NYTimes: … Within 18 months, Cates went from routinely losing at local $5 games to winning at the highest stakes of online poker for anywhere between $10,000 and $500,000 per night. In 2010, his reported $5.5 million in online earnings was more than $1 million higher than the nearest competitor. Unlike other young poker millionaires who make the bulk of their money by winning televised tournaments — a proposition that, because of the high number of players and the unpredictability of their actions, involves roughly the same amount of luck as winning a small lottery — Cates earned his stake by grinding, the term used to describe the process of pressing a skill advantage over an extended period of time. Because poker is a game of high variance, where a significant difference in ability can be mitigated by a bad run of cards, a player’s Expected Value (E.V.) must be actualized over thousands of hands. Every year, a few dozen kids go on hot streaks and take a shot at the big time. Almost invariably, these kids are eventually ground down by higher caliber players. What made Cates’s run different wasn’t his total winnings or the speed with which he earned his millions. What caught the attention of the poker world was that the 20-year-old top online earner of 2010 won almost all of his money in head-to-head confrontations with poker’s elite.
The gospel of E.V. that keeps the poker hierarchy in order was shaken. Cates had taken on all comers in 2010, including highly publicized matches against top-flight pros like Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, Ilari (Ziigmund) Sahamies and his fellow young gun Tom (durrrr) Dwan. Each of these men has helped turn poker into a multimillion-dollar celebrity enterprise. Each ranks among the 20 or so most recognized players in the world. And in each of his matches with poker royalty, Cates came out hundreds of thousands of dollars ahead.
… The vast sums of money shuttled among the accounts of these young professionals — and the shocking aggressiveness and recklessness with which they played — deepened the divide between the young online players and the older guard who earned their millions when poker was still a game played by men sitting around a table. Since the rise of online poker in the early 2000s, every principle of the game, every lesson learned over hundreds of thousands of hours of play, every simple credo uttered in some old Western gambling movie — all those tersely stated, manly things that made up the legend of poker — has been picked apart and, for the most part, discarded.
Patience is no longer rewarded. If an 18-year-old online whiz can play 12 hands at once, then by his 19th birthday, he is no less experienced than a career gambler who has sat for a dozen years at the big-money table at the Bellagio. It didn’t take long before the young players began crushing established gamblers online, and the question rang out across the poker world: How were these kids, many of whom were too young to set foot inside a casino, outsharking the sharks?
In Command and Conquer, the video game that consumed much of Cates’s childhood, a player leads an army into a real-time battle. The combat units are vaguely futuristic and highly specialized. Success depends on the efficiency with which a player can build his resources and the speed with which he can deploy them. It is a difficult game to play and an even harder game to master. The best players develop a predatory instinct for detecting the exact moment when an opponent has weakened. High-end strategy combines lightning-fast reflexes, unabashed aggression and razor-thin resource management. Reckoning comes by way of particle cannon. By the age of 15, Cates told me repeatedly, he was one of the world’s best Command and Conquer players.
Phil Gordon, a 40-year-old poker professional who has won $3 million in tournaments, written three best-selling books and hosted several TV shows, including Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, says he believes that the early and immersive training offered by video games, paired with online poker’s increasing space in the mainstream, has laid out a practice ground for a militia of young, fearless, invincible players. “The prototypical successful young gun is fast and unpredictable,” Gordon says. “Those traits make them nearly impossible to beat, especially when playing at warp speeds. The manual dexterity required to play 12 or even 16 or 20 tables at one time is enormous. The mental dexterity required to play well while making that number of decisions in a very short amount of time is even more impressive. Many of the video games the kids grew up with like Command and Conquer or Call of Duty required a similar dexterity and gave these kids a leg up — the more tables they could play accurately, the more decisions they got to make, and the quicker they were able to learn.”
Then there’s the fact that high-stakes poker rewards aggression. A player who cannot fire off a bluff because he is worried about his daughter’s private-school tuition will be quickly run over by the players who don’t have such concerns. While heightened dexterity, comfort with snap decisions and the stamina gained from years spent sitting in front of a computer screen give the young online pro an edge over his older counterpart, the greatest benefit borne from a life spent playing video games lies somewhere in the strange, disconnected relationship between what is simulated and what is real. The armies of Command and Conquer do not suffer real casualties. An unsuccessful session of Minesweeper does not result in the loss of a leg.
In online poker, lost money registers only as debits in the player’s offshore account. When a player loses a million-dollar pot, the action plays out in cartoon animation.
“Most of us young kids who play at nosebleed stakes don’t really have any clear idea about the actual value of the money we win or lose,” Cates says. “Most of us see the money more as a points system. And because we’re all competitive, we want to have the highest score. But really, we don’t know what making $400,000 or losing $800,000 means, because we don’t have families or whatever. This blind spot gives us the freedom to always make the right move, regardless of the amount at stake, because our judgment isn’t clouded by any possible ramifications.”
It is unclear whether Cates actually does understand that the money is real. On the second day of my visit, we took a trip to Best Buy. Cates had grown bored of playing poker and wanted to buy a video game. As we stood in the PS3 aisle, discussing which games looked good, I asked him if he had ever walked into a store like Best Buy — or perhaps a car dealership — and thought to himself, Hey, I can buy out this entire place. Cates smiled sheepishly. He said: “I’m not really into material wealth. Plus, I need to save up some more money. My fiscal goal for 2011 is to reach $10 million in liquid cash.” I asked what the difference might be between $5 million and $10 million, especially for a 21-year-old whose relative spending habits sit somewhere on the line between modest and monastic. He explained: “You can do anything with $10 million. Like, you can buy a house and still have around $5 million left over.”