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How to win at cards and life, according to poker’s autistic superstar

Dan Cates started playing poker in high school and struggled early, even taking a job at McDonald's to cover his losses. His career earnings in online and live games now top $23 million. (Katerina Lukina)
14 min

1. Push your limits

In recent weeks, Dan Cates, widely regarded as one of the best poker players alive, has found himself with a travel itinerary ripped from a spy novel or a video game: He explored temples in Cambodia, learned about Hindu gods in India, toured the largest mosque in Abu Dhabi, hiked through ruins in Guatemala and contemplated heaven and hell at a Buddhist pagoda in Vietnam.

At each stop, he studied the people, their history and their culture. And he found himself contemplating the same existential questions that have hounded him since he was a child.

Once, when Cates was 12, a girl broke his heart, and he started wondering whether something was wrong with him. So he read the Bible front to back. When he reached the end and the answers hadn’t revealed themselves, he decided to read the whole thing again.

That was the same year Cates was diagnosed with autism. He had found an article about the neurodevelopmental disorder, and it felt familiar. His parents took him to Johns Hopkins, where professionals confirmed Cates was on the spectrum. The family could finally begin to understand a unique child who was gifted in math, struggled to connect with other kids and tended to be trusting and blunt, curious and stubborn.

It would take some time, but many of the qualities that caused so much frustration in childhood — hyper-focused, analytical, determined — would fuel a meteoric tear through the poker world. Now, at 33, he has a pair of World Series of Poker bracelets and $23 million in career earnings. He’s often referred to as Jungleman, a nod to his longtime screen name on poker sites. But while he built his bankroll through online cash games, he also has made a splash at recent tournaments, dressing in costume when he won his first two bracelets — wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage at one, Goku from the Japanese anime series “Dragon Ball Z” at another.

And while he has achieved more than even he thought possible, Cates finds himself on dual missions as he crisscrosses the world. Like that 12-year-old with the Bible, he’s on a meandering quest to understand how his brain works and how he can improve every facet of his life. At the same time, Jungleman wants to save the world.

2. Persevere through challenges

“He was kind of shy,” Lillian Cates says of her son today. “And he played a lot by himself.”

“He was, like, honest to a fault,” Mark Cates adds. “Some of the kids weren’t as kindhearted as he was, and so he got taken advantage of sometimes.”

Growing up around Bowie, Md., Cates struggled to navigate social norms and make meaningful connections. His father coached his intramural basketball team, but Cates was reluctant to shoot. When he finally scored, Mark Cates asked him how it felt. The boy had no reaction.

At school, he once matter-of-factly called a classmate a “slow thinker.” That got his parents thinking some self-defense classes might be in order. But during karate lessons, Cates was averse to throwing punches. The instructor inquired: “What’s wrong? Don’t you want to hit this guy?”

“No,” Cates replied, “I really don't.”

The autism diagnosis brought calm and concern. The family was happy to have a framework to better understand Cates’s behavior but worried about his long-term future, relationships and job prospects.

“I was a loner, and I didn’t really have friends,” Cates says. “I didn’t know how to make friends. I didn’t know how any of that worked.”

They attended group meetings with other families and children who were on the spectrum, and Cates did one-on-one therapy. But it wasn’t until he found video games and, later, poker that he started to find purpose and an outlet.

3. Bet on yourself

Cates took up cards at 15. He would play during lunch with classmates, using torn pieces of paper as chips. The game hooked him. It was analytical, involved calculated risk and offered a monetary reward. “No one really cared as much as me,” he says. “I just was super focused on playing and getting better.”

He learned lessons about ethics and trust early on. Playing with classmates, Cates was duped when a boy sat behind him and tipped off the other players to which cards Cates was holding. He lost a few thousand dollars before he caught on.

Cates wasn’t deterred. He took a job working the drive-through window at McDonald’s to build back his stash, determined to get better.

With a near-perfect SAT score, Cates earned a scholarship to the University of Maryland. But by then, he had discovered online poker. He started with modest 25-/50-cent games, struggling to win but paying special attention to more successful players. When he won a tournament worth $5,000, he reinvested most of his winnings into an online training course.

Cates was winning, but his grades were suffering. He was put on academic probation after a semester, and his parents noticed he was never calling home and asking for money.

“I said, ‘So what’s going on?’ ” his father recalls. “He said: ‘Well, I’ve been gambling online, Dad. I made $33,000.’ I told him: ‘$33,000? You’ll make way, way more than that as an engineer.’ ”

His grades kept slipping, but Cates kept winning. He took a summer internship at his father’s engineering firm and earned $17 an hour, grumbling the whole time about the lousy pay. In the fall of his sophomore year, he earned $300,000 playing cards, and his parents could no longer use the money argument.

Cates eventually lost his academic scholarship. By his junior year, he was a millionaire and poker wasn’t the distraction — school was.

“I could focus on poker, or I could go back and write book reports and take these math classes that I don’t remember one thing from,” he says now. “So the decision was really clear for me.”

4. Take smart risks

In 2009, poker player Tom Dwan, who played under the screen name “Durrrr,” created a stir when he issued the Durrrr Challenge, offering $1.5 million to any competitor who could best him after 50,000 hands of heads-up poker. If Dwan won, the loser would pay $500,000. Jungleman, already an online poker legend, answered the call in 2010.

Cates’s parents recall monitoring the first night of action on Full Tilt Poker. It was close to midnight, and Cates, who was playing in his bedroom, was down about $750,000. Lillian pleaded with her husband, “Pull the internet, pull the internet!”

“I told her, ‘I’m not pulling the internet — that’s his money,’ ” Mark says.

When they woke up the next morning, the tables had turned and Cates was up some $750,000.

“I remember asking him, ‘Are you worried you’re going to lose that money?’ ” Mark says. “And he said, ‘No, Durrrr can’t handle what I’m doing to him.’ ”

Cates led by more than $1 million after 20,000 hands, but the game fizzled. Cates says his foe has paid him around $1.3 million from the challenge, but Dwan has resisted resuming play.

5. Never stop learning

Autism is a constant companion. Cates says it helped him learn the game, stirred an obsession and catered to his analytical instincts. He credits the diagnosis with helping him make decisions backed by logic, not emotion, and with his ability to identify others’ playing patterns and quickly calculate probabilities.

But it also forced him to confront his own behavior. The online game was easy: Opponents couldn’t read his visual cues, and he could quickly detect other players’ habits and rely on odds. He loved the fast pace and would often play multiple hands simultaneously — at up to eight tables at a time. But in person, losses stung and Cates was prone to outbursts. One casino barred him for six months after he slammed a glass too hard on the table and it shattered.

Cates realized that, to get invited to big cash games, he needed to improve his social skills. He needed to become not just a good poker player but someone whom others would want at their table. So he went looking for answers.

Seeking confirmation, he was again diagnosed with autism at 23 and then again at 31, when Cates learned he also has mild dyspraxia, a condition that can affect motor skills, and ADHD, impacting virtually every facet of his life and the way he engages with the world around him.

“That was the point where I realized I really needed to solve this,” he says.

Cates started taking acting and improv lessons to help him engage and respond. He took cooking classes and threw house parties so he could better interact in social settings. He tracks his sleep, practices yoga, does breathing exercises and works out regularly, striving to be the best version of himself.

He studied the Alexander Technique, a movement therapy focused on posture and bodily function. He consulted psychics and astrologists to help him consider life’s possibilities, and he recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to test his physical limits. He has studied mysticism and world religions, and he personally sought out Indian spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

“I wanted to see if it was real,” he says. “In my head, I’m reading these stories and I’m thinking: ‘Is there really an enlightenment? Are there really people who have magic powers? Is there really, like, divine characters or whatever?’ ”

6. Be pragmatic

Cates slowly evolved from an introvert with few friends to someone receiving invites to big games around the world.

Nick Schulman, a pro player who has three bracelets of his own, says Cates is “squarely in the top three best players ever.” At the table, Cates is often operating on levels that most people simply can’t appreciate. Schulman says it’s not like watching Stephen Curry heat up beyond the arc and rain in three-pointers.

“It’s a lot more subtle,” he says. “He has a very special poker mind. He understands the way the cards interact.”

One key: keeping opponents on their toes. At two of his biggest tournament wins — in 2021 and 2022 at the Poker Players Championship, considered one of the most prestigious events on the calendar — he competed in costume. Dressed last year as Savage, the gruff and wild-eyed pro wrestler, Cates sought to defend his title by tapping into some method acting, remaining in character as he muttered at the table — a performance for TV cameras perhaps but also a distraction for his foes. All the while, he read the other players and waited for his chance to bet big.

“To succeed at poker, you need to be able to change your strategy if things aren’t working,” he says. “It’s like that constant search for — I would just say a search for truth.”

7. Do the right thing

Cates was either lost in his own head or unable to appreciate how his actions affected others. Or, most likely, both. In 2020, he was publicly outed for “ghosting” in a lucrative private game online, essentially playing incognito on behalf of a recreational player.

He justified his actions at the time by saying he thought the game was “rampant with professionals who were ghosting” and so “it felt acceptable for me to be playing.” But as much of the poker world lobbed criticism his way, he started to appreciate that he had duped at least some innocent players and that his actions affect others.

Cates reflected on his behavior at the table and also away from it, lamenting the times he felt he was taking more than he was giving — “stealing from the environment, if that makes sense,” he says.

8. Appreciate the bigger picture

When he was 29, Cates was on an airplane watching a time-hopping science-fiction film called “Looper,” in which a character kills himself to spare the world of future misdeeds. He matter-of-factly says he had an epiphany of sorts, suddenly recognizing the connectivity of everything — of people, of their actions, of their energy — even of history.

“It just blew my mind. And I had this state of, like, ecstasy,” he says. “I wasn’t on any drugs, but it was very lucid. I could think super clearly for four days straight. This is a natural phenomenon. Apparently, it happens — I looked it up — but it’s very rare.”

He thought about the movie as the medium for his epiphany, and the power of art, music, books, media and gaming. He contemplated a purpose and mission beyond poker and questioned the role the game should play in his future. He came to realize that poker had more to offer than stacks of chips and occasional bracelets, that the virtues of the game were applicable elsewhere.

“It’s a game,” he says, “but through poker, many different things can be seen and many different things actually can be taught.”

9. Have foresight

Professional poker can be a lonely world. It calls for a nomadic lifestyle, requiring trust in a world populated by gamblers and swindlers. It would be easy for an introvert such as Cates to remain a screen name — to stay Jungleman forever — and keep growing his stack online.

But as he’s figuring himself out, Cates thinks he’s starting to understand everything around him. Autism gave him lifelong challenges, but it also provided some of the tools to navigate them — to flourish, even.

He launched a wide-ranging podcast called “Winning the Game of Life” that is ostensibly rooted in poker and includes interviews with many of the game’s biggest personalities. But it takes huge detours. He also started a charitable organization focused on food, clothing and education programming in underserved communities, particularly those in Africa.

Yet there’s so much more he wants to do: visit Antarctica, the Galápagos Islands, the Himalayas, the Amazon; improve his physique; learn kung fu; maintain better relationships; maybe even find love.

But it’s all connected to a broader vision that is still coming into focus. Cates sees himself as a leader and a uniter, someone who can draw people together and encourage collaboration. Poker gave him purpose. Now he wants to use it to reach others.

10. Don’t rush to the end

Cates still doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s starting to think that’s the point.

Recently, he says, he was playing a video game that allowed users to pay money to bypass levels. Before long, Cates, a globe-trotting multimillionaire with the means to indulge most any whim, had reached the end of the game — and felt unfulfilled.

“I realized: ‘Oh, s---, I’ve kind of now gotten everything. Now what am I going to do?’ ” he says. “Maybe it was better if instead of paying for the higher points, I’d just taken the slower route and appreciated it a bit more.”