Smart poker players show folly of real gamblers

By Victoria Coren

We have a new world poker champion. Jonathan Duhamel, 23, from Canada, has just won the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and its US$8.9 million ($11.4 million) prize.

Last year, the world champion was Joe Cada, 21, from the United States. The year before it was Peter Eastgate, 22, from Denmark.

What do you notice? They are all children. Runner-up this year was John Racener, 24, third was Joseph Cheong, 24, and fourth was Filippo Candio, 25. All are multimillionaires.

If you still imagine poker as an outlaw pastime for old men in dusty back rooms, you should get out more. Following the internet revolution, a new generation is growing up with poker as a serious career choice.

Jonathan Duhamel, the fresh champion, dropped out of the University of Quebec, where he was studying for a degree in finance, to become a professional player.

His parents argued against this plan. That's a conversation I'd like to have heard.

"Jonathan, you're being silly. You're taking a finance degree. Finance is solid. Nothing could possibly go wrong in the world of banking and international economy.

Why would you turn your back on that to gamble?"

[Two years later]: "Hi, Dad. It's Jonathan. I've just made $9 million."

Meanwhile, students riot in London because their fees are being whacked up as bankers "speculate" away all the public money.

So, who are the gamblers? You won't find a poker player whose losses lead to housing benefit being slashed and fire extinguishers thrown off a roof.

There is an army of youngsters like Jonathan Duhamel out there; I know, because I play poker with them. They are clever and educated, turning their mathematical skills to the game of probabilities and judgment. They are shrewd and sensible; they exercise "bankroll management" to make sure they can't go skint in a single disaster. It would be nice if our expert financiers had done the same.

There is a 22-year-old called Jake Cody from Lancashire, England, who unnerved his parents by quitting a psychology degree to play poker full-time. In January, he won the French leg of the European Poker Tour for €847,000.

"Be careful with that, young man," I said, as if I were his granny. "Big wins come once in a lifetime, or not at all. The only aim in poker is to survive. Put it safely away and play with a tiny proportion."

But Jake was ahead of me. He was already planning to invest the money in property around Manchester. Six months later, he won the London leg of the World Poker Tour for £273,783 . I sighed and went back to my knitting.

Parents don't tend to be terribly keen on their children playing poker. I hid it from mine for years. They thought I played the odd recreational game with friends. I didn't reveal I'd been playing casino tournaments until 2004, when I couldn't resist ringing them up to say I'd just won £14,000.

"That sounds good," said my father cautiously. "I wouldn't tell many people about that if I were you." Two years later, I rang to say I'd just won £500,000. Then they told everybody.

If your teenage son or daughter wants to be a poker player, and you're terrified, what would you rather they did? Where do you see security for them?

In manual work? Industry? Don't be ridiculous. Publishing? That's on its last legs. Television? No safety there. A desk job for a lifetime? No such thing anymore. Banking? Ho ho.

Poker is no longer about establishing who is the best drunken dropout. It's about who is the best maths genius. It's far less risky these days because of the scope of the internet.

If you're any good at the game, you can play for tiny stakes and spin them up into large amounts. A clever player doesn't buy into huge tournaments, they will win their ticket for £10 in an online competition. A clever player saves for rainy days.

Of course there are risks, for the wrong sort of personality. You need the discipline, restraint and self-awareness to stop if you're losing. And I don't think students should drop out to turn pro, because they can play internet poker on the side.

If it works out, poker winnings are non-taxable, unofficial earnings, so you'll never have to pay back that loan. What happier revenge on a regime that gave our education money to the real gamblers? Better the mouse than the fire extinguisher.

- Observer

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