Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
Sungho Moon, BR ’24 has perfected his poker face. The expression—or lack thereof—didn’t come naturally. It has taken him three years to learn what not to do (purse his lips, clench his jaw, stare at the ground). Sometimes, though, especially if he is dealt pocket aces, Sungho can’t help but crack a wry grin.
He doesn’t usually play in a casino. Where he plays, the poker table doesn’t have automatic card shufflers or felt linings—and isn’t flanked by plush pleather chairs. There, the lights aren’t dimmed; the money isn’t wired (it’s transferred over Venmo); and the house doesn’t take a cut of money, called a rake (only because it would be illegal to do so).
Nothing suggests that Yale University’s William L. Harkness Hall (known by students as WLH) is anything but an academic building. A fixture of Yale’s Cross Campus since the 1920s, WLH smells like a damp backpack. During the day, students buzz in and out for philosophy lectures, economics seminars, and creative writing workshops. After hours, they sit through debates, practice improv comedy, and scrawl multivariable calculus problems on the chalkboards. By Friday night, few students remain in WLH: acapella rehearsals have wrapped for the week, and English majors take their essays to their dorm rooms. But some Yalies stick around. At 8 p.m., they descend into the basement to play poker.
The Yale Poker Club has unofficially existed for decades, but the organization became formalized when it joined the Intercollegiate Poker Association in 2019—the year I came to Yale, which was when I first heard of the group. My friends were invited by friends of friends to Friday night games. While a handful of above-the-table collegiate poker clubs play for nothing (MIT allegedly prohibits cash games), Yale and Connecticut allow “home games” (those in which the house doesn’t take a rake).
Anyone can join the Yale Poker Club. So one Friday in late January, I went. On my first outing, I sat at the table closest to the door. The basement smelled like the rest of WLH (damp backpack) but was tangy with a tinge of body odor. I was the only girl in the room.
“What should I know?” I asked Neil Shah, BF ’25, the president of the Yale Poker Club.
“About the game or the people?”
“I don’t know. Are you any good?”
“A sign of a good poker player is that they never say that they’re good,” he said.
Dan Singer, MC ’87 is a visiting lecturer teaching a seminar, Game Theory in Action: From Poker to Business Negotiations, to Yale College students in the spring and at the Law School in the fall. He has played in a World Series of Poker tournament nearly every year since 2010. Dan is sharp and speaks quickly. “Do you know what expected value is?” he asked during our phone call. I felt like the interviewee.
“Suppose I’m flipping a coin,” Dan said. Nothing good starts with a coin toss, I thought. “If it’s heads, I’ll give you $10. If it’s tails, I’ll give you nothing. What’s the expected value to you of one coin flip?”
After some serious thinking, I landed on the correct answer: five dollars. Probability (one-half), times outcome (10 dollars), plus probability (one-half), times outcome (zero), equals five dollars. Positive expected value—odds Dan and I and everyone should take every time.
“Expected value is: ‘how much would someone have to pay you to make you indifferent between taking the money or taking the contest?’” Dan explained. “It’s pretty simple, yet human beings rarely maximize their EV.” The object of poker, as Dan described it, is iteratively maximizing EV—making optimal, positive-EV decisions. If your EV is greater than zero, you will eventually make money, even if you lose a few games.
In No Limit Texas Hold’em, there are 1,326 two-card starting hands (52 factorial over 50 factorial times two factorial equals 1,326, Dan explained). While recreational poker players often act on gut instinct, good players are constantly calculating the EV of their hand. They ultimately only go for about 20 percent, or roughly 270, of those 1,326 hands. Once the flop (the first three cards revealed by the dealer) comes down, players then decide which of those 270 hands will be bets or checks.
Most players are losers: only 18 percent of players are in the black after the house takes a rake. Edgar Wang, ES ’24, a senior studying math, didn’t want to be among the remaining 82 percent. Instead of getting good at the table, he studied poker the same way that he prepares for discrete math exams.
“I learned how to be more risk-seeking from books,” Edgar told me before explaining French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s probability theory. “But I’m not someone who’s dispositionally risky. Like I’m not usually super excited to go on a roller coaster.”
Here are Edgar’s canonical texts of poker: The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players by Ed Miller, Applications of No-limit Hold ’em by Matthew Janda, and Modern Poker Theory by Michael Acevedo. Each book derives its central argument from the same place: Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, written by mathematician John von Neumann and economist Oskar Morgenstern in 1944. This seminal text coined the phrase “game theory,” the study of optimal decision-making in complex situations where players’ choices impact each other’s payoffs. Von Neumann and Morgenstern analyzed zero-sum games (ones in which all gains are offset by losses) like poker. They concluded that optimal players minimize their potential maximum losses. A poker player who bets high on high hands, low on low hands, and sporadically bluffs (strategically convinces opponents that they have a better-than-mediocre hand) will at least break even in the long term. With some successful bluffing, good players achieve positive EV and winning results.
Although Theory of Games suggests that poker can be mathematically studied and solved, poker was uncrackable—or wasn’t played fully efficiently—until the game entered the digital realm. In the past decade, YouTubers like RampagePoker began posting hand analyses. Artificial-intelligence-based programs called solvers, developed in the last few years, have deciphered poker. Solvers win every hand by maximizing EV. Servers like Donkhouse, created by a former Yale master’s student, got college students playing from their dorm rooms (even though online poker is illegal in most states, including Connecticut). Importantly, online games show players more hands than they would see in a basement or at a casino: live players typically catch 35 hands an hour, while online players see as many as 70, Dan said. Playing on a device is convenient, and seeing more hands exposes you to more card combinations, improving your skill.
But digitized poker negates a key element of the game: without watching an in-person opponent watch their cards—without playing in person, live, for real—you can’t catch someone’s bluff.
I returned to WLH the following Friday. This was early February—just cold enough to hurt your lungs and sting your nostrils. Fluorescent bulbs bleached the balmy classrooms. The gaps between the floorboards were laden with chalk dust. I walked downstairs.
In the basement, the same voices echoed over each other in a cacophony of testosterone (no music). The basement smelled more like hops than body odor. Dealers slid cards that occasionally caught the few half-empty beers on the table. As the night drew on and the pot waned, players finished their Keystones, crushing them with the heel of their hand. When I left around 1 a.m., the game raged on. Cans were strewn across the table like confetti.
At Yale, buy-ins are positively correlated with class year. At the $20-buy-in, which Sungho Moon, a senior, called “the kids’ table,” first years bet their beer money.
“I justified it,” Trey Skidmore, SY ’23, a recent graduate who studied computer science, said. “Instead of going to a bar and getting a couple drinks, I’d play. It was just a fun cost.” Like most poker players, Trey had never considered his winnings, as he put it, “real money.” Poker money pooled in Trey’s Venmo account (the club’s preferred method of payment), on reserve for next week’s games. When he became an upperclassman, Trey moved to the room next door where the buy-in is usually $200 or more. Earlier this month, Trey won the Bellagio Kickoff Classic, a poker tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“They look at the $200 table as if it’s something crazy,” Sungho said. “I mean, I definitely remember doing that my freshman year. Now it doesn’t faze me because I’m the one who plays.” But Sungho didn’t always have such a nonchalant attitude. He remembers the first time he played at the $100 table. His palms were sweaty. His leg shook and didn’t stop until he returned to his dorm room.
Sungho is unlike most of his poker friends, he thinks. He isn’t bankrolled by his parents. During his first year at Yale, Sungho realized that some had what he didn’t know he wanted: “I saw so many kids who have insanely wealthy parents doing, like, really big things,” he said. “And I mean, by no fault of their own, the kid has done nothing in their life. Yeah, I felt more resentful at the beginning.”
During his peak, Sungho played for 50 hours a week while balancing schoolwork. As of September 22, Sungho has played 1,550 games of poker, during which he has made over $44,000—a semester’s worth of tuition at Yale.
Vanessa Selbst BK ’05, LAW ’12, is the only woman to ever be ranked first in the world on the Global Poker Index. She also played poker at Yale. Vanessa, as the poker cliché goes, “played for houses” (she retired from professional poker in 2017). Her total recorded tournament earnings are $11.9 million.
When Vanessa was a Yale undergrad studying political science in the early 2000’s, there were neither AI solvers nor YouTubers. There weren’t even many books about poker strategy, for that matter. On game nights (she and a few guys played three times a week), Vanessa knew she wouldn’t get around to her homework. Some games bled into dawn. “It was college, man,” Vanessa said of her time playing with the poker club. “I would stumble back to my house at whatever hour of the morning and then probably hop online and play poker again.”
In the Berkeley College Buttery (the Yale basement where she and other players used to meet), Vanessa first learned that poker is more about people than payouts. “We weren’t afraid of killing our edge,” she said. “The amount that we were helping each other get better far outweighed whatever increment of EV we were giving up by making a potential opponent good.”
Yale Poker Club President Neil Shah’s goal has stayed the same since he was young: spread the game. In high school, Neil would keep a set of poker chips in the trunk of his car, convincing friends to play whenever he could. Through student-run lectures, hand analyses with Dan Singer, “free roll” teaching tables, and more, Neil is spreading poker to Yale’s masses—at least to those willing to put down some cash sooner or later.
Most students who initially refuse to bet eventually want to play for real. “Once you have your own money in a pot, it’s a bit different than just an academic thing,” Trey Skidmore said. “There are definitely plenty of cognitive biases that get in the way, and you can only learn how to control them after playing and losing your own real money.”
It feels good to win, Neil said, but all good things come to an end. As much as the club members love playing poker, they often resent it. All players who think they’re maximizing their EV inevitably deviate from optimal strategy. Everyone “tilts”—plays off their game. If you’re not “on tilt,” you’re taking advantage of your opponents’ tells.
In the spring of 2022, his first year at Yale, Neil suffered a three-month-long downswing. He thought he’d be on tilt forever. “I lost over and over,” Neil said. “I just felt like nothing was going right.”
Neil took a break. He questioned everything about the game—and about himself. “Like, why am I doing this and burning money?” he remembered thinking. Of players in the Yale Poker Club, he said, “for some reason, I wanted to get as good as them.”
A month later, Neil returned to poker with a fresh outlook. Clear headed, Neil was winning again, the short-term variance behind him.“It sounds kind of insane that you can appreciate two months of losing, but it’s unlike any other hobby,” he said. “I feel like poker players have more of a community because that process exists. Without it, I wouldn’t have found this community of people that I can relate to so much.”
At quantitative trading firms, analysts make decisions under uncertainty and hedge bets about the future. Quants use mathematical, computerized models to analyze markets and execute orders at buy and sell prices, which fluctuate constantly. The firms, claiming to make markets more efficient, compete against each other to set the best prices for securities. The firm that executes their decision quickest—usually on the order of microseconds—wins the pot.
Some recent graduates who work at these companies bring home a quarter of a million dollars (or more) a year. It’s not surprising, then, that when I asked Yale players if they wanted to play after college, most said they’d rather pursue this poker-inspired finance career.
In 2017, Vanessa Selbst cashed in her chips for a full-time job, first at Bridgewater Associates, an asset management firm in Westport, CT, and now at Jane Street, a trading firm based in New York City. Although No Limit Hold ’em seems unlike any career, parlaying her poker instincts into a desk job was natural: “You’re assessing risk, like a range of possible outcomes, and assigning the probabilities and computing the expected value,” she said. While efficiently crunching numbers makes the algorithms run, it isn’t the only poker tactic Vanessa deploys from the trading floor: “you think about where your edge comes from and who you’re playing against,” she said.
Quantitative trading firms look for poker skills. Citadel Securities, the market-making arm of Ken Griffin’s hedge fund and the most well-known trading firm in the world, accepts less than one percent of its 69,000 summer intern applicants. College-aged candidates for trading firms are screened in a rigorous, multi-round process that tests everything from coding chops to risk tolerance in simulations that at times resemble a poker game.
Susquehanna International Group, or SIG, a market maker based in Pennsylvania, has poker in its DNA. Founded by poker player and sports better Jeff Yass, SIG frequently sponsors Intercollegiate Poker Association tournaments, which pull mathy Ivy League students away from PhD programs and toward lucrative careers.
“There was a conscious, career-minded impetus to it for me,” Edgar said, confessing why he joined the Yale Poker Club. This past summer, he interned at Jane Street. Edgar played poker to prepare for his internship, hoping to get accustomed to variance, make sound choices based on future uncertainty, and, as he said, “to get that indifference to risk and be comfortable losing a lot of money, as long as you know you’ve made the right decision.”
Making the right decision isn’t just relevant to poker—or to quantitative trading. In his seminar, Dan Singer teaches how EV relates to everything from negotiating the fair price for a car to settling a merger agreement between two companies.
“It kind of applies to everything,” Neil said of poker. “If you’re able to think about some choice and break it down into pieces, then you can weigh the ups and downs objectively and quantify it.”
Neil wants a trading job, too. “I think a lot of college poker players, myself included, see trading firms as a dream destination after we graduate—it’s like, ‘I love thinking about things in this way, and there are these places where I can continue thinking like this,’” he paused. The corners of his mouth perked up. “And they allegedly have poker tournaments after work.”
In a car ride to Mohegan Sun, a casino 50 or so miles north of Yale, Sungho rationalized our four-hour-long outing. It was the last weekend of the school year, April and misty and fraught with anticipation for finals. By the end of the semester, he said, fewer people frequent Friday nights, cutting their losses and swearing off the basement altogether. If Sungho wants to make some extra cash before summer, he has to play at a real casino. “The money has dried up,” he said of the basement. “People just don’t have money to lose anymore.”
For him, it’s no longer as fun as it once was. “At this point, you’re just clocking into work,” Sungho said. “It’s depressing, and you can’t spend time with your friends or, you know, go to the gym or do your schoolwork. It’s like working another job.”
Mohegan Sun smells like Lysol and deep fryer. Although smoking is prohibited inside the casino, a woman lit her cigarette at the bathroom sinks. The tip glowed, dotting and dashing the dim restroom. Cameras hung from the ceiling where lights should’ve been. We stopped at the ATM. Sungho withdrew $1,000. I placed my fingers under the cash dispenser, curious what ten hundred-dollar bills would feel like.
After placing himself on the waitlist for the 2-5 game, we claimed our territory: an empty table on the far side of the room. The table was covered in blue felt and sprinkled with tortilla chip crumbs. I sat down on a slippery pleather swivel chair. Although no one was in earshot of us, Sungho leaned in close to talk about the regulars. “They all look decrepit, like they haven’t showered in five days,” he said, pulling his shirt collar. Although it was a Sunday afternoon, the usual suspects were all there: the guy getting a massage mid-game, the guy wearing a paper mask to cover his lack of a poker face, the guy graduating from UConn next month.
“Do you ever feel a little bad about all this?” I asked Sungho. “Getting money from these people?”
“You just have to tell yourself, ‘they take your money, or you take theirs,’” he said. “What do you want it to be?”
A man behind a desk called Sungho for the 2-5 game. I followed him to the table and sat behind him as I had in WLH. There were no fumbling freshmen here: the dealer tossed the cards—for a moment, they hung in the air like WLH’s chalk particles. She turned over a card blocked by Sungho’s shoulder. Then, players tapped the table, or moved their chips, or looked to the left then the right then the left again as if this had all been rehearsed before. Worried my inexperience would somehow rub off on Sungho, I returned to the empty table on the periphery.
“I’ve doubled up,” he texted me 45 minutes later. “Coffee’s on me.”
While driving back to campus, Sungho counted his earnings. The Mohegan trip was worth it. “It was never my parents’ money, you know,” he told me from my passenger seat, now $400 richer. “I worked for this.”
A few poker players are winners, but most are losers. In the basement of WLH, do losers actually lose? Some players study theory to crack the game, others find a quantitative enclave, and most land a trading job after graduation. At the Yale Poker Club, it’s not always about ending Friday night (or Saturday morning) in the black or the red. Maybe, all that matters is who sits down next to you.