Elena Stover: The Polymath Who Fell in Love with Poker

Elena Stover is a poker-playing polymath living out of a suitcase.

It's not easy to track her down. 

Sometimes, you'll find her doing a Toeless Lutz down the ice rink. Other times you will find her hidden in a white lab coat. At night you may find her in a club spinning … well, I don't know what DJs spin these days.

This week you will find her at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas doing what every other professional poker player does at this time of the year - trying to turn a profit and reduce that bucket list.

A Figure Skater and a Neuroscientist

But who is Elena Stover? Let's find out.

Lee Davy: Who is Elena Stover?

Elena Stover:"She is a continual work in progress and has gone through many iterations on the path to developing the current version.

"At various points she has been a figure skater, a CVS cashier, a Yiddish scholar, a telemarketer, a radio DJ, a cognitive neuroscientist, a college professor and most recently, of course, a poker player."

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Sometime figure skater, sometime Neuroscientist (Photo: UKIPT)

LD: Why do you play poker?

ES: "I play poker because occasionally I am good at it and because if I need to devote a substantial portion of my life to acquiring currency, poker is a fun way to do so."

LD: Why is now the right time to do play poker?

ES: "It's probably not! Each year it gets more difficult to make a living online, especially with the hostile stance that Pokerstars has adopted toward professional players.

"Because I am primarily an online player my priority in the last few years was travelling abroad to play on Pokerstars and the major international sites. At different points I have lived in Mexico, Malta and Germany. However, recently I have found myself shifting my focus toward live tournaments. 

“Although playing in casinos has never been my preference, live poker is booming in the US, and there are constantly new tours and events popping up all over. With Pokerstars having purposefully decimated both their online and live event offerings, it is starting to make less sense to travel abroad when there are so many huge live events here in the States.

"That being said, the ability to travel anywhere at any time is one of the best perks of being a professional poker player, and recently I spent a few weeks in Europe and dropped in at the Irish Open and some other events in Germany and Belgium."

LD: Can you spend some time describing cognitive neuroscience and how you can take your knowledge and implement it in poker?

ES: "In simple terms, Cognitive Neuroscience is the study of how the brain works and how neural processes give rise to thoughts and behaviors.

"In my Ph.d. research I was using functional neuroimaging (fMRI), which lets us view how different areas of the human brain respond to stimuli and coordinate actions in real time. My main project focused on identifying the areas of the brain involved in making risky decisions and determining which of these neural regions are associated with each component of a decision.

Queen Amygdala (Photo: WPT)

"Some of these variables would include the magnitude of a monetary reward, the variation in the probability of an outcome, and the response to a reward or a loss. One of our basic findings was that the decision-making process and the response to the outcome are associated with activity in distinct areas of the brain.

"We also found that the amygdala, a neural region typically associated with emotion, was preferentially activated during the outcome phase, and showed differential responses to gains versus losses. 

"Relating this to poker, we know that optimal decisions are generally made based on mathematical probabilities, and that this decision process is independent of the outcome of any individual hand. We also know that the outcome will produce an emotional response, and focusing on this emotional response (i.e. "going on tilt") can be counterproductive to future decision-making.

"And we see this same relationship reflected in how the brain itself operates, where there is differential neural activation during a decision versus the outcome, with the outcome eliciting an emotional response. This is just one example from my own research that can be applied to poker, but there have been many similar studies in the last decade identifying the neural activity underlying phenomena such as loss aversion, framing effects, and certainty biases.

“Understanding these concepts of bounded rationality and identifying cognitive biases can be extremely useful in the course of learning poker and maintaining a solid mental game. Understanding the neurobiology behind it is arguably less relevant to most players, but the brain is a fascinating thing, and I do routinely get questions from poker players on the topic. I guess it also helps that I have a neuron tattoo." 

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"The only way I have ever made money in poker is by winning money playing poker.” (Photo: Carlos Monti, PokerStars)

LD: Do you view yourself as a person, a brand, a business, a combination of all three - explain? 

ES: "Well, I am a person in the sense that I exist (I hope! Though I accept there is a nonzero chance that this is all a simulation).

"I am a brand only in the sense that I have a somewhat recognizable nickname, thegroupie," which has been my online alter-ego since long before I ever took up poker.

"I am a business in the sense that poker is my livelihood, and professional gamblers are essentially self-employed business owners. However, I suspect the question refers to whether I consider my 'brand' to be some sort of defining quality or important aspect of my poker career, and the answer to that is an emphatic 'no.'

"A lot of people have the misconception that girls who play poker somehow get a bunch of free stuff, but I have received no benefits, perks, handbags, money, hotel rooms, yachts, comps, implants, or sponsorships of any kind as a result of my 'brand.'

"The only way I have ever made money in poker is by winning money playing poker.” 

LD: What are your greatest strengths as a streamer and in life?

ES: I began streaming on Twitch in 2015 after meeting a few friendly streamers at the WSOP who encouraged me to give it a shot. I was already fairly active in the community as a viewer, and I found that doing my own stream was a bit intense and nerve-wracking, but exhilarating at the same time.

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Photo: @Fabfotos

"I was big on interacting with the chat, and since I’m a rather opinionated gal, we often got into some outrageous on-air conversations. One unanticipated perk of Twitch that I really enjoyed was that it allowed me to be a 'DJ' and introduce my viewers to the music I like, and I had fun making playlists highlighting different musical genres for each stream.

"There were many positive elements to streaming, like breaking down the thought process behind my decisions, and meeting other players from all over the world. However, as much as I did genuinely enjoy it, as an introvert I found the interactive aspect of Twitch to be somewhat exhausting.

"I was also playing online full-time, and it just wasn't possible to play my normal volume of online poker while streaming because of how much my attention was divided. When I decided to move to Berlin that fall, I thought I would continue my stream, but I ended up playing so many live events in Europe that my schedule didn't really allow it.

"And then last year I began traveling to play live tournaments on a nearly full-time basis, so, unfortunately, my budding Twitch career fell by the wayside. I may return to it in the future, but right now I'm having too much fun playing live events!"

LD: What are your goals for 2017? 

ES: "Right now I'm very much looking forward to getting into the WSOP swing! I've been going out to Vegas every summer since I started playing, but usually, I can't handle living in a 110-degree microwave for more than a week or two.

Safe haven in microwave.

"However, this year I've planned a longer trip, and I'm excited that every year there are more and more tournaments at different casinos at a variety of buy-in levels.

"I've never had any particular bracelet goals, but I'd love to win the Ladies Event because when I was starting out that was the first WSOP event I ever played, and I'm a big proponent of getting more women involved in the game."

LD: What do you value? 

ES: "In terms of my own life, I value autonomy, individuality, and exploration. I love having full control over my time and unlimited choices, despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed by too many options.

"One of my main priorities now is to take full advantage of my travel-heavy lifestyle, and to be more proactive in seeking out new experiences and new places when I am on poker trips. While Black Friday severely impeded my poker career at the time, in retrospect, I can see that it motivated me to travel abroad and spend time in so many amazing places that I may never have thought to go otherwise."

LD: What promises are you going to make and keep? 

ES: "I don't make many promises, and I don't think it would be terribly productive to do so. As a professional poker player, it's necessary to be constantly flexible and adaptable in order to succeed in the uncertain and ever-changing conditions of the poker world.

"This career has allowed me to live a spontaneous and somewhat nomadic lifestyle, and often I don't even know what country I'll be in next month! I hope to continue to make the most of my travel opportunities for as long as poker remains a viable career option."  

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Ready for WSOP

LD: What makes you different?

ES: “I think the main thing that makes me different (other than being female, which is a big one) is that I began poker at a very different place in life than most other professional players.

"While many poker players began playing in high school or college, I had just finished a Ph.d. and was poised to embark on a career in scientific research.

When I decided to take up poker instead, I felt a bit isolated because I didn’t know any other poker players, and I didn’t know how to begin finding other beginners to form friendships with.

"So I resolved I was going to figure out poker on my own, and I suppose that’s how I've always been. This level of reclusiveness might not be the optimal approach to progressing in the game, but I’ve always relished the independence that poker has afforded me, and so far things have been working out!”

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