I first stumbled into poker when I was 16. I started with $50 and within a year, turned it into $100,000. A couple years later, I was a millionaire, considered at the age of 19 to be among the best No-limit Heads-up Texas Hold’em players in the world.
I taught poker players all over the world. I made instructional videos, wrote articles, traveled, and coached other poker pros.
In 2011, when I was twenty-one, I got entangled in what came to be known as the Girah Scandal, a big affair in the online poker world. In it I lied to the poker community, trying to protect myself and my friends. A little while later, I decided to retire from the game of poker for good. Since then, I haven’t played a hand of poker.
In 2012, I returned to the United States to look after my family and finish my education. I continued to write about poker, to coach poker players, and most importantly, to work on myself. I then published my first book, How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. It became the #1 best-selling poker book on Amazon for about five months.
But despite that, I was unhappy. I felt burdened by poker—both by what I’d accomplished and by the mistakes I’d made. So I decided to start over. I donated all of my savings from my career as a poker player, almost $500,000. I gave some of it to charity, and the rest to my family. After all was said and done, I left myself with $10,000 with which to start anew.
In 2014, I made the decision to devote my life to Effective Altruism. I pledged to earn-to-give with my career, meaning that I would pursue a high-earning career so I could donate a substantial portion of my lifetime income to high-impact charities. This, now, has become my principal mission in life.
In 2015, I matriculated into App Academy, the most elite coding bootcamp in San Francisco, so that I could pursue a career in tech. I quickly rose to the top of my class, and after two months into the three-month bootcamp, I was asked to join the instructional team. Three months later, I was promoted to Director of Product. Now, I’m working at Airbnb while earning-to-give. I’m currently donating 33% of everything I make.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of my life.
The first hand of Texas Hold’em I ever played, I had no idea what I was doing. I was sixteen, and some friends had invited me to play a game of poker. I didn’t know what checking was, how betting rounds worked, or which hands beat what. I lost immediately. Frustrated by my naiveté, I decided to look up how poker worked. Soon, poker strategy captured my fascination. The more I read about it, the more it seemed there was a universe of complexity nestled inside this card game. I wanted to try my hand at it.
I started with $50 that I got for free from an online promotion—I had no money of my own to deposit—and painstakingly grinded my way up from 5-cent 10-cent games. I only played cash games and was relentlessly cautious with my bankroll. It was all I had. Before long, $50 became $200, became $2,000, and by the end of my first year, became over $100,000.
At 19, I’d become a heads-up NL and PLO specialist and started dominating high stakes. I began coaching poker players, teaching and producing videos for the leading poker instructional sites Deucescracked and Cardrunners, writing articles, and traveling. I was considered one of the strongest heads-up poker players in the world, got sponsored by Full Tilt Poker as a “Red Pro,” and did a a few other cool things along the way. One of my most widely publicized matches was when I took on and beat poker celebrity Gus Hansen at $100K buyin PLO games.
But despite my success, as the years went on, I gradually started to lose my passion for the game. I’d withdrawn from school to play poker full time, but I knew I didn’t want to play poker forever. In many ways, my relationship with poker was more of happenstance than choice. It wasn’t who I wanted to be. As I grew older, poker made me feel more isolated and unfulfilled. It made me unhappy. I came close to quitting a few times, but my friends always talked me out of it—when, after all, was I ever going to be able to make money like that again?
Despite my ambivalence, I continued playing on and off until 2011. Then, Black Friday hit, when the DOJ shut down the two major American online poker sites, and the U.S. online poker market went awry. Not long after, so did my life.
My entanglement with the Girah Scandal began when, in 2010, I was contacted by a young Portuguese boy named José Macedo, who went by the name of “Girah.” He said he was a fan of mine, he had learned a lot from my teachings, and wanted some advice on his career. He was only 17, but he was already very successful. I found him surprisingly forthright, even naïve. I liked him. He soon befriended me, as he did many high stakes pros, and before long, I became his mentor.
He continually sought my advice and I supplied it. Eventually he asked me to become his manager and to back and coach him, alongside my friend Daniel Cates (a.k.a. Jungleman12). I’d never considered anything of the sort before, but I could not deny that José’s career was growing rapidly. People had started calling him the “Portuguese Poker Prodigy.” I had seen the poker world chew up and spit out many young superstars, and I didn’t want to see the same happen to José. I agreed, and set to helping him establish his career. I cared for him. I wanted him to succeed.
Then, one night in the August of 2011, everything changed. I learned that José had cheated his friends out of large sums of money. When I confronted him, he fled. I contacted the victims, explaining to them what happened, and then tried to protect José as best I could. I hoped that José could pay them back along with reparations, and that they’d refrain from telling the public about it and destroying his career. I thought I could protect him. But my plea backfired.
When news of the cheating came out, the poker community exploded with anger. And when the victims revealed that I had tried to protect José, that wrath turned on me. More and more information started to come out about just how much José had been deceiving everyone, including Daniel and me. Not wanting the extent of our relationship public, I lied to the community about my history with José. But those lies quickly dissolved, and the truth was discovered. Before long, I was reviled in the poker world—even more so than José himself.
I was dropped from my sponsorship. My career, which I had painstakingly built over five long years, was now in tatters. Although I could still make money, there seemed to be little else for me in the world of poker. Broken and heavy-hearted, I decided to leave the game for good.
I settled my affairs, said goodbye to my friends, and left my old life behind.
I was a poker player no more. Now, I was just a twenty one year-old kid.
The months that followed were scattered and bleak. I wandered from country to country. I wrote. I reflected on the person I’d become. I interrogated myself, blamed myself, forgave myself, and played out different versions of history in my mind. Mostly, I was alone.
I felt stranded. I hated myself. I didn’t know what should come next.
In the year that followed, I searched desperately for what I should do. I lived and worked on a farm, took a ten-day vow of silence, trained in meditation, finished my abandoned English/philosophy degree, volunteered teaching ESL to refugees, and wrote extensively.
In December 2013, I published my first book, How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. It was the culmination of everything I’d learned in my career as a poker player. It was also the book that long ago, I promised myself I’d someday write. Surprisingly, it was a total success.
But I knew that I needed to put an end to that chapter of my life. It was time to start over.
I gave away all the money I made from poker. I donated $75,000 of cash to charity, and deeded my other assets to my parents, to go towards their retirement. I wanted a clean slate. Although my relationship with poker was always rocky, it wasn’t until then that I could really see how incredibly nurturing it was to me. I wanted to pay that kindness forward. And I wanted to prove to myself that I was truly better off for having done poker at all. Not for the money, but for what it taught me.
I continued to work for a year as a mind coach, training professional poker players, entrepeneurs, and daytraders on the mental and psychological skills I’d learned from mastering the highest levels of poker. I wanted to help others. And slowly and steadily, I was moving closer to the person I wanted to be.
So when, in 2014, I came across the writings of a little movement known as Effective Altruism, the course of my life was irrevocably changed.
The basic premise of Effective Altruism is this: that altruism is not as straightforward as most of us like to pretend it is. That charity is not about symbolic displays or feeling good, but rather about actually helping people as much as possible. And in order to be sure we’re really doing things that help, we must challenge our assumptions and be intellectually rigorous about what actually does good.
In short, Effective Altruism demands a scientific approach to charity. It also requires you to be willing to accept conclusions that are uncomfortable or unorthodox if the evidence or reasoning is strong enough. This is exactly what happened to me.
When I read the original argument posed by William MacAskill on why you should earn-to-give—that is, why you should take a high-paying career so you can donate the money to charity—I could not disagree. The logic seemed to me to be quite irrefutable. Uncomfortable and weird as it was, it was right. Indeed, as a privileged beneficiary of a first-world economy, if someone like me wouldn’t do it, who would? I decided then that this is what I should do with my life.
I made up my mind to earn-to-give, to devote my life to donating money to the best charities in the world. The only thing left… was how.
Heavily influenced by 80000 Hours, I decided that the best fit for my skillset would be to go into tech entrepreneurship. Given my appetite for and understanding of risk and uncertainty, my love of the Internet and technology, it seemed like a natural fit. I just had to find some way of breaking into the ecosystem.
I considered getting an MBA. But when I stumbled upon the world of coding bootcamps, I knew I’d found my path. People with no background at all had taken these bootcamps, learned how to code, and gotten hired at the top tech companies in the world. If I did this, I wouldn’t have to wait two years to finish a degree before I could earn-to-give. I could do it immediately. Most of all, it represented a new mountain to climb, fresh and white, towering over me.
The allure was irresistible. I applied in a flurry to every single bootcamp in San Francisco. My top choice was App Academy, one of the most selective coding schools in the world with a less than 5% acceptance rate, owing in large part to its tuition-free model. For two ecstatic weeks I did nothing but study the Ruby language, barely eating or leaving my room, so that I could pass my interviews.
My flurry of preparation paid off. I was accepted to App Academy. In April of 2015, I moved to San Francisco and matriculated into App Academy. The second career of my life was poised to begin.
I worked my ass off to learn programming. I was routinely the last person to leave, working from 9AM to midnight or later, 7 days a week. I was voracious, and from my career in poker, I had already learned how to learn. My work paid off: despite my background, I quickly rose to the top of my class.
At the end of the first 8 weeks of the 12-week course, the founders whisked me into a room and asked me to join the instructional team. I accepted the offer. Two months after my excursion into tech, I had gotten my first job. I could now start earning-to-give.
I rose up quickly as an instructor. After gaining the confidence of the two founders, I was promoted three months later to Director of Product for App Academy. I was tasked not only with helping to write curriculum and teach the bootcamp (and the three-week algorithms curriculum), but also to work alongside the CEO to develop new products, establish partnerships, lead the revenue strategy, and grow App Academy.
That’s how my first year of earning-to-give came to a close. I donated 1/3rd of my pre-tax salary for 2015, which came to around 21k (I was salaried since June 2015). I intend to continue giving a third in 2016, and hopefully someday, pledge a third of the company that I will someday found.
Now I’m working as a software engineer at Airbnb. [More stories forthcoming…!]
So that’s what I’m about. Now you know me.
Outside of the aforementioned, I can be found reading, writing, meditating, training kickboxing, watching improv comedy, and picking up heavy things and putting them down. I still work as a mind coach on the side. I eat a paleo diet, which I think is mostly arbitrary, but I follow it anyway. I plan to become a vegetarian someday, but I don’t have the moral fortitude yet. I try to fast one full day a week. You can contact me here if you’re into that sort of thing.