Whenever Jesse James Sylvia went home to Martha’s Vineyard during college, his area code flipped from 805 to 508. He always noticed numbers. As a child with what he describes as “slight OCD,” he would “do things in fours.”
“That’s cool if you knock on something three more times, but it can get you in trouble if you hit your sister and your mom yells at you and you’re like, ‘I’m going to have to do that three more times.’”
Sylvia, the last player to go bust at poker’s world championship early on Oct. 31, got to satisfy his craze over numbers for (count ’em) four years as a math major at CLU.
“The Math Department was amazing,” he said. “I think, to say that they helped me with poker – no, what they’re teaching is mathematically so much deeper than what poker requires of you.”
The 26-year-old took home the second-place prize of $5,295,145 from the World Series of Poker Main Event Final Table in Las Vegas, the culmination of a year of no limit Texas hold ’em and other poker games. The series took a long break in July when nine players emerged from a field of 6,598 entrants, with Sylvia as the leader in chips.
What Sylvia hasn’t yet taken home is a college degree, and he still wants it. He lacked one math course for graduation in the spring of 2008, he explained. Now he thinks of himself as a CLU graduate but wishes it were official.
“If I make a list of things that I need to get done in life, that’s probably the first one on the list,” he said in August, while preparing for his Final Table appearance and planning a move from Las Vegas to LA with his girlfriend.
It was during Sylvia’s college career that poker “went from a distraction to becoming a full-time job.” He paid cash to buy into tournaments, borrowing time on his roommate’s or another computer to play online.
One afternoon, he entered a series of simultaneous contests from a terminal in Pearson Library. By evening, he’d been knocked out of all but the biggest one, which had about 8,000 people who had paid $200 to play for a top prize of $200,000. Around 9:30 p.m. Sylvia, or someone at a nearby terminal, kicked a power cord, and two rows of computers went dead.
So, like any CLU student in a bind, he sprinted straight to his department. Friends who’d been tutoring there found him on a computer in the back room at closing time, deep in 52-card combat with about that number of players remaining. Sometime after midnight, the students were exchanging high-fives as Sylvia and two top opponents finalized a deal, a “chop” in poker jargon, to divvy up the money pot, leaving him with roughly $110,000.
“I’m writing out this deal with someone else, and I’m demanding two grand more because I feel like I’m entitled to that. It was just funny because the other math majors are getting the math behind it, but they’re just like, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
Math professor Karrolyne Fogel once did a double take when she heard an amount her student had won online. But she was not fazed this fall upon learning that he was going to the finals of the biggest event in professional poker.
“If I ever found out he was working some desk job someplace, then I would go, ‘What happened?’” she said.
The thing that stands out about Sylvia in Fogel’s memory is the haikus he wrote on his exams: exactly five, seven and five more syllables about the exam itself, or how he wished he’d studied for it more. He started writing the math-themed verses as a sophomore in her course on, yes, game theory, and his classmates took up the challenge with him in a course on algebraic curves.
Math students are regularly drawn to capstone projects on games and gambling, according to Fogel. She supervised one senior’s work on the dice game craps, while another took a purely scholarly interest in blackjack after attending a conference with her in Las Vegas. Sylvia did his capstone on voting theory, a subset of game theory, because he discovered that Fogel had expertise in that field.
“A lot of people when they think about math, think about numbers,” she said. “But it’s really more about methods of thinking and organizing information. And so strategies and how you analyze strategies and keep track of them is a very mathematical type of thing to be doing.”
Knowing about the math behind poker allows Sylvia to respond to some situations quickly, he said. But other college subjects have meant as much to him. He came away from professor Marylie Gerson’s course on social psychology with the insight that people are not “special snowflakes … not in how we respond to things.”
“People think similarly. Once you get into that mindset you can understand that your opponents aren’t thinking all that differently from you, and you can delve into what they’re thinking about in any given hand,” he said.
Fogel sees her former student as a lover of learning, not just “schooling”: “That’s what wins, is that curiosity about learning,” she said. “I don’t think he thinks he has all the answers. I didn’t see that when he was in school, and I haven’t seen anything in the news articles that makes me think that’s changed.”
As for his one outstanding math credit, Sylvia confessed that he has fantasized about “hiring some guy in India to do it for me [online], but I think I’m going to do it myself, especially now that I told you that.”
“It’s the kind of thing that feels like busywork, and I hate doing busywork,” he continued. “I’m really good, when I have something like that to do, at distracting myself with other things.”