Who would have guessed that Bryn Mawr is fast becoming a poker hotbed?
For the second straight year, the upscale Main Line suburb has produced a big-money winner in the World Series of Poker.
Businessman Eric Brooks, a cofounder and former director of the investing powerhouse Susquehanna International Group, collected $415,856 and a champion's gold bracelet from a Las Vegas seven-card stud table Monday.
Last year, Beth Shak of Bryn Mawr finished second in the no-limit hold 'em category of the poker series, taking back to the Main Line $328,683 in prize money.
However, Brooks' purse won't be coming home with him.
He is donating the whole sum to a California educational charity where he is a longtime board member. The Decision Education Foundation is a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit focused on teaching children at places including the Haverford School about how good choices are made.
"This is like funding a whole quarter of operations," said Carl Spetzler, the foundation's executive director, who estimated the annual budget at $1.5 million.
After cashing in, Brooks was headed to visit family on the West Coast, his wife, Donna, said yesterday.
While still in Las Vegas, Brooks - who had never won a pro poker tournament before - told the gambling press he'd been playing poker since age 11. After college and several years as a stock trader, Brooks and four friends founded the Susquehanna International Group in 1987 and helped build it into a successful firm where poker skills are a must.
An Investment Dealers Digest profile from 2005 said trainees "are required to master the two poker games that figure prominently in big-stakes poker tournament: hold 'em and stud" and "are required to play poker daily [because] poker is considered an analog to trading." In 2006, the firm even hosted a poker tournament to cull potential recruits.
Brooks has since left the high-rolling Bala Cynwyd firm, whose current directors could not be reached for comment. However, Brooks was still carrying a poker-centric philosophy with him when he got involved with the Decision Education Foundation in 2004.
"He showed us the tie-in of how you can apply some of the lessons that you learn in poker directly into high-quality decision making under uncertainty," Spetzler said, quoting Kenny Rogers to make his point. "Like the song goes, 'You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.' "
Even before winning, and donating, the six-figure pot this week, Brooks' poker-based contributions to the foundations were more than rhetorical: In October, he recruited pro poker champ - and former University of Pennsylvania doctoral student - Annie Duke to join its board and preach poker's virtues.
"It's been quite an exciting relationship," Spetzler said.
Brooks is due back in Bryn Mawr next week, where he will get to experience home life as a reigning poker champ.
Shak, the Bryn Mawr woman who hit the poker jackpot last year, said the experience can be transformative. When she hit it big, the mother of five and wife of world-class poker player Daniel Shak was a relative poker novice in her third year of professional play. Now she has a sponsor, makes network television appearances, and gets recognized in public.
"Of course it opens up avenues," Shak said.
She hasn't met Brooks - yet - but there's little to keep them, if they wanted, from setting up a high-rollers' table for a few hands once he gets back to Bryn Mawr.
There has not been a gambling bust in recent memory in Lower Merion Township, said Police Superintendent Joseph Daly. Indeed, most friendly poker games can get by without fear of police intervention.
"The only way it would be illegal is if the house is taking a cut," Daly said. "If a group of us met at my house and we played cards, we would be all right. But if I was taking a cut or selling food or beverages or something, that would be a different story."