Sean Jazayeri, a 53-year-old software engineer and former Microsoftie, pulled off one of the biggest poker wins in Seattle-area history.
Every month or two, some friends — computer nerds, mostly — get together at Sean Jazayeri’s house in Bellevue to play poker.
It’s a typical, low-stakes friendly game. They put in 10 or 20 bucks each, total, and deal around the dining-room table.
“It’s not that high caliber of a game,” says Brad Cummings, a sales director at a Seattle IT company and also a statistician for the Seattle Seahawks. “There are often guys there who haven’t played cards much.
“To have this happen, well … it’s just really, really astounding.”
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What happened is that Jazayeri, a 53-year-old software engineer and former Microsoftie, pulled off one of the biggest poker wins in Seattle-area history.
He won $1.37 million by beating 548 other players, many of them professionals, in the World Poker Tour’s L.A. Classic Main Event, which ended Feb. 29.
“The lone amateur at a table of young pros,” was how CardPlayer magazine described the scene.
Jazayeri is not a poker newbie. He’s been dabbling at it since 2007, when he found himself on an Alaskan cruise and unexpectedly won a game held for the passengers.
Since 2009, he’s played a handful of tournaments each year, including in Las Vegas. He’s won some money, and finished first once, at Caesar’s Palace. But his prize then was $7,313 — one half of 1 percent of what he scored the other day.
“I’ll be the first to say this is lightning striking,” Jazayeri laughed. “Poker is only a hobby for me. I was a break-even player. Until now.”
He’s now ranked fifth in the world on poker’s “Player of the Year” list. He says he’s “100 percent sure” that won’t last.
So was this skill? Or is this guy just off-the-charts lucky?
I asked some of his poker buddies. They all claimed they beat him regularly in their Bellevue home game.
“Is it obvious he’s a really good player?” asked his friend and tech entrepreneur Hadi Partovi, repeating my question. “It’s definitely obvious he thinks he’s a really good player.”
Ribbing aside, whether poker is a game of skill is no longer just a parlor topic. It’s a big legal fight as the U.S. government continues trying to keep poker off the Internet.
The argument is that if it’s a game of chance, then it’s pure gambling. But if it’s skill, then anti-gambling laws may not apply.
Last year, the economist famous for the book “Freakonomics” reviewed the records of 32,000 Texas Hold ‘Em poker players in events like the ones Jazayeri plays. They compared the players’ results to their previous records and rankings to try to answer the “luck versus skill” debate.
Their findings were surprising. The poker players who were known to be good (because they were ranked) beat the lesser players at about the same rate that elite Major League Baseball teams beat teams that don’t make the baseball playoffs.
“To the extent that baseball would unquestionably be judged a game of skill, the same conclusion might reasonably be applied to poker, in light of the data,” wrote economists Steven Levitt and Thomas Miles of the University of Chicago.
They also found that top poker players get far higher returns on investment than Wall Street money managers. Stock-picking may be the real casino gamble.
Jazayeri says he’s worked hard to hone the skill part, such as poker strategy. He stuck to it through 50 hours of playing over six days. But he did win when the final card gave him three of a kind to beat his rival’s two pair. A miracle on the river, they call that in poker.
“If it was pure skill, I wouldn’t have won it. I can assure you of that,” he said.
He guesses Texas Hold ‘Em is “40 percent math, 20 percent psychology and 40 percent luck.” He excels at the math part.
“You can’t take the luck out of it, but neither is it pure gambling,” he said. “Buying a Lotto ticket, now that’s 100 percent chance. That’s gambling.”
His friend Cummings, the statistician, says Jazayeri has another intangible the young guns don’t.
“He’s been in plenty of situations, in years of business, where significant money was at stake,” he said. “So he doesn’t get rattled.”
I asked if the siren song of that million-dollar payout would lure him into playing poker full-time.
Nope. Jazayeri, who immigrated here as a kid from Iran, says he’s sticking to his career of designing software.
Plus, he’s using some of the winnings to set up college funds for his six nieces and nephews. So “they can put themselves in a position for lightning to strike them, too,” he said.
Maybe that big poker win was pretty lucky. But life — it sure seems like he’s playing that one with some skill.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.