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.
"Me and my buddy Pete, we played two days nonstop over winter break. First we hit the Hard Rock Casino [in Hollywood, Fla.] around 9 p.m. We entered a multitable no-limit [Texas hold 'em] tournament with a $65 buy-in that went from 11 at night until 7 a.m. with about 200 players. I won. Then we went to a cash game at a guy's house. Then back to the Hard Rock. Then back to the cash game. We maybe got one hour of sleep the whole time. But I won about eight grand. Two days of mayhem." -- Gabe, junior, Central Florida
The next hand, when you are playing no-limit Texas hold 'em, never comes soon enough. It doesn't matter if you just mucked 2-7 offsuited before the flop or if you went all in with a set of cowboys on the river. Doesn't matter if you just suffered a bad beat ("I had a boat, queens high, and he comes over the top with quad 6s") or if you had the nuts. Doesn't matter if you are staring at your first hole cards of the day on Partypoker.com or if, like Gabe -- who, like most of the students interviewed for this story, did not want his last name used -- you are in the final hour of a two-day Rounders-esque rampage. Nothing matters but the next hand.
"The last five days I've been playing online all day long," says Keith, a Central Florida junior. "Seriously, I haven't left my apartment. If I'm losing, I've got to keep playing to recoup. If I'm winning, I've got to keep playing because I'm hot."
And that is why the undergrads in the weekly $100-buy-in game at Duke's Wayne Manor play with two decks: so one can be shuffled while the current hand is being played. That is why Grayson, a sophomore at Florida, plays four hands simultaneously on Partypoker.com. That is why James, a student at Creighton, plays on his laptop in class.
"You don't understand," says Tom, an Indiana junior who asked that his real name not be used. "Right before you flop a hand, before you win, when you know you've got the nuts [an unbeatable hand], that's the greatest rush in the world."
"i'll play 1,500 hands online in six hours. no big deal. i chat online or watch tv at the same time. how much homework do i do while i'm playing hold 'em? too much. last week i basically wrote a 10-page paper for my politics in film and fiction course while playing two hands at a time." -- GRAYSON, SOPHOMORE, FLORIDA
There are 2,598,960 specific hands in poker, and it's a good bet there are as many tales on college campuses relating to the phenomenon of no-limit Texas hold 'em (the game you've seen played on the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour and ESPN's World Series of Poker as well as in the 1998 film Rounders). In the past two years hold 'em has become the most popular pastime in the halls of higher education since procrastination.
Jason, a Duke sophomore, spent part of his spring break last month in Vienna participating in a European Poker Tour event that had a 2,000 euro ($2,800) buy-in; he placed 100th out of 300 players. Last summer Jason won $60,000 playing both online and in poker rooms in his native New York City. And yet he once wrote an e-mail to his Wayne Manor buddies informing them, almost giddily, that "I just lost $6,500 in 92 minutes."
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.
Eric: "What time is it?"
Charlie: "I've got 3:10 a.m."
Eric: "Oh, damn, I still have to write a paper."
"EVERY RETARD WHO WATCHED THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER ON TV AND THOUGHT, THAT'S REALLY COOL, I WANT TO PLAY POKER, IS ON PARTYPOKER.COM. SO YOU HAVE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY'RE DOING." -- ANDY MCCLURE, ALABAMA DROPOUT, TO THE CRIMSON WHITE
Blame it on Moneymaker. In 2003 the aptly named Chris Moneymaker, then a 27-year-old accountant, won the WSOP in stunning fashion. He bypassed the $10,000 buy-in by winning a $39 online satellite tournament. Then Moneymaker, who had never played a game in person before arriving in Las Vegas, outlasted 838 of the world's top players in the WSOP, taking home $2.5 million.
"[College students] are watching people like Moneymaker, and they don't think he's any better than they are," says Barry Shulman, publisher of Card Playermagazine, which just launched a college edition. "And the chance to win two, three million dollars? That's life-changing."