COVER STORY: Paul Wasicka’s sweet victory

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By Christopher Cosenza

When someone has nearly $8 million in tournament poker winnings you have to assume they have at least one multitable tournament victory, right? Not Paul Wasicka.

For all of his celebrity and success at the poker tables, the 29-year-old pro hadn’t won an open-field event in his somewhat short career. He finished second at the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2006, amassing most of his career earnings in one fell swoop, and he made a WPT final table shortly thereafter. But what about his 2007 NBC National Heads-Up Championship victory at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas?

“Yeah, I won the NBC heads-up bracket, but that’s different,” Wasicka said. “That’s winning seven matches, 64 players. My friends and I weren’t considering that a legitimate win. I really wanted to go out there and see what I could do.”

And by “out there” he meant Tunica, Miss., for the WSOP circuit stop at Harrah’s Casino. The $5K main event attracted 96 players and Wasicka relished the opportunity to win a prestigious title in a smallish field.

“Honestly, usually I’m attracted to just the big prize pools with tons of cash, but I really think that getting all the chips in the tournament that one time, that was really awesome for getting the monkey off my back,” said Wasicka, who made the final table in the largest WSOP and WPT fields in history. “I did get lucky early in (Tunica) to get some chips, but after then it was smooth sailing. To get that win meant so much to me. In the grand scheme of things it was a small cash win ($140K), but for my own motivation and dedication to the game it was just awesome to have that win come so soon after dedicating myself back to poker. For me it’s the start of something special for what I want to accomplish in the poker world, so I really feel it’s just the beginning.”    

Wasicka’s “luck” in Tunica came in the form of three hands vs. fellow pro Jason Potter from Tulsa.

“There were a few hands in a short period of time where I was pretty low on chips,” said Wasicka, who splits time between his pad in Vegas and home in Boulder, Colo. “Jason Potter limped and I completed the small blind with {9-Hearts}{6-Hearts}. I flopped a flush draw and check-raised all-in against Jason, who flopped top pair with J-10. I got there with the naked heart draw. I was a 2-1 dog. Shortly after that I was blinded down to an M of about seven. … It folded to me in the hijack and I shoved with K-Q suited. And Jason again woke up with a big hand with aces in the big blind. I ended up turning a gutshot and won that pot, which crippled him. And then it ended up, a round later, folding around to him and he went all-in on the button for a tiny amount and I called in the big blind with K-J. He had ace-rag, so he had the best hand, and I knocked him out. So three hands, bam, bam, bam! When I see him I’m like ‘I’m sorry man. That sucks. But at least I didn’t throw your chips away.’ Whenever someone eliminates me from a tournament I always like it when they go on to win the tournament ’cause then I’m like ‘At least my chips didn’t go to someone who pissed them away.’ ”     

In such a short period of time Wasicka went from “nearly gone” to flourishing with chips and confidence. … and that’s sort of the way his entire career has gone. A critical eye cast upon his statistics would see a very streaky player.

“I think it’s coincidental, but it’s also correlated at the same time,” he said. “I think any gambling, any type of game like this, the stock market, is going to be up and down, up and down. It’s just a matter of ‘Can you go on a run? Can your stock boom, or can your stock bust?’ Yeah, it can. And whenever you’re taking bad beats you start playing worse and it’s kinda like a downward spiral. You start questioning yourself. … If you’re a good enough player you can turn it around. But just about every poker player goes bust at some point. Even though they might be a winning player, they might not handle the downswings well, or they might not have good bankroll management. It’s very hard to have a continuous upswing.

“Conversely, the luck goes the other way, too. When you’re sucking out on people, hitting your cards and having your hands hold and you’re playing with confidence, and everything seems to be going well, then you’re going to be going deep time after time again. So that’s just where I’m at right now. I really like where my mind’s at when I play. I’m running well at the table, so it’s just a really exciting time because I know that this is just the beginning of not only a short-term incline on the little stock-market graph, but I just feel like this is a huge step in my career.”

A little help

Poker is an individual sport, but that doesn’t mean Wasicka got to this point on his own. About eight months ago while teaching at the World Series of Poker Academy he met Sam Chauhan, a life coach. … though Wasicka considers him more than that.

“I was immediately drawn in by what I thought he could help me accomplish,” Wasicka said. “I can’t speak enough of how hard he works and what a great job he does as far as getting me ready to play my best. But it’s more than just helping my career out; it’s helping me be the person I want to be. He’s kinda like an accountability partner, motivational speaker, mentor, shrink, friend. It’s a lot of stuff. We’ve become good friends aside from our business relationship. He’s really good at what he does.”

Throughout his life Wasicka admits he’s been uber-competitive, a trait that’s allowed him to succeed in just about everything he’s attempted (he once turned $100 into $15K at the blackjack tables).

“Here’s the deal with my personality,” he said, almost apologetically. “I’ve always been this way. I like to reach a certain level and then move on to something else and conquer a new mountain. This most recent time was getting into sports betting. I really wanted to beat the NFL spreads. But I gave up the NFL spreads to rededicate myself to poker in 2010. But that’s just another example where I didn’t stick with something fully and then just moved on to something else. Golf was the same thing. I thought I wanted to become a professional golfer. I always get these delusions of grandeur, like, ‘I think I can do THIS!’ ya know? I really think I could if I gave my 110 percent, and that was the only thing I did and I took it up focused on nothing but that. But, that’s kinda starting over again, and I really think I have a good thing going with poker. I’m not gonna say (becoming a pro golfer) won’t happen at some point in my life, but as of right now that’s not even on the burner, it’s not even on the back burner, it’s like way off the table.”   
  
But it’s this drive that makes defeat so much harder to come back from, and that’s where Chauhan helps. Wasicka mentioned rededicating himself to poker. He wouldn’t call his recent drought a fall, but rather an “extended time away from playing the game seriously.”
“I wasn’t playing bad or anything,” he said, “but if you’re going to succeed you need to take your game to the next level to rise to your full potential, and that’s what (Sam’s) helped me do. It’s really tough to get there on your own. You (need) someone pushing you day-in and day-out … but a lot of poker players are lazy and not rising to their full potential.”

During this positive-reinforcement period Wasicka decided not to renew his contract with Full Tilt Poker, where he was a Red Pro.

“I was with Full Tilt for a while,” he said. “I have no complaints with Full Tilt. I think they treated me awesome and there’s no bad blood there whatsoever. … I decided I didn’t want to renew my contract because I really felt like I was going to come back and do something special in the poker world. This was around the time I started taking on Sam and I really felt he was going to help me play to my full potential and so I really felt like I was going to cheat myself out of what I was worth if I stuck with that contract.”

Enter Victory Poker, a startup online site that’s U.S. friendly and part of the Everleaf Network. Less than a month after leaving Tilt, Chauhan, who also works with Victory pro Antonio Esfandiari, started to press Wasicka to strive for something more.

“Sam was saying ‘You need to get a deal, get some results and you need to start taking this seriously.’ ” Wasicka said. “So he mentioned to Antonio that I wasn’t with Full Tilt anymore and less than five minutes later I got a call from Antonio. I immediately clicked with (the Victory players) and I’m really excited about it. Our plans aren’t to take over Full Tilt or PokerStars; we just want to hop on the scene and be another site for people to go play at if they want.”

From one mentor to another

All of Wasicka’s good fortune would never have been possible if it weren’t for Thomas Fuller, a close friend who introduced Wasicka to poker in 2004 at the Denver Series of Poker, a $30-ish tournament in an art gallery downtown.

  “The day of the DSOP I was playing Frisbee golf with Paul and some others,” said Fuller, who recently finished second at the main event of the North American Poker Tour’s Venetian stop in Vegas. “When he heard I was going to a poker tournament that night, he asked if he could join. I versed him on the hold’em basics on the way down to Denver, and he wound up getting 10th place. Afterward Paul came over to my house, struck up an account on PartyPoker and started playing while I went to bed.

“Seven in the morning my dad woke me up to ask who the guy on the computer downstairs was. Paul had played sit-n-go tournaments all night on PartyPoker, and he had destroyed them. Poker had set its hooks into Paul’s addictive personality and wouldn’t be letting go any time soon.”

Fuller and Wasicka never have been tighter, hiking in the mountains, playing softball and talking poker. But he admits seeing his best friend do so well wasn’t always easy.

“Truthfully, it was very hard for me when Paul was having a lot of success on the tournament circuit,” Fuller said, “I was very jealous. I kind of slowly dealt with that, though, and now a few of my friends are amongst the best. I wouldn’t really say it’s rewarding. It’s nice because starting out Paul had some downs like every poker player will early in their career and I was worried his family was going to think I ruined his life. But his family has been extremely supportive of both of us. It’s great.”

Would Wasicka care to speculate what his life would be like without Fuller’s influence?

“I have no idea, but I could tell you I would not be sitting here right now. Honestly I don’t know, maybe I’d have gone back to school. I don’t know. School was really, really tough for me. Nobody likes school, that’s obvious, but it was really tough. I have problems sticking with things. So I would go to class and do my homework at the beginning of the semester and I’d be getting good grades. But then halfway through I’d just lose interest and stop going to class and just show up for the finals. Inevitably that’s not going to cut it. But I honestly don’t know where I’d be. I do think everything that happens in your life happens for a reason and builds who you are and makes you a stronger person. There’s been moments in my career where he’s really, really helped me out and moments in his career where I’ve really, really helped him out. It’s just been an awesome relationship, not only for our careers but as friends.”

Given Wasicka’s penchant for conquering his interests and then moving on, is there a chance he’ll leave poker if he, say, wins the 2010 WSOP Main Event?      
 
“Well, I can’t answer that question with 100 percent certainty either way. I can tell you that most likely I would continue playing poker because it’s bigger than that for me right now. For me it’s more than just winning a tournament or the most money. I know what I want to accomplish with my life right now. I’m playing to support people, family, causes I believe in, and poker is the best way for me to gather wealth at this moment in my life.

“Yes, if I win (the main event) I would be able to do a lot of that with all that money. I don’t know if I would necessarily give that up; I love poker too much. I think I would at least play some main events. … I know a lot of times I say stuff or I do stuff that’s really impulsive, and that’s just me. But I don’t know if I’ll be in poker in five years, but I think I (will be). I mean I love the game. It’s unbelieveable. If you know me, and my personality, it just fits so perfectly with me.”

  And if nothing else, he’ll always have Tunica.