Why a millionaire poker player quit gambling to become an intern at a tech startup in London

TicTracTicTrac head of product and former professional poker player Ludo Lacay.
  • Ludo Lacay used to be a professional poker player, and became a millionaire while he was still young.
  • He eventually got bored of poker and realised that his career as a professional player couldn’t go much further, so he decided to quit.
  • He eventually got an internship at Tictrac, a health-focused London tech startup, where he has stayed ever since.

If you were to choose which hobby to pursue to get into technology startups, chances are gambling wouldn’t be your first choice. But Ludovic “Ludo” Lacay made a career as a professional poker player, became a millionaire in the process, and then used his poker skills to join a London startup as an intern.

Lacay started playing poker when he was a 19-year-old teenager in Tolouse, France, the city he was born in, because he “thought that poker could be something [he] could be good at,” he told Business Insider in an interview. Lacay started off playing online, and eventually entered real-world tournaments.

A big sponsor was key in getting access to major tournaments around the world

His strategy wasn’t one you would expect from a traditional player: It was very technical and “geeky,” Lacay said, as he tried to analyse players’ hands and sought to identify the best ways to play. His technique was evidently successful, as about two years into his poker career, he was backed by his first sponsor, Winamax.

Lacay believed that being part of a new wave of young players was one of his advantages. With sponsors, Lacay said, “you don’t want to go the old approach and give sponsorships to famous players; you want the new generation, the new players – the internet players.”

Lacay quickly started to gain traction in the poker world, and eventually ended up at Barcelona’s prestigious World Poker Tour. “Here it all changed,” he said. “Immediately I got all the sponsors contacting me, and Winamax was like ‘No, we’re not losing you now.’ So they immediately sealed a much bigger deal, a much longer term deal.”

Lacay started travelling a lot, which is something he didn’t enjoy as you might think. Mostly it was frenetic, restless travel, where he wouldn’t do much outside of playing poker.

Lacay PokerWorld Poker Tour/YouTubeLacay (centre) playing poker at the World Poker Tour in Montreal.

“I was just going to places, playing the tournaments, staying in hotels, taking the next plane, and up, on to the next one,” he said. “That’s actually a poker expression, ‘on to the next one.’ You just think about the next tournament.”

One thing that helped him to get through all of that, however, was his competitiveness. “I’ve always been extremely driven,” he said. “When I have the runway to get better, it consumes me. I’m 150% into that thing, I really want to get in the top 1% of everything I do.”

That also gave him room not to think too much about money. “When you play poker you can’t really have a relationship with money,” he said. “You’re not playing money. You’re playing a tournament, you’re not playing for money.”

As he was playing in bigger, more important tournaments, he was actually making quite a lot of money, enough “not to think about it,” he said. “I made over $US3 million in tournaments in the seven years between 2007 and 2014. More than enough to live, clearly.”

As his career as a professional poker player was getting close to its peak, Lacay decided it was time to move on

But money was not what he was after. Lacay eventually realised that, at the top of his game, he wouldn’t have had anywhere to go but downhill. At the age of 28 he started to look around him, and saw that a new generation of players was coming along to take over the game.

So he stepped out of the poker world. Lacay had earned enough money to take a break and “figure it all out, get out of the comfort zone, do something else.” He first chose to study for an MBA, but ultimately decided against it.

Lacay decided to do something else entirely, and that’s how he ended up landing an internship at Tictrac while he was waiting for the result of his application to Stanford.

Tictrac, which has raised £4 million, is a connected health and wellness platform which uses data to engage people in their health and helps them make better decisions on how to build and manage a healthier behaviour – a system not too different from that of Health on the Apple Watch.

Lacay knew a friend at the company, who told him he wasn’t even sure he could pay Lacay any money as an intern. “But there’s plenty of stuff to do here, he told me, and I said ‘perfect!’.”

Lacay started doing various things at the company, from market research to content management; “Things that are very technical, and a bit boring,” he said. “But the most interesting bit was the market research bit.”

Market research allowed Lacay to better understand the ins and outs of the company, and the way its products are actually made.

He started to work more with the product and design teams, and eventually joined Tictrac full time as a product manager, where he started to point out the things that he thought weren’t working well.

Lacay felt that he was in the right position to do this as he had enough knowledge of the company but wasn’t neck-deep in its problems.

TicTrac OfficeTicTracLudo Lacay inside the TicTrac office.

“[At Tictrac] they really had this ‘insider vision’; when you’re doing something and are inside of a project you don’t have enough perspective,” he said. “And I thought they were not heading quite in the direction they thought they were headed into. So I pointed out a few things.”

Lacay started to apply the lessons learned from poker in his new management role

Lacay soon started to apply what he had learned from poker to his new position as product manager, although he didn’t fully realise it at the time.

With poker, Lacay said he was constantly analysing the data input to better understand and anticipate his next move. His job at Tictrac turned out not to be too different, and soon he understood that a few things weren’t right.

“I realised, those guys [Tictrac] got an input that’s pretty massive, a lot of data coming in from markets, people, users, clients, etc., and then they run these huge experiments … but right now, the outcome they’re getting out of these is not really what they want. And they’re not adjusting fast enough,” he said.

So optimisation became his first mission. “How come it takes 26 weeks – I remember: 26 weeks – from an idea to testing, how can we reduce that to just a few weeks? And we managed to reduce it to a couple of weeks at first,” he said. He mostly followed simple, basic principles, but “it forced us to be a bit bolder.”

Lacay moved up quickly in the company’s ranks, and felt comfortable doing so as he “didn’t have any constraints,” something he says also comes from his experience playing poker.

“I was learning, I was working a lot, 15 hours a day, like I did when I played poker, and the learning curve was super steep. I saw it the way I saw poker in the first days. It’s just a million things to learn, and I have to learn all of them as quickly as I can. And the only way to learn is to try,” he said.

“So every week I would come back to the office, I would grab a book, or watch a course, and say OK, we gotta try this. And I was lucky to be in an environment where they’d say, OK Ludo, you can try. And every time I tried, I learned.”

Tictrac has grown a lot in the past two and a half years in particular, and Lacay says that the team “completely changed” the way it approaches its product, the way it operates, how its clients perceive it, and the product vision in general.

Lacay likes where he’s at, and even though he has reached one of the highest positions inside Tictrac, he knows that there is still much to do. One thing he hasn’t abandoned, however, is poker – not completely, at least.

He went to Las Vegas this past summer and played there, just to have a little fun. “I actually enjoy it more now than before. Because now it’s more fun and less stress. I’m coming in as an outsider. It’s really hard to be famous. It’s really, really hard,” he said.

“But when you’re just coming in [for fun] and you’re like, ‘I don’t know, let’s just see what happens,’ you’re free.”

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