Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Are you a senior still thinking about post-grad plans? Good with numbers and cool under pressure? Comfortable handling large sums of money? Went to see “21” and thought, “I could do that”? Fred Bush ’98 and Ben Williams ’99 may have a job for you.
They are both professional gamblers and are looking to start the first all-Swarthmore gambling team. The successful applicant will be a graduating senior or young alum, intelligent, a quick thinker, trustworthy, and comfortable with a job that’s more than a little off the beaten track.
Neither Bush nor Williams had a background in card games before graduating. Williams was a ranked chess player in North Carolina, and Bush played board games and Magic (incidentally, he also found time to co-found the Gazette, and was responsible for coming up with the name. Thanks, Fred!). While he finds that these things have a similar skill set to games like poker (as well as fields like business and finance), he didn’t make the jump to gambling until later.
Bush got his start as a serious gambler at his fifth year reunion, just after getting out of grad school for English Literature. He ran into Williams, a college friend, who was gambling professionally. When it turned out that they were going to be in Vegas at the same time, Williams suggested that he should learn to play poker.
Five years later, Bush is a professional hold-em player. He and Williams want to bring others on board to expand the game’s opportunities.
The team would be a collective: all members would be expected to put in roughly the same amount of work each week (about 40 hours of playing time) and in return would share equally in the team’s winnings.
While 40 hours might seem like a lot, there are perks: “Gambling shifts are erratic,” said Bush, with the team ideally playing around the clock, so “individual players can pick hours more appropriate to them.” And, of course, there are monetary benefits. “The more you work, the more you get paid; that’s a pretty powerful incentive.”
To start off, Bush and Williams will be funding the team out-of-pocket, but anticipate that, after a little while, members will be able to play with team earnings. In other words, members won’t be playing with their own money, so they don’t risk a loss. Bush and Williams are also picking up the team’s housing and traveling tabs, including expenses in Atlantic City. Bush is confident enough in the team that he says he and Williams can guarantee all members a “basic income and a basic win.”
After years of working successfully on their own, what made these two decide to team up? As individuals, Bush explained, both he and Williams make “a fair amount of money…but there are certain things you need more people to do, certain games and gaming situations to take advantage of.”
For example, they are interested in playing in poker tournaments. With cash games, you can sit down at a table with any amount of money, and you can take your winnings (or losses) and leave at any time. In a tournament you don’t have that option: you have to play until you win or run out of money.
“With tournaments,” said Bush, “the results are very chancy: even if you’re twice as good as everyone else, you might not make back your money…[But] if you get enough people the results even out.”
Although he wouldn’t give details, Bush said there were other games that were “beatable using the right strategies,” as long as there were several people available to pull it off.
How legal is this venture? While the idea of a trained team of gamblers might seem questionable, there are no rules against it. In the movie “21” a team of MIT students figure out a way to beat the house at blackjack by counting cards. Unsurprisingly, they antagonize casino owners everywhere, but according to Bush, card-counting (and other clever strategies for beating the odds) is completely legal.
“You’re not actually cheating,” he said, “you’re just keeping track of what cards have been played. You just keep a running count, and when the running count hits certain numbers it’s possible to bet. Since it doesn’t actually involve cheating, courts have ruled that it’s legal.”
But “legal” doesn’t mean “accepted”. “Casinos don’t like it, and if they figure out that you’re doing it they throw you out. You just have to be careful when you’re doing it.”
New team members will undergo training, sitting down to play. Bush and Williams will be teaching the rules of the games as well as giving lessons in basic probability and observation techniques. The goal, said Bush, is to “get people so they’re on autopilot. You want to watch the other players, not the cards. [You need to] keep your attention on a more sophisticated level than the basic game.”
Of course, there are some things that can’t be taught. While it is possible to develop a good poker face, the abilities to remain calm under pressure, especially when there are large amounts of money at stake, and consistently make good judgments are something you either have or you don’t.
Similarly, not everyone who gambles is the sort of person who should be trusted with a shared cash pool. But Bush thinks Swatties are the sort of people who are trustworthy enough to be in business with.
“Swarthmore students have the combination of being very intelligent and very trustworthy,” he said. “That’s one thing that’s missing in the gambling world…there’s a lot of shady people. The college does a really good job of inculcating social responsibility in students.”
The team will begin operations in Atlantic City in mid-June, shortly after Alumni Weekend. Bush hopes that Atlantic City will be just the beginning, and that the team will be able to travel “once opportunities change,” possibly even moving to Vegas. He foresees the team lasting “indefinitely, as long as they’re successful.”
Think you’ve got what it takes? Email Fred Bush at frederic.bush at gmail.com