Daniel Cates looks at the cards on the screen of his old Sony laptop—a ten and a jack. The dealer flops a nine, a seven, and a king. That gives Cates nothing. If the next card’s an eight or a queen, he’ll have a straight and will likely win the hand, but is it worth it to call his opponent’s bet of $1,400 to see another card? He’s got seconds to decide—in the world of online Texas Hold ’Em, thousands can be won or lost very quickly.
At 20, Cates isn’t old enough to set foot inside a casino, but like an increasing number of college students, he gambles online. And in two years he’s become one of the best, racking up winnings of more than $2 million.
An economics major at the University of Maryland and a graduate of the science-and-technology program at Greenbelt’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Cates always has been good with numbers.
After depositing $300 into his online account in August 2007, he has slowly moved up the online-poker ranks. Cates now plays for thousands of dollars at a time. He says it’s important to forget what the numbers on the screen represent—that he’s just bet the equivalent of a semester’s tuition or a midsize car on a hand.
Cates is simultaneously playing hands at three other tables, and his screen flashes as he receives an instant message from an online acquaintance. His cell phone rings. It’s his sister. “Oh, yeah—I was supposed to pick her up from school,” he says. “She can wait a few more minutes.”
The legality of online poker is a gray area, says Keith Whyte of the National Council on Problem Gambling. In 2006, Congress passed a law making it illegal to transfer money from US banks to gambling Web sites.
“There’s many ways around it,” Whyte says. Gambling sites such as Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars are headquartered in places where online gambling is legal, and both accept American players and bank accounts. “It’s unclear whose laws apply,” Whyte says. “Is it the country where the player is located or the country where the site is located?”
Many young people are more than willing to take the risk. A 2010 study by the Journal of American College Health reports that 75 percent of US college students have gambled in the past year. Whyte estimates that his organization’s gambling-addiction hotline receives 13,500 calls a year from people younger than 21, about 5 percent of all calls; Cates is one of the few who are successful at poker.
Cates plays an average of 650 hands a day. He’s thinking about moving out of the country to avoid paying taxes on his winnings, and he sometimes has trouble connecting with his family on topics other than poker. He usually plays anywhere from a few hours to more than ten hours a day. At the moment, at 4:30 pm, he still hasn’t eaten a meal.
Online poker has leveled the playing field between amateurs and professionals who attend nationally televised events and have become minor celebrities. Take Cates’s opponent today. For years, Prahlad Friedman has been one of poker’s biggest personalities. He wears a white hoodie sweatshirt and designer sunglasses, lives in Los Angeles, and is famous for his playful raps about poker.
Cates is reserved—he plays poker in his parents’ basement on a laptop. He wears a wrinkled striped polo, and his curly hair is unkempt. But none of that matters—he thinks he has Friedman figured out.
He checks the notes and statistics on Friedman in his computer, decides the risk is worthwhile, and clicks “call” to make the bet, hoping for an eight or a queen. He now has invested $2,200 in the hand, more than two months’ pay at a previous job at McDonald’s.
The next card comes. It’s another nine, and it doesn’t help. Friedman checks, and Cates, sensing weakness, bluffs. He bets $3,100, hoping Friedman will fold. He doesn’t, and Cates now has invested more than $5,000 on the 17-percent chance that the last card will give him a straight or a queen.
For someone who has earned millions over the past two years, Cates allows himself few luxuries. He eats at Popeyes once or twice a week. He could live anywhere but says he was too lazy to fill out a housing request form at the university, so he lives at home. He commutes to school when he feels like it, but it’s obvious his textbooks don’t get much use—they’re underneath a stack of poker books in the basement. Cates would like to graduate, but only because he doesn’t want to be a college dropout.
His main goal is never to work another day in his life. “I had a traditional job,” he says. “I don’t want to do that again.”
Well into the school year, he hadn’t bought a parking pass, hoping his expired permit would do the trick. When it didn’t, he paid the $75 ticket and shrugged it off. “It seems they’ve figured me out,” he says. “I’ve gotten a ticket every time I’ve parked there for the last week.”
The poker gods, at least, are smiling on him today. The last card comes—a queen. He has the straight. Friedman, trying to bluff, goes all in with a $14,000 bet. Cates calls. He wins $36,000. Cates shows little emotion—he’s got another hand to play. And he has to pick up his sister.