went well beyond those initial goals and wound up playing against some of the top poker players in the world along the way. Not to bad for a guy who has spent years in labs studying thyroid cancer.
He did basic science work on thyroid-stimulating hormone, more commonly known as TSH. He has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for the past 16 years and is currently a vice president at Genzyme Corp.
Magner has been published in medical journals and just released his second book. His latest book, "Free to Decide: Building a Life in Science and Medicine," is an autobiography. He includes a chapter about growing up and Quincy as well as a chapter on poker in the book. He hopes to return to the main event next year if his schedule allows.
He's happy that his wife pushed him into the poker room that day.
"It's probably the first time in recorded human history that a wife grabbed their husband by the arm and said, ‘You learn how to play poker,'" he said with a laugh.