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A Poker Life: Jeff Gross

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jul 10, 2013

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For the first couple years of his career, Jeff Gross was known more for his friendship with 18-time gold medal winning Olympian Michael Phelps than his own prowess on the poker felt. But after traveling the circuit for the last two years, Gross has forced his naysayers to take notice.

The 26-year-old is now a cash game phenom, playing for high-stakes in some of the most exclusive home games all over the world. Furthermore, his tournament game has come around as well, having recently crossed the $1 million mark in live cashes.

Traveling with an entourage that includes Brian Rast, Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari and the aforementioned Phelps, the University of South Carolina graduate is currently enjoying the poker grind and is on the top of his game.

Learning the Game

Gross started playing poker while just a teenager and continued to play while attending college on a soccer scholarship.

“I started playing poker when I was 15-years-old in high school during our team’s soccer camp,” said Gross. “It was right around the Moneymaker boom and one of my teammates had seen it and brought out some of those old plastic poker chips. We were playing for loose change, but I always did pretty well. I was able to get a $50 transfer from a friend on Party Poker and then started to run that up. I had very little free time to work, [while in college]. Poker filled that void pretty easily, since I could grind cash games for an hour or so at a time, here and there around my schedule.”

When his collegiate career was over, it was time for Gross to pick a new path.

“I wound up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management with a minor in entrepreneurship, but because of my lifestyle at the time, I really wasn’t up for getting a real job right away. I decided that I would try and play poker professionally, knowing that I always had a degree to fall back on if things got rough.”

A Famous Roommate

Michael Phelps was attending school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Gross’ hometown, when the two met. They quickly became friends and after graduation, with no location requirements to play online poker, Gross moved to Baltimore.

“We were both athletes, we both loved video games and we both loved to play poker, even if it was just for fun, so it was a no brainer when he asked me to be his roommate.”
Now that Phelps has retired from competitive swimming, he has a lot more time to focus on poker, getting lessons and tips from Gross. However, Gross insists that his own poker game has improved simply by learning from Phelps’ competitive drive.

“There is no question that your mindset affects your poker game,” said Gross. “Mike is one of the most competitive, determined and motivated people I’ve ever met and obviously, that has rubbed off on me. You look at people like Michael Jordan and Antonio Esfandiari, people who are considered to be among the greatest at their respective sports, and it’s not just about natural talent. It’s about work ethic and making sure you are doing your best to improve.”

Putting It All Together

Gross followed up five cashes and a deep main event run in the 2012 World Series of Poker with a final table appearance at the World Poker Tour Montreal main event in November. He wound up finishing in third place, earning a personal best $319,238. It was the third six-figure score of his young career.

It was a defining moment for Gross, but he couldn’t help but share some disappointment that he didn’t come out on top. It was a feeling he knew all too well after finishing second in a 2011 WSOP event, falling just short of a gold bracelet.

“My run in Montreal was a little bittersweet,” admitted Gross. “I’m very happy with the result but the sick thing about tournaments is that you’re never really happy unless you win. I try to take the positives out of it and use it to motivate me in the future, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t bug me.”

Gross will continue to hunt for his first major tournament victory, but until it happens, he’s content to crush the cash games. Though he’s played as high as $1,000-$2,000 no-limit hold’em, he now plays between $100-$200 and $200-$400.

“Game selection is everything,” Gross said. “I don’t want to go sit there with the nine best players in the world just to stroke my own ego. I’d rather play against the guys who don’t have as much experience. I’m not a shark. I try to be nice and make sure that win or lose, my opponents are going to have a good time.”

Winning and Losing With Class

In addition to high-stakes cash games in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Gross also plays in private celebrity home games in other cities. In order to keep being invited back, Gross must win with class and lose with grace. It’s a skill that most young players don’t bother to acquire.

“My dad told me something that I live by. ‘Win as if you expect to lose and lose as if you like it,’ he said. I treat everyone the same, whether they are a poker pro or a complete amateur. If I get unlucky to lose a big pot and then start berating the other player, then not only am I less likely to be invited back, but now I’ve shown weakness at the table, which will affect me moving forward.”

Gross realizes that at the end of the day, he gets to play a game for a living and he makes sure that he never takes anything for granted.

“Poker players who bitch about bad beats need to take a look at some other professions out there,” he said. “This is an amazing job we all get to do, traveling the world, making our own hours and living the dream. This is fun and I’m going to embrace it.”

Moving Forward

Gross is on the top of his game. He’s racking up tournament cashes, winning in the side games and even has a sponsorship deal with 3Bet, a poker clothing company.

“I think every year you play you figure it all out a little more,” Gross admitted. “The first year you are out there, you are bouncing around from hotel to hotel, partying every night and trying to play with a hangover. These days, I’m much smarter about my routine and I make sure that I’m always putting myself in position to succeed. Any edge I can get, whether it’s being well rested or not drinking, I’m going to take it.”

Though he is fully invested in poker, Gross hasn’t given up on the thought of a career outside of the poker world.

“I like how things are going right now and I’m definitely going to stick with it for awhile, but I don’t see myself playing poker for the rest of my life. I have an entrepreneurial spirit that needs to be satisfied. However, I have plenty of goals that I still need to achieve and I feel like I’m closer than ever to accomplishing them.” ♠