Thomas Keller, 24, is flat-out the best poker player in the Valley. The Stanford grad (economics, natch) has won two major poker titles, including a $5,000 buy-in tournament at the 2004 World Series of Poker, where he took home a $384,000 first prize. He's got a book "in the works" and is collaborating on a new poker video game. He's won so much money -- "approaching eight figures" -- in tournaments, from Monte Carlo to Aruba to Vegas, that he now plays in televised tournaments for "exposure." And since he's slimmed down, thanks to gastric bypass surgery six months ago, Keller figures he'll have the stamina to outlast the Texas Hold'em phenomenon.
The parents have come around: My mom and dad were very hesitant at first about what I wanted to do. But now I think they're very supportive because poker has become so popular. My dad [Gary Keller, director of ASU's Hispanic Research Center] is starting to play it pretty seriously. It's not like he's going to go on sabbatical or quit his job to play, but he plays a lot, and he's very into it.
How a high school dropout gets a scholarship to Stanford: My dad really pushed my brother [identical twin Shawn] and I academically in high school. We'd taken a bunch of courses at ASU, and we did well on our SATs [Thomas scored 1,570 out of 1,600]. So our junior year, we figured, "Well, why don't we apply to some colleges and see if we can go a year early?" We actually got into Stanford as presidential scholars.
He believes in Magic (The Gathering): A lot of poker players on tour used to play Magic. There's math involved, there's a bluffing element, and you have to think about how many "outs" [the cards that can improve your hand] you have left. You can win up to $30,000 to $35,000 winning a big Magic tournament. I was actually thinking about being one of those people instead of playing poker. But it's kind of hard comparing the quality of living.
Poker player as athlete? Maybe as much as, like, a bowler! I would say I'm a mental athlete. It's why I wanted to get in shape, why I had the surgery [and lost more than 120 pounds], you know? Stamina is so important for these tournaments. The mental fatigue at the end of a 16-hour day of poker . . . you really have to experience it.
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It started with a bluff: It was a hand I won at Casino Arizona about three years ago when I knew I could really play the game. The guy I was playing against didn't think I was capable of making a bluff. And, to be honest, a few minutes before that, I probably wasn't capable of it. In those few minutes, something just changed. In poker, you can make a huge leap in a matter of one hand. And that's the hand that changed everything.