College students everywhere could learn a thing or two from Cole South. As a freshman at Georgetown University in 2004, the young economics major was playing a friendly game of poker with some friends and lost a week’s worth of beer money. Frustrated, he did what any good student would do—he headed over to the library to check out some books on how to improve his game.
A year later, South was attending the College of William and Mary as a sophomore. That fall, he discovered the opportunity to play for cash online, so he deposited $50 and started playing for micro stakes under the alias “CTS.” All did not go well at first. The second-year student busted a few $50 deposits playing well above his bankroll before learning more about bankroll management and finding his stride. Using a $200 deposit playing low-stakes Limit Hold’em and “with a lot of study, and a fair amount of luck at the right times,” he managed to turn his initial funding into $13,000 in about a month.
Log In, Turn On, Drop Out
According to South, “I got caught up in the online poker boom.” In 2006, he decided to put his academic career on hold and pursue his passion for poker fulltime. What started out as a short break from studies quickly turned into a three-year hiatus.
Much of CTS’s poker time was spent on Party Poker at first, but as he moved up the ranks to middle-stakes and then high-stakes ring games, South gradually gravitated to Full Tilt Poker, where his winnings at the tables expanded incrementally. Practicing a hyper-loose-aggressive style that soon became his trademark, the young phenomenon built a bankroll of over $2 million. In an interview regarding his meteoric rise, South told a reporter, “I’ve certainly had a lot of luck on my side.”
But good fortune had only a little to do with it. True to his nature, South applied his educational training to the game. After each session, win or lose, he would study and analyze his play, constantly looking for trends and indicators to refine his game. In his own words at the time, “Before and after every session, I am always looking at the big hands I’ve recently been involved in to see what I could have done differently…. I have put in a lot of hard work away from the tables and it is certainly nice to see it paying off.”
Nor was South’s rise to the ranks of the nouveau riche linear. In 2008, he forayed into the highest stakes games on Full Tilt, where pots of up to $500,000 were not uncommon. He dropped close to $1 million that year, which may have had some influence on his decision to apply another lesson that could have been taken from the pages of an economics textbook—diversify.
Investor and Entrepreneur
Even as his game at the tables was improving, South was exploring other latent talents, too. He appeared on NBC’s “Poker After Dark.” He became an instructor and co-owner at Cardrunners, a web site full of poker training videos, forums, blogs and podcasts to help others learn poker. Then, he co-authored a book with Tri Nguyen called “Let There Be Range! – Crushing SSNL/MSNL No-Limit Hold’em Games.”
South also invested in other ventures to create income flows. Among them were “DraftDay,” a real-money daily fantasy sports platform; “Expert Insight,” a web business that puts clients in virtual meetings with experts such as Steven Levitt and Tom Dwan; and “Hold’em Manager,” the world’s most widely used poker analytics software.
According to the young entrepreneur, his time spent away from poker has been just as valuable as his studies of the game. “I really enjoy playing poker,” he has said, “but at the end of the day it’s just a card game. I am happiest when I am leading a balanced life with a variety of interests.” Included among those interests are running, snowboarding, dining out and travel. By the age of 25, he had visited over thirty countries on every continent but Antarctica. “When I’m happy outside of poker,” says South, “I find that my results at the tables reflect it.”
Whatever he was doing was to stay happy was certainly working out. In 2009, South developed into a highly consistent player, posting a $2 million profit on Full Tilt before the end of the year. He also got his first taste of the World Series of Poker (WSOP), finishing 162nd in the 2009 Main Event and cashing for $40,288. To cap off the best year of his life to date, he decided to resume his studies at Georgetown in the fall.
Change Is Good
Going back to school to pursue his degree was not an easy transition for the poker pro, who continued to play for big money online. South said that studying economics was like “a never-ending poker game with a lot more variables.” In the first few months of 2010, he reportedly managed to win over $3 million at Full Tilt and PokerStars, but then he suddenly announced he was leaving Cardrunners at the end of April because “the work was too time consuming to combine with full time economics studies.”
At the 2010 WSOP Main Event, South placed 365th—good enough for $36,463 but not as good as his first outing. The balancing act of card play and studies was taking its toll, plus he has a girlfriend and a dog that were becoming ever more important aspects of his life. South was never a believer in “all work and no play.”
Then, in April 2011 came Black Friday, shutting the doors of Full Tilt and PokerStars to all U.S.-based players. South briefly moved to Canada in the summer so that he could continue to play, but September he had returned to Washington D.C. so he could complete his degree in December—a graduate at last.
Most recently, the “self-employed” entrepreneur has been working on “BOOM,” a feature-length documentary about the online poker boom, which has already reached the editing and post-production phase. He has traveled to Vietnam on holiday, cooked with Chef Patrick O’Connell and started looking into some high-tech ventures. As for poker, South entered the 2012 WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas, but didn’t cash this time. Ring games and charity events are more his style, but as he told his Twitter followers after busting, “really happy with my play overall at pretty tough tables. Good luck to everyone chipping away!”