An Interview with World-Series of Poker Finalist Ricky Fohrenbach
Playing Cards for a Living
Midway through his junior year at Boston College, Ricky Fohrenbach – one of the most promising math students in the state of Connecticut – decided to drop out of school and start playing poker for a living. This decision didn’t come out of nowhere. At the age of twelve, Ricky scored in the 90th percentile on the SATs. He also picked up the knack to hustle his friends at billiards and whatever other random scheme he’d think of to make a couple dollars here and there. Growing up in a lower middle-class family, he was driven to turn his fifty-cent-per-week allowance into more than just a pack of gum.Seven years after dropping out, Ricky has travelled to play in tournaments all over the world and has made it into a highly publicized final table of the World Series of Poker. How does the kid that everyone expected to be a math whiz or working a traditional job find himself playing poker for a living? I sat down with Ricky to find out.
How did you get into poker?
I had always been aware that poker existed, but until 2003 my knowledge of the game was very limited. I was an avid gambler from a young age – for instance, I found a way to make profitable sports bets at age 14 on an online message board. I concocted elaborate Internet-based schemes that exploited the ubiquitous refer-a-friend programs of the early 2000s, the same time that tech stocks were exploding. I would face off against friends at tennis, pool, and ping-pong – any game where I felt I could obtain an “edge” – while still giving my opponent the illusion that they had an equal shot against me.
I was also a very gifted math student early on. My mom would buy me math workbooks at age 3 or 4, and I quickly demonstrated the aptitude of an adult when it came to mental math. These skills carried over to elementary school – I remember getting a letter from my state senator congratulating me on getting the highest score in Connecticut on a standardized math test administered to all 5th graders.
Anyway, in 2003, in my junior year of high school, a friend mentioned to me during physics class that it was possible to play poker on the Internet. He had just joined a growing website – PartyPoker.com – after seeing a commercial during ESPN’s telecast of the World Series of Poker. Even though I had neither experience of the game nor knowledge of the rules, a light went off in my head. I knew, through watching limited portions of televised poker tournaments, that it was possible for good players to clean up against bad players.
I suspected that with a bit of studying and my natural aptitude for math I just might be able to turn this into my next profitable scheme. Perhaps I would be able to win $100 here and there and quit my job as a cashier at Walgreens making seven bucks an hour, taking orders from some manager. Excited by the possibilities, I borrowed a book from the library and read up on the game for an hour or two. I felt comfortable with the rules and the basics of the game. I decided to toss $100 onto the aforementioned website and give it a shot.
I didn’t have immediate success. However, in the first few hours of playing the game I could see that many of the players were approaching it sub-optimally. There are certain hands and situations where putting money in the pot is practically indefensible. Yet players cling to silly superstitions or their own imperfect methods. The beauty of poker is that a bad player can delude himself into the idea that he is actually good. For example, if a player is fortunate enough to make four of a kind with a pair of twos in his hand at a greater frequency than the math would dictate, he may start to believe that a pair of twos is a better starting hand than larger pairs. It’s up to me to exploit that mistake, along with thousands of other possible mistakes opponents can make.