Monday, March 28, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle: Daniel Cates Profiled in New York Times Magazine

Daniel CatesLate last week there appeared an insightful feature by Jay Caspian Kang in New York Times Magazine about Daniel “Jungleman12” Cates titled “Online Poker’s Big Winner.” Kang’s title alludes to the fact that Cates, who just turned 21 last November, earned more playing online in 2010 than any other player, ending the calendar year a whopping $5.5 million in the black.

We’ve gotten to know Cates a little bit over the last few months. His huge run, tracked and reported meticulously by sites like, started grabbing a lot of attention as early as last spring. Cates’ following Patrik Antonius to accept the second “Durrrr” challenge in late August 2010 also put “Jungleman12” on the radar of some of those who hadn’t heard of him previously.

Interviews followed, including one in early February on the Two Plus Two Pokercast (episode 159). If you happened to have heard that one, you probably recall how Cates sounded like a friendly, reasonably modest young man, though for the most part didn’t really have a lot to say, mostly sticking with brief, not-so-revealing replies to questions posed to him by hosts Mike Johnson and Adam Schwartz.

All of which made me more interested to read the New York Times Magazine feature. Sure, I was curious to see how online poker would be presented in this mainstream publication, but also just wanted to see what else the reporter might have been able to uncover about Cates.

The article begins with a quick sketch of Cates grinding online, casually fighting for five-figure pots while referring to the stakes as “boring” and not as big as what he normally plays. Reference to a million-plus dollar downswing versus Gus Hansen is also reported by Cates with relative indifference -- not meaningless, but obviously not out of the ordinary, either.

The rest of the piece is primarily concerned with exploring the question of how young Cates came to occupy the current title of “online poker’s biggest winner” as well as estimating what may lie ahead for the young phenom. Like I say, it is an insightful piece that anyone reading this blog will likely find worth checking out. When you do, you’ll see that Kang avoids making any sort of overt judgments in the piece, leaving it to the reader to decide what he or she thinks about the world of online poker in general and Cates’s example in particular.

That said, Kang’s portrait of Cates certainly shows the 21-year-old’s range of life experience to this point to have been somewhat narrow, mostly confined to sitting in front of computers and playing video games. From those many hours Cates has obviously developed a skill set that has proven most useful to him when playing heads-up cash games against online poker’s elite.

Those video games helped Cates develop the “dexterity” (both “mental” and “manual”) that enable him to think quickly while multi-tabling. They also appear to have helped him develop both aggression and a kind of fearlessness that Kang suggests might be “the greatest benefit borne from a life spent playing video games,” namely, having become used to “the strange, disconnected relationship between what is simulated and what is real” characteristic of the games.

Cates supports this latter point, admitting that he himself -- like “most of us young kids who play at nosebleed stakes” -- doesn’t “really have a clear idea about the actual value of the money we win or lose.” The dollars are like “points,” he says, and like many of those with whom he competes his primary goal is “to have the highest score.”

Still, as Cates himself admits in the article, there is something lacking when it comes to the “balance of life” he desires. We were all talking about this same issue at length a month-and-a-half ago in the context of that huge prop bet between Ashton Griffin and Haseeb Qureshi, the story of which also comes up in the NYT Magazine article as Griffin and Cates are roommates.

I’ll stop there and let you read the piece for yourself. I will say I find most intriguing the distinction Cates makes between “Daniel” and “jungleman” near the end of the article, and how he appears to wish that he could perhaps “be” Daniel (i.e., a more “human” self) a little more and “jungleman” (the “virtual” self he exists as online) a little less.

Jungleman12Funny that he has that name “jungleman” to represent the virtual Cates.

On the one hand, there’s something decidedly “futuristic” about the quick-thinking, several-steps-ahead-of-everyone online poker player who is consistently competing with and beating the best. Seems almost alien -- or at least not so human.

Yet the name suggests a more primitive, less developed self, one yet to evolve into a fully realized member of society.

Which makes Cates not unlike most 21-year-olds, really.

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