With hundreds of millions of poker players worldwide, each one an island and each looking for the answers to a game that only provides more questions, we all want to know what it is that makes a champion. Some say it comes down to heart, or gamble, or math, but those are generalizations that practically exist without borders. For finite answers, we must look at the mutual pasts of poker's success stories in the hope of gaining some understanding.
There are patterns in the chaos.
Many of poker's greatest success stories seem to find their roots in juxtaposition to success in other games. It's not the techniques themselves as much as the will and skills to succeed. Competitive fire and constitution are developed through repeated exposure no matter the venue. Poker looms as an option when those games and players dispose of one another, leaving the competitors needing a competitive outlet.
With Brock Parker's twin victories this week at the 2009 World Series of Poker, the spotlight has fallen on the players of one such game. "Magic: The Gathering" (M:TG), a strategy game that uses collectible trading cards as game pieces, mixed luck and skill in a way many find reminiscent of poker. While "Magic's" wizardly fantasy surface theme might strike some as a little too fantastical, lying underneath is a multi-layered game of tactics, strategy and incomplete information. That game, it turns out, has served as a launching pad for many of poker's brightest young stars.
Parker, the 27-year-old Maryland native known in the online world as "t_soprano," was but an afterthought in what looked to be Daniel Negreanu's march to a bracelet in Event 14, the $2,500 six-handed limit hold 'em event. Entering the heads-up portion against Negreanu as a 2-1 underdog, Parker rode a strong run of cards to the comeback victory.
"A lot of the time, limit is about who catches what," admitted Parker, for who short-handed limit hold 'em is a specialty. "The pressure was on Daniel because he had a big chip lead and bracelet bets and god knows what. If I lost it was 'Whatever.' I kind of had an idea of what I wanted to do heads-up and changed my game a little, but then the cards went my way and he paid off every hand. I got pretty lucky. It's pretty hard in limit to do much about that."
With the win in tow, Parker came ready to play in Event 19, the $2,500 six-handed no-limit hold 'em event.
"Luckily they did the whole bracelet ceremony the next day, so I had to wake up for that," said the low key champion. "I didn't go party because I didn't want to show up hungover, so I figured I'd play. Before the first break I'd tripled up."
The rest is history. Parker rode that chip stack to his second bracelet win in four days.
"It's insane," said a bewildered Justin Bonomo. "I mean, he's been playing WSOP for years and years and hasn't had that one huge performance. He finished third once, but no bracelets. To see him finally get a bracelet was amazing. He really deserves it."
The sentiment, Bonomo would go on to explain, was in part due to it being Parker who turned so many of the former "M:TG" kids on to poker.
"He was the one who brought poker into 'Magic,'" said another bracelet owner, Alex Borteh. "He was playing $20-$40, which was a really big game back then [in 1999] and he was a big winner in that game. I remember asking him about it. 'Can you actually win money? Is it a skill game?' We didn't realize it was viable. Brock taught us all that."
Those Parker-taught lessons have had a major impact on the face of the tournament poker scene. Parker, Borteh, Eric Froehlich and Eric Kesselman have all graduated from professional "M:TG" tournaments to bracelet victories. Bonomo, Noah Boeken, Isaac Haxton, Scott Seiver, Jeff Garza and Adam Levy are also among former "M:TG" professionals, and many of them still play the game on a daily basis.
While the two games have similarities, the consensus is that the collective poker success results more from the experience competition provides than the tactics and skill set utilized in "Magic."
"I think the biggest correlation is that it teaches the brain how to work," explained 2004 WSOP runner-up and bracelet-holder David Williams. "It's problem-solving, logical deduction. Most people aren't sharpening their brains constantly. We've been honing our skills for years; high-level thinking is pretty much all we do. That's great training for playing poker under pressure."
"A lot of us were kids on stage playing for [relatively] huge money," Froehlich said. "We had the lights, TV it was a perfect stage-setter to go into poker. I know the first time I played poker on ESPN I expected to be nervous, but I wasn't. It was natural, because we'd been doing it since we were kids."
"Some guys have done it for eight years by the time they get to 21, and that makes us better," Haxton said. "If you get deep in a tournament and aren't used to the high-pressure situations in person, it's a problem. 'Magic' prepared us for that."
With new cards being brought into circulation every few months, the game has stayed fresh for most of the converts. "Poker is a job, 'Magic' a game," said Parker, who played "Magic" online to unwind after his long days of poker. "I never want to play poker in my free time. 'Magic' you can. You can't make a living at 'M:TG,' but it's just the more enjoyable game."
"'Magic' is a better-designed game, and I'd play it constantly if I didn't have to make a living," Williams said. "We play, relax and have a good time. It helps keep me sharp. I still play every day, either online or with the guys. If I get knocked out, I can always find a game of 'Magic.'"
There will always be open seats at poker tables. For Parker and these other players, success has been found in a different kind of cards. Judging by their track record, this could still only be the beginning.
Gary Wise was himself once an "M:TG" pro. He's now covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.