Q&A with poker pro Jeff Gross

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Jeff Gross is a 26-year-old high-stakes cash-game player and Team Ultimate Poker pro from Ann Arbor, Mich. Before Black Friday, Gross was a successful online player known as Kidwhowon. He graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in marketing and management, and has career tournament earnings of $1,152,059. Our Mike Owens caught up with Gross to talk poker, best friend Michael Phelps and his future.

At what stage did you realize poker would become such a major part of your life? In the summer of 2002, in between my sophomore and junior year of high school. We started playing poker at our team soccer camp at the University of Michigan when Craig Pfister brought a plastic chip set and we started playing for quarters and dollars. I didn’t know about position or starting hands or anything, but I was winning and it was an exciting time.

What did you struggle with in your game at the beginning? I wouldn’t say I really struggled at the beginning, to be honest, I just remember cleaning up in the small games. Online I would sit with $11 at several tables of 25-cent/50-cent and vividly remember having each table over $600 often times putting in extremely long sessions.

What do your parents think of you being a poker player? My parents are very happy I play poker professionally. This has made the transition from college very easy that they have supported me the entire time. Education is No. 1 to my parents. They both went to Ivy League schools and I think finishing college was huge. If I had not gotten my degree, it may have been a different case, but after I finished they really just wanted me to be happy and do what I love. My dad loves poker and plays often now.

How did you meet Michael Phelps? I met Michael Phelps at a poker game in Windsor, Canada, actually. The age to play in Canada was 19 and we met during the summer in 2005. He was going to University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and that’s where I was born and raised. Windsor was only about half an hour drive and I would go up a lot to play there, he was training mostly but would go once in a while.

What’s Phelps like at the poker table? At the poker table, Mike is very competitive, just as he is at everything, but I think it’s a way he uses to relax and get away from his training and all the distractions. He is so busy and it’s just a fun way for him to let loose and socialize with friends and be competitive at a skill game that he enjoys. He is very good for not playing much.

Away from poker, what interests you? Outside of poker, I love to travel and meet new people. Soccer has always been a passion of mine and I played from the time I was 4 years old up until graduating from the University of South Carolina, where I played Division I for four years on a partial scholarship. I also like playing backgammon, racquetball, working out, Words with Friends, Ping Pong, pool, and am known to play a good game of beer pong.

What was it like playing golf with legendary actor Bill Murray? It was really special to get to go out on the legendary course of St. Andrews with Bill Murray and a great group of guys. I am an extremely poor golfer and I only hit a couple balls that day while the other guys played and I tagged along. I wasn’t in the foursome, but I did get to hit a few. He was really funny and would be exactly how you think he is.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I see myself with a wife and several children, living in one of several places. I really don’t know what exactly I will be doing, but I believe I will always play poker for fun and certainly the (World Series) main event each year for a long time. I love the game and all it represents and am excited that online poker is making big steps to a comeback with Ultimate Gaming being legalized in Nevada and am proud to be one of their sponsored players.

What advice would you give a player thinking about turning pro? It can be a great way to make money, but it isn’t something that happens overnight. It is just like anything, 10,000 hours is what it takes approximately to become an expert at something and poker is no different. The players you see at the top of the game have been dong it for a long time and have put the hours in both studying and playing and most are very intelligent people to begin with. Assuming you are willing to do these things, the biggest skills I think needed to become a pro is bankroll management and leading a balanced life.