Before he ever played a hand of poker online, Ryan "daut44" Daut was already spending lots of time at his computer making strategic choices against live opponents.
The medium for all that decision making was StarCraft, a real-time strategy game that Daut describes as "a very dynamic game where you have to adapt to your opponent at all times."
If you're not a gamer but the title sounds familiar, it might be because other former StarCraft players such as Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier have also enjoyed success in poker.
As much as the game's advanced strategy and decision-making aspects helped to prepare him for facing down opponents over the virtual felt, Ryan Daut credits the community that built up around the game for helping him to become a better poker player.
Roman "empire2000" Yitzhaki and Dan "rekrul" Schreiber, both friends he made in the StarCraft community, were two of the earliest people who urged Daut to jump into poker. In 2004 they shared stories of their success at the tables with Daut and encouraged him to take up the game too.
"Everyone started moving over to poker, and we all helped each other and talked over hands and it really allowed us to get better fast."
He began multi-tabling Limit Hold'em cash games, where he said his StarCraft experience and a little patience, along with general intelligence and some math skills, helped him to get over the initial learning curve and turn that small stake into $600.
"A lot of players who are just starting out and aren't very good get into a lot of trouble with a lot of mediocre hands and I never really had that problem. When I started out I was extremely tight, so the fact that I wasn't a very good player didn't really matter much because I always had a hand."
As time went by Daut learned the ins and outs of poker, both from his friends and just from seeing more hands, building his bankroll in the process. Then he won a WSOP seat and had to learn to play the No-Limit game, which led to a switch to No-Limit cash games.
Through playing those, Daut eventually built a big enough bankroll to buy in directly to the 2007 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, where the self-confessed cash-game player with no tournament aspirations booked a win for $1.5 million - an achievement of which he's still proudest.
"Actually I was prouder of my performance when I got sixth at the Five Diamond [late in 2007], but winning a major tournament has to be the thing I'm most proud of," said Daut.
"Even though it wasn't the most work and it wasn't the best I've ever played in my career, it's the thing I look back at where I feel like it's a very tangible result: 'this is what I did; this is what I accomplished.'"
At the time he was a Penn State University Ph.D. candidate in mathematics, a field he'd always enjoyed because it allowed him to solve problems.
As Daut went further into mathematics, the problem-solving aspects of the discipline tended to fall away in favor of learning new mathematical languages for every new branch of the subject he studied. "It just gets so far out there and abstract that the problem solving just kind of got lost."
Meanwhile, poker presented the opportunity to apply his skills in a very real way. It wasn't long before he'd dropped out of the Ph.D. program and moved to poker full-time, making a living playing No-Limit cash games as high as $25/$50.
As time went by the competition began to get better, so Daut began to drop in stakes to more manageable territory.
It's been a year now since Daut has routinely played in high-stakes game. These days he logs a lot of hours at $2/$4 and $3/$6 No-Limit Hold'em cash games, but he doesn't consider it a step down.
"The games used to be a lot easier and I played $25/$50, but I never had the need to play that high. I could play as high or low as I wanted," said Daut.
"When those games started getting a lot harder I started dropping down, and I never felt any requirement to move back up or to make a certain amount of money."
Daut said he does have "pipe dreams" of playing some of the $100/$200 and higher No-Limit cash games on occasion, but wouldn't do it right now.
"Even though I'm technically well-rolled for it, I wouldn't take a shot in a game where a one-buy-in loss would take me a month to win back. But I would love to someday grind it up and feel comfortable playing higher stakes and not worry about how long it would take to make back any losses."
He said that not feeling tempted to play higher stakes has been especially important because in the last year when he has followed the fish to a larger game than usual or taken the occasional shot at a bigger game, those circumstances haven't been kind to him.
"I never seem to do very well. I can't get into a rhythm with the stakes and the players, and the one-time-a-month shots never really work out for me anymore. So I think just being able to stay in one place and be disciplined and really grind it out helps me these days."
Even the $2/$4 and $3/$6 cash tables are tougher than they used to be. Daut's color-coding system for his opponents indicates that the players are mostly regulars with a solid fundamental knowledge of the game.
"When everyone has the same resources available to them, and everyone's getting good - and it was only a matter of time before everyone got good - the challenge is obviously staying ahead of them. Just doing that and trying to get better, I feel like every month I get better than I was the month before, and I'm always learning something new."
In the near future, Daut said he has no plans other than to continue playing the role of grinder. "I picture myself playing a lot and trying to make as much money as I can so I'll be able to do something else in the future. As of now I don't really know what that is. I'm not really passionate about anything else that I'd want to make my livelihood.
"I think that I'll be able to make enough money [to] make choices in what I want to do for life. I think if I wanted to get in business I could do something like that, or if I wanted to get into real estate I could do that. I'm just going to wait and see what pops up, see what I get interested in."
You can play with Ryan Daut at the cash-game tables at Full Tilt Poker.