COVER STORY: Kevin Schaffel

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By Christopher Cosenza

It’s 40 years ago, the Beatles are breaking up, Apollo 13 can’t land on the moon, and poker is about to have a revelation. The ripples from this landmark decision still are being felt decades later as countless lives within the poker world have been affected along the way.

Must be referring to Benny Binion’s launching of the World Series of Poker, right?

Wrong. Try this: An 11-year-old Kevin Schaffel decides to sit down with his fellow South Florida preteen buddies in a makeshift home game, and the rest is history.

“We were playing for quarters,” the 51-year-old Coral Springs resident said with a chuckle. “The stakes were probably $.25-$.50 and we played mostly mixed games.”

OK, so it’s not THAT significant in the grand scheme of poker things, but when you consider Schaffel’s path in life and that he’s a member of this year’s November Nine, it’s a pretty big deal. Most 11-year-olds are concerned with knee scrapes, fears of junior high and staying up late. But Schaffel’s thirst for competition, particularly in card games, was borne in these prepubescent gatherings and served as a catalyst in his drive to succeed. 
Just how competitive is Schaffel, a lifelong Floridian? He had to postpone this interview a couple of times and was 30 minutes late when he finally was available because of a “prior engagement.”

“I’m gonna admit the reason I was a half-hour late,” he said, laughing. “I was playing gin rummy and I couldn’t get away.  I play for $25, $50 a column, but I love it. I love the competition and I love the game. I could play backgammon for nothing; I could play gin rummy for nothing. Scrabble. I’m just a game-player, and I love the competition. The money part of it is not why I play. I guess if you really wanna analyze it I’m not a true gambler like some people are.”    

But that doesn’t mean Schaffel doesn’t take calculated risks. He grew up in North Miami Beach and went to Florida State, graduating with an education degree in 1979. The market wasn’t exactly ripe with jobs in his field, so he reluctantly took a position in the family business, a direct-mail company his father started in 1952. Schaffel focused on sales, and from the beginning he couldn’t ignore the comfortable salary he earned.

“I could see that I could never make that kind of money in my chosen profession,” he said, “so I just stayed in it. In 1986 I ended up buying (the business) from my father and his partner.”

His participation in home games never faded, however, and owning a business afforded him the luxury of being able to travel the country to play regularly in the country’s best card rooms.      
     
“I’d been playing probably for 10 years,” he said, “and four or five times a year I would travel to California and Vegas. When I had the business they’d be five-day trips.”
It was a great life, but a life that was about to get turned upside down.

“I had a partner for the last nine years and I had about 22 employees,” said Schaffel, who has two children attending college in Tallahassee. “He came in one day and said he decided to open up his own business … and he took half the business with him. So I was stuck with half the amount of business with the same amount of employees because he didn’t take any of them. So it was hard to maintain the numbers. I couldn’t afford to keep them all.”

Fortunately, Schaffel found another business that could use most of his employees.
“I think I was able to get jobs for everybody except one person. That was the hardest day of my business life, walking in one day and telling everybody that our company was shutting down. I mean I literally was crying. It was really tough. But once that day was over and I knew a lot of the people were going to have jobs it made it a lot easier for me and it was actually the best thing that ever happened from a financial standpoint. It probably would have gone out of business on its own because of the economy.”

Schaffel went into brokering and was very successful, plus his poker game evolved. Since he didn’t have to be home for the business anymore, he could travel often to West Coast card rooms, and he could stay there longer as well. But his employer eventually moved north and that’s when Schaffel had enough.

“There’s no question I wasn’t thrilled with what I was doing and I said to myself, ‘You know, it’s been almost 30 years and this is the time.’”

The time to play more poker, that is.

“I was always very successful playing,” the North Miami High grad said. “And then a year ago February, I just decided to make (West Coast trips) a monthly deal. I would stay away 12 or 13 days, almost half the month. And I would just play a lot of cards, and I mean A LOT of cards. … 15, 16, 18 hours a day, because that’s what I was out there to do. I wanted to try to simulate as close as I could what it would be like to play 40 hours a week, but unfortunately I had to squeeze it into two weeks. So I played a lot of hours, which never really bothered me, but now that I’ve done it, it would be so much better if it was in my back yard.”

So you can imagine Schaffel, a scratch golfer, is pulling pretty hard for legislation to pass regarding the Seminole Compact and true no-limit poker in Florida.

“I spend a lot of money traveling to California or to Vegas, besides the tournaments, just to play in cash games,” he said. “It would be nice to go play golf in the morning or go to the gym and then go to play. And if I’m not having a good day after like three or four hours I don’t feel like I have to stay there. It’s not as easy as people think, traveling all over the country and playing. When you’re not in your own bed and when you’re not in your own environment and doing the things you normally do every day, it’s not as easy as people think. I know a lot of people think that once they get (no-limit) poker down here (in Florida) that it’s going to be a gold mine. … I think it’s gonna be really good, but I don’t think it’s gonna be as easy as people think. … You have to make a lot more money when you’re traveling than when you’re at home. It’ll be interesting to see. I hope they get it soon.”

The grind pays off

Once Schaffel turned “semi-pro” he was faced with more hours on the felt, and that meant more chances at “running bad.” The pressure to make money certainly weighed on him, and before you learn the story of his November Nine berth and quest for that $8.5 million payday, you must know the stretch he faced before that.

“I never ran so bad in my life leading up to the World Series,” he said. “It started around January and I just never had experienced what it was like to run that bad. Not just for hours, but for days and then for weeks. It was pretty rough. I maintained my cool as best I could. I’m not saying I did all the time, but I maintained and tried to limit my losses.
“I credit my success in this year’s World Series to the bad streak that I had. My friend said, ‘Who would have ever thought that you running so bad for so many months would’ve helped you just keep throwing away bad hands after bad hands after bad hands and not feeling pressured to play a hand that you shouldn’t be playing?’ And I’m 100 percent in agreement with him. … I hear people say all the time after like 30 minutes or 45 minutes ‘Jesus, I haven’t had a hand for hours!’ And I wanna just say, ‘Try 14 hours or three days and see how you feel.’ It was no question it helped me.” 
 
All-in on Day 1, then never again

About five years ago Schaffel began playing poker tournaments fairly regularly, especially the World Series and World Poker Tour circuits. His success rate in these events laughs at variance, cashing in nearly 50 percent of all tournaments he entered with $5K buy-ins or greater, including a 42nd-place finish in the 2004 WSOP Main Event. Does he have some magic formula or strategy? Probably, but after outlasting nearly all of the 6,494-player field he’s in lockdown mode for now.

“I actually do have an opinion, but I really don’t want to say,” he said, laughing. “I have some ideas as to why I do better, but I just don’t want to get into specifics on that right now. We can talk on Nov. 11 and I’ll be happy to answer any of those questions.
“For a long time I felt like I really wasn’t that lucky. There were a couple of World Series where I got it in with the best of it almost every time and that’s how I got knocked out. And that happens to a lot of people, I know, but it just seemed like it was happening a lot.”

And his 2009 WSOP campaign very nearly had the same outcome. But something was different this year, and Schaffel will be the first one to tell you he believes in destiny.
“I lost 5K in the first level, so I was down to 25K after two hours. Five minutes into Level 2 I get pocket 10s in the big blind. … It comes around to the button and he raises. Now he’d raised every time before on the button, so it was no surprise. And I just call, and the flop comes 8-10-J with two to a suit. I didn’t want to give him any free cards. I led out and he raised me, pretty big. And I re-raised all-in. I didn’t want to mess around with the hand; I didn’t want to give him a free card, and he insta-called me. So I said ‘Oh, boy.’ And he turns over 7-9. He flopped a straight, OK?

“But what’s really strange is, I carry this bag with me with all my stuff, and in the past I would just be like ready to leave. … go to pick my bag up and just stand up and ready to leave. And there was something about it, I was just really calm and I knew the board was going to pair. A 4 comes on the turn, no help at all, and I just sat there still, and the board paired a jack on the river. I got to 50K and (five) hands later I was at 100K. And I never looked back, but obviously that was very fortunate. The hand played itself. He’s raising on the button with any two cards, this particular guy, got lucky enough to flop a straight while I flop a set, so there’s no chance the money’s not going in at any point, whether it’s on the flop or the turn. … I was in the top 1 or 2 percent the entire tournament, and to my knowledge, I don’t think I was ever all-in where the hands were turned up at the end. I may have gone all-in late on Day 8 or 9 but I was never in jeopardy with the hands up.”

He’s careful not to rely on fate, but he firmly believes he was meant to win that hand. His son Jeremy, before the main event, inspired Schaffel by giving him a doctored photo of Peter Eastgate holding up his hands in victory, only Jeremy had superimposed his dad’s face on Eastgate’s body.

“I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I believe that because I had the picture in my wallet and I looked at it every day that that was the reason, because my mind was so focused on winning with my hands up and the money,” said Schaffel, who has been known to play at Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood and the Isle Casino with his son. “I’m not sure what it is. I do believe in fate and that things are meant to be. I’ve been competitive all my life. There is no rhyme or reason to how things happen. … but they just happen. I’m a big believer in fate but don’t know how it works yet. I wish I did. At the end of the day it’s either meant to be or it wasn’t. … How do you account for someone getting pocket aces seven times in a day and winning with them every time? You can’t answer something like that.”

Final-table thoughts

Schaffel, who is sponsored by PokerStars, sits in sixth place for the Nov. 7-10 final table with 12,390,000 chips, and in the stands will be about 100 of his closest friends and family members.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I was just at my golf club (TPC at Eagle Trace) and one of the guys said ‘Can you believe 20 people from the golf club are coming out to watch you?’ Forget about the 50-70-80 family and close friends that I knew were coming out. It’s just unbelievable. Not that a lot of people need an excuse to go to Vegas, by the way. I’m not so sure how many of them wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway.  … I keep saying no matter what happens it’s been great and I’m as happy as can be. Of course I want to do as well as I can do once I’m out there, but to have all my family and friends out there when it happens is just going to be great.”

Plus being a millionaire can’t hurt.

“The financial part of it is just a bonus,” said Schaffel, who got divorced in 2006. “It’s not like I was broke. There have been some articles written, you know, down on my luck, this and that. I wasn’t broke and I wasn’t close to that point. It’s a beautiful thing and I’m gonna be able to buy a house. … and there’ll be a little something extra there for the kids at the end of the day, down the road.”  

When the idea of the November Nine was presented to the public a couple of years ago people speculated players would enlist coaches and scour YouTube for poker footage of their competition. But Schaffel makes a great point about trying to prepare for this final table.

“I’m a little torn because obviously I’m gonna watch all the shows and gonna watch how they play,” he said. “But I don’t know how to simulate the situation. I can play sit-n-go (tournaments), but no SNG is going to have Darvin Moon with a third of the chips. And no SNG is going to put me in sixth place. There’s just no way to simulate it. I think just playing and having cards in front of me is all I’m going to do. I contemplated briefly having a coach, but I just don’t think that’s the way to go for me.

“I don’t want to overthink things. I’ve been playing a long time and I kinda have a sense as to what I need to do. But I’d hate to think at the end of the day, Jesus Christ, my coach told me to do this, or we talked about this, but my gut told me to do something else.”
No matter what happens Schaffel will have made at least $1.7 million since July when you factor in his WPT cash, so does that mean the poker circuit will have a new full-time player?

“Some of it’s gonna have to do with how I finish,” he said. “If I finish 1-2-3, yeah, I’m probably going to play in a lot more events. If I finish 9-8-7 where things aren’t really going to change that much I’ll still probably play four to six events like I’ve been doing for the last five or six years. I still enjoy the games that I play in. I’ve been playing at the Commerce (in L.A.) for I don’t know, about seven-eight years. I play $10-$20 no-limit. I’ve been saying from the very beginning no matter where I finish I’m still going to play $10-$20 no-limit. I don’t even think I want to go up to the next level in the cash games because I really don’t want to risk $50K or $100K in a seating. I may change my mind down the road, but I enjoy the game for the game.”

Like he said, he’s not a true gambler, he just loves the competition.

MORE ON SCHAFFEL

A true magician

If you play a tournament for nine days you’re bound to have some interesting hands. Kevin Schaffel’s most memorable hand during his run to the November Nine came courtesy of Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari. Here’s how Schaffel describes the scene:

The most fun I’ve ever had at a table was with Antonio Esfandiari. What a good guy he is, and I can’t wait to see him again. He was on my left (on Day 3). … He’d been raising me all day, and if he doesn’t raise me he calls me to my left. I just got up to like 500K in Day 3 and he’s got about 250K. I get KD-9D, one from the button, and he’s on the button. I raise to 6K and, of course, he makes it 18K, which I fully expected. And the flop comes K-3-2. I check and he bets, but he only bets like 22,500 into a pot of like 45K. And I check-raise him to 60K, so I raise him 37,500. He thinks about it for a minute and he decides to min-raise me to 75K. So he only raised me 37,500, which left him 58K.

I thought about it for a long time. The cameras are rolling, ya know. I said ‘Jeez, I’m gonna be down to 300K if I lose the hand; I’ll be to like 600K if I win. You know I just don’t like my kicker.’ I mean there’s a lot of things I could be beat by, aces, ace-king, whatever. So I lay it down, and he says, ‘Kevin, you’re not going to like this, but only ’cause the cameras are rolling,’ and he turns over queen-jack offsuit. OK? There’s only about, I don’t know, one player, HIM, who would have done something like that. (laughs)

It’s bad enough I check-raise him. It’s like, OK, just throw your hand away and you’ll still have about 100K left, and just be happy you still have chips left, right? No, he decides to min-raise me. And he left himself with about 58K in chips in case I pushed all-in on him, which obviously he couldn’t call. But that was the beauty of the play.

“And I just took it so well. I congratulated him and said nice play and patted him on the back. I can’t wait to see the hand and see how I reacted. But my reaction to the hand was what I was so proud of. I didn’t get upset, I didn’t let it bother me, I didn’t go on tilt, and in the past stuff like that would’ve really bothered me. I acknowledged a really nice play that he made.

He’s so tough to play against and he’s such a nice guy on top of it. I really enjoyed playing with him.

— Christopher Cosenza