Paul Wasicka finished 2nd in the WSOP so we spoken to him about his story: “I did what I don’t want to encourage anyone else to do which is to sit down with your whole roll and take a shot”

Paul Wasicka finished second in the WSOP Main Event, and tournament success since is nothing more than he expected

‘You don’t have a Queen, do you?

‘No Queen.’

‘Then I got you. Let’s go.’ Jamie Gold is pacing up and down, a mass of gesticulations and non-stop chatter. In contrast, his opponent Paul Wasicka is sitting still, thinking, listening to Jamie, and processing everything that has gone before. Finally, he responds: ‘I think you’re on a draw. All right, you talked me into it.’

‘You call?’

And without waiting for the answer, Jamie Gold tables his hand and throws his arms in the air shouting ‘yes’ as, almost reluctantly, 26-year-old Paul Wasicka rises from his seat to see Gold’s top pair leave him with just two outs to stay in the 2006 WSOP Main Event. The board blanks out and Jamie Gold becomes the 2006 world champion, while Paul Wasicka comes second for a cool $6m.

But amid all the excitement of screaming fans, and cameras and lights, one thing was overlooked: Paul Wasicka never said ‘call’. It’s a World Series moment that will surely go down in the history books – to be debated by fans and players for years to come. Why didn’t Wasicka say something?

It’s the first question I have for Paul when I meet him in London during the inaugural World Series of Poker Europe: ‘You’re right, I never said call, my intentions were to get a read out of him. I said, “I think you talked me into it,” and he immediately tabled his hand. I was like, “Woah, I didn’t say call,” but I was about 90 percent sure I was going to call.

It didn’t feel like the right time to bring up the biggest controversy in poker history. It’s not me. I’d rather go out like that, not having a ton of publicity, but still win a lot of money and get a lot of prestige.’

It’s this kind of maturity and sportsmanship for someone so young, which has made Paul Wasicka stand out from so many of his peers, and has seen him go on to become one of the biggest stars and best ambassadors of the game today. But how did he get here? His World Series success might not have been a surprise to him, but to the millions watching at home he was an unknown – just another internet player who got lucky.

As he sits, chatting with me in London during the WSOPE, it’s easy to see that’s far from the truth. Over a year on from his win, he sits in 12th on the all-time money list, he’s managed to final-table the biggest WPT field ever at the LA Poker Classic, beat a stellar field at the NBC Heads-Up Championship for $500,000, and has joined the Full Tilt stable among the cream of the poker world.

And yet he’s still an affable, down-to-earth, approachable player – someone who isn’t looking to grab the attention of the cameras or another ego ready to explode. Even so, you get the feeling there’s something a bit special about this unassuming clean-cut guy. In fact, what lurks behind the butter-wouldn’t-melt exterior is one of the most obsessive, determined and focused personalities you’re ever likely to meet…

Getting hooked

Wasicka grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and from a very early age revelled in competition, playing games like backgammon and chess with his family in the evenings and taking part in physical activities like wrestling, volleyball, athletics and skiing at school. But his attention span has always been short, as he admits,

‘I’ll go through spurts where I’ll play something intense for a short period of time and then I’ll move onto something else. Poker is one of those rare exceptions where I’ve stuck with something for longer than a year.’

His first foray into poker came when his friend Thomas Fuller mentioned he was going to a poker tournament one night. Paul asked if he could tag along. He’d never played before, but knew the hand rankings and got a quick lesson as they drove to the venue. Call it beginner’s luck or natural ability, but Paul placed ninth from 100 runners.

When they arrived back at Fuller’s home that night, Thomas showed Paul online poker and he stayed up all night playing $10 sit-and-gos. By daybreak he was up $110 and buzzing with excitement. It was his new obsession, and Wasicka knew it was going to consume him. ‘I took it very seriously. I told myself at the very beginning, “I think there’s a lot of money to be made if you get good really quickly.” So that’s what my number one priority was.’

Before long Wasicka had discovered cash games and was playing pretty high – $2/$4 no-limit with a bankroll of just a few hundred dollars. He maxed out a credit card for $5,000 to fuel his sessions and almost bust at one point. But, after a break, he managed to turn it around and rebuilt his roll. However, his emotional problems and tilty nature when playing were hampering his progress; as quick as he would run up a few thousand he would blow it all in a matter of minutes having suffered another bad beat.

As a solution to his emotional problems when playing, Wasicka enlisted the help of his friend Fuller, with the pair deciding to pull ‘joint sessions’. Wasicka explains, ‘I would provide the bankroll and he would provide the emotional stability, because whenever we would lose a big pot or something I would freak out – there were plenty of holes in my wall and I had to replace a couple of monitors. Fortunately, the arrangement worked like a dream and the pair finished a few thousand up for the summer.

Going pro

In autumn 2004 Wasicka decided to quit his bar-tending job and turn pro. But playing on his own it was the same old story of boom and bust, as his issues with tilt were compounded by the pressure of having to pay the bills without a regular source of income.

Before long, he had become a degenerate, sitting in his room all day and in need of a change in his life. So he gave poker a rest for a while and got a job again, this time managing a restaurant, which he agreed to do for a year.

Looking back, Wasicka admits he turned pro way too early: ‘With the variance being as high as it is, you need a job to pay living expenses and so on. You can’t afford the swing that you need to be able to afford. It was really stressful and ended up not working out at all.’

But while Wasicka was taking a rest, Fuller was crushing the online game, amassing a bankroll of $40,000. So the duo started pulling joint sessions again, this time on Thomas’s account. They would split the profits 50/50 and within a few sessions they’d made $10,000. Wasicka now had $5,000 as a roll – something to work with. What he did next was unthinkable.

‘I did what I don’t want to encourage anyone else to do,’ says Paul, ‘which is to sit down with your whole roll and take a shot. I sat down on two $10/$20 no-limit tables with $2,000 on each. I gave it my complete focus and ended up killing it for $16,000.’

With $20k in his account and his tilt issues under much better control, Wasicka was regularly raking in anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 a day. But at the time he was still working his day job as manager of the restaurant. As he says, ‘I was in a ridiculous situation where I would go from winning $2,000 in a couple of hours, to making $150 a day at the restaurant.’

But he’d promised the owner he would stick it out, and wanted to prove to himself that he could see something through to its end. So he did. And then, after he’d honoured his promise, he turned pro for a second time.

Live action

By now his online accounts were flourishing. He’d worked his roll up to $50,000 and decided to take a shot at tournament glory by entering the $5,000 WPT event in Reno. It turned out to be a big reality check for him. Wasicka elaborates: ‘I was second in chips at one point and didn’t even end up cashing; it was devastating.

I took a couple of bad beats and thought, “You know what? Screw tournaments.” You put your all in and you’ve got nothing to show for it. So much luck goes into it, and in a cash game very little luck goes into it over the long run. I still maintain that cash games are how you make a living and tournaments are how you make a big score.’

Wasicka returned home disillusioned and swore off tournaments. But just a few weeks later, Fuller dragged him back in. Thomas wanted to go to Vegas for the WPT season finale.

His plan was to play a couple of satellites to the championship event, and he wanted a friend to go with him. Wasicka was reluctant at first, but eventually succumbed and, after playing a couple of satellites himself, won a seat in the $25,000 event at the second attempt.

A few days later and Wasicka would be $146,450 richer after finishing 15th out of a field of over 600. Wasicka was euphoric at his first big win but also disappointed, as he explains: ‘I played amazing poker for four days and then completely screwed up due to lack of experience on day five. I was playing bad, getting really unlucky, and things just fell apart. So I was happy with my score but really sad that I didn’t have the experience or discipline at the time.’

Despite the win and the financial gain, Wasicka once again returned home questioning whether he could keep taking the knocks that tournaments deal. He says, ‘To me it was a loss of $3m not a gain of $150k. That was going round in my head for a couple of weeks – what could have been.’ And with that, he took off for Europe to clear his head.

Field of dreams

When he returned from his travels, Wasicka was refreshed and, most importantly, knew the desire was there to continue playing. And so, like thousands of other players from across the world, he descended upon Las Vegas for the 2006 World Series of Poker with one dream – to go deep in the Big One. After cashing in a couple of smaller events – 14th in the $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em for $26k and 12th in the $5,000 Short-Handed No-Limit Hold’em for $38k – his confidence going into the Main Event was sky-high.

But out of a field of 8,773 players surely he couldn’t dream of winning it? ‘My goal was to final-table it. I set really high goals, which are hard to achieve. I knew it was going to be tough and I was going to need a lot of luck.’ And once he was there, how did it feel to come so close but so far?

‘It was more just the achievement of making the final table, because up until that point I hadn’t final-tabled an event. It was probably my only chance to win the Main Event, but what it comes down to is what’s important to you, and winning the Main Event wasn’t that important to me. I really don’t care about being known as the best player out there. I play my game the best I know how. I made a good chunk of change, I had a great time and that’s all I was out there to do.’

High Stakes

So having come second in the Main Event, winning just over $6m, and seeing your face on every TV screen in every bar, where do you go from there? To a bigger game, of course.

For Season 3 of High Stakes Poker, Wasicka was on the guest list, and sat down with the likes of Brunson, Negreanu, Farha and Harman. He bought in for $200,000 and had a gameplan: ‘I knew I was going to be the nitty, conservative player and I knew a lot of the guys were going to try and run me over,’ he says.

‘I used that to my advantage later. I spent the first hour and a half not hitting a hand so I was just folding, and the whole table was like, “Aces will come sooner or later.” But then I started making some moves, using my tight table image to my advantage with a squeeze play or two and I was really happy with how well I played.’

The most astonishing thing about his session (he finished $80,000 up) was that he thought of himself as a favourite in the game. ‘I really felt like I was one of the best, if not the best, at the table.

I think they underestimated me a bit. You have to go into a match knowing what your opponents’ conceptions of you are. And then you need to do the opposite of what they think you’re going to do. That’s what my game’s all about – I trick people into doing things that they otherwise wouldn’t do.’

Out in the cold

But the High Stakes success did nothing to inspire Wasicka. His motivation for playing was on the wane again and it coincided with a horrendous time at the tables. ‘I felt like I couldn’t win a pot,’ says Wasicka. ‘Out of frustration I went to a $0.01/$0.02 table and bought in for $5. I just started getting it all-in every hand in the hope of eventually winning a pot. I got it all-in nine times… and lost every single time. Even though the money wasn’t significant I just needed that sense of winning again, but I couldn’t do it.’

In the end, salvation came in a strange form. Paul entered a $50 online tourney and, over the space of a few hours his confidence, ability and desire for the game came flooding back as he went deep and finished fifth. The money was small change, but it helped him regain his motivation, and propelled him to a great finish at the Aussie Millions at the start of 2007, where he came 12th.

But the best was yet to come. At the end of February Wasicka headed to the LA Poker Classic, and final-tabled the event, coming fourth in what turned out to be the biggest field for a WPT event ever at 791 entries. He admits that it’s the big tournaments, with huge fields, star players and prestige, which get him pumped up and help him to focus more. He’s a player who rises to the big occasions and thrives on pressure.

Which is just as well, because while Wasicka was playing at the LAPC final table, a message was waiting on his phone. After busting out he finally listened to it and got the news that Phil Hellmuth wasn’t playing in the NBC Heads-Up Championship, so, if he wanted it, he had the final spot.

Paul arrived back in Vegas at 3am and was due to play Eli Elezra at 1pm the next day – hardly the best preparation for playing one of the best in the world. But he came through that match, and the next four (against Joe Hachem, T.J. Cloutier, Tuan Le and Shannon Elizabeth) to reach the final against Chad Brown.

It was to be the moment Wasicka had been dreaming about, winning the best-of-three match 2-0. Finally, after the heartache of the WPT Championship, the Main Event and LAPC, Wasicka had taken down a tournament. And he can’t stress the importance of it enough: ‘Losing was not an option. That match was the one match in my whole career that I needed to win. Up until then I didn’t know if I had it in me to win a tournament, because that was my first.’

Major deals

Since that amazing week it’s been a relatively quiet year for Paul. With high expectations for strong showings at the WSOP and the WSOPE, he might consider both Series’ to be failures, with only one cash to show for his efforts. But he doesn’t seem fazed by it. In fact, he seems more content than ever.

He’s been signed up by Full Tilt – ‘I’m not at the top tier [where Ivey, Hansen and co. reside] but I’d like to make getting invited to that top tier of players one of my goals’ – and he’s just accepted a place on the board of directors at the World Poker Association, where he hopes to ‘create a standardised professionalism’ in poker, with more emphasis on the needs of the player, and not the casinos and TV organisations.

One thing you won’t find him getting involved in, however, is the high stakes golf that so many of his peers play. ‘I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about people lying about their handicaps; there’s a lot of hustling going on which doesn’t interest me. I’m more about the thrill of competition than the thrill of winning or losing money. I’m just as happy betting $10 a hole as I would be $10,000 a hole.’

It might be just as well for the likes of Negreanu and co, as Wasicka is a mean golf player. ‘I have an obsessive personality and, for a while, I was playing about eight hours a day and I lived on a golf course. But ultimately I decided I wasn’t done with poker. Golf’s an amazing game and definitely something I’ll go back to when poker subsides, but for now I’ve rekindled my love for poker and I don’t have time for both.’

Which is good news for the poker world at large, but not so good for those sitting at his table…

Tilt tip 1: Timeout

‘If it feels like you can’t win a pot, whether you have the best hand and keep getting outdrawn, or you keep missing your draws and losing your races, the best move is to take time away from the tables. Just thinking you’re not going to win is reason enough to stop playing, because a positive attitude while playing is incredibly important.’

Tilt tip 2: Be thankful

‘The hardest beats to take are the ones where you feel that your opponent made a bad play and was rewarded for it. But if you think about it, that’s what keeps the horrible players coming back for more. So you should be thankful that player is going to continue playing and getting their money in when they’re behind.’

Tilt tip 3: Aftershock

‘If you look at a bad beat objectively, you really don’t win or lose any money on any given hand, because your good and bad luck will even out over the course of your lifetime. So all that’s left is how you play after one of those situations occurs. In other words, how you let a hand affect your future play determines whether you win or lose money.’

Tilt tip 4: Stay or go

‘When I get upset at the table, I allow myself to be upset for a few minutes so that I have no pent-up frustration or anger. Then I tell myself that I can either carry on being upset and leave the table, or I can let it go and continue my session. If playing is more important to me than remaining pissed off, then I just let it go as part of the deal that I made to myself. If not, I leave.’

Tilt tip 5: Early bath

‘When I see a bad player get lucky and start talking trash, instead of getting angry like I used to, I set an ETD for the player: an Estimated Time of Departure. I predict the exact minute that player will give everything back to the table and leave with nothing but a broken ego. Playing games like that can keep your mind off the negatives and allow you to play your ‘A’ game.’

PokerPlayer magazine always gets the story from behind the scenes but why not see for yourself HERE

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