Two years ago, Matt Plecki realized something that would change his life forever.
It was 5 a.m., and Matt had spent the entire night peering intently at his 22-inch computer monitor. His chemistry textbooks lay at the foot of his bed, unopened. He was expected to be in class in three hours, but he didn’t care.
The screen was filled with dark green boxes — sometimes one or two, sometimes as many as seven or eight — all of which he’d been watching, analyzing, and reacting to simultaneously.
Those boxes were online poker games, and Matt was making a killing.
That night, Matt made more than enough money to “pay to fail the class and retake it again the next semester.”
Matt eventually realized that completing his undergraduate chemical engineering degree wouldn’t be worth his time or money. Tuition at USC runs more than $40,000 a year — a big number for anyone, but particularly for a middle class kid from the South Side of Chicago.
He took a leave of absence from school and moved to Costa Rica to play poker full-time, where Bloomberg News tracked him down.
“I decided to go to uni because that’s what our generation does, whereas maybe 30 years ago, not everyone was going to college,” he writes in an email. “Today, it is almost mandatory to have a degree to have a good opportunity to create the lifestyle you want.”
Matt’s decision to drop out of school reflects the prohibitive costs of higher education in the United States. According to Peter Thiel, the billionaire businessman and PayPal co-founder, the price of school is the next big bubble.
“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he told TechCrunch. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”
Thiel believes that a Bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of a sound future, and the belief that it does is unhealthy. “It’s what you’ve been told all your life, and it’s how schools rationalize a quarter of a million dollars in debt.”
That’s why Thiel founded the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, a program that challenges some of this generation’s finest minds to drop out of school and pursue “innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow.” Instead of paying a hundred grand in tuition, Thiel fellows are given that amount to fund their startup.
Matt had no idea who Peter Thiel was when he chose to drop out of school. But their thinking remains remarkably similar.
“School was taking up poker time, which was almost 1k$/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.”
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.
“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, 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.”
Education isn’t just an investment, and the benefits of a college degree aren’t just monetary. Education benefits society at large. It gives the world a more intellectual flavor.
But straddling our youth with suffocating debt is just as dangerous.