At first blush, Eric Froehlich seems like a Jewish parent’s worst nightmare: Earlier this year, he dropped out of a top university to become a professional poker player.
But Froehlich is no ordinary poker player.
In June, just a few months after turning 21 and leaving the University of Virginia, Froehlich became the youngest player ever to win a World Series of Poker championship, beating out more than 1,000 other card sharks over a two-day period and 30 hours of play. He took home a $360,000 pot in the Texas Hold ‘Em Championship Event at Harrah’s Rio Casino in Las Vegas.
Froehlich is not alone, as the recent explosion in the game’s popularity attests. Poker has become a huge part of the online gambling industry, Bravo recently premiered “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” in which such celebrities as Heather Graham and Curt Schilling compete, and The New York Times introduced a weekly poker column, “a sure-fire sign that the card game has at last achieved a ‘market top,’” according to MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman. Froehlich’s own championship is scheduled to air on ESPN on August 23.
Froehlich started playing poker just a year-and-a-half ago, mostly online and in a handful of tournaments. His experience with gambling began a little further back, in fifth grade, when he started playing Magic, a competitive card-trading game. He was on the pro tour and traveled all over the world with his father, Chuck. According to Chuck Froehlich, one year his son made more than $50,000. But many of the friends that Froehlich made during his Magic days went on to become pro poker players. It was partially that influence and the knowledge that his friends were making millions of dollars a year playing poker that prompted his son to leave school.
“If he was a golfer or a tennis player, I’d say finish your education because that money’s going to be there, but with poker I don’t know if that money’s going to be there,” Chuck Froehlich said. “I wish he had finished school, but I think he’s going to do fine.”
While his gambling career may be unusual, in other ways Froehlich has had a typical suburban childhood in Springfield, Va.,, just outside Washington, D.C. He went to Hebrew school at his family’s progressive Conservative synagogue, Adat Reim. Today, his mother, Gail, runs the preschool and is a lay leader of the congregation. In high school, Froehlich was selected as a Student Ambassador for Tolerance, an exchange program between American and Israeli youth.
Froehlich went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a highly selective magnet school in Springfield, Va. He got very good grades, he said, but was never one for setting attendance records. The day he graduated, Froehlich recalled, his guidance counselor told him he had set a new record for most days missed. In his entire senior year, he made it to school on only two Mondays.
Froehlich then headed for college, but never had a passion for it.
“It just seemed like I was wasting my time there,” he said. “It didn’t seem worth the money. It didn’t seem worth the headaches.”
By then he had begun playing poker online and in a handful of tournaments. He knew there were fortunes to be made. So after his third year, he told his parents he was heading out west. And despite their reservations, Chuck and Gail Froehlich were supportive.
While there are pots of gold to be won in poker, Froehlich said he thinks of gambling as a job. It is simply the best way, he said, that he can provide for his family. And though Froehlich might be a professional poker player, he is not a playboy; he’s a soft-spoken young man who says family is the center of his life. In an interview immediately after the 8-hour-long final table, Froehlich promised to pay for his younger brother’s college education at the University of Virginia, the same school Froehlich left to play poker.
Winning the tournament hasn’t “really changed anything in my life,” Froehlich said. “It’s made things easier for my family financially, and that was all I really wanted to do.”