Wild Card: Paul Wasicka

As Paul Wasicka stared out from behind his 888.com baseball cap at an excitable, impish Jamie Gold on the seventh hand of heads-up play at the final table of the 2006 World Series of Poker, it slowly began to dawn on him that he was facing a decision worth $12 million. His goal had been to make the final table, and now, despite having a mountain to climb, he wanted above all to win; to prove to the world that he was the player he knew he was. He had already come close to a breakthrough -- a 15th-place finish at the WPT Five Star Classic just three months earlier, which had left him frustrated and in tears. And now here he was with a real shot. He felt he was better than Gold; he felt the chip deficit didn't matter, and he knew he would need some hands to hold up, but he truly believed he could come back and win.

"You don't have a queen, do you?" probed the mischievous imp, jumping excitedly to his feet. "I guess if you did, you'd call, so I got this one."

"I think you're on a draw," Paul said calmly.

"Then let's go!"

Paul thought he had a good read on his opponent. He knew that if he could get him to talk, Gold would reveal practically everything about his hand. Gold had spent the last few days running over the field, bamboozling his opponents by telling the truth about what he was holding. And now here he was, intimating to Paul that he had a queen; top pair on a flop of Q-8-5. But Paul couldn't shake the feeling deep in his gut that Gold was drawing, and his pocket 10s looked so good they were practically searing into the felt in front of him.

"OK, you've talked me into it."

It was over in a flash. The two combatants embraced and Gold went to meet his adoring public as new world champion. All the cameras were on the champ -- naturally. No one cares about second place. Who wants to be poker's Buzz Aldrin? It's the curse of the modern WSOP final table: Success at the WSOP main event these days doesn't necessarily buy you respect in the poker world, and Wasicka was expected to disappear back into obscurity with a story to tell his grandchildren. Oh, and $6 million.

"Honestly, I wasn't thinking much about the money right away," Paul says. "I was thinking more about the accomplishment. The money set in about a week later, when I thought, 'Wow, I could really do, like, nothing for the rest of my life and be fine.'"

As tempting as it may be to sit around for the rest of his days drinking Dom Perignon in his underpants and watching ESPN repeats of his run at the World Series, it doesn't really fit in with the Wasicka work ethic. You see, when Paul Wasicka commits himself to something, he gives it his all. He is 100 percent steely, unflinching dedication. And his main priority now was to prove that he was no fluke, a task he set about like a man possessed. In the eight months since the WSOP main event, he has finished 12th in the Aussie Millions, fourth in the L.A. Poker Classic, and last month, in his pièce de résistance, he charged though an assembly of the greatest players on the planet to take down the NBC National Heads-Up Poker championship, defeating Bluff Player of the Year Chad Brown in the final. OK, Paul. We're sold.

"It felt really good. Amazing," Paul says. "Honestly, it happened so fast. The second match with Chad was over by Level 2. I was still sort of in shock. Usually it comes down to something more dramatic. I was like, is it really over, did I really win? The coverage will be kinda funny because, after I win, I don't think I am even smiling. I was amazed by the hand. The thing I was really nervous about was the finals. I wasn't worried about going out in the first, second, or third round. But once I got to the finals, the one thing I didn't want was to come in second. I had to win. There was no choice. I was so nervous. I played the best game of the whole tournament against Chad. I played as well as I possibly could because I had to win."

Like most successful poker players, Wasicka has always been hyper-competitive. He was born in Dallas but grew up in Boulder, Colo., where he immersed himself in every sport imaginable. He played soccer, baseball, and volleyball. He ran track and cross country, and skied and wrestled.

"One of my friends actually told me once that I had to become less competitive, because it's no fun when someone else wins and I throw a tantrum," he says with a smile. "I didn't take losing very well at all."

At school he was naturally drawn to math and science.

"I liked things that dealt with clear-cut answers. I prefer a definite right and wrong, like with math," he says. And perhaps his fascination with poker stems from the need to impose order and logic on a game of incomplete information, in which cards are dealt at random. But before poker completely consumed him, any game could become the object of his obsession, including, to the delight of Norman Chad, Minesweeper.

"I love Minesweeper," he says with mock indignation. "Norman Chad made a sarcastic comment about it -- I didn't drop out of school to play Minesweeper, but I was really into it. If there is a score to beat, or something with tangible results, I'm in on it. I will focus 100 percent on seeing those results."

Paul went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (which boasts Phil Hellmuth among its alumni) to study engineering, only to drop out after two years and return to Colorado to study business. He dropped out again, went back to Wisconsin to try his hand at biology, dropped out of that, came back to Colorado and changed his major to accounting. Such restlessness is uncharacteristic from one so pathologically focused as Wasicka, and he was clearly searching for a niche. But then, poker came along and completely changed his life.

"A little over three years ago, I was out with a friend playing Frisbee golf, which I used to love to do, and I didn't even know he was that into poker, but he told me he was going to a poker tournament," he says. "I asked if I could join, and that was the first taste I got of any sort of live poker. Out of a hundred people, I took ninth. I ended up winning a couple of hundred for the $30 buy-in. My friends tried to explain the basics to me -- starting hands, and such. However, I really had no idea what I was doing. It was probably just dumb luck that I got as far as I did."

Paul was hooked. He was waiting tables at his brother-in-law's restaurant, and so he had some time to devote to learning the game.

"It became my No. 1 priority to get good at the game," he says. "It was good timing because I had kind of wanted to go back to school again to make my parents happy, but I really wasn't interested in it. I went at poker 100 percent. I watched TV; I read books (and I never read books). When my friends saw me reading poker books, they knew this was serious. I played every free moment I could. We don't have casinos in Colorado, so I was playing online.

"I started playing $10 sit-n-gos. It's funny because after the night I took ninth in that tournament, we went back to my friend's house and he showed me online poker. I had never met his parents before, and they came down at, like, 9 a.m. and I was still up playing poker. It was quite an introduction! I just was winning and I couldn't stop. I thought it was such easy money. I think I made about 110 bucks playing $10 dollar sit-n-gos. I tried out a $25 no-limit cash game shortly after, and began studying the differences there. I kept hearing that there's no substitute for experience, and I decided to just play as much as possible."

Paul had very mixed results to begin with. He would win a lot of money, then take a bad beat, and go on tilt.

"I was a very emotional player back then. I would literally blow my wins within an hour," he says. "This process kept repeating itself. It took maybe about a hundred times for it to finally set in. I was only able stop this problem about a year ago. I felt I had the tools to succeed, but it was my mental instability during the session that was causing me to be a break-even or barely winning player. I figured, instead of working on my game, I needed to work on that one thing. So I made that my priority -- to somehow get emotionally uninvolved. It got to the point, where, instead of worrying about playing a hand properly, I would worry about staying unemotional. I was able to do a better and better job of it and eventually became a winning player."

In 2004, Paul took $5,000 from his credit card to give himself an initial investment. His plan was to build it up to $10,000, pay off the loan and start the process over again. He was down to his last $500 and was telling himself that he was done with poker for good, when he made a miraculous comeback, winning it all back, plus an additional $4,000 clear profit.

"I was playing $200 no-limit on Party, which was a $2-$4 game at the time. I would play one or two tables at a time. The swings were always pretty big," he says.

That summer, with a bankroll of $10,000, he tried turning pro.

"The stress of it didn't work well," he says. "With trying to pay bills and build a bankroll, I would have to say I was more of a break-even player at that point. The wins would always go toward my bills, so my level stayed stagnant. I felt I needed a steady job to pay the bills, while building the bankroll on the side. So in March 2005, I made a yearlong commitment to my brother-in-law to manage his restaurant. From that point, I didn't play a single hand of poker for about four months. I was really sick of how it was taking up all of my free time and ruining my friendships. Instead of being sociable, I would go home and play 20 hours of online poker, and that was just not healthy. I wasn't happy with my life.

"I started getting back into it that summer when some of my friends came home from school. We helped each other, and I filled some holes in my game. I worked on my emotional stability. By December of 2005, I was essentially crushing the game. I was playing $10-$20 no-limit and I was making two to three thousand dollars a day. It was odd, because I would go from playing a four-hour session and making, like, $3,000, and then go work an eight-hour day at the restaurant and make, like, $150. I couldn't wait for the year to be over so I could try turning pro again. Finally, when March came, my commitment was fulfilled and I quit. I turned pro again in March of '06."

Five months later, Paul was heads-up against Jamie Gold for $12 million and the world championship title. And it all could have worked out so differently. You see, if you look back at that final hand -- go on, check it out now. YouTube it -- at no point does Paul Wasicka call all-in. His final words are, "OK, you've talked me into it." At which point, Jamie cries, "You call? You call? Yes!" and flips over his hand. Strictly, at this point, Jamie's hand should be declared dead. Was Paul intending to call at all? Was he simply trying to gain information? This, ladies and gentleman, is the $12 million question.

"There is something there," he says. "The last hand, I honestly wanted to get a read on him. I wanted to pretend that I was ready to call to get his reaction. Then he flipped his hand over, and I thought to myself, 'Oh no.' I thought, 'Well, he already exposed his hand, and I don't want to create controversy in the biggest tournament in history.' Six million is a lot of money, and in my opinion, reputation is very important. I didn't want to be known as the shady guy who called the floor on the final hand of the WSOP. But I don't even like talking about it. And I don't care if people believe me or not. I know how it went down, I was there."

So, having achieved in a year what most professional players dream of achieving in a lifetime, what's next for Paul Wasicka?

"I don't know," he says. "I am a pretty spontaneous guy. As of right now, poker is my bag, and I love it. But what drives me is the competition. I want to prove that I'm here to stay. The money is obviously a driving factor as well. But the most important thing is that if I play a tourney, I want to be 100 percent driven. I don't want to half-ass anything."

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