While many 20-year-olds spend their time just trying to stay awake through their college classes, Zhuang Ruan is busy moving from one high-stakes tournament series to the next.
And despite the fact that he isn’t even old enough to gamble in most U.S. casinos, Ruan has managed to stay busy, racking up $2.3 million in earnings in locations where he is allowed to play. Luckily for the Pennsylvania native, Florida’s minimum age for poker players is 18, as is much of Europe.
Jumping Right In With The Sharks
Ruan made a huge splash in the poker world in August, winning the $50,000 Super High Roller event at the Hard Rock Poker Open at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida. He bested an elite, 29-entry field, and battled high roller regular Dan Smith heads-up to earn $562,600.
At the outset of the heads-up match, it seemed like a real David vs. Goliath type of match. A relative unknown that won’t even be old enough to play the World Series of Poker this fall, against a seasoned pro with $37.5 million in live tournament earnings sitting fifth on the all-time money list.
After discussions of a chop went nowhere, Smith jumped out to an early lead looking like he was primed to add another victory to his already lengthy resume. But Ruan battled back and eventually bested Smith, earning the title and likely some respect from the regulars at those stakes.
Despite it being his first-ever $50,000 buy-in event and pocketing a mid-six-figure victory, there was no celebration. In fact, there was barely a peep out of Ruan. He took the winner’s photo with some of his friends and calmly walked over to the cashier to collect his money.
“It was just like a heads-up sit n’ go,” he told tournament reporters after the match. “I used to play those back in the day, so I’m familiar with the swingy-ness of heads-up.”
It was his first high stakes win, but Ruan was already acting like he belonged there. Because in his mind he did. Ruan was already playing high-stakes cash games and tournaments online well before he even set foot in the Seminole Hard Rock.
During his days in high school, Ruan was an avid gamer and spent quite a bit of time playing video games. He eventually made the switch to poker after a nudge from one of the most unlikely sources.
“I used to love playing Minecraft and League of Legends,” said Ruan. “And my mom actually got me into poker when she saw me playing video games. She saw some doctor playing poker on ESPN and so, in her mind, it was like if I played poker, I might be a doctor. I started playing poker then.”
After his mother convinced him to start grinding it out on the felt, Ruan found himself gambling for fake currency in one of the video games he was playing.
“I was playing Runescape at the time she mentioned poker,” said Ruan. “And then there was this bot that was advertising for Runescape poker. I checked it out and that’s how I first played.”
From there on out, he was hooked. He was winning video game currency that he could sell to other gamers for real money. He eventually converted enough fake money to make a small deposit on Global Poker under his father’s name and play for actual cash for the first time.
Ruan’s poker journey was different than most other younger players that came before him. With poker lacking the mainstream appeal it once had, there weren’t as many 17-year-old high school kids dreaming of being the next Chris Moneymaker.
He wasn’t a poker fan. He wasn’t watching poker on television. He was just playing poker.
When he got heads-up with Dan Smith, he didn’t even realize he was squaring off against one of the most decorated players in the history of the game. There was no intimidation. Smith was just another guy in his way.
A Quick Rise Up The Ranks
After he converted enough Runescape gold for actual money, he started his real money poker journey playing no-limit hold’em cash games with a maximum buy-in of $1, but quickly worked his way up the ranks. It’s how he built a $50,000 bankroll by the time he was 17, at which point high school became monotonous.
“I had to commute an hour each way to school, so that wasn’t great,” said Ruan, who attended a magnet school outside of Philadelphia. “High school was super boring for me. I slept through my classes. I liked the social aspect of it, of course, but eventually it was just… I was making enough in poker that I just didn’t feel like going to school anymore.”
With the amount of time he spent at the table, he had very little time to do anything else. He was already playing 50 hours of poker each week, coupled with two hours of daily travel time to and from his school, as well as several hours spent in his actual classes. He knew it was time to leave and give full-time poker a try.
One day, he accidentally got the jumpstart he needed to dive head-first into poker. There was a scheduled protest at Ruan’s school where a large group of students were supposed to walk out. Ruan was the only person who did it, and on his way out he got caught by a teacher who slapped him with a detention.
“At that point what went through my head was, ‘I’m making more than you and I don’t really want to deal with this anymore.’ So, I took the train home,” said Ruan. “I told my parents I wasn’t going back to school, and never went back.”
His parents were aware of his growing bankroll and took the decision in stride. Within five months of dropping out, Ruan was playing $10-$20 no-limit hold’em, the highest stakes available on Global Poker at the time.
The Secret To His Success
During the poker boom, most players that made rapid ascents did so through trial and error and discussion among a group of poker playing friends. Ruan, however, figured it out on his own.
“Solver work,” he said, when asked how he improved. “Solver work, and I probably have some level of intuition for the game that not everyone has.”
Through countless hours and aggressive bankroll management, Ruan found himself at the top of the online poker pecking order before most of his friends graduated. He was so successful at no-limit hold’em, he decided to move over to pot-limit Omaha because he “got bored” with the two-card game.
The winning didn’t stop in Omaha either. He was beating the biggest Omaha games online and he found himself falling out of love with the game that he had such wild success over the course of a few years.
“I didn’t like poker,” said Ruan. “I was playing cash games at the time and it was super bum hunty. You would have 16 tables open and you would wait for someone bad to sit. And then everyone would fill the table. And at the time, I wasn’t making any more progress in poker in terms of increasing the amount I could be making. I was just very stagnant.”
And when he did find some action, he compared playing long sessions to incarceration.
“It’s like jail,” said Ruan. “When someone really bad would join, he was like the jailkeeper. You would not be able to leave until he felt like leaving. I’d probably play about three hours on average, but if someone really bad joined a high-stakes game, I’d be there for 16 hours just sitting in prison.”
Taking A Break
At that point, Ruan decided that he was going to get his GED and give college a try.
“I got my GED faster than my high school mates got their high school degrees because I just went in and took the test,” said Ruan. “So I took six months off [from poker], and I went to Japan for college.”
In December of last year, Ruan enrolled in a university in Tokyo. He majored in International Business Management, but before long he got the familiar itch, and realized that he wasn’t going to get that degree either.
“I didn’t really want to actually go through college,” he admitted. “I just wanted to see what it was like. Japan sounded like a nice place. I attended classes for a month and a half and then I stopped going. But I stayed in Japan for another five months because it was a pretty cool place to be.”
While he was in Japan, he dove back into poker. He was developing a piece of poker software dubbed “SquidTool” which was functioning as a preflop solver. Since he was working on the tool in Japan, he had access to online options that weren’t available to Americans.
He opened an account on GGPoker and saw that the tournaments running on the site were much bigger than the ones running on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
“I was like, ‘Wait, they run $10K’s every week?’
Becoming A High Roller
Shortly after turning 20 years old, and having played poker professionally for nearly three years, Ruan transitioned made his second major poker transition, this time to multi-table tournaments. Unlike cash games on American-facing sites, however, he felt the upside in these games was huge.
“It’s more profitable because you can basically bet more,” said Ruan, referencing the larger buy-ins available. “The reason cash games aren’t as profitable is because there’s a limit to how much you’re able to play, and for which stakes you’re able to play. Obviously, the higher you play, the more you make. And you get to play higher stakes more consistently with tournaments.”
He spent a couple of months figuring out tournament strategy with more solver work while playing anything between $109 and $1,000 buy-ins. He realized that tournaments involved a more complex decision tree since stacks sizes constantly fluctuated, and ICM [Independent Chip Model] was weighing on your every decision, especially as the money bubble neared.
“Cash games are sort of solved. If I wanted to, I could figure it out. I could build a whole game tree and show you,” said Ruan. “It’s like everyone is studying from the same material. But because of ICM and the varying stacks in MTT’s, it’s a much more complicated game.”
After a couple of months studying, Ruan jumped up in stakes. Instead of playing a max buy-in of $1,000. He made the leap to $5,000, $10,000, and even $25,000 buy-ins. He was playing the biggest stakes online. Once again, for the third time, in a third poker variant, Ruan was on top.
While he was in Japan grinding online tournaments, he nabbed a score larger than the High Roller title he won in Florida. Ruan made a deep run in the GGPoker Spring Festival $1,500 no-limit hold’em main event. The event had a $10 million guaranteed prize pool and 6,803 entries to maneuver through over the course of two days.
After a small chop and save heads-up with an unknown Austrian player, Ruan finished runner-up for a whopping $952,195.
And once again, he got bored.
Transitioning To Live Poker
“At the time, Japan was under quarantine, so I couldn’t go out,” said Ruan. “I wasn’t even playing all day. I’d just play Sundays.”
Ruan decided it was time for another change of scenery and traveled back to the United States. Instead of going back to Pennsylvania, where he would be limited to online poker with much smaller stakes than he just became accustomed to, he headed south to Florida, where the legal age to play live poker is just 18.
At the Seminole Hard Rock property in Tampa, Ruan took down a $5,000 no-limit hold’em World Poker Tour prelim event for $66,837. He then took the ride down I-75 to its sister property near Fort Lauderdale, where he made his splash in the High Roller.
Since the tournaments around Florida were wrapping up, it was time for Ruan to leave his home country once again in search of bigger buy-ins that he was eligible to play. First was a stop in Vancouver to play several WSOP Online events. He earned a single min-cash in a $1,000 buy-in event before deciding to make yet another jump in stakes.
Ruan hopped on a plane and flew from the west coast of Canada to the Mediterranean. Having just played his first five-figure buy-in in Florida a few weeks prior, Ruan ponied up $250,000 to play in the Super High Roller Bowl main event.
Out of the 41 entries, Ruan finished third, earning $1.64 million and the first seven-figure score of his career.
Who knows how long it will take until Ruan gets bored again. But in the meantime, the high roller circuit has been put on notice that there’s a 20-year-old waiting in the wings, ready for his turn at the top.
Photo Credits: PokerGO, Merit Poker, and Seminole Hard Rock