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Young guns

New stars in poker have little luck, lots of brain power

Posted: Tuesday May 24, 2005 3:47PM; Updated: Tuesday May 24, 2005 4:36PM
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By John Walters, SI.com

Indiana student
College students like this one at the University of Indiana have hopes of becoming poker's next bright star.
David E. Klutho/SI
All In
Special Report: Poker Nation

"If it weren't for luck, I'd win every hand"
--Phil Hellmuth Jr., youngest champion in World Series of Poker history

No one ever calls it "smart luck," do they? Luck is inherently naïve. Reckless. Dumb, even. Luck defies planning, analysis and most of all, the odds. That is what makes it luck (just ask the owners of Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo). That is what also makes it the adversary, perhaps even the saboteur, of every well-established poker player.

That's because poker acumen is found not via a rabbit's foot but rather through superior intelligence. Hellmuth Jr., the youngest person ever to win a World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, when he did so in 1989 at the age of 24, is typical of such players.

His father was an associate dean in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Wisconsin when Hellmuth, an accounting and philosophy major there, dropped out of school in 1986 to turn pro.

"One day I looked up and I had $20,000 in the bank and my student loans were paid off and I was 21," Hellmuth Jr., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year. "Then I started going to Vegas a lot."

Hellmuth Jr.'s tale repeats itself over and over in the stories of many of the world's best players and top up-and-comers. In poker, old school is no school. Texas legends such as Johnny Moss and Benny Binion (who founded the WSOP in 1970 at his legendary casino) were building their fortunes via questionable (and in some cases, downright illegal) practices when they should have been in college. They had street smarts.

New school poker players, of whom Hellmuth Jr., is the paragon, are either no longer in school because they've dropped out or because they've graduated. But almost every one has a sterling academic record as opposed to a colorful criminal one. As the following thumbnail profiles suggest, poker may be the ultimate revenge of the nerds.

Grant Coombs
Age: 21
Best Finish: Inaugural winner of the College Poker Championship, an online tournament in which Coombs outlasted approximately 10,000 players last year. He earned $15,000 in tuition money.
Academic Status: A senior at Washington and Lee University, he was already on a full academic scholarship.
Cranial Pursuits: Coombs plans to use his winnings to defray law-school expenses next year.

Annie Duke
: 33
Best Finish: Winner, 2004 $2,000 WSOP Omaha High-Low event. She is the top money-winner among women in WSOP history.
Academic Status: Duke is a graduate of Columbia University with a double major in psychology and English. She pursued a doctoral degree in cognitive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out before completing it to get married and play poker.
Cranial Pursuits: Winner of a coveted National Science Foundation Fellowship; learned the game from her brother, Howard Lederer, a WSOP bracelet winner and World Poker Tour champion.

Chris Ferguson
Age: 42
Best Finish: Winner, 2000 WSOP Main Event
Academic Status: On the Web site bio of the man they call "Jesus" (for his beard and long brown hair), the following paragraph appears:

"In 1999, Chris Ferguson got kicked out of UCLA. He was 36, and had spent more than half his life there. After five years as an undergrad, and another 13 years as a Ph.D. candidate getting a doctorate in computer science, he was told it was time to leave the nest of academia. He went reluctantly."

Both of Ferguson's parents were UCLA professors. His mother was a professor of mathematics while his father is a professor emeritus, fittingly, of game theory.
Cranial Pursuits: In Jim McManus' highly entertaining best-seller, Positively Fifth Street, which chronicles the 2000 WSOP (McManus himself advanced to the final table and finished fifth), Jesus performs a veritable mathematical miracle for the author at a post-WSOP celebration dinner. He asks McManus to give him two four-digit numbers and then Ferguson finds the product of the two factors in his head faster than McManus can multiply them on paper.