Joe Cada’s house certainly befits one of the most successful poker players. It’s a cavernous four-bedroom split-level occupied by him and his fiancée, a roommate, and their two dogs, that sits on a half-acre in a leafy, tony Shelby Township subdivision. Out in the front, as one might expect, there’s a Cadillac Escalade on a concrete circle driveway.
Yet the home and the deluxe SUV are pretty much the only tells. These two items comprise Cada’s sole splurges in the years after he, at 21, took home an $8.5 million prize as the youngest-ever World Series of Poker Main Event champion in 2009. Even though in the subsequent decade he has won more than $5.5 million in live tournament poker — to say nothing of what he has won online, which is not tracked publicly — there is little about his world or demeanor to suggest he is so wealthy.
“I don’t think I’m frugal, it’s just that I’m not into material things,” he says sitting at his kitchen table in early September in a backward baseball cap, ragged T-shirt, and loose-fitting gym shorts.“I still wear these clothes that I had in high school. I won a few million last year and I didn’t buy a new car. I just don’t feel right going out and buying a $100,000 car or something super expensive when my family is working hard. It seems like a waste.”
All this is a preamble to a counter-intuitive truth about Cada: It’s not about the money. Rather, the money is indeed important to an elite professional gambler like Cada not for what it buys but for how it keeps score and bestows legitimacy.
Ten years ago this month, when he rocketed into the public eye to best a field of 6,494 players, the kid from Utica High was dismissed by many in the poker world as a lucky fluke. Now, at the riper age of 31, he is 42nd in the world and 24th in the U.S. in most tournament money won. In 2018, he became the first WSOP Main Event champion in 15 years to make a return to the tournament’s Final Table by outlasting almost the entire 7,874 field of entrants to finish fifth place and win $2.1 million. That came with well-earned praise reflected in a mea culpa from poker legend Mike Matusow, who tweeted: “9 years ago I called you the luckiest player in poker history! 9 years later you have all my respect!”
Not bad for a shy, sports-obsessed kid from Macomb County who learned to play and love the card games that were a staple of family gatherings all his life. Cada was 15 in 2003 when tournament No-Limit Hold’em poker exploded into popular consciousness after Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker became the first online player to win the WSOP Main Event poker. That anyone-can-do-it ethos, paired with the rise of TV poker shows made more interesting and popular by the advent of the camera to show viewers the players’ hole cards, turned the game into a mainstream obsession.
Cada was not immune — but unlike countless Moneymaker wannabes, he had real talent. At low-stakes games with high school pals, Cada cleaned up and realized his real proficiency for quick odds calculations and reading people. By 14, he persuaded his mother, a card dealer at the MotorCity Casino, to put $50 he earned as a busboy into an online poker account. “I didn’t go out and party, I didn’t go to one school dance, I was a really quiet kid. I was working at an early age, so I told my mom to look at it like me going to the movies or going out and spending $50,” Cada recalls. “She didn’t like it at first, but then eventually I didn’t have to put any more money online. And then money started really coming in.”
Boy, did it ever. Cada started accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in his account, and by 19, he was skipping classes at Macomb Community College — and then dropping out altogether the following year to fly to the Bahamas and Costa Rica to play live games and tournaments where he was of legal age. It sounds seamless, but Cada went through some steep peaks and valleys in those early years, risking giant sums and sitting at his computer playing hundreds of hands for as much as 20 hours at a stretch. “Some days when you’re playing higher stakes, you’re playing $10 or $20 [hand minimums] or you’re buying in $2,500 at a time and you win or lose $20,000 or $30,000 that day,” he says. “It didn’t seem like reality.”
However, it was about to get more surreal. In 2009, finally 21 years old and
legal to play live poker in the U.S., Cada flew to Vegas, shared a house with a gang of other poker players, and it was in Vegas that he spent time with now-retired East Lansing pro Dean Hamrick. The WSOP “season” is a series of more than 50 tournaments between May and July, that culminates in the Main Event, with its $10,000 buy-in. He had some early success, including a 17th-place showing in mid-June that earned him $21,533. “He’s, if not the best, one of the best Hold ‘Em players I’ve ever seen,” Hamrick, whose $1.7 million live-tournament winnings lands him ninth on the Michigan all-time money list, says. “He’s just really observant. He’s always taking the temperature of the people around him, listening to the conversations they have, learning the way people play hands. He’s always recording that. He doesn’t have a ‘style’ — that’s not the thing you’re going to hear out of most great players. They adapt to the situation.”
Cada, of course, took the whole tournament. Back then, the Main Event paused in mid-July once the field fell to the final nine to allow ESPN to hype the finale when it was played in November. His family and friends flocked to Vegas, most clad in University of Michigan gear, to watch him triumph. “I had to be one of the most stressed because it made me so nervous for him,” recalls his sister Jill Strong of Clarkston. “I didn’t sleep that entire time.”
The aftermath, though, was surprisingly rough. Cada was beset by naysayers on social media, forced to overcome his innate shyness for a flurry of TV appearances (including an especially awkward one with David Letterman), and suddenly had friends, family, and strangers hitting him up for money. A failed attempt at opening a bar-restaurant and
charity poker room in Sterling Heights led a minor scandal in 2013 involving his liquor license and some negative news coverage. And at one point, he discovered an acquaintance had written some $63,000 in checks to himself from a stolen checkbook. “I was always a quiet, stick-to-yourself kind of person so to be put in that spotlight and all of a sudden have money was really hard,” he says. “The amount of times I’ve been stolen from has been insane.”
Making it back to the Main Event’s Final Table last year, then, was a very sweet vindication and an affirmation of his skills. In all, Cada’s won four WSOP events, a feat accomplished by fewer than 50 players, but perhaps more importantly, his life has settled into a comfortable rhythm. When he’s not traveling to play poker, which he now does more sparingly as he finds the road lonely, he’s usually home with his dogs, Bosco and Benji, playing video games, and shooting hoops in his backyard. He plans to marry his fiancée, a real estate agent, next year, and he takes turns with his siblings caring for his 63-year-old father, who had a stroke in 2017. (His parents, who are divorced, no longer need to work thanks to Cada’s poker largesse, he says.)
Perhaps most surprisingly, he doesn’t really play as much poker as you’d imagine. Since he returned from Vegas in mid-July after winning $507,144 by placing in eight 2019 WSOP tournaments, he’s played little for him. “I go through my phases where I play heavy for a month or two, then I’ll go a couple of months when I play only in some Sunday tournaments online,” he says. “It’s just a very big commitment. It’s not like printing money. It’s a big battle and you’re gonna win more than you lose but you have to play a lot to see that. My fiancée gets mad at me because a game just starts getting good at 3 a.m. when people get tired, people are drinking. Sometimes I’ll play for 20 hours straight just to break even.”
Limiting his playing time, he says, is the key to remaining engaged over the long term. “I don’t see myself ever quitting entirely because I don’t really put myself at risk with my money anymore,” he says. “I just have fun with it. I don’t play too much where I burn myself out.”