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Stephen Song: ‘Young Wizards’ Strike Gold At 2019 World Series of Poker

by Steve Schult |  Published: Aug 14, 2019

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When the ‘Moneymaker Effect’ was in full swing, there were seemingly endless amounts of early 20’s poker pros flocking to Las Vegas to take their shot at World Series of Poker glory. Those demographics have decreased in the years following Black Friday, but this year, a new group of young poker pros are taking the poker world by storm.

The ‘Young Wizards’ are a group of seven poker pros, founded by Ricky Guan a few years ago, who are the next batch of pros the poker world should keep an eye on. All of them are barely legal to play poker in the United States, yet are starting to make waves in high-stakes tournaments.

It was 23-year-old poker pro Stephen Song who became the first of the group to win a WSOP bracelet when he took down the $1,000 no-limit hold’em event, besting 2,477 entries and earning $341,854. Song already had two WSOP Circuit rings to his name and more than $1 million in tournament earnings before his latest score.

Card Player sat down with Song to discuss his poker upbringing, his experience grinding as a part of a group, and his future plans as a WSOP bracelet winner.

Card Player: You’re just 23 years old. You were just seven years old when Moneymaker started the boom and still not even close to legal age to play poker either when Black Friday happened in 2011. How’d you even get into poker?

Stephen Song: My dad was the one who first taught me when I was really young. I got pretty into it pretty quickly. We would actually play heads-up every once in a while. He would always win. We were playing for like pennies though. Then I started playing online. That’s where I really started to take off. It’s where I started taking it more seriously.

CP: When you were playing online, you had to be like 18-20 years old. It didn’t have the same type of popularity that it did in the midst of the boom. I wouldn’t think many college-aged kids were in their dorm room grinding tournaments on their laptops like they used to. What was your online experience like?

SS: It definitely wasn’t the same as it was before. I had actually had a decent amount of exposure to poker before I started playing online. Me and my high school buddies took it really seriously. In like seventh grade we started playing a lot. We were playing one or two times a week and then it turned into three or four times a week. One of my high school buddies ended up becoming one of the ‘Young Wizards’ too, Derek Sudell. He’s a little younger though.

CP: How did you get involved with the “Young Wizards?”

SS: What actually happened was Derek [Sudell] and I met Ricky [Guan] and Stan at Turning Stone. We were playing on our own, but it was the beginning of our careers, so we didn’t have that big of a roll.

It was when I was 21 that Ricky got me a backing deal for the summer that was supposed to last like two years. He got me a backing deal with his backer. It definitely helped the process of ‘making it.’

CP: I know you ended up dropping out of school pretty early on. Where were you going and what was your college career like?

SS: I went to Colby College for one semester, but was playing a decent amount of online poker at that time. I was like, ‘You know, I can’t really do two things at once. And college is pretty expensive.’ So, I ended up dropping out.

It was a small liberal arts college. It was like $30,000 per semester… $60,000 per year, and I just thought, ‘This is absurd. What am I doing?’ I was more focused on poker than school.

CP: You met the ‘Young Wizards’ at Turning Stone and became part of their group. What kind of advantages are there to being in a close-knit group like that as opposed to going about it on your own?

SS: I only met Ricky at Turning Stone, but then we all started talking online. We were in a group chat. And then all of a sudden, Ricky had formed a group.

It’s much easier to make it in poker when you do it in a group. It’s so tough to do it alone. I don’t get how people grind alone. It’s just really tough not to have someone just to talk, not just about poker hands, but just what you’re going through.

Because you’re all kind of going through the same thing. You’ve got a lot of topics to go through. I guess the story is that Derek and I met Ricky at Turning Stone. Ricky had already met Mike Rossitto before, he was ‘wsopboy’ online. And everybody knew ‘wsopboy.’ Once we found out that Ricky knew ‘wsopboy,’ it was a big deal.

I started off mainly online and then Mike, Ricky, and I went to Vegas the summer after we all met. And yeah, it just kind of took off from there.

CP: How did your family take it when you dropped out after a semester?

SS: My mom wasn’t too keen on it when I first told them, but my Dad was a little more understanding. He had gone on a little bit of a blackjack route. He was making money counting cards for a little while. He did that for about two months, but it’s such a brutal grind, especially if you’re doing it alone.

He kind of understood more about gambling as a living, but I don’t think anyone expected it to take off as quickly as it has. My mom always thought that it would just be a phase and I’d go back to school and go the regular routine and get a job.

CP: Do you have any aspirations of getting a normal job? Or do you see yourself as a professional poker player for the next 20 years?

SS: I think I’ll always be playing regardless. By ‘getting out,’ hopefully when I play, it won’t be my only source of income. I’ve already started investing in real estate. My parents have been helping me out with that. I actually just bought a place in Florida and just got the mortgage done and everything. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

But especially with tournament poker, downswings can happen. Just having a more stable income is kind of the goal. Just to make enough money to where that money can just make money by itself.

CP: Was there one live score along the way that jumpstarted your career or was it more of a gradual climb?

SS: I guess if you checked out my [results], my first recorded cash, I got first in a tournament at Turning Stone. I had also played some dailies and stuff when my family went down to Florida. I would hop in at the Palm Beach Kennel Club. But those were pretty small for like $2,000 and like $3,000.

At the time though, that was a pretty big deal because I was pretty broke. $3,000 is a lot of money for a 19-year-old. But I was building my roll while I was trying to pay off college. It was pretty expensive, and I had to pay off $30,000 like $500 or $1,000 at a time.

So, my roll struggled to really shoot up. I probably had like $2,000 to my name, but I was living at my parent’s house. I was comfortable enough to always take shots because I would always have a place to stay and get food and shelter. I was always thinking about shot taking. Me and my buddy played the $570 [buy-in] $100,000 [guaranteed prize pool] at Turning Stone and I was fortunate enough to win the whole thing outright. Which was pretty cool. $30,000 was an absurd amount of money at that time.

I took that money and I started playing online. When I first started playing online after that score, I was actually a losing player online. It took a few months before I started winning. I think I dumped like $5,000 back, so it didn’t feel great, but eventually I made it all back and then some.

Then, right before Vegas, I ended up getting second in a Foxwoods $1,650 [buy-in], $250,000 [guaranteed prize pool]. At the time, I had been doing pretty well online and I was just like, ‘Ok. I’ll take all of myself.’ I had been pretty big on shot taking at the time. And because of those scores, Ricky was able to convince his backer to also back me. And that’s basically what kickstarted it.

CP: How has life changed since the bracelet win. It’s only been a couple weeks since the score, but do you feel like you’ve had a level up moment in your poker career? Has it given you any extra confidence?

SS: I don’t know if it’s fully kicked it in yet still. Besides boosting the bankroll… by a lot. Everything else is kind of the same. It does give me a stress-free summer though, which is kind of cool. Because I was taking all of myself in everything this summer. Now I don’t have to worry about a downswing. It’s kind of more relieving in some ways, which probably doesn’t sound as great, but you bink one of these tournaments and it’s like, ‘Nice. Thank god. Now I’m kind of set for the year. Regardless of what happens. I should be fine.’ It gives me a large cushion to not worry about needing to bink something for a while.

CP: I’ve actually been told by a couple of pros that winning money at poker doesn’t give you as much happiness as losing gives you sadness.

SS: Exactly. You win $500 at a cash game table and it’s like ‘Ok. Nice.’ Lose $500 and it’s like the world is ending. Although with playing poker, you kind of get used to losing, so eventually it becomes not that big of a deal. Unless you’re in the midst of taking some huge shots or something.

CP: At 23 years old, you’ve already accomplished what most people hope to accomplish in a lifetime. What are your goals from here? We saw Ricky Guan take a shot at the $50,000 buy-in event this summer. Do you want to be a regular in those fields?

SS: That level of competition is just so tough and the buy-ins are just so big. I’m kind of like a value hunter myself so probably you won’t see me in those for a while. But who knows? If I have way too much money, maybe I’ll play something.

But for now, I’m probably going to continue on the path I’m on. I won’t try and dump it all back too quickly. You always hear about those stories. But every once in a while, I’ll take some shots at some bigger stuff. I’ll probably play more $10,000 main events and stuff like that.