Winning the World Series of Poker

Mitch Towner BA ’09

Mitch Towner BA ’09

On stage at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Mitch Towner calmly calculated his odds of winning. In play was the last hand at the 2016 World Series of Poker’s Monster Stack No-Limit Hold’em tournament. Wearing a baseball cap low over his eyes, Towner studied his cards while cameras rolled and commentators whispered.

In the end, it took an ace and a pair of sevens. Winning the tournament garnered Towner a cool $1.1 million.

“I played a lot of card games growing up and got interested in poker during college,” says Towner, who surprisingly doesn’t play on a regular basis. “I tend to think in terms of logic, probabilities, and game theory. That and a little luck of the draw paid off,” he says.

An assistant professor of finance at the University of Arizona, Towner has enjoyed his brush with celebrity but remains immune to its effects. He’d rather focus on his research and motivating his students to push themselves to excel. Towner specializes in issues involving corporate finance and governance as well as investor activism.

“I try to challenge even the top students without losing anyone along the way,” he says. Towner never considered being a teacher until he arrived at Lewis & Clark, where he double majored in economics and mathematics. The faculty’s passion for their work inspired him. So did their willingness to help students thrive while enjoying the learning process.

“Cliff Bekar in economics and John Krussel in math were fantastic professors,” he says. “They were very generous with their time and office hours. They forced me to work hard.” But Towner didn’t spend all his time studying. He also played poker with Grant Denison BA ’09 and Robert Brewer BA ’09. Denison went on to cohost the popular Poker Guys podcast. “I’m a casual fan now,” he says. “I spend about an hour a week watching his podcast and other poker media.”

Towner is more enamored with bridge, a game he says requires more skill than luck because each person is, in effect, playing the same hand. He qualified for the U.S. Junior Team while in graduate school, representing the country in international tournaments. “Playing under the hot lights and watchful eye of the camera taught me how to be confident under pressure,” he says.

That experience paid off in Las Vegas, where Towner says he “played it pretty straightforward” at the World Series of Poker tournament. Exhausted after four days at the tables, he concentrated solely on the game, which left no energy for nervousness.

Towner also took a measured approach to his major winnings. After coughing up state and federal taxes, he paid off his home mortgage and student loans. Keeping an agreement made with friends before the tournament, he split a portion of his winnings with them. He also set aside a small pot for himself.

“I’d like to try my hand at a few more tournaments,” he says. “You never know—luck might strike again.”

—by Pattie Pace