Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan is no ordinary college dropout. At just 22 he’s already turned $50 into several million playing the nosebleed high stakes games online. Michael Kaplan finds out how he did it…
(This article was originally published in August 2008)
Among online poker players, Tom Dwan is a 22-year-old superstar. Logging in under the username durrrr, he’s managed to win millions of dollars by outplaying some of the game’s most lauded pros. Considering Dwan’s hourly return, his time is clearly valuable – for every minute that he’s not playing poker, he is essentially losing money – and he’s learned to be picky about parcelling it out. So much so that he once missed a vacation because a game online was so compelling. ‘I played two people with tilt issues,’ remembers Dwan, who stayed home and made $ 1.3m instead of joining his friends in Cancun. ‘They played for too long and had too much money in their accounts.’
In fact, Dwan tells me right off, he maintains no schedule and never knows what he will be doing or where he will be from one day to the next. He doesn’t like to plan ahead and expresses uncertainty as to precisely when or where we will do this interview. Eventually, though, we work out something of a plan: meet in Las Vegas or New York City, at some point in the coming weeks, and have our chat over a meal of sushi. He offers to take me to Nobu if we do it in Vegas. I tell him that lunch will be on me if the interview goes down in New York.
One night he texts to tell me that he’s at his parents’ house, in a New Jersey suburb, and would like to schedule our interview for the next day. We agree to meet at noon and I make a reservation at a favourite Japanese restaurant downtown. When I arrive, Dwan is sitting at a front table, sipping beer. He looks well-rested and cleanly shaven. His hair is nicely coiffed, gently cresting above his forehead, and his demeanor appears completely relaxed.
He doesn’t look like someone who’s been up all night, battling six-figure swings. He doesn’t even look like a high stakes poker player. Pressed to guess, I’d peg him as a college kid with family money. Here’s the reality: after spending a couple of nights with his parents, Dwan decided to go to New York. So he drove into town, checked into a W Hotel – he was a little surprised at the price, over $500 per night, but not so surprised that he drove back home to mum and dad – and anticipated playing a bit before watching a movie or working out.
Things began as planned. ‘In about 15 minutes,’ he remembers, ‘I was up $100k. Then, within an hour, I was stuck $200k. Then, in the next few minutes, I was ahead $200k again, and decided to quit. I was kind of tired and wanted to go to bed. But then…’ – he smiles here and appears to slough it off – ‘somebody decided to give me a bunch of money. I ended the night ahead $500,000.’
That’s pretty much how our conversation begins. After a couple of hours eating and talking, we’re ready to wrap things up. I call for a cheque, and, as promised, plan on paying. But Dwan insists on picking up the tab. Peeling off a couple of hundreds, he says, ‘I think I made more money than you did today.’ I don’t mount much of an argument.
Go go go
Dwan’s ascent – to the point where he cleared seven figures in profits well before the midway point of 2008, reportedly crushed the big pot-limit Omaha game in Bobby’s Room during the recent World Series, and casually made one final table before bubbling another one – began like most modern poker careers: with a $50 deposit into an online account. Dwan was halfway through his senior year of high school and curious about the game. He played cheap sit-and-gos, found it easy to read people, and immediately saw value in tightening up against loose players. Winning the mini tournaments seemed astonishingly simple. Within a few months, he ran his $50 deposit up to $10,000 and matriculated into Boston University’s engineering department.
By the end of Dwan’s first semester, his poker account held $100,000 and his grades were in the toilet. ‘Most college kids are screwed if they fail; I didn’t have that worry,’ he says. ‘That made it easier to pick up the Halo controller instead of going to class. I remember alumni coming in and telling us about making $70k a year. The night before I won $4k. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I couldn’t motivate myself and so I failed.’
Where he felt completely motivated, of course, was in the world of synthesized whooshes of cards and clangs of chips. It’s allowed him to emerge as a guy who will play almost anyone online for as high as they are willing to ante.
‘Phil Ivey’s heads-up game is very good,’ allows Dwan. ‘But if he tried to 12-table me heads-up, I would be at an advantage. I’m a favourite in just about any pot-limit Omaha game online. I don’t think there is anyone you can put in the same league as Ivey, except Patrik Antonius.’ Dwan then acknowledges that they both have an advantage over him in live play.
What about online? ‘I’m not going to comment on that,’ he answers, tightening up.
This begs a query as to what Dwan does online that some of the best poker players in the world do not. In fact, I pose this question to him twice. Here is an amalgamation of what he told me: ‘There is no easy answer to what I do. High stakes poker is all about making more right decisions [than the other players]. It’s a combination of gathering information, analysing that information and adapting to your opponents.’ It’s also about thinking rationally while taking emotions and guesswork out of the equation. ‘The more you think logically about the game, the better your decisions will be. It’s not about gambling, though there was a time when I thought that. I haven’t thought like that in a while.’
According to highstakesdb.com, between January 1 of this year and July 20, Dwan is ahead nearly $2m online. It’s an impressive number, but Dwan points out that over the short-term the swings can be mind-blowing. ‘Amounts of money that change hands day to day are ridiculous,’ he says. ‘Recently a friend’s girlfriend congratulated me on a big win. I asked her which win she was referring to. She was talking about $200,000 that I had won in a live game at the Bellagio. But, I explained, since then, over a two-week period, I had made $200,000 four times – and I was down $25,000, all told, for the period.’ He smiles tightly and shakes his head. ‘The swings are just insane.’
Though high-stakes swings are euphoric on the upside, they can be brutal in the reverse. During one awful period, not long ago, Dwan lost more than half of his seven- figure bankroll. The nearly devastating beating came about through a bad streak online and rotten investments in backing other players. ‘I cared a ton about that,’ he says. ‘It really bothered me and made me question playing poker.’
But he didn’t question it for long. Instead, he did what every long-term winner does: hunker down and grind it out. With stunning efficiency and the kind of work ethic that would have allowed him to ace his way through university, Dwan quickly got back to where he needed to be.
Possessing less ego than a lot of old-school players – who have a hard time dropping down to low levels when they are getting killed at the big games – he found smaller, less challenging, mid stakes opportunities. As explained by Dwan, it sounds as if he’s a virtual lock to win at that level. ‘In three weeks of multi-tabling $10/$20 no-limit, I would be a huge favourite to make $90,000,’ he emphasises, turning incredulous when I suggest that he ought to do it all the time. ‘In order to do that, I would require a large bet; somebody would have to bet me $500,000 that I couldn’t do it.’ He considers this, then says, ‘Actually, the bet would need to be higher. It would need to be for $1m. It would be a shitty three weeks, with me putting in, like, 200 hours. But I could definitely win $90k.’ Unfortunately, he says, ‘Nobody I know is willing to make the bet.’
Understanding that he means he’d need some extra motivation before devoting so many hours to playing at those stakes, I tell him that for most people the simple opportunity to make $30,000 in a week would be motivation enough. ‘Yeah,’ replies Dwan, ‘but those people, who so badly want to make $120,000 per month, might lose $10,000 in a pot and flip out. Or else they’d go on tilt and stop playing, even though they’re up against a bunch of fish.’
High stakes poker has afforded Tom Dwan a cushy lifestyle. It includes a posh house in Texas, a BMW M3 in the garage, and enough cash that he can take a $250,000 flyer on a chess bet and lose with few consequences. Plus, he has the freedom to travel wherever and whenever he wants.
Last year, for example, on the spur of the moment, Dwan and his online compatriot Alan Sass decided to visit Europe. They packed light and headed to the airport. Laptops in hand, the pair barnstormed through London, Amsterdam and Rome, checking into the best hotels, doing a bit of touring and enjoying lots of online poker. Despite massive room service bills, the trip was quite profitable and they split each other’s action.
That much was predictable. What happened soon after is fairly extraordinary.
Their deal, on certain sites, remained in effect after they returned to the States, but Sass wasn’t thinking about it a whole lot. Then a late-night call came to a house that Sass and some friends had rented for the 2007 World Series of Poker. A buddy answered and told the caller that Sass was asleep.
‘Kick him awake,’ said the caller, who turned out to be Dwan.
As Sass remembers it, ‘In five or six hours, Tom had run $7k on one of our accounts up to $675k. I had just won, like, $335k. To me that was a shit-load. I had slept for six hours that night and worked out that for every minute I slept I earned nearly $1,000. At the end of the Series, Tom gave me a pile of cash. I didn’t even know what to do with it. I kept a bunch and spent almost $100k on furnishing my apartment.’
One surprising thing about Dwan, and a testament to his natural poker ability, is that he plays without the tools that other online wizards, including Sass, find indispensable: data-mined statistics, opponent-tracking software, and optimal play devices (such as Pokerstove). ‘I’m lazy and I think they’re overrated,’ he says in a laconic tone. ‘I should use those things, but I think a lot of people spend time on the software and don’t apply logic. Besides, when you play against many different people, the software matters more.’ Because of his nosebleed stakes, says Dwan, ‘I play a small group. New names come in every day, but the regulars are maybe 200 or less.’
And for somebody like Dwan, whether he’s using software or not, the small field presents a bit of a problem that has nothing to do with gaining tiny edges through technology. His reputation and stats are such that few people are enthusiastic about playing against him heads-up, which is where he has his biggest advantage. I tell him that there must be some satisfaction in that – in knowing that he’s one of the baddest gunslingers on the net. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I wish people would play me more. Last night I was up against a guy who won half a buy-in – $20,000 – and he quit. Lots of people say they want to play me heads-up, live and online, but it doesn’t happen that often. I’d feel better if they would play me.’
Dwan allows this to sink in for a moment, then he gets to the stripped-down crux of what drives him, what disappoints him about the lack of willing opponents, and maybe the basic core of what allows him to be so successful. It also makes Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan sound like a weekend rounder who’s in love with the game and the lager cash it provides. ‘I don’t have an ego with poker,’ he says simply. ‘I play for money and enjoyment.’
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