Student wins big in poker tournament

MBA student John Centeno’s mid-semester break was not much of a break.

He applied his analytical thinking skills, decision-making abilities, and his knowledge of trading and allocating capital to win $6000 in a poker tournament.

Centeno, a second-year MBA and economics student in the Tepper School of Business, and his roommate Brian Cole competed in a Texas hold ’em tournament along with 81 students from other top colleges and universities throughout the country. Cole is also an MBA student in the Tepper School.

The event was hosted by Susquehanna International Group (SIG), a leading trading and financial services firm, at the company’s headquarters in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

The event was a way to recruit top talent, explained SIG assistant director Todd Simkin, while showing students in the field how the company operates.

“Minimally, we want to expose [students] to how we make decisions,” Simkin said. “Poker players need to make expert decisions out of uncertainty and allocate capital based on those uncertainties.”

Centeno, co-founder of Tepper’s graduate poker club, and Cole, who is on the club’s board, decided to attend the conference at the urging of a recruiter from SIG who visited campus.

“We had a good conversation, and I like to play poker,” Centeno said. He said he didn’t realize the amount of money — about $75,000 total — that the company was offering in prizes. Cole said that the chance to win some money and be interviewed by the firm added to the event’s appeal.

Centeno came in fifth place. First prize, which was $25,000, went to an MIT student.

Both Centeno and Cole believe that the skills they’ve acquired as poker players regularly help them in their coursework as MBA students.

“In poker, you’re constantly making decisions based on imperfect information,” Centeno said. “It helps with decision-making under uncertainty and understanding basic probabilistic and psychological conditions. There’s a lot of transferability.”

Cole stated that poker has improved his ability to make quick mathematical calculations, read people, and constantly assess information.

“All these skills translate well into the business world and my studies,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This summer I worked at Constellation Energy’s trading business, and the ability to quickly synthesize information and make decisions is key.”

The pair are not the only ones who have caught on to poker’s benefits. Simkin reported that five years ago, about 5 percent of students’ résumés that he viewed mentioned that they played poker. Today, he estimates that it’s about 80 percent. He believes that the popularity of televised poker tournaments has added to the game’s appeal.

Cole believes that the growth of online poker sites has also made poker playing more common. However, he expects that current legislation to ban fund transfers from customers to online gaming sites will lessen its popularity.

Centeno has also noticed a rise in the number of people playing poker. Last year’s MBA poker tournament, he said, was capped at 500 players; this year, it’s 1500. He thinks the social aspect of the game is partly responsible for the surge.

“It’s a networking thing,” he said. “Poker is the new golf.”

Centeno has been playing since 2002, when he was a college senior. Since then, he estimates that he’s won $7000–$8000 overall. Most of this money was made after graduation when he played poker full time for three months.

“I derived the majority of my income from poker during that time,” Centeno said.

He said that he adds that information to his resume, along with being president of the university’s graduate poker club, when he thinks it’s applicable.

But poker is not just a graduate students’ sport. Undergrads are also getting in on the game.

Janice Weinberg, a sophomore information systems major, estimates that she plays online poker about five hours a week. She said she knows “a good amount” of fellow students who also play poker online.

Weinberg said she’s broken even since she started playing. Another H&SS sophomore, who requested to remain anonymous, said he’s made about $5000 in the past three years that he’s been playing online poker.

Senior business major Donald Norman plays for higher stakes. He estimates that he’ll make $100,000 this fiscal year alone.

Norman, whose parents do not support him financially, has paid his tuition entirely with his poker earnings. He plans to put his future earnings toward buying a Ferrari and a yacht this summer.

Norman said that poker has helped to improve his interperative analysis skills, which he finds important as a business major.

“When I found out poker was a skill game I thought, ‘If anyone can make money off it I can,’” Norman wrote in an e-mail. “I’m a business major and a businessman first and foremost.”

Next year, his goal is to make $500,000 in poker winnings.

“If I only make [$200,000], I’ll [definitely] be disappointed in myself,” Norman stated. “I think I can retire by the time I’m 26 if I keep improving.”

Despite these successes, both Centeno and Norman have experienced poker’s downside. Centeno has lost $2500 in half an hour; Norman has lost $1000 in a single hand.

For these reasons they urge students to play responsibly.

“You shouldn’t play poker with your rent money and you shouldn’t play more than you can afford,” Centeno said. “You should be focused on making the best decision at any given time.”