• The Make It Big Issue
    The Make It Big Issue


    An Interview with World-Series of Poker Finalist Ricky Fohrenbach

    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.

    When did you realize poker could become more than just game you could play for an extra twenty bucks here and there?

    Things really started to click for me within a year of my first “session” of poker. I would play for one to five hours here and there, balancing my new hobby with a job, the demands of AP classes, and my school’s tennis team. I quickly recognized that there was potential for serious profit in poker, so I started channeling the majority of my focus into it. I would lurk on message boards, gleaning advice from better players, observing their techniques as they played at one-hundred times the stakes I was playing. I would start to incorporate their “moves” into my style of poker, refining my technique constantly in an effort to exploit the play of my opponents. Ten dollar tournaments quickly became $100 tournaments; a hobby where I was earning $50 here and there became a remarkably consistent income stream, one from which I was drawing serious income by my senior year of high school.

    I found that by playing tournaments with only ten players, I could achieve consistent success. These tournaments took only an hour to play, and it was possible to play 12 to 16 of them at once with the same edge that I would have playing just one. I drew from my knowledge of mathematics to estimate my chances of success. I used a binomial calculator to approximate my odds of winning money on a given day. For instance, let us say that I needed to win money in at least 34 of the 100 tournaments I could play in a 6-hour day in order to break even or profit. The binomial calculator states that a player with a 42% chance of success on any individual trial will succeed at least 34 in 100 tries on almost 96% of days! So my income was rather consistent, to say the least. If I played 25 days out of the month, on average I would lose money only one of those days.

    At what point did you decide to start playing for a living?

    Once I started achieving modest success, playing poker for a living was always in the back of my mind. Unlike the stock market, poker is not “scalable” – when you want to play for higher stakes, the players are inevitably better at the game. So I had to strike a balance of how many tables to play at once, the optimal stakes to play, and a comfortable level of risk. 

    I played somewhat casually from age 17 to 20. Then, I made the bold move of dropping out of Boston College with only three semesters left. I had been bouncing between majors, I lacked focus, and all my peers encouraged me to pursue poker instead. In retrospect, it was a wise move; the economy tanked soon after (leaving my job prospects slim as a mediocre student), and I have been doing this full-time since 2007.

    As a professional, I achieved major successes every year. I would win $75k to $150k in one individual tournament at least once per year for my first five years as a pro. Since I want to settle down and have a family by my early 30s, I have scaled back from the ultra high stakes games. However, the potential for profit is immense even at the “small” tournaments. If I am able to play 5,000 tournaments with an average buy-in of $100 and achieve even a 30% return on my investment, I can make $150k per year. This is well within the realm of possibility for a talented professional. Granted, my opponents are always improving, using the same tools and ingenuity that I use to get better. But I have always remained a step or two ahead of the pack. 

    Despite my successes, for the most part I remained relatively grounded. I knew that success could come and go, and that for every $100k victory, I could have a three month stretch of bad luck where I break even. My biggest splurge in the last decade was probably the Cadillac Escalade that I drove for a few years. But usually, I put my winnings into the stock market.

    What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in playing poker for a living?

    The biggest challenge has been to balance my ego and confidence with the knowledge that if a wager seems too good to be true, it probably is. If a poker friend offers to play a match of beer pong against me for $5,000, I should conclude that he is either extremely talented or a bumbling fool – with little middle ground. However, I’ve used my lanky and unassuming appearance to my advantage; I once won nine consecutive games of beer pong against a poker friend for $2,000 a pop. The debt was so cumbersome that he decided to sign over the title to his 2005 Volvo as payment.

    It is both an advantage and a disadvantage to be underestimated by seasoned veterans when I walk into a casino. I have to hear them rail against the “young guns” like me who are taking over the game. I also have to remember that I don’t have the same advantages as seasoned pros in the form of sponsorship deals from online poker sites. These players don’t have to risk their own money like I do. 

    At the same time, if my opponents assume I am just a rich kid with Daddy’s money, they will soon be parting with a lot of their chips! I remember playing a tournament in Las Vegas at age 21 with a $25,000 entry fee – to this day, it is the most I have risked on one tournament. Players at other tables wondered how a baby-faced kid like me was here playing one of the biggest poker tournaments in the world. A rumor started that I was the son or stepson of Bill Gates – I still laugh when I hear that one!

    Can you share any first- or second-hand stories of people that haven’t had the same success as you?

    I have seen many of my peers struggle to balance the immense stakes at the poker table with the realities of the real world. They rationalize hiring a maid for $100, telling themselves they can win 100 to 1,000 times that if they get lucky in a big tournament. They battle drug addictions, they watch personal relationships suffer, and they let the demands of the game consume them. In 2014, as the general knowledge of poker has improved, it has become more important to obsess over the minutiae of the game. Just as an NFL coach might instruct his special teams players with specially diagrammed plays to improve their team’s average field position by a few yards per drive, a poker player might tweak his approach ever so slightly, choosing to enter 22% of pots instead of the 19% that he would have entered a few years back.

    What do you think of how poker is represented in mainstream media?

    I would say that the media focuses only on the most polarized examples. You will see stories on poker-centric websites about the best players in the world. You’ll also see stories about the high school dropout who commits suicide as a result of his staggering debt and damaged self-esteem, the “poker horror story”, so to speak. There isn’t enough being written about the upper middle-class poker player who approaches the game rationally, finds a nice balance between poker and other hobbies, and leads a fairly well-rounded life as a whole. I would like to say that person is me. There can’t be that many professional poker players who have consistently posted six-figure years for several years running. At the same time, I sometimes wonder if I am not pushing myself hard enough. I only play for 20 to 40 hours per week, and I often take off an entire week or two to recharge my brain. The game is very mentally demanding. I have to make so many decisions per hour (1,000 or more – one every few seconds) that it is impossible to step away from the computer for even 30 seconds when I am engaged with the game.

    Allow me to share a story of a poker player who has let the game mess up his life in a major way. He accrued debts so considerable, in the course of borrowing money and betting on sports, that he owed millions of dollars to other gamblers. He was making millions per year in dividends from a major online poker site. However, he was losing that much and more by gambling on situations in which he didn’t have an edge. It is crucial that a gambler only seek out profitable opportunities. Casino games like roulette and craps are essentially unbeatable in the long run unless you have an illegal arrangement with an employee of the casino, which could land you in prison. What I do, on the other hand, is entirely legal and arguably 100% ethical as well. I get dealt the same cards as everyone else; through the power of observation, intimidation, and free information, I am able to accrue an edge that pays my bills and then some.

    I have some interesting statistics that might shed some light on the challenges poker players face. A successful baseball player gets on base maybe 40% of the time. Likewise, I’ve had my ups and downs, with almost twice as many losing days as winning ones. I’ve had periods where my results were poor; doubt inevitably begins to creep in, and I wonder if it is time to pursue something else for a living. Then I go and win five figures in a month, and all is well again.

    People are surprised to hear this, but in the 20,000 tournaments played over the course of 8+ years, I have won money in less than 18% of them. The idea is to balance some large wins the times I succeed with some modest losses the 82% of the time I “strike out”.

    How has poker affected your personal life?

    Poker has opened so many doors for me that I never knew existed. I can spend so much quality time with my boyfriend. I rarely carry any stress from my job into my day-to-day life. I am able to read what I want to read, say what I want to say, wear what I want to wear. I don’t have to answer to a boss. It is hard to come up with many cons to this profession. My tax returns, while more complicated than most others’, are not all that cumbersome. I have struggled with alcoholism, isolation, and other issues – I’m only human. But thanks to poker, I was able to search OKCupid for the entire United States and message someone with whom I truly connected. The beauty of online poker is that I can live anywhere in the world and play from the comfort of my own home, in my underwear if I desire!

    It might seem stressful to a layperson to be playing for tens of thousands of dollars. Poker tournaments have a very top-heavy payout structure. You can outlast 500 players and make the “final table” of 9. The prize for 9th might be only $1,000, while the top 3 places pay $20k, $15k, and $11k. There is certainly pressure to succeed when I find myself in those situations. I have to remind myself, though, that if I place 9th tonight, it isn’t for naught. I will draw on my experience and be 5% more likely to succeed the next time around against those opponents. 

    To be honest, the stress of my first ever relationship at age 26 far outweighs the stress of my career. It is tough when a tournament runs hours longer than expected. Sure, it is nice to win a lot of money, but I hate missing out on watching my favorite shows or sports with my boyfriend. That stings more than any financial loss.

    I have an incredibly even temperament when I am playing poker, even at the computer. I don’t get visibly excited when I win a lot of money. However, I have a somewhat hot temper away from the table. I think that I pour so much energy into the game that I struggle to maintain poise in an argument with my boyfriend about the volume of my music. I need to do a better job of approaching real life with the same rationality that I have when I’m playing poker. 

    People have told me that I would be a gifted actuary or stock trader. But I would not trade the freedom poker affords me for even $1 million a year at a conventional job. If I can live an upper middle class lifestyle and still have time to read the New York Times for an hour or two a day, I am incredibly happy to do so!

    What are some issues that poker players are faced with today after “Black Friday”?

    (“Black Friday” refers to April 15th, 2011, when the US Government shut down three of the biggest online poker sites, accusing them of money laundering.)

    Poker enjoys a pseudo-legal status in the United States, and I’m often forced to play on fly-by-night websites that could plausibly walk away with my money at any time. That is why I keep a small segregated bankroll on the poker sites, with the majority of my savings nestled away in stock accounts. The tide is turning, though. New Jersey just legalized online poker, and anyone can play if they live there or are visiting the state. I plan to take a gander at the games when I make a trip to Atlantic City for a $3,500 entry tournament. The first prize is $500k to $1 million; prizes start at around double the entry fee and increase from there.

    Did you ever expect that this is where you’d end up after dropping out of college seven years ago?

    Never did I suspect that I would be in my seventh year of playing the game for a living, better off financially than anyone in my graduating class, or that poker would consume me for days, weeks, months at a time.

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