The two things that really impressed me about Matt Plecki when I first met him, way back in the balmy fall semester of our freshman year at USC, were: 1) his unique and preternatural ability to focus — to devote his attention and his intellect to the task at hand, and 2) his supreme unflappability, which was incredibly useful when we found ourselves in sticky situations with the authorities, but incredibly counterproductive when he found himself in an argument with his girlfriend.
His focus and unflappability were evident in everything we did, whether we were playing pickup basketball at the gym, talking about technology in someone’s dorm room, or doing something nefarious on the way home from a particularly rambunctious frat party.
But Matt’s brilliance was most noticeable when he sat at his desk, where he spent countless hours peering intently at the 22-inch computer monitor connected to a CPU he’d assembled himself.
Most of the time, the screen was filled with dark green boxes. Sometimes there’d be only one or two green boxes on the screen. Sometimes, the screen would display as many as eight boxes, all of which he’d be watching, analyzing, and reacting to simultaneously.
These green boxes were online pokers games. They would change his life.
“I came into school OK at poker,” he writes in an a Facebook message. “It was more of a hobby/game I was good at.” But now that he was at university, he was no longer required to go to every class. He could do whatever what he wanted with his time, and what he chose to do was play more poker.
In the first two years of college, Matt spent “easily thousands of hours…maybe between 2-5khrs, and hundreds of thousands of hands” working those little green boxes. “There’d be some days were I would stay up until 5am because there were good games running, and the money I made would be more than enough to pay to fail the class and retake it again the next semester. Eventually I was making more than any person I know per hour, and didn’t look back.”
Today, Matt’s hair is a littler shorter and a little more styled. He looks put-together; confident. His success is remarkable for someone so young, but he’s still blessed with that same remarkable humility. He’s still the kind of guy who’ll tell you many great stories about high school, but forget to tell you that he’d been the valedictorian.
Matt’s still the kind of guy that any university wants and every company loves. But the great thing about Matt is that he’s always been more comfortable doing his own thing.
“I decided to go to uni because that’s what our generation does, whereas maybe 30 years ago, not everyone was going to college,” he writes in an email. “Today, it is almost mandatory to have a degree to have a good opportunity to create the lifestyle you want.”
At USC, Matt figured out how to use his considerable gifts to best use. He realized, eventually, that completing his undergraduate chemical engineering degree wouldn’t be worth his time. He took a leave of absence from school and moved to Costa Rica to play poker full-time, where Bloomberg News tracked him down.
“School was taking up poker time, which was almost 1k$/day,” he explains, matter-of-factly. Why would any intelligent, self-motivated 21 year-old want to spend his days in class instead of making $300 an hour doing something he actually enjoyed?
“I was also more motivated in pursuing other interests that USC couldn’t offer — traveling, business opportunities, and trading (stocks).” He was also sick of the Spartan college existence. “Living in a frat is loud, not private, and has shitty internet. Sometimes I’d want to sleep after staying up all night but couldn’t, or I’d have someone bugging me about how online poker is rigged.”
As Matt began to see new opportunities to further himself economically, he decided to suspend his studies.
“At some point you start making more money than you really need to spend. Depending on your lifestyle, I would think that you really need like 25k/yr for essential life stuff… food, rent, bills, car, etc. but how much you make over 25k is your spending money… I live a simple lifestyle and don’t spend a ton of my money. I’m probably saving at least 80%+ for whatever comes up in the future. I certainly didn’t pursue poker because a certain job market was bad. The world is always looking for engineers. I do however, place a great value on my “free time” … playing poker allows me to play whenever, from wherever. I am pretty free.”
Matt’s story is the tale of a true entrepreneur, an individual who understands how to make money despite the economic climate. But when I ask him if he thinks he’s make the best use of his money, intelligence, and mathematical skills to good, it’s clear that he has a conscience, too.
“There probably isn’t a selfless answer. When I did that Bloomberg article, we talked about how poker players don’t really contribute to society directly for 15m+. It is kinda about just making a lot of money and better my life. I guess you could say with that money I am investing in startups that will be able to better lives, which wouldn’t have the opportunity without proper funding. And southwest airlines love me. I’m paying for a lot of its workers. But really, I’m greedy and I think a lot of businesses have to be in order to succeed. AAPL and GOOG (Apple and Google to us non-traders) pay <20% in taxes, so the govt gets shafted, but that money goes towards new products that certainly help their bottom lines, but also better our day to day living.”
Matt’s story is just beginning. But as the economy recovers, it will be fascinating to see how young minds like his will re-imagine our economy, and our world.