There’s more to poker than bravado and bluffing.
Nathan Sumrall, a graduate student in Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, learned as a professional poker player it comes down to the basics of economics: probability, strategy, risk and uncertainty.
For the next five years, he did nothing but play poker. He made a good enough living to support himself and his wife through online play and trips to Las Vegas every summer for the World Series of Poker.
And to make it as a successful poker player, all of those elements must be factored in quickly.
“It’s a matter of very strategic behavior,” said Sumrall, a native of Opelika, Ala., who is studying economics. “It’s all based on the idea of just thinking about how other people interpret your actions and thinking a few steps ahead.”
The path Sumrall took from a lucrative, full-time profession to the academic study of decision-making started when he enrolled as a pre-med student at Troy University in 2003.
As a junior he started playing poker online as a hobby in the days before the federal government cracked down on online gaming. As a newbie, naturally, he lost – a lot.
“Eventually I got really lucky and won, so I decided that I either needed to stop, or learn how to play,” Sumrall said.
He threw himself into learning everything he could through online forums about how the game is played, and how to win. His gaming took off.
“So at that age, it seemed very obvious that I should just stop going to school, because why not?” he said.
On average, he said he made between $120,000 and $150,000 a year.
It wasn’t a life of pure leisure. He invested a lot of time in studying data, analyzing previous hands he’d played and the statistical tendencies of his opponents, putting in enough hours to equal a full-time job.
“For every hour that I spent playing, I probably spent two hours studying,” Sumrall said. “ I would look over databases of statistics of people I was playing against to find tendencies that I could exploit.”
Eventually, it came to an end. The U.S. Department of Justice reined in online poker, and by 2011, the two largest online poker websites, Poker Stars and Full Tilt, were shut down.
“The time I spent as a professional poker player was great,” Sumrall said. “Not everyone gets to have that sort of freedom when they’re young. Most young married couples are struggling to get by, so it was a neat experience.
“Probably I wish I would have made some better decisions if I had known it was going to end, but it was a lot of fun.”
Sumrall, who earned a bachelor’s in economics at Georgia State, is not sure what he wants to do after he earns his master’s degree. But he figures the lessons he learned from professional poker could be valuable in the corporate world.
“People make decisions in the business world as if they have all the information that they need and they know all the answers,” Sumrall said. “They don’t.
“What they need is some
body that knows that they don’t know, what the implications are of what they don’t know and how to proceed when making those decisions,” he said.