Finance Assistant Professor Wins $1 Million Poker Tournament

Aug. 15, 2016

Mitch Towner

When people ask Eller finance assistant professor Mitchell Towner what he did over the summer break, he has quite a story, particularly relating to eight consecutive days when he competed in high-stakes poker and bridge tournaments.

His adventure started out on a Friday in late June when he paid the $1,500 fee to enter the 2016 World Series of Poker's Monster Stack No-Limit Hold'em tournament in Las Vegas. Towner, whose main passion is playing bridge, had only played in two professional poker tournaments prior to that.

“My initial goal was to win $2,500, and I had no idea I’d advance that far,” Towner said.

At the start of the tournament, he was competing against 6,927 other players, many of whom played professionally. After playing for 10 hours on Friday, he still had chips on the table, and he advanced to the next round on Sunday to play against winners from Friday and Saturday.

Using similar tactics he teaches in his investment classes—analyzing patterns, watching for other players’ mistakes and knowing when to take a risk—he played steadily, advancing on to Monday and Tuesday—much further than he ever anticipated. In fact, he had booked a flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for that Tuesday so he could compete in a bridge tournament, never expecting to make it to the finals. He ended up having a friend sit in for him for that first day of the bridge tournament so he could continue on with the poker tournament for a chance at winning the jackpot.

“Part of me was excited and nervous playing with the big pros,” Towner said. “The final table was the most nerve-wracking because there were big lights on us and they were broadcasting it live.”

Fortunately, because he had competed internationally in bridge with the U.S. Junior Team for four consecutive years from 2010 to 2013, Towner was prepared for such a tense competition.

“I was amazed at how calm I could keep myself,” he said, adding that he felt confident in his ability to compete. In the end, he was left at the table with a professional poker play from Venezuela, and with a final hand of A-7 against his competitor’s 3-3, he won a whopping $1,120,196 and a gold bracelet.

Numb and in shock, he was swarmed by the media and he granted interviews, all the while thinking he had to get to Los Angeles for the second day of the bridge tournament. With no sleep, he hopped on the next plane, and within hours, he was playing bridge. Over the next three days, he competed in two prestigious tournaments and won both of them.

“It was a crazy eight days. I feel very fortunate to have had a blessed week,” he said, adding that after taxes, he took his winnings to pay off his mortgage and graduate school loans and invest some of the funds in the market. “Nothing too flashy!”

Now that classes are starting, Towner may enter poker tournaments occasionally during breaks, but his preference is to play bridge.

“I think of it as the chess of card games,” he said. “We play for points and prestige rather than money, and it’s much more challenging and strategic. I’m always seeing something new when I play, and it’s more intellectually stimulating for me.”