April 20, 2005: On the Campus
Raising the stakes
By Sara Mayeux ’05
Jonathan Cheng ’05, who writes for the New York Times through the University Press Club, was researching an article about poker on campus. Looking for Princeton’s highest rollers, he said, “All roads led to Mike Sandberg.”
Sandberg, a senior, says he has won $120,000 since September playing poker online and in Atlantic City casinos. His story was the focus of Cheng’s article, published last month on the Times’ front page.
Since the article ran, Sandberg has been approached by gamblers in Atlantic City who recognized him from the Times photo. He has received e-mails from college kids asking for poker tips, a publisher with a book idea (“How to Win a Hundred Grand Online”), and Internet banking firms with interview offers.
The job-related contacts were a surprise, Sandberg said: “I thought the article made me look as not into education as possible.” (The article reported that his several hours of online poker a day had reduced his study time, and that he had failed a midterm.) Sandberg’s dedication and six-figure winnings are extreme, but the popularity of poker on campus may be at an all-time high. Fueled by increased television coverage of high-stakes tournaments and the proliferation of online poker sites, poker seems to be everywhere.
Everyone knows someone who’s gone through an online poker phase, and most of the eating clubs and residential colleges have regular poker games.
“Particularly on this campus, there’s an intellectual appeal to it,” said occasional player Robert Moore ’06. Moore, an operations research and financial engineering major, said his coursework has helped him understand the probabilities involved.
“College is the perfect place” for poker, added Scott Daubin ’05. “You have tons of free time, lots of reasons to be looking for ways to procrastinate, and the financial independence to waste your money in stupid ways.”
Most campus games have modest buy-ins, with a priority on socializing, not payouts. “It’s fun to bond with a group of guys around a table, drink some beers, smoke some cigars,” Daubin said.
Sandberg got his start in low-stakes games with friends from freshman Spanish. He said he started playing for thousands at a casino outside Madrid, where he studied abroad his junior year. (It was good training, he said: The Europeans were “really bad.”)
Experts say young adults are particularly prone to addictive gambling, but Moore suggested that the students who play the most tend to be “very academic” about it.
“Anything done to an extreme is a problem,” Daubin said. “But the majority of kids here do it in a healthy way.”
The administration seems conflicted about the fad. Princeton has no explicit policy on gambling, and the Intramural Sports Office planned to host a Texas Hold ’Em tournament earlier this month, with assorted prizes instead of money.
Yet when Daubin tried to start a student poker club last year — Penn has one, and so does Chicago — the University wouldn’t recognize it because of legal concerns. “The administration doesn’t know what to do with it,” Daubin said.
Hilary Herbold, associate dean of students, said that while playing poker can be “fun, recreational, and healthy,” it can become a compulsive activity. In a letter to the Daily Princetonian, Herbold said students have had to leave Princeton because of the effects of gambling. “If we knew that a student’s welfare was being jeopardized,” she said, “we would do whatever was practically and ethically possible to help him or her get help.”
Sandberg said he may look into some of the offers he has received after he finishes his politics thesis — a study of the motivations behind terrorism — but he’s not done with poker. “People take a year off to go travel around Europe,” he said. “I might take a year or two to follow the World Poker Tour around.”
Moore, the ORFE major, has cashed in on the poker fad in his own way. He programmed an odds calculator for Texas Hold ’Em, which he sells online. He said he has sold several hundred copies since August and has received a “lucrative consulting offer.”
The Times article was published at a particularly sensitive time for Sandberg’s senior classmates, with thesis deadlines rapidly approaching. In a letter published in the Times three days later, Ben Kingsley ’05 said campus gambling was not pervasive and added: “Most of the seniors I know are holed up right now, writing their senior theses ... wasting a perfectly good spring break.”
Sara Mayeux ’05 is a history major from Atlanta.
On the Campus Online: Click here to read “Pi, wine, and 30 minutes of shuteye,” by Jordan Paul Amadio ’05.