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Paul Sokoloff's quest for the WSOP National Championship

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WSOP Circuit

Before the turn of the century, poker had not yet undergone the explosion of the Moneymaker effect. The game was not viewed as a mainstream activity by the public or the media.

During this time, a young Canadian burst onto the poker scene in the late 1990s. In 1997, he was recognized as the best all-around player during the World Poker Finals held at Foxwoods Resort Casino. The following summer, he won his first World Series of Poker bracelet (also his first WSOP cash) in a $2,000 pot-limit hold ’em event. At the time, he became the youngest player in history to win a bracelet, thus earning the nickname that he still holds today, “Kid Poker.” To close out the decade, the poker Hall of Famer captured the 1999 United States Poker Championship main event, which was heralded as one of the major poker tournaments of its era.

Born in Toronto, Daniel Negreanu cut his poker teeth in his hometown's underground games. These games had been around for decades, but needed fresh blood to keep the games going. While Negreanu became the most recognizable and successful of this brazen group, other young players have continued to make a living playing poker. These players include Anh Van Nguyen (over $1.3 million in career earnings, including 21 WSOP cashes), Tuan Lam (runner-up in the 2007 WSOP main event) and Evelyn Ng (over $375,000 in career earnings).

Almost two decades later, another “young” player from Toronto has begun to make his mark on the poker world. During the 2014-15 WSOP Circuit season, Paul Sokoloff cashed 23 times, setting the all-time record for most cashes in a WSOP Circuit season (2014 WSOP-APAC main event champion Scott Davies previously held the record with 18 cashes in the 2011-12 season.) Entering this week’s 2015 WSOP National Championship held at Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina, Sokoloff was the top points qualifier with 262.5 points, 27.5 points higher than the nearest competitor.

Sokoloff vividly remembers when Negreanu became a fixture in the Toronto games.

“I watched Daniel learn the game, come into various different clubs, figure the game out in no time and dominate the game," Sokoloff said. "He would often be playing the $15/$30 limit hold ’em, while I would be playing the O.E. [Omaha and stud eight-or-better] in the other room."

Although many players suggested that he should test the waters in the United States, Sokoloff decided not to fulfill his dream and follow in his fellow Canadian’s footsteps.

“I continued to play cash games in Toronto," he said. "Many players suggested that I should try tournaments, but since I had three young kids [a son born in 1997 and twins in 1999], I didn’t want to go to the U.S. and leave my family for extended periods of time. I truly enjoyed being a dad.”

Sokoloff owned a marketing business with numerous managers reporting to him, allowing him to be a full-time father. In his spare time, he continued to play cash games in the underground clubs of Toronto. His grind of the mixed-game action resulted in a good profit.

In 2005 and 2006, Sokoloff headed to Las Vegas and the WSOP. He profited in the cash games, earning enough to play in the main event each year. In 2006, he had a solid run, finishing in 445th place, taking home $26,389.

“I got a real good taste for tournament poker during those summers and I knew that I could play against the best players in the world," he said. "Afterward, I felt great about my tournament game and knew that grinding the tournament circuit would be imminent for me.”

Four years ago, Sokoloff decided to finally follow his dream and play on the WSOP Circuit.

“The WSOP was a recognizable brand name," said Sokoloff. "The schedule and structure looked good and I decided to give it a shot.”

During his first season on the WSOP Circuit (2011-12), Sokoloff had six cashes, including four final tables. He also captured his only WSOP circuit ring.

“The ring came fairly early in the process, so it was almost surreal," he said. "However, I was realistic and knew that it could be a long time before my next one, so I truly cherished the moment. However, this victory further cemented my belief that I could play poker for a living.”

That season, he qualified for the 2012 WSOP National Championship, held during the WSOP at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. With 23 players left and 18 cashing, his aces were cracked by A-Q suited, eliminating him just before the money bubble.

He returned to the Rio in 2012 and cashed three times, including a third-place finish in the $10,000 HORSE championship. In 2014, he reached the final table at another WSOP event and finished third once again (in a $1,000 no-limit event). Although he has come so agonizingly close to a bracelet, Sokoloff is pleased with his results.

“I look back at all my final tables fondly," he said. "I realize that I’m close to getting the number one spot more and more. I feel that it’s just a matter of time.”

As he began the 2014-15 WSOP Circuit season, Sokoloff’s primarily goal was to qualify for the National Championship. As the season progressed, his success began to steamroll and he just rode the wave.

“There was no specific goal to break the [single-season cashing] record, but as the season progressed and the seat was pretty much locked up, I decided to just go for the all-time record," Sokoloff said.

Despite breaking the record, he did not capture a WSOP ring in 2014-15, a dubious honor that troubled the 46-year-old pro.

“It’s nice to have the status, but it does bother me that I didn’t get a ring this year after 23 cashes," he said. "I feel I need to take more calculated risks in tournaments to accumulate more chips at the right time. However, the fact that I have been profitable during the past four years is a huge plus. Now, the next goal is getting past this barrier and getting to first place.”

Less than 200 players will be playing in the WSOP National Championship, all of whom are chasing their own WSOP bracelet.

“I'm actually looking forward to the event," he said. "I’m looking for a challenge because a lot of players are good players who either won casino champion or the main event. I have played in the event before and got close last time, so my goal this time is to win the bracelet.”

After the WSOP National Championship, Sokoloff says he plans to branch out.

“I am definitely going to widen my range and start playing some other tours," he said. "Definitely going to play in World Poker Tour and possibly the Heartland Poker Tour. I will not stop playing in the WSOP Circuit because it is where I got my start. I definitely feel the most comfortable on the Circuit, especially with all of the familiar faces.”

Adding another cash to his 2015 efforts would be nice, but for Sokoloff, the National Championship is the perfect opportunity to show that he can finish the job and take home a bracelet. Move aside, Negreanu, for this week, all eyes will be on another Canadian.