Poker prodigy: Jason Strasser plays the odds from his dorm room. Jon Gardiner
Poker prodigy: Jason Strasser plays the odds from his dorm room. Jon Gardiner

Mathematics, Logic, and Lady Luck

Duke, like most universities, has been bitten by the poker bug. One student with demonstrated poker-playing power says it's all about exercising an analytical mind, not about bringing in the money.
June 1, 2006
 

Jason Strasser knows what you're thinking. Here's a kid who has made a name for himself in the world of online poker, betting and winning and turning a one-time hobby into a steady source of income. Surely he must be oily or addicted or, at the very least, living in squalor while tapping away unblinking at his computer in the dark, alone.

Well, his dorm room isn't a picture of orderliness, but the other stereotypes don't apply to junior Strasser, a biomedical and electrical-engineering major with an easy smile, a quick wit, and a brilliant analytical mind. "If you tell someone you like to play bridge, that's okay, but as soon as you tell them you play poker, they immediately think you're a gambler," says Strasser, a lanky guy who shows up for a 3:00 p.m. interview shortly after waking up for the day. (He doesn't have classes on Thursdays, and, lest you think he was betting hands until dawn, he assures us he got to bed at the reasonable-for-a-college-student time of 2:00 a.m.)

"I can't blame them," he continues. "Some of the shadiest people in the world play poker. But I tell people to keep an open mind. I treat this as just another game I play. I like that you can apply mathematical and logical concepts to poker to improve your chances and understanding of the game, but you've also got the added element of luck. That's what keeps it interesting for me." Amid online poker players with names like Greasy Tony, theguzzler, and horribilis, Strasser's online names are relatively tame: strassa2 and Shavlick (an intentionally misspelled, self-deprecating reference to a column Strasser wrote last fall for the Duke Chronicle criticizing basketball player Shavlik Randolph that generated massive amounts of hate mail from Blue Devil loyalists).

Strasser, the only son of journalists Joyce Barnathan and Steven Strasser (his sister is a first-year student at Oberlin College), was born in New York but grew up in Hong Kong, where his mother and father were on the staffs of Newsweek and Business Week, respectively. The family moved back to New York when Strasser was in the ninth grade. In high school he played on the basketball and baseball teams and chose Duke over Johns Hopkins and Cornell universities because of the curriculum and faculty at the Pratt School of Engineering.

In his first year at Duke, he happened to meet a few classmates on his hall who dabbled in online poker. Strasser and a friend, Brandon Wise, also a junior, both put in $50 "just to mess around" in a $20 buy-in tournament. Strasser scored 1,000, and, while Wise decided to stop there, Strasser was hooked and funneled his $500 winnings right back into more bets (one memorable evening, he recalls, was winning $17,000 in a PartyPoker.com Monday night tournament).

He now plays a few hours every day--not as often during midterms and exams--and a bit more during school breaks and slower academic stretches. He's also begun traveling to national and international poker tournaments where he rubs elbows with professional players thirty and forty years his senior. To date, Strasser has earned six figures in winnings, including $13,500 at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in the Bahamas in January (he came in 40th). He's currently ranked 167th in the world.

On a warm spring day, Strasser hunkers down in his Wannamaker dorm room, which is decorated with movie and music posters and strewn with clothes, books, and half-empty Snapple bottles. The loft he and his roommate built ended up being too close to the ceiling, so their mattresses are arranged haphazardly on the floor. A guppy-filled aquarium bubbles away in the corner.

Strasser logs on to PartyPoker.com and puts his name on a waiting list to enter several No Limit Hold 'Em games already in progress; players come and go continuously, 24/7. He says he targets those games with the fewest players, "because that way I get to make more decisions. That's the hardest thing about playing live poker. You have to wait so long between hands."

Within minutes, Strasser has entered two games and then two more, so that he's playing four real-time games at once. The action is nonstop. On the screen, generic figures are seated around virtual poker tables, their online names designating the respective logged-on players. Each player is dealt two cards and places bets according to the strength of those cards.

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The goal is to get a winning five-card hand using the two cards a player is dealt and the five that the "house" deals. When a new house card is revealed, players increase their bets or fold, depending on what the other players do. As in face-to-face poker, bluffing is a big part of the strategy.

While there are sites where players can wager "fake" money, most sites allow novices to wager as little as $10 to get in a game. Strasser keeps pots of real money in the various online sites he frequents. (He asks that the amount he maintains in Party Poker not be revealed; suffice it to say that it's somewhat below the poverty line for a family of four.) Today, he antes up $150 here, $70 there. Some games end after only one or two rounds of betting. "I can play sixty to seventy hands per hour, per table," says Strasser. In the midst of the action, he also checks his Duke e-mail and laments that he hasn't yet acquired course permission numbers for two biomedical engineering classes he needs to take in the fall.

Loud hallway conversations float by, a group of students from a neighboring dorm hammer nails into a deck project, and doors open and slam as the minutes tick by. Strasser's not easily distracted. "I actually prefer to play on my laptop in my friend's room while watching movies on his large-screen TV," he says. But, he notes, "poker and homework do not mix."

At one table he's been dealt a pair of sixes. Hoping for another six, he increases his bet by $100. The other players follow suit. The house reveals an 8, then a 7, then a 4 as the bidding continues to escalate. The house turns over an ace, then a jack--Strasser's out of luck. "Okay, here's where I lose money," he says nonchalantly. Within minutes, he's won $300 at another table.

Strasser claims not to care about the money and, watching him play, it's clear that's the case. Money ebbs and flows from his account, but he remains intent on the cards and other players' bets, not his own bottom line. "There is so much volatility in my win rate," he explains. "I win a lot, then I lose a lot. I don't get excited when I have a big win or a big loss because it usually evens out in the long run." When pressed, Strasser admits that the day he lost $30,000 was "pretty miserable." He says he heard of one player who lost $110,000 in four hours of play.

According to Empire Online, a provider of marketing services to the online gaming industry, online poker "has experienced rapid growth in excess of the growth of the overall online gaming market." As of this spring, the company estimates that more than two million people have played online poker, with more than 37,500 playing during peak times of the day on one or more of the approximately 200 online poker websites. (Strasser says he thinks that estimate sounds low and puts the figure closer to 100,000 people at peak times.) Empire Online estimates that North American players like Strasser represent around 75 percent of the total number of online poker players worldwide.

In a poker blog he wrote last year, Jon Schnaars '05 said that Duke, like most colleges and universities, has been bitten by the poker bug, and that spirited poker games in fraternity and off-campus houses are commonplace. Strasser says he estimates that Duke is among the top five universities in terms of the size and activity of its poker community. He, like many others, notes that a huge turning point in poker's visibility occurred when amateur player Chris Moneymaker (yes, that's really his name) won the 2003 World Series of Poker No Limit Hold 'Em, turning a $40 buy-in into winnings of $2,500,000.

For Strasser, who plans to combine his engineering degree and online risk-analysis expertise into a possible career in i-banking, consulting, or perhaps venture capital, the money is indeed a strong lure. But it's not the whole story.

"Earning income from poker means I don't have to rely on my parents as much for spending money," he says. "But it's also allowed me to travel and see places I've never been and meet a whole community of people. And, to be honest, I don't see how the popularity of online poker can last. I think there are a lot of beginners who will stop playing if they don't win."

Ross Katz, Strasser's roommate and also a junior, says he marvels at Strasser's lack of emotion or agitation despite fluctuations in winning. "Jason will win or lose thousands of dollars in a hand or over a night," says Katz. "When other people win and lose thousands of dollars in a hand or over a night, they flip out. They might break things or yell obscenities to the heavens. But Strass barely bats an eyelash.

"He has great judgment and incredible composure and has told me on several occasions not to worry about the things I can't control. He has clearly internalized that better than most twenty-one-year-olds."

Playing cards

Katz also notes that Strasser is very generous to his friends, taking them out to dinner or bankrolling their expenses so that they can tag along to poker tournaments. "That said, he is extremely prudent with his money," says Katz. "He has already invested much of what he's earned. He's not impulsive or greedy. He just loves poker and wants to master it."

As with any get-rich-quick proposition, online poker has its share of problems and pitfalls. Search Google for "online poker," and you'll get a number of sites devoted to teaching how to cheat at the game and other for-profit sites eager to sell the "secrets of winning."

Gambling addictions are nothing new, but players Strasser's age are particularly vulnerable to poker's seductive lure of easy money. In December, Lehigh University sophomore class president Greg Hogan was arrested for robbing a bank to help pay off the debt he'd accumulated playing online poker. Researchers at the International Center for Youth Gambling at McGill University in Montreal rank the addictive nature of online poker alongside such high-risk adolescent activities as drinking and driving too fast.

Strasser says he knows a few fellow Duke players whom he would classify as borderline addicted. And he admits that there are pitfalls in the virtual world of poker. This spring, he logged on to the Prima Poker website where he'd registered months earlier, only to find his account had been frozen--with more than $15,000 in it--because the company claimed he'd violated its terms of agreement (although when pressed, he says, they couldn't tell him how). Strasser's posting about the matter on a poker blog resulted in a huge outcry among players who had experienced similar rip-offs. Eventually the company returned Strasser's money, although one player sniffed that it was only "because Strasser's famous."

Joyce Barnathan acknowledges that she is sometimes concerned for her son's well-being in such a high-stakes hobby. "As a parent, you can tell your children to follow their passion and then try to be as supportive as you can. You can't write their life script for them." She says that Strasser has always been bright and entrepreneurial, launching baseball-trading-card businesses as a boy and setting up a web-design business that paired designers with clients.

"I've always been fascinated to see how Jason would make his mark," she says. "I have to tell you I never thought it would be online poker. But he's very analytical, so in a way it's not surprising. When you think about the skills he uses in poker, they are similar to what venture capitalists do when they size up opportunities and figure out risks: Do I bet on this company or do I not? How much money am I willing to spend? What is the potential here? Jason is a very sensible guy, and his strategic way of thinking can easily be transferred to other skills."

This summer, Strasser will live in Las Vegas--essentially for free--thanks to PokerStars, an international online poker website and company that sponsors a number of online and live international poker tournaments. In exchange for wearing clothing branded with the PokerStars name, Strasser will play all of the 2006 World Series of Poker No-Limit Hold 'Em events and a few of the other non-Hold 'Em events.

Back in his dorm, Strasser slugs it out on the poker tables, on this day winning more than he loses. Certain expressions slip out from time to time--"sick," meaning awesome or amazing; "fish," a term describing a bad poker player; "newb," a beginner or beginner-like play.

Sooner or later he'll have to get around to cleaning his dorm room for his parents' visit the next day. No worries. He'll simply crank up Kanye West, sort dirty laundry, and watch The Big Lebowski on his DVD player--all while scoring enough money from online poker to treat his parents to dinner.