The bets are placed, the cards are dealt, the stakes are high. For Derrick Kwa, a college dropout, the luck of the draw is more than just a poker game, it is a means to Paris, Vienna, Rome and more. In a moment he could win thousands of dollars, in the next he could lose it all.
Kwa, originally from Singapore, left Hampshire College in Massachusetts to live the life of a nomadic poker player. Jet-setting from country to country, Kwa’s winnings from one game pay for his next adventure.
“School has never quite been for me. It’s unnecessary, pointless and it doesn’t really set you apart,” he said.
Kwa, now 21, dropped out of high school in Singapore when he was 16. After being tested at age 9 and scoring in the top 1 percent, he was accepted into the gifted program, a vigorous schooling track guaranteeing a place in the best college in Singapore.
A year or so after leaving high school and the Gifted Program, Kwa independently took the SATs and was accepted at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a selective private school in the US. It was there Kwa got into poker.
“I saw it on TV and liked the game. I learned from books and taught myself to play,” he said.
Soon he began traveling for poker games and tournaments. Every school break he would take a trip. Thanksgiving break was London. Christmas break was Vienna. Spring Break was Florida. The trips paid for themselves. Finally, after making a profit of $7,000 in a tournament in Hollywood, Fla, Kwa dropped out of college.
“The catalyst was the win in Florida. I decided I was bored of school, and the winnings pushed me to leave,” he said.
Long time childhood friend Lois Goh has visited Kwa during some of his journeys. She knew her friend would never be bound by society and the idea of what one is supposed to do.
“He’s so temperamental but I feel like that’s a given when we’re dealing with forward thinking and brilliant individuals. So no, I never knew the path he would take but I knew it would involve something unexpected and a barrel full of gumption,” Goh said.
Kwa has spent the last year traveling from Montreal, Paris, Rome and Barcelona. When a career is based on the quick transition of loss and gain, money becomes expendable. He says money comes and goes, and sometimes there just needs to be an excuse to travel.
“Poker trains you to lose the sense of value of money. You will lose $1000 or $2000 in minutes. You tend not to care, which isn’t always a good thing,” he said.
However, for Kwa there is a downside to poker. The psychological side of it can be tedious.
“If I lose a few games, I tend to get down on myself. It’s not about money, but ego. It’s one thing to be good, but then there’s the struggle of always playing your best,” he said.
Yet to Flagler College deaf education student Christina Vicchiullo, despite the psychology of winning and losing, Kwa’s life is something to be envied.
“That’s a dream life. When you’re stuck doing hours of sign language homework, traveling from country to country is a dream,” Vicchiullo said.
Yet Kwa believes some dreams can be a reality.
“In today’s world there are opportunities everywhere. You can pretty much do what you love. You can find an angle, reach so many people, which opens opportunities to make a living doing what you want,” he said.
Kwa’s next tournament takes him to the Bahamas in January. There is a $10,000 buy in price.