I'm 27 years old and I'm applying to university. On the applications it ask the student to list activities and employment during time away from school. I played online poker for living for ≈4 years, should I mention this? Or would I be looked down upon and perceived as a gambling addict? There's no room on the application to go into details.

If I don't mention it then I'll have this big empty gap with no jobs listed – only activities. I'm applying for undergraduate studies into CS.

  • 2
    I would imagine what country you are in would play heavilly into this. If online gambling is legally dubious in your country I wouldn't mention it in writing. Jan 30, 2016 at 7:22
  • 13
    That's a super-interesting question, particularly because I would imagine playing poker on a high level to require a number of skills that are also good indicators of success in (some fields of) research. On the other hand, this is something that only evaluators with some knowledge of poker will know.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 30, 2016 at 7:56
  • 4
    I wonder if it makes any difference if the "online" modifier is left on or off? Jan 30, 2016 at 7:59
  • 69
    You mean you were a "freelance risk analyst in the online entertainment sector"?
    – Cape Code
    Jan 30, 2016 at 8:40
  • 2
    I just reviewed Close Vote of this question. I'll document my opinion here. Although the OP is an undergrad student, any graduate student could have the same problem. So, I don't think this is an undergrad only question.
    – Nobody
    Feb 4, 2016 at 3:08

6 Answers 6


I like @DanRomik's analysis, but the same analysis leads me to a different conclusion: yes, list it.

First, it gives a better picture of who you are and what you have been doing.

Second, while some people may be prejudiced against poker players, in most applications there are things (and lack of things) that may be viewed positively by some committee members and negatively by other committee members. I don't think the concern should be too great that it will lead to too much veto-ing of your application, as might be the case for being incarcerated for a violent crime, say. (Of course this is my personal opinion and not based on any hard data from surveys--I imagine it might be an issue at some schools, but probably not most.) I personally would find lack of activity for 4 years more of a concern.

Third, the fact that you are no longer playing poker professionally (I infer this from your use of past tense) indicates that, even if you were addicted to gambling at some point, you overcame it.

  • 11
    I think you can spin it nicely if you manage to somehow show that you were an effective poker player, and haven't spent four years draining your savings.
    – CKM
    Jan 30, 2016 at 15:06
  • If Victoria Corren- Mitchell isn't embarrassed to being described as a professional poker player why should you. The important question is were you successful?
    – Stevetech
    Jan 31, 2016 at 6:49
  • What if some committee manages to convince others that the applicant might be an addict gambler? That could indicate he might have problems finishing the program.
    – philsf
    Jan 31, 2016 at 8:27
  • 1
    @philsf All applicants might be gambling addicts (or alcoholics, or drug addicts...) before you know them. Applications are very limited pictures of people and there are many question marks with a lot of the applications, so committees have to take their chances on some of them. I personally think if the rest of the application looks good, most committees would not give too much weight to such speculation, though it might happen at a small number of schools.
    – Kimball
    Jan 31, 2016 at 13:58

Lean yes, provided it was legal. Professional poker takes a tremendous level of mathematical acumen and discipline. Given that this is a tremendous qualification and, you know, explains what you've actually been doing, you definitely include it. My guess is computer science professors understand the weight this carries, but you should use your essay to flesh out how it's challenging.

All else being equal I would not assume the committee is tremendously moralistic and I certainly wouldn't carve an application around the biases they might hypothetically have.

  • I gave you a +1 for emphasizing the positives of poker, but a minor quibble on the wording tremendously moralistic. I think I'm a reasonably moral person and I don't view poker as inherently immoral.
    – Kimball
    Jan 30, 2016 at 20:57
  • 2
    @Kimball fair, but I think the word is right: moralistic = judgmental on the basis of a narrow moral view. Two different "moralistic" people may have very different morals.
    – user18072
    Jan 30, 2016 at 23:24
  • Ah, I didn't realize moralistic had this narrow meaning. (According to Merriam-Webster it has a more generic meaning also: characterized by or expressive of a concern with morality.) But with either meaning, I agree it's correct usage---I just misunderstood it at first.
    – Kimball
    Jan 31, 2016 at 0:23
  • Good answer. But what "essay"? OP mentioned no "essay". Jan 31, 2016 at 4:23
  • 3
    It seems that you like the word "tremendous".
    – user9646
    Jan 31, 2016 at 9:05

I think it's worth addressing your question on two levels, the practical level and the philosophical/ethical level (which by itself also has some bearing on the practical level).

On the practical level, it sounds like both the options of mentioning or not mentioning your poker occupation carry some risk. It cannot be denied that some people may perceive your choice of making a living from a card game as a negative, or at least not a positive, thing, whether this is justified or not. On the other hand, an unexplained 4-year gap on your CV would also very likely be perceived as a negative thing, perhaps by an even larger number of people than in the case of poker.

More positively however, if you were successful enough as a poker player to be able to make a living out of it for several years, that can say several good things about you that may impress even some people who tend to disapprove of poker. For example, if you want my personal opinion, I would infer that you are intelligent and have strong analytical skills, while at the same time not exactly getting the impression that you have strong altruistic tendencies or are especially passionate about using your talents for the good of society; of course, if I found out that you also volunteered at a homeless shelter or donated half of your poker proceeds to charity, my impressions on such things can change. If you are considering mentioning the poker, it may be a good idea to mention specific achievements in this area (e.g., which/how many tournaments you won).

Now, to address the more philosophical aspect of the question, I think as a matter of principle there's something to be said for being honest about what you have been doing with your life (as long as it's a legal activity), even though it may be a somewhat controversial activity that risks bothering or offending some people. More to the point, as I said this philosophical argument maps to the practical level, in the sense that if I were reading your application I would be somewhat impressed by the fact that you chose to mention it despite the obvious risks, independently of anything else, and would see that as evidence of a certain amount of character (at least if you didn't mention it in a way that seemed very cavalier or arrogant). Now, whether that positive impression would be enough to counterbalance the negative impression I would get if I were the sort of person who strongly disapproves of card games, is hard to say; probably for some such people the answer is no. For my case specifically, while I have a mild disapproval of someone with obvious talents taking up a form of employment that has essentially zero societal impact (whether it's poker or many other less controversial types of employment with the same characteristic), I do think the positive effect of seeing you take ownership of your lifestyle decisions in an honest way could actually make me see you in overall a quite positive light.

So should you mention it or not? I don't know. Only you can decide that, and given how critical of a decision this is, it would be irresponsible of me to give you any definite advice, even if I had a strong feeling about what the correct choice is, which I don't. I hope this analysis can still be a bit helpful though. In any case, good luck.

  • 4
    I'd like to add: chess is a similarly "zero society impact" activity, but probably would not create the same dilemma. I am a proponent of the ideal of the university that it should educate "universal" personalities. Poker-playing (successfully, I assume) is part of your personality and this part of yours should be therefore embraced by the university; however, not everyone sees it this way. Jan 30, 2016 at 16:18
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs I was trying to formulate a similar comment earlier on. Something about the notion that a smart person is somehow morally obliged to go into one career or another does not sound right to me.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 31, 2016 at 11:38
  • 1
    @xLeitix It's a difficult discussion - I generally agree with you. However, there are boundary cases and the fact that something is legal does not absolve one for taking responsibility for choosing to do so. Working in the weapons industry comes to mind. Poker is explicitly played for money, and for weaker, but obsessive players, this can cause a problem. But generally, I think one should not judge a person based on one facet of the personality only, and certainly it's not the business of universities to do so. Younger people want to try themselves out, and universities should embrace that. Jan 31, 2016 at 13:39
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    @xLeitix to clarify, no one is morally obliged to do anything. They have a right to go live on a desert island and write Vogon poetry if that's what makes them happy. And I have the right to form a personal opinion about them. In the context of university admissions, my personal opinion will usually not matter too much, but I can imagine extreme situations (such as the example cited by Captain Emacs) where it might.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 31, 2016 at 16:02
  • And generally I agree that doing pretty much whatever (as long as it's legal) for a few years in your early 20's is reasonable and should not be a cause for condemnation. Overall as I said I'd be inclined to view the successful poker hobby as a somewhat positive thing if presented in the correct light. I also assume OP wants to go to university because he/she does ultimately want to do something more interesting and meaningful with the rest of his/her life. (Perhaps it's worth mentioning something to that effect in your essay/statement of purpose.)
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 31, 2016 at 16:09

There have already been some great and thorough analyses. Adding to Dan Romik's and Kimball's assessments, I would focus more on the latter's philosophical argument, which may also play into the practical. Agreed, there will always be some risk in mentioning the poker playing, but not mentioning it could be considered tantamount to misrepresentation. If you leave it off and it is later discovered (sometimes the likelihood of something coming out in an unexpected way is directly proportional to how much one didn't want it discovered) that could be grounds for revoking any admission offer, presuming that you had to beat out other candidates who we (or the university) assume did not misrepresent themselves on their applications.

As an aside, a hole in your CV is not automatically the worst thing ever. It is not the best, but I would suggest it also depends on what came before. If one were gainfully employed for years before a gap, economic climate in a country/job area, medical reasons, etc may also be considerations. Having said that, personally, I would still go by the first paragraph and declare it, although as others have noted, only you can make the decision of a course with which you are most comfortable.

  • Thank you for agreeing with me, and I do think that honesty is usually the best policy, but actually I don't think that not mentioning a poker hobby (even a serious one that provides a source of income) in a college application is tantamount to misrepresentation. There is no rule that says one must report all hobbies when applying to college. My comment was intended more as a way of saying that honestly reporting a major aspect of your life is a better way of being at peace with yourself, shows more character and integrity, and is overall a better principle by which to live one's life. ...
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 31, 2016 at 21:00
  • ... At the same time, I wouldn't go as far as to say that OP is morally or ethically obligated to disclose his passion for poker, or that not doing so would be reason to criticize him for withholding essential information about himself.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 31, 2016 at 21:01
  • it occurred to me afterward that kicking someone out might be a bit strong, but that's in a North American context. Maybe a bigger deal elswhwere or if a scholl has a strict moral code? Shrug. Perhaps a better phrasing would be "would you be embarassed or imagine a problem arising if this got out later and you hadn't informed the administration yourself first?" It was important to have pointed out the moral issue as you did though, as responses seemed to assume "whatever it takes to get accepted is okay, as long as not illegal"
    – JasonD
    Jan 31, 2016 at 21:10

I faced the same problems with employers. I have a decent poker CV, could say I was ranked #1 globally for a particular game and format over an extended period (years)

Almost everybody (including my parents) hated it but some others were extremely receptive towards it. In analytical professions and studies poker is complimentary and some people in those professions will recognise this. In other professions poker is looked upon extremely negatively

The odds of a middle-aged university staff member being impressed by poker are low. It suggests a rebellious streak and wasted talent - anybody who can beat poker for a living could and should do any number of other things

People don't really read all of applications/CVs. They scan for a few facts, in your case it will be your previous academic record and work experience. It's definitely better to add poker than have a blank but I would include either achievements or estimated earnings beside this

The one thing you can't do is let anybody believe you were a degenerate sitting with your laptop, drinking beer, smoking weed, playing poker and calling it work. We all know you wouldn't do that now, right? :-)


I'll suggest one of two options.

Option 1: Put a positive spin on your poker activities

It's one thing to write "I played poker online a lot and lived of my winnings." It's another thing entirely to say "I developed a statistical algorithm for multi-round poker tournaments while affiliated with ACME online games inc." the more you can make it professional-sounding (not necessarily with the angle I've demonstrated), the better it sounds.

Option 2: Fill the gap with other things

I'm sure you didn't play from dawn to dusk, get drunk and go to bed for 4 years, right? You're applying to be an undergrad, not a R&D team leader. Maybe you spent time doing volunteer activities? Helping your family out? Pursuing an interesting hobby? Traveling abroad? Even if that doesn't cover all that much, you can play it up.

PS - If your grades are good, I don't think anyone would care what you did before your undergraduate studies. I mean, maybe for a scholarship, but not beyond that.

  • He is applying to undergrad, not graduate school. So presumably getting into undergrad is the primary concern, not what happens after.
    – Roger Fan
    Jan 30, 2016 at 17:28
  • to get into undergrad you have to be born rich enough that you can waste time doing things besides trying to actually make money?
    – user18072
    Jan 30, 2016 at 18:01
  • @djechlin: Travelling is not "wasting time" and a lot of people (which necessarily means not mostly rich people) do it. Sometimes they support themselves by working abroad, sometimes they put some money aside from a low-paying job out of highschool.
    – einpoklum
    Feb 22, 2016 at 14:21
  • So you're emphasizing that the important thing is that you not primarily spend your time trying to make money to support yourself.
    – user18072
    Feb 22, 2016 at 15:37
  • @djechlin: Well, nobody writes "I flipped burgers trying to make ends meet"... "Senior frycook 2014-2015"...
    – einpoklum
    Feb 22, 2016 at 16:15

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