University of Waterloo Breeds Poker Stars

December 9, 2013

Over the past decade, as gambling has become a trend in the collegiate generations, some US colleges have garnered a reputation for producing students who are exceptionally trained in gambling, such as MIT and its blackjack card counting team. Now the University of Waterloo is quickly becoming known for its poker players. Specifically a school for math, engineering, and science, the students who attend the University of Waterloo are already deemed intellectual, so it isn’t surprising that many former Waterloo students are now popping up at big-money tournaments around the world.

University of Waterloo graduate and professional poker player Xuan Liu says, “We wanted an alternative lifestyle. We saw something bigger that was possible. And given the economy at the time, when we were students and even right now, I think it was important and valuable for us to take certain risks.””

And the school is quite proud of its poker alumni with news of their victories regularly updated on social media as well as the university’s website, and poker is becoming more accepted as an intellectual game than an irresponsible past time.

Mike Watson, whose garnered around $6.8 million is a Waterloo graduate, and Will Ma actually taught a class on poker at MIT this year in which students actually got credit for. WPT named Xuan Liu on their “Ones to Watch” list for August. Liu, now 28, has more than $1.4 million in live earnings and more than $300K in online earnings.

Liu says, “Playing so much poker and studying poker so much in college definitely made me a terrible student. I missed a lot of classes, improving on my poker game.”

As a child growing up in China, she says that she’s always been into games like mah-jong, but nothing ever grabbed her attention like poker did when she was studying at the University of Waterloo in 2003. It was during this Moneymaker era that poker began to gain popularity in the US and the WPT had started airing on the Travel Channel the year before. Cameras that showed the players’ hole cards made it all the more intriguing.

At the age of 17, Mike McDonald, who is now 23, began studying at Waterloo. He dropped out after three semesters to pursue poker.

He says, “I love competition, I love just the idea of basically just trying to outsmart your opponents and hopefully get paid for that. I love the fact that I get to travel so much. Financially, I’ve done pretty well. There’s a bunch of reasons I keep playing poker.”

Now with $5.5 million in live tourney winnings, he registered at Waterloo to study to be an actuary. He plays online as well, but prefers to keep his usernames and winnings private. At 18 he won the PokerStars EPT German Open for $1.3 million in 2008.

The reasons why Waterloo seems to breed poker players is simple. The math-related majors attract students who are looking to apply their knowledge to real world experiences. Poker allows just that.

Paul-Ambrose, University of Waterloo graduate, whose career winnings total $1.9 million, says, “There’s a lot of very bright people there, which helps.” He explains that after students saw other students becoming so successful, they also wanted to partake.

“I met a lot of other people who were playing poker, so we all talked about poker a lot. I know that after I left Waterloo, that continued and expanded. So yeah, I do think that having some people be successful as well as having a very large group of intelligent people definitely helped,” he explains.

The UW Poker Studies Club meets every week and provides the perfect avenue for players to talk about their game, socialize, and practice together. Ma also adds that the long, cold winters that keep students in doors and the small, sleepy town encourages students to stay in their dorm rooms and play poker.

Another key component to the Waterloo poker craze is the age group of the students. McDonald says, “If you look at the top poker players in the world, a gigantic number of them are 18- to 25-year-olds who basically just don’t really know the value of a dollar.” He continues, “That allows them to be more rational and more analytical about their decisions than someone who when they win a big pot, they’re thinking about the car they could buy, or when they lose a big pot they’re thinking about the house they just lost.”

But as these students begin to grow up, we may see a trend in them taking a couple steps back from poker. Paul-Ambrose, who is 30 now, has begun to withdraw from full-time poker. “When I started playing, there were a lot of recreational players relative to the number of serious players. That ratio has changed significantly. It takes a lot more talent and hard work than it used to, to make a living at poker for sure.”

“Most of the best online players are quite young, early twenties is even getting into the old stage,” says Paul-Ambrose.

And McDonald explains that a lot of the Waterloo star players have moved back to where they came from over the past few years.

According to Mike McDonald, many of the star players who went to UW have since moved away over the last several years.

McDonald explains, “I might be the only one who still lives in Waterloo. Some have moved to Toronto, some have moved to the States, some of them are in grad school, some of them are married with families.”

And for a time in 2005, the poker club had actually ceased to exist because all of its members had graduated. In 2008, though, Arush Kuthiala says he and some friends started it up again. He says h feels a deep sense of pride when he sees former club members playing on TV.


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