It was June 14, 2009, when the student became the master. Walt Strakowski Jr. and his dad had decided to head to the Palm Beach Princess in celebration of the elder Strakowski’s 79th birthday. Junior wanted to play in the Ante Up Poker Tour event and offered to pay for his dad’s buy-in.
“That was a lot of fun,” Strakowski of West Palm Beach said. “The event had about 30 people in it. I was planning on going that Sunday and asked my dad if he wanted to go and that I would buy him in for his birthday, which was the day before.”
But he had no idea what was about to transpire. Both Strakowskis made the final table.
“We’ve played together a good bit, but never at the same final table,” Walt Jr. said. “I got on a roll at the final table and knocked out about half of the table and accumulated a big stack. He sat back and played his patient game and made a few key double-ups. Nothing would have made him happier than to bust me at the final table. We got down to three-handed with Ken Basilio. I got lucky against Ken when he got short-stacked and then Pop and I were heads-up. I had a 10-to-1 chip advantage. We played one hand. He shoved blind, I woke up to ace-king and it held up. It was a real blast playing with my dad. He still has a solid game. That’s the only (AUPT) event he played and he finished second.”
The victory gave Strakowski 1,000 AUPT Player of the Year points … and the itch for more.
“I remember telling a lot of my poker buddies about the tour in June 2009,” the 50-year-old semi-retired computer consultant said, “and telling them I was going to take it seriously, devote the time, put in the work and win this thing. Some laughed, but the ones that know me best realized I was serious.”
When Ante Up envisioned its tour, Walt Strakowski was the player it had in mind, someone who realized the importance of traveling to poker rooms around Florida to see what these establishments had to offer, and someone who would embrace the challenge of playing in multiple venues every month with an eye toward a much larger prize.
“The tour was great and a lot of fun,” he said. “As the year wore on you started to see a lot of the same players traveling to events trying to earn points each month. Most venues promoted the tour events, some successfully, some not. Hopefully the poker rooms will see the advantage of hosting these events and put more effort into building the tour next year. It’s a great opportunity to build your game as a player and build your client base as a poker room.”
It took a couple of months for Strakowski to wrestle the points lead from Basilio of Ft. Lauderdale, but once he did he never relinquished it. After six AUPT victories (four aboard the Palm Beach Princess, two at Calder Casino) and four more final tables, Walt Strakowski is the 2010 Ante Up Poker Tour Player of the Year.
Last month the Ante Up brass and the Palm Beach Kennel Club hosted an awards ceremony and bounty tournament in honor of Walt and the rest of the top 10 players from the POY race. Before the bounty tournament Ante Up presented Strakowski with his grand prize, a beautiful custom-designed bracelet from Madison Jewelers of Virginia Beach, Va.
“Since this is the first year of the AUPT, I’m really proud to be the inaugural winner of the tour,” said Strakowski, who lists Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey among his favorite players. “I really feel this will grow in coming years and the rest of the poker community will devote more attention to the tour.”
The top 10 POY players received a pair of Blue Shark Optics glasses and the 70-plus players in the $125 bounty tournament were treated to a free buffet from the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which paid for the top 10 players to play in the event. Strakowski is a regular at PBKC, and he found the fact that he didn’t acquire any points there a bit strange.
“The Palm Beach Kennel Club is less than 10 miles from my house so I’m there a lot,” he said. “It’s ironic that I’ve earned points at numerous venues but never cashed in an event at the PBKC for the tour. I had my aces cracked on four occasions late in tour events at the PBKC to get knocked out before the final table. I play all over South Florida and I’d have to say my favorite rooms are the PBKC, the Isle and the Hard Rock in Hollywood. In my opinion, a poker room is only as good as the staff and managers. The PBKC did a great job hiring Joe Conti as their director of tournament operations. The quality of poker tournaments has increased tenfold since he started some months back.”
As for the tournament held in his honor? Let’s just say he still hasn’t made an Ante Up final table at PBKC.
“I flopped a straight and slow-played it,” he said. “I let him catch up. I really thought I was going to be the winner here.”
Don’t worry, Walt, you were.
Q&A With Walt Strakowski
Walt Strakowski was very candid when answering our questions. Here are the ones that didn’t make it into his story.
When did you start playing poker seriously? In 2003, so for about seven years.
What is your favorite game? In tournaments, no-limit hold’em; in cash games, NLHE, LHE, PLO and O/8.
Do you play mixed games? Yes, when you can find them. Hopefully July here in Florida! I’ve played some H.O.R.S.E. tournaments and really enjoyed them. I consider myself a student of the games and an all-around player.
Who is your favorite player? I’ve got a few: Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, Huck Seed, Howard Lederer, Dan Harrington and, of course, Phil Ivey. They all have one thing in common, besides success: They are all thinking, patient players. That’s my style, when the tournament structure permits it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jerry Yang. I had the opportunity to meet him a few times. First in Reno at a WPT event, we played at the same table for a few hours. He is very underrated by the poker community. Later we met again at an event at the Palm Beach Kennel Club. He is the most sincere and genuine person I’ve met through poker.
What do you say to the people who might say you got to play in smaller fields aboard the now-defunct Palm Beach Princess and it was unfair? Sounds like sour grapes to me. I didn’t make the rules; I just played by them. There were several people playing the tour that I saw on the Princess, so when I won those events, I was beating tour players. I also had cashes in five different venues. How many other tour players can say that? I also heard that many of the events in the northern part of the state were much smaller events, too. Some tour players made an effort to get to those events to play shorter fields, so I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. I’ve played in events with more than 100 players and I’ve played in events that were one or two tables. I can only play against the fields that show up to play. I think that sums it up.
Did you purposefully seek out AUPT events? Definitely. I set my tournament calendar every month after the monthly tour schedule was published. I made it a point to set aside those days to travel if necessary. I don’t do anything halfway.
What was the farthest you traveled to play in an AUPT event? On March 6, I went to Dania and played the event there, finished third at about 4 p.m. I jumped in the car and raced over to Immokalee to play their event that started at 7 that night. I bubbled off the final table, a real disappointment. I wanted to be the first person to cash in two events in one day. A total of about 320 miles roundtrip that day.
What was the weirdest thing that happened to you (or at your table) during any of these tournaments? Poker is poker, you see some really crazy things at the poker table. There were a few near fights and a DQ. The strangest thing was at the event at Miami Jai-Alai. I was the only person at the table speaking English. There were conversations going on the entire time, during hands, by people still in the hands and out, and my Spanish isn’t that good. It made me uncomfortable and when I asked for help, I didn’t get it. Nothing against my Hispanic friends, I was just at an extreme disadvantage, impossible to overcome.
Will you wear the bracelet? Yes, and when I win a WSOP bracelet I’ll wear one on each wrist.
How does it feel to know you are on the cover of Ante Up? Scary, have you seen this face?
What is your single greatest poker moment, besides this? Has to be my first WSOP circuit final table, January 2006. It was the six-handed event and mostly pros playing the event. I made the final table third in chips and finished third (for $21K, his biggest cash). I played too tight at the final table but accomplished my goal of making the final table. I learned a lot and realized I was good enough to play with the pros.