It’s a Tuesday night in March in the basement of Harrison College House, and four Penn students gather around an unused pool table. The two sitting in the middle rotate the responsibility of dealing cards to the group. A $160 pot has been collected, and one dealer keeps the cash in the back pocket of his jeans. The colorful, plastic chips mean more. Except for the sound of Penn Masala rehearsing in the piano room next door and the rhythm of players shuffling their chips, it’s silent. Upstairs, people are studying, spending time with friends, watching Netflix. Downstairs, it’s only poker.
On the bank of the Delaware River, there’s a place where “$500 is fairly low,” according to College senior Scott Kim. While other students get their recommended eight hours seven miles Northwest, Scott pulls all–nighters at the new poker room at SugarHouse Casino.
Scott, whose family lives in Las Vegas, is considering playing poker professionally after graduation. He already has his parents’ full support. Since the start of the semester, he’s been playing regularly at SugarHouse, the closest casino to campus with the only live poker room in downtown Philadelphia. “I started going to SugarHouse a couple weeks ago,” Scott said in an interview in February. “I went in with $500, and in about a week, I made $3,000.” By the middle of the week, he was averaging $500 a night. Scott’s working on building up a bankroll, the money poker players theoretically set aside for the game, to play with next year. But he’s still unsure if he’s ready to commit to poker full–time, giving up a secure job at his father’s company. “We’ll have to see,” he said. “If I get better, if I build up a bankroll, since I’m in Vegas anyway, it might be the perfect equation for me.”
Scott is on one end of the poker playing spectrum at Penn. Back on campus, the under–21–year–olds play with the Poker Club, of which Scott serves as Head of Corporate Outreach.
On almost any given night, members of the Penn Poker Club Home Game Facebook group are looking to play no–limit (“NL”) Texas Hold’em. “Let’s play 40 NL at 6 p.m.?” one freshman posted on a Thursday night in February. Forty is the buy–in. The 280 members of the group know the place.
When Wharton junior and President Abheek Basu took over the club at the end of his freshman year, “there were maybe 20 people,” he said. “And I’ve helped build it up to a group of 500 people on the listserv.” Abheek and his fellow board members revamped the club to provide an alternative to the private games on campus. While it’s still common for fraternities and groups of friends to organize games among themselves, the club makes games and tournaments available to everyone.
“On any given night, anyone can ask, ‘Who wants to get a game together?’ and you’ll have people get a game together right away,” said the club’s Vice President and Engineering junior Noah Goldman. “Once we make the group, not much goes on from there. We play in the games and help facilitate this poker network, and we kind of stay hands–off once we do that.” The Poker Club’s board constantly reinforces the distinction between its official events and the home games, which are unofficial, spontaneous and not necessarily condoned. These games are underground, literally and figuratively—in the Harrison basement. Just like any other SAC–recognized club hosts BYOs on members’ own dimes, the Poker Club’s players pony up for their home games. These are all cash games: each chip is worth a certain real cash value. This isn’t a casino. There is no house. No one takes a percentage of the pot as profit for organizing. The winner takes it all.
An active member of Penn’s Poker Club plays around once a week, but some “sharks” play daily. These are the best poker players on campus. They consistently win, making upwards of $100 a week, depending on how often they play and the stakes of the games they’re in. One senior claims to make enough money off the home games to pay for food and housing.
If the winnings are in the hands of a few, then many more students walk home empty–handed. Losing $20 or more weekly may seem excessive, but most of these players see the buy–in more as the price of playing. “A lot of the kids who are losing love the game and see it like, you could go out to a bar and spend $20 one night,” said Abheek. For many members, the club is an opportunity to meet people with similar interests. Twenty dollars is the the standard buy–in for the majority of games, but across campus, some members choose to raise the stakes by putting more money in the pot.
Abheek’s freshman year, one senior lost $1,000 in a one–on–one game. He said, “this isn’t something that the club promotes at all. But it happens. Then there are the other games: the big frat games. The buy–in right now for the biggest frat game on campus is about $1,000.”
The brothers put $1,000 on the table weekly.
While closed games at Penn occasionally have big buy–ins, some of our UCity neighbors have decided to play house. “The Drexel game” occurs pretty regularly, involving around eight players, one or two of them often Penn students. This game, unlike Penn’s home games, operates like a casino. The hosting students run the games and take a portion of the pot as profit. “It’s $150 max buy–in,” Noah explained. “So if you have nine people at the table, that gets above $1,000 pretty quickly.”
Almost all the poker players at Penn make a distinction between the game they play and gambling. As Engineering sophomore Mahir Karim, the Poker Club’s Treasurer, explained it, “obviously, people get lucky every now and then, short–term luck. But in the long term, if you’re good at poker, you’re good at poker. It’s separate from the gambling.” Similarly, Engineering sophomore Josh Parasar justifies his attachment to the game.“It’s not gambling,” he said. “It’s like a businessman making calculated investments, risk assessment, and those skills won’t leave us.” Josh isn’t the only one who realizes that playing poker relates to the kinds of decisions made in the business world. In fact, many of Penn’s poker players talk about how the game has helped them with job recruitment, especially in jobs in trading, sales and investment banking.
While club members occasionally face the negative stigma of playing a game often considered gambling, they’re not afraid to display their interest or involvement in the club prominently on their resumes. Engineering sophomore Anthony Rodriguez is interested in going into finance and sales one day. He explained that recruiters “love poker because there’s a lot of cost–benefit analysis, and it’s very quantitative and that kind of thing, so that’s on my resume for sure. I’m proud of it. It’s a good thing to be involved in.”
You have odds, and you have money. Poker is all about trying to maximize your expected value. According to Abheek, “that’s exactly what you’re trying to do as a trader. So it’s actually a very transferable skill.” He said, “[Recruiters] ask on the phone interviews, ‘do you play poker?’ So it’s something that actually helps.” Main Line–based quantitative trading firm Susquehanna International Group LLP (SIG) is particularly interested in hiring Penn poker players. In the fall, the company spent roughly $3,000 sponsoring the club’s first ever Penn Poker Classic tournament, where students practiced the same mathematical decision–making skills that the company’s traders utilize. The tournament included participants from Penn, Cornell, Brown, Harvard and MIT. In return for their sponsorship, the Penn Poker Club collected the resumes of all tournament attendees to deliver to SIG.
Poker is a large part of SIG’s education process for interns and new hires, who play regularly with veteran traders.
Back in the Harrison basement on Tuesday night, all four of the players around the table are male. The Penn Poker Club hopes more women will try their hand. Abheek estimates that of the over 500 email addresses on their listserv, about 20 belong to girls. Only a few played in last semester’s Penn Poker Classic. The club’s board consists of only males. “We want to encourage people to come and if there are girls who want to learn about poker, we want to make sure that the beginner sessions aren’t being restricted to just guys,” Mahir said. “We don’t want the perception to be that there’s only guys in the Poker Club.”
While the club has plans for its future, Scott will be betting on a professional poker career for the first time in May, when he plays in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. The buy–in for the No–limit Hold’em Main Event is $10,000. Scott and his parents are splitting it 50/50. He’s hoping to be as successful there as he has been in Philly, and if he makes it far enough in the tournament, he’ll be on TV. He hasn’t lost money since his first night at SugarHouse. But despite his recent winning streak, he said, “I know that there’s a lot of room for me to get better because poker is a constantly evolving game.”
The strategy behind the game keeps it exciting. As Scott explained, “there’s no such thing as the best hand; there’s only the best play. That’s why the World Series of Poker keeps increasing their prize pool, and I see non–stop growing interest in the game. I hope that’s the same for Penn in the near future.”
Katie Hartman is a sophomore English major from New York City. She is the current Word on the Street editor for 34th Street Magazine and enjoys playing no stakes Texas Hold’em on her phone.