|Phil Gordon Plays a Winning Hand
At 6 feet 9 inches, Phil Gordon is highly visible as he strolls through the casino at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, but his stature isn't the only remarkable thing about him. The 34 year-old Georgia Tech alumnus is a professional poker player who has won more than $1 million in tournaments, only the latest of his successes in life.
Gordon, ICS91, was the principal software architect for Netsys Technologies and became a millionaire at age 26 when Cisco Systems bought the company out. He set out on a world adventure, backpacking through 50 countries before pursuing his dream of playing poker professionally.
Since 2001 he's won two World Poker Tour championship events, which led to his role as analyst for the Bravo network's "Celebrity Poker Showdown."
With an excellent college grade point average and an SAT score near 1500, Gordon received a President's Scholarship at Georgia Tech in 1987 at age 16. He entered Tech as a sophomore physics major.
"Not a bigger geek have you ever seen, and that's saying a lot for Tech," Gordon wisecracks.
Gordon, who learned poker at age 7 from his great-aunt, Lib Lucas, discovered a passion for bridge at Tech. He helped restart the bridge club at Tech and, after his junior year, took time off from his studies to play in tournaments around the country.
"I had three quarters to go in my physics major and I was traveling around the United States playing bridge. My mother called me her delinquent genius. Mom loved it when I was a high school dropout and I was at Tech, but being a college dropout and running around playing bridge wasn't as great. That made me realize I needed to go back and get my degree," he says.
Gordon knew he didn't want to continue his physics studies.
Just before classes began in the fall of 1990, Gordon went to computer science professor William A. "Gus" Baird and told him he wanted to switch to a computer science major but still graduate with his class in the spring.
"He gave me some tasks to do. When I finished them, he said he knew I could do the work, but that it was sink or swim," Gordon says. Over the next three quarters, Gordon took 21 computer science courses, averaging about 21 class hours per quarter.
Upon graduation, Gordon worked as an engineer with a company in Santa Cruz, Calif., for a year then spent two years in Lockheed Missiles & Space's artificial intelligence research center.
"I told them I was quitting to become a professional poker player. That same day I had lunch with three friends who had quit Lockheed to form Netsys Technologies. I told them I was quitting to play poker and they said, ‘If you want to take a gamble, come work for us for six months, then play poker,'" Gordon says. "These were three of the smartest guys I've ever met, so I went to work with them."
He became the Palo Alto, Calif., start-up's principal software architect and first employee. Three and a half years later, in spring 1997, Cisco Systems bought Netsys for $95 million in stock and cash. Gordon took a solo, two-week vacation to Thailand and Indonesia that July.
"That trip opened my eyes to the possibilities of being 26 and having enough money to not answer to anyone," he said.
Two days after returning to California, Gordon announced his retirement from Netsys, and in September he began an odyssey that would take him through 50 countries over the next five years from Africa and South America to Malaysia and Australia to Sweden, Denmark and Holland.
Although his family was concerned that he would be out of touch for weeks at a time, traveling to remote and primitive locations, Gordon carried one piece of equipment that garnered a great deal of curiosity from other backpackers — his laptop. His travelogue is now available on his Web site, www.philgordonpoker.com.
When he returned to the United States in 1999 after almost two full years of travel, Gordon settled in Lake Tahoe, Nev., and began his professional poker career. Since then he has won more than $1 million in poker tournaments, breaking into the big time with a fourth-place finish at the 2001 World Series of Poker championship event in which he won $400,000 and a spot on the Travel Channel documentary "Inside the World Series of Poker."
"I'd had a lot of success in tournaments, but suddenly being on TV and performing well made all the difference in the world," Gordon says. "Now everyone who watches that show knows who you are."
In 2002, he had two final table appearances at World Series of Poker events. Then, in October of that year, he played in the professional division of the World Poker Tour Aruba Poker Classic tournament, beating out seven of the top players in the world to win the professional division and a $250,000 first prize.
During the tournament, Gordon met actor Hank Azaria, an avid poker player who mentioned that he and a colleague were developing a tournament show for celebrity poker players and they needed an expert to provide commentary. "I told him to sign me up," Gordon says.
While he was at the Aruba tournament, Gordon's beloved Aunt Lib died of cancer. Shortly after her death, Gordon and his best friend and fellow professional poker player Rafael "Rafe" Furst came up with the idea for what they dubbed the Ultimate Sports Adventure, a yearlong tour around the United States in a huge recreational vehicle to major sporting events. They raised more than $100,000 for the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation through appearances at the events.
In March 2004, Gordon won the World Poker Tour's Bay 101 Shooting Stars tournament and a purse of $360,000. Since then he has continued playing, but is changing his poker strategy.
In September his book, "Poker: The Real Deal,"was published by Simon & Schuster and he is already working on a second book, tentatively called "The Little Green Book of NoLimit Hold 'Em,"a title loosely based on "Harvey Penick's Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf."
"I guess I'm a little more focused on the business of poker right now," says Gordon, who has started a video production company to create instructional poker DVDs.
In addition to the three months a year he spends on set for "Celebrity Poker Showdown," he has also been doing speaking engagements and is developing a new radio show on poker he hopes to sell for national syndication.
"At Tech, I got a world-class education and the opportunities that come with a Tech degree," he says. "Tech set me up for success. What you make of your degree is a product of luck and determination, but having it from Tech gives you a step up on everyone else."