Some of the best and brightest can't afford to stay on campus
"I'm about to break the rules but don't tell anybody/I got something better than school but don't tell anybody."-- Kanye West, Graduation Day
The College Dropout is not only the title of a Grammy-winning album; it's also the term that best describes the most successful poker players under the age of 25.
"It's like LeBron James cannot afford to go to college right now," says David Williams, 24, who left Southern Methodist 30 credits shy of a degree in economics after placing second in the 2004 World Series of Poker, which netted him $3.5 million. "I just can't afford to be in college right now either."
"I'll definitely go back," says John Stolzmann, 23, who withdrew from Wisconsin as a second-semester senior following his victory (and $1.4 million payoff) at a no-limit hold 'em tournament in January. "I just don't know when."
Ashok Surapaneni mucked his three years at Penn to migrate to Las Vegas and turn pro. Straight from the Ivy League to the Strip. It's a living. "I wouldn't say we're any more gamblers than day traders are," says Surapaneni, 22, who was a finance major.
Williams is African-American and Iranian. Stolzmann is Caucasian. Surapaneni is Indian. Yet this diverse trio is actually three of a kind: Each paid his college tuition with poker winnings, each had at least a 3.5 GPA (Williams and Surapaneni sported 3.9s) when he withdrew from school, and each is a serious student of games.
Williams was a top Magic: the Gathering player in his early teens. Stolzmann played thousands of poker hands online before anteing up a single chip. Surapaneni has read more than 40 books on poker.
"I also dropped out after my sophomore year," says Stolzmann, who at the time had a 4.0 GPA. "I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just wanted to play poker."--J.W.
Poker clubs run the gamut from those with formal affiliations -- the Penn Poker Club receives an average of $1,000 per semester from the university's Student Activities Council -- to thousands of informal ones scattered across college campuses. "A lot of times we play twice a day," says Eric, an Indiana sophomore and member of the self-proclaimed Poker Crew. "I just played 20 minutes ago. I even play against my accounting professor."
Dan Kline, the Penn Poker Club president, is stunned at how swiftly the group he founded only two years ago has grown. "We announced a poker tournament last year," says Kline, "and within an hour we had 500 people on our Listserv trying to sign up for it."
Red-hot. Poker. But why now? And why on campus?
"You're never on the sideline, like in sports," says David Williams, who left Southern Methodist last summer with a 3.91 GPA after finishing second (and winning $3.5 million) in the World Series of Poker (WSOP). "There's constant action. That's what people love."
HOW ELSE COULD I AFFORD TO SKIP CLASS? -- SLOGAN ON THE FRONT OF A T-SHIRT SOLD BY THE ILLINOIS POKER CLUB
It's a Thursday night just before spring break on the campus of Duke. In a common room in the basement of Wayne Manor, a foosball table sits unloved. A few feet away 10 male undergrads gather around a handsome eight-foot circular Blue Devil-blue table, engaging in a mesmerizing choreography of cards, chips and hand motions. An 11th student, a TA, sits just outside their orbit, grading papers as he waits patiently for a spot to open.
Kyle raises $30. The bet goes to Charlie, who asked that his real name not be used. Charlie goes all in.
Kyle: "How much is it, then?"
Charlie: "Sixty-six more to you."
Dave: "That's a pretty nice date with your girlfriend, Kyle. If you call and lose, I'll take her out."
Kyle folds, wisely. He was holding Siegfried and Roy (a pair of queens), whereas Charlie had cowboys (two kings). Kyle loses, but like every other Dukie at this table, he's no loser. Eight of the 10 players here scored higher than 1,500 on their SATs. Four are current or former varsity athletes.
Shortly past 3 a.m., after eight hours, the game breaks up. Flounder, who asked that his real name not be used, hits pocket rockets (pair of aces) on the flop and wins a $133 pot.