The Story of How I Dropped Out of College to Play Poker Professionally
October 15th, 2006
“Hey mom,” I said sheepishly. It had been over a week since we last spoke.
“Alec! Hi. How are you? Oh my god! Henry, guess who’s on the phone!?!? Okay, so tell me all about your classes.”
“Right. That’s sort of why I’m calling. Well I haven’t exactly been…well classes are…I mean I’m sort of in…”
“Hey Alec, get a look at this,” Andrew exclaimed, pointing at an immaculately trimmed palm tree.
“Hang on mom,” I said, covering the receiver with my sweaty palm while whispering: “Andrew, what?”
“There,” he exclaimed while jabbing his index finger at the palm tree where a huge iguana was clinging onto the jaded bark.
“Hey Alec,” Andrew said with semi-whisper, “$100 bucks says I can touch it before it moves.”
I waved my hand and shook my head, “It’s a bet,” I said, exaggerating the motion with my lips.
Andrew inched up toward it, tiptoeing carefully along the little rock trail adorned with palm trees.
“Yes mom,” I said, like a boy who just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Oh um, nothing, it’s just my friend. I’m sorry he’s being an idiot. He thinks he can catch this iguana—thing’s the size of a cat. Anyway, I was just saying—”
“Alec, there are no iguanas in Texas. Where the hell are you?”
The truth is that I was 2,184.62 miles from where I was supposed to be: in Mr. Stafford’s English class at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
A week ago, playing online poker, I won an all-inclusive vacation package to Aruba, a small island off the coast of Venezuela, which included a $5,000 seat to the World Poker Tour.
And right now, I was caught in a lie.
“Yea, so that’s what I was trying to say. I’m not exactly in Dallas.”
The receiver went silent.
“Alec,” she said, accenting the short ‘æ’ sound for several seconds.
“Mom, just listen okay.”
“So I looked at the dates and realized it was during my semester break. I would only miss two days of class, three at most.”
“You’re not allowed to miss three days of class. They’ll drop you from school; they were very clear about that.”
“Three is the limit. I won’t miss another when I get back, I promise. And besides, three is only if I make the final table, which is why I was calling you.”
“What table? Alec, where are you?”
“It just happened, mom, I swear. I was playing an online poker tournament and this notification popped up saying they had a World Poker Tour event in Aruba.”
It was a $200 buy-in and the winner received an all-inclusive trip to Aruba as well as a $5,000 entry fee paid to the tournament with a chance to win $1,000,000 to the winner. And, well, um, I won the satellite, so here I am.”
“So let me get this straight, you’re in Aruba right now?”
“Yes, but I checked with all my teachers and told them I would be gone, and I brought my homework on the plane, and I’m taking all of my tests when I get back.”
“Yea and where did you tell them you’d be going?”
“The first thing I could think of, that grandma had passed and I was coming home.”
“Good Alec. That’s great—just great. Now you’re lying too.”
“Well it wasn’t exactly…”
“You know how much a semester at SMU costs. We’re not paying that kind of money so you can sit on a fucking island and play a god damn card game.”
“Mom c’mon, we used to do it all the time when we ditched school for the weekend to go snowboarding, remember? I don’t see how this is any different.”
“You’re not even allowed to play poker, you’re just a kid.”
“Well it’s overseas where the legal age is 18.”
For all her anger, she was still my mom, concerned: “Christ Alec, I mean are you okay there? I know there was that incident with Natalie a while ago. Where are you staying? Do you have friends? Is it safe? Is it El Niño there too?”
“We’re at the Hyatt Regency. It’s so beautiful mom, perfect weather, just like Hawaii. White sand beaches, right on the water, swimming pools, and they even have those little Piña Coladas with umbrellas in them—virgin, of course. And yes, I’m here with Andrew, the friend I told you about?” I paused, waiting for a response, then added:
“He plays poker as well. I mean, he’s a student too: an honors student actually, at the University of Michigan.”
She finally replied, “I suppose he was on semester break as well huh?” Andrew had already dropped out of college to play poker full-time and had been crushing on the internet for the past two months. This was his first live event, but he already had his sights on the Bahamas in January, the most exclusive poker tour stop in the world.
Well, he sorta, um…. yeah, it’s a long story.”
“So how did you do in the tournament? Is it over? When did you get there?”
“Well I got here five days ago,” I said hesitantly.
“What! You’ve been there for 5 days!”
“I was supposed to leave today, cause, you know, I have school tomorrow and all, but I can’t.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, that’s what I was saying; I sort of made the final table.”
“You WHAT!?” she exclaimed, in a cocktail tone of anger, excitement, and confusion.
“The tournament lasts five days and started with 700 people. I originally had planned to go back to Dallas today, because I didn’t expect to make it this far, but now there’s nine people left, and I can’t exactly leave you know.”
“Wait, there’re nine people left? You made the final table?”
“Yup. First place is $1,000,000. Right now, I’m guaranteed to make $20,000, all from a $200 investment.”
The receiver went silent for the second time.
“My son is at the final table of a poker tournament,” she screamed, her voice growing distant as she looked around the office for someone to share the news with.
“Mary,” she said, calling out to her secretary, “where’s my husband?! Get me Henry.”
Mom is everything okay?
In the background: “You won’t believe where our son is!”
“No, no, he’s not in Dallas. I’ll explain later. He’s at the final table of a poker tournament! No, I’ll explain that too. Aruba, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Only three days of class, yes. Wait until you hear how much he can win!”
“Alec, are you still there?”
“Yeah,” I cautiously replied.
“Well I guess now that you’re there, you might as well enjoy it. I’m so proud of you Alec! You beat those bastards. I want you to come back with that money and when you do, we’re going to invest it, you hear? The housing market is great right now, you give me $100,000, and I’ll buy us something good. You always want to put aside at least 10%, you know? You’ll thank me later.”
“Well, I guess I should say good luck tomorrow, but I know you don’t believe in that.”
“Thanks, I’ll take it.”
“Play well son.”
“Will do. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know what happens.”
“Okay we can’t wait! And don’t forget to do your homework!”
“Of course, love you mom, you’re the best.”
“Love you too Alec.”
Reaching in my pocket, I turned to Andrew and handed him $100.
The bastard iguana didn’t even budge.
“Just win the tournament,” Andrew said. “Then you won’t give a fuck about school.” It was true. With $1,000,000 I could do whatever I wanted.
The next day, school, textbooks, and excuses faded into oblivion as the cameras and lights brightened and the cards were in the air.
Things didn’t go as planned. After calling a raise from the big blind with Kh Jh, in a 3-way pot with Cliff “JohnnyBax” Josephy, I decided to make my move.
The flop came down Qd 9h 4h. I shoved all-in. The initial raiser moved in, Josephy folded, and when the villain turned over two Kings, I knew I needed a ten or a heart to improve.
Two cards later, I finished a bittersweet 8th place. Despite my impressive payday, it was hard stomaching the fact that if a different card came I could’ve been a millionaire. Not to mention a victory on national television, at such a young age, would open up doors for years to come.
Sponsorships and endorsements could make me enough money that I wouldn’t have to play on my own dime; nonetheless, some of the edge was taken off when I walked out of the cage with a check for $40,000.
We took over the night club later that evening and ordered bottles of Vodka and Jägermeister, taking advantage of the fact that it’s legal to drink outside the genius laws of the United States, where somehow one can die in battle three years before one can drink wine with family.
It felt like the entire club was filled with poker players, most under 25-years-old. Champagne bottles topped with sparkling fireworks were brought to our table by women dressed like bunnies. Beautiful women were everywhere.
I caught eyes with one and fought to scream over the music trying to catch her name and where she was from.
“Shannon or Sherry?” I screamed.
I was too drunk to care.
Another round of shots.
Was this really the life I was so afraid of living? A wave of excitement and fear came over me. I couldn’t remember what was holding me back in the first place, nor could I remember her name.
The next day I overslept, so instead of sitting on a plane flying over the Caribbean Sea, I was in the middle of the Hyatt pool on a huge pink flamingo float drinking Piña Coladas—of course, at the time, it didn’t seem to matter that I missed more than my allotted days of absences—I’m sure Mr. Stafford would understand.
I couldn’t help but let the fact that I made more in a weekend, than some of my teachers made in a year, go to my head.
Andrew put down John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza to squeeze a lime into his Corona. “The best thing for a hangover is to keep drinking,” he said, in a bellowing Santa Claus like laugh that could be heard from across the pool.
“I’m really glad we met up here,” I said to him. Having someone that understood me gave me the confidence to take action on living and creating my own dreams.
Sometimes we just need to know that we’re not alone.
I walked into my English class Wednesday morning looking like a zombie. My face was sunburned and blue bags engulfed my eyes.
“A word please, Alec,” Mr. Stafford said, pulling me aside.
“Hello Alec, welcome back. How was your time back home?”
“Oh it was amazing. I mean, things went well. We got it all sorted, if you know what I mean.”
Mr. Stafford raised a brow.
“What I meant was things like this really make you think about what’s important.”
“Alec, I’m really sorry, but I have to do this; its admins’ policy,” Mr. Stafford said, handing me an envelope with my name in red ink.
“You’ve exceeded the number of allowed absences, so I have no choice but to drop you from the class. I’m sorry Alec, but the rules are very clear.”
“Now there may be a way we can fix this. I’ve gone ahead and setup a meeting with Dean Ellis. You have an A in the class, and with a voucher from me, they may let this one slide. We have a meeting with the Dean tomorrow at 8:00a.m.”
That was supposed to be one of the most dramatic things that could happen; instead, I felt relieved. Dropping English meant I had more time for poker.
The Bahamas was just around the corner, and if I wanted to compete I would have to work on my game and build up my bankroll for the lucrative cash games.
I thought about Andrew sitting at his computer grinding out one hand at a time, building his bankroll and future. I thought back to the incredible week in Aruba: the poker, the pool, and the parties.
“It’s okay Mr. Stafford. I’m not really committed to the class.”
“But Alec you have an A. You know how much I like your stories.”
“I know but my head’s just not in it anymore.”
“Alec, if this is about your grandma I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“Actually Mr. Stafford I haven’t been quite honest with you…”
“Well then I guess good luck is in order,” Mr. Stafford said, after my belated explanation.
“Promise me you’ll take a few days to consider it, he added”
Of course, I promised Mr. Stafford I would think it over, but I’d already made up my mind.
I sat outside with my feet soaking in the cool water at the brand new Paul B. Loyd, Jr. All-Sports Center’s pool, soaking up the warm Dallas sun. I watched from afar as students scurried to class with the ever-growing pressure of the upcoming final exams quickening their pace.
It was time to go. Mr. Stafford was expecting me, and his creative writing essay was due in 12 minutes, but instead I leaned over, reached into my backpack, and applied another layer of sunscreen to my already tanned arms.