From Poker To Prop Desks: How Bill Chen Leveraged His Poker Skills Into A Quant Trading Career

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Do professional gamblers make good prop traders? While you might not want to trust significant capital to your brother-in-law at the craps table, some skills that work at the card table also work at the trading desk. 

No one emphasizes this better than poker players, who must make quick decisions under pressure while calculating odds, managing expectations and anticipating the moves of their counterparties. It sounds like a familiar process, doesn't it?

One of the best poker pros turned proprietary traders is Susquehanna International Group's Bill Chen, who leveraged a late-night poker game to impress the firm's executives.

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Betting On Success

Math was the path Chen trekked to success. He earned a triple major in math, physics, and computer science at Washington University in St. Louis before getting his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley.  From there, it would seem natural to get into quantitative trading. However, during college, Chen stumbled on another hobby that would earn him significant wealth at a relatively early age.

During late nights in the dorm room, Chen played poker against his classmates and did exceptionally well — so well that World Series of Poker dreams became a reality. Chen began playing on the pro circuit shortly after getting his Ph.D. 

Poker is more complicated than casino games like blackjack or craps because it’s the only game where you aren't competing against the house. It's player versus player, and sharks always have their own style of playing cards. Chen's first event was a $1,500 buy-in for a Limit Lowball Draw in 2000 (he finished 11th and earned $2,855). He returned in 2005 with more capital, improved skills and the determination to be a winner. 

Chen more than doubled his previous poker earnings in 2005, but 2006 was the year he stamped his name into the poker record books. During a Limit Texas Hold 'Em event with a $3,000 buy-in, Chen notched his first tournament win and captured the top prize of $343,618 and a coveted World Series of Poker bracelet. Less than two weeks later, Chen won his second bracelet in a No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em event, cashing in for $442,511.

Beating The Bosses

A friend encouraged Chen to apply at Susquehanna because of his love of game theory and deep understanding of probabilities. But the interview was anything but conventional. After the formal portion of the day, Chen was invited to a poker game held by the firm’s owners. During the game, Chen answered questions from his future bosses while rapidly depleting their chip stacks. The prospective trader cleaned up, beating all the Susquehanna players and quickly landed a new career.

Today, Chen heads the statistical arbitrage department at Susquehanna, working as a quantitative researcher (quant). Chen builds models, writes code and specializes in unique event trading where quick decision-making and risk calculation are necessary. Poker players think about risk and probability in distinct ways, and Chen found these qualities to be valuable working as a quant in a prominent trading house.

Poker and trading skills often go hand in hand, but only some card sharks will excel in the markets (and vice versa). If you have skills at the poker table and want to try prop trading, simulated competitions like Apex Trader Funding can be a place to get started. Clients can access advanced futures trading tools and execute trades 23 hours per day. You'll have to pass an initial evaluation period, but graduation is possible within a week, and it takes less than $150 per month to get started on its 25K Rithmic Account. 

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