Not even a Xanax pill would have spared Steve Fiske the boiling tension and seemingly inevitable pressure.
As he sat in front of his laptop in Troup 200, a pouch of Skoal tobacco tightly tucked underneath his lip, a cold beverage to the right of his desk, Fiske wouldn’t falter.
It was November. A chain of gusty winds and brisk weather had shifted students familiar with basking in the striking sun at the scenic campus into their dorm rooms.
Fending off waves of anxiety and jittery butterflies that swarmed his stomach like an angry mob, Fiske punched his mouse and executed his next move in an ultra-competitive game of online poker. He then sat there, like his counterparts spread around the country also competing, waiting, waiting, waiting for an icon to pop up and instantly vault him into the upper percentile of the nation’s wealthiest college students.
A crowd slowly developed, traipsing along the side of Fiske’s computer, observing. “Dude if you win this, we’re set,” said one student in the growing group of spectators.
Fiske survived another round while his roommates answered his phone calls. They told callers he couldn’t talk at the moment, he was busy. That if you leave your name, number, time in which you called, and instructions for reply, he’d be able to get back to you more expeditiously.
Fast forward to a month later, and Fiske, a junior communications major from Hingham, Mass., was living life like Mark-Paul Gosselaar, aka Zack Morris, before the celebrated young actor essentially fell of the face of the earth in the mid-nineties. A fridge stacked with Coronas and a shelf carrying a truckload of rich cigars in Fiske’s dorm room was indicative of this.
Fiske won $25,000 while competing in paradisepoker.com’s inaugural “Freeroll” tournament. He first learned about the tournament by way of an ESPN advertisement.
Fiske placed $10,500 of his winnings in a CD that’s sitting in his local bank. This allows him to gain interest.
He purchased an iPod, gifts for his parents, and eased his family’s financial burden by repaying them for some of his tuition money. The rest of his money went to his grandfather, Stephen Fiske I, who spearheads multiple charities. Fiske says he has always idolized his grandfather.
The tourney’s top prize was $1 million, but top finishers were also guaranteed large sums of money. Fiske, who says he plays poker about four times a week, was a realist about everything. He knew that the chances of him capturing first place were about as likely as Ron Jeremy being warped in a dry spell during the mid eighties.
The world of online poker, however, had been good to him. He had spent the previous summer refining his game and cashing in. Fiske said he played a plethora of online poker tournaments prior to the Freeroll. The most he had ever won was $500, but he never lost more than $20. He wanted to propel his luck.
He had absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain, his roommate, Tyler Howes (who has had his fair share of luck with online poker as well), assured him.
Fiske coasted past the tournament’s opening rounds, turning heads and hoping to springboard his way toward the rewards.
Fiske started the elite round picking up where he left off. He was on a roll, a relentless surge to the top.
He says he received a handful of good cards. “I was playing the cards right, that’s the thing. I wasn’t playing them stupid,” he said.
Fiske snagged some opponents’ chips and his moves eventually elevated him to fifth place.
It was all downhill from that point on, Fiske recalls. He dropped to eighth place, with about eleven hungry competitors left. Fiske concluded the day in ninth place, cashing in on the guaranteed $25,000.
“I was drained,” he said.
Though it has been referred to as a game of luck, Fiske feels that skill is definitely required for online poker.
The topic of banning online poker has caused controversy throughout the country, most notably amongst college students. Whether it is students struggling with tuition needs, money in general, or just chasing dreams, recent studies have shown that gambling-addicted students are no minority on college campuses.
Last year, at Lehigh University (Bethlehem, Pa.), then-sophomore class president Greg Hogan robbed a bank with a note explaining he was armed, an art mastered only by criminals in Elmore Leonard novels. Hogan, the son of a pastor, was expelled from the university.
His motive, Hogan would later say, was that he needed to pay off online poker debts.
“He was arguably the worst poker player I’ve ever faced,” said Vaclav Malek, a recent Lehigh graduate, of Hogan.
The exact time when what was once considered a friendly, family card game evolved into this manifesto of gambling and debauchery is unclear.
Fiske brushes all of this aside when he plays.
“I’m going to keep rounding out,” Fiske, who often watches the epic poker film Rounders, said.
Is the professional poker world the future for Fiske? He’s not certain, but what he is sure of is this: the next tournament he wins: all the money is going into his grandfather’s charity.