Holding his own

Poker player from Valley gains experience, $18,000 in Vegas event




Six years after learning Texas Hold ’Em in a basement, Jason Fazzone sat at the semifinalist table at his first World Series of Poker event.

Out of 2,092 entrants, including several WSOP bracelet winners, 16 gamblers remained and Fazzone held a king and a jack.

His opponent called immediately and raised, turning over a pair of 2s.

Fazzone, 24, knew it was now or never to make a big move. He went all-in.

The flop came: ace, jack, 4. Excitement began coursing through his veins. Jacks over 2s. This hand might be his.

The turn card: A 3. The tension mounts. He now holds two jacks against an inside straight.

Unless the final card is a 5 or 2, his guaranteed winnings increase by nearly $5,000. He also lives to fight for a spot at the final table.

The river card: A 5. Fazzone falls to a crouch. It’s over.

“It was tough to take. I’d rather have not had a chance than to lose like that,” Fazzone said. “If one card shows up different, I’m looking at 23 grand.”

When he walked away from that table at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on June 2, the Poland native had played more than 22 hours of poker in three days, bidding, bluffing and calling his way to more than $18,000 in prize money.

The event, which began May 31, boasted the presence of champions such as Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu and Humberto Brenes, who sat at a table just behind Fazzone on Day 1. None of them was present in the final 16.

“I didn’t get a chance to play against many of the big names,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have done as well.”

Fazzone did hold his own, however, against the tournament’s eventual champion, Praz Bansi from Great Britain.

When the new table assignments were drawn on the second day, 223 players remained and Fazzone — ranked 191 at the time — found himself rubbing shoulders with the one-time bracelet-winner. That entire table was broken later in the day and all its members advanced.

Seven competitors dropped from the ranks early that session, and those remaining were “in the money.” The event paid only the top 216 players. The lowest prize, paid to the bottom 45 players, was $2,880.

“At that point, I had my tournament and trip paid for,” Fazzone said. The buy-in for the event was $1,500. Fazzone was doing considerably better than that, however. He was up to $40,000 in chips by the middle of Day 2.

“I was nursing a short stack all day, and went all-in six or seven times just to stay alive. I was in survival mode,” he said.

He dropped as low as $24,000, but when the last hands were played at 3 a.m., Fazzone was up to $130,000 and ranked 22 out of 23 remaining players.

“I thought day three might be a short day,” Fazzone said.

The final day began with Fazzone at a semifinal table.

“I walked right past Praz and he said, ‘Hey, you’re still in this!’ I felt pretty good about that.”

Soon Fazzone was sitting at 16, guaranteed $18,800, and one hand away from another pay jump.

Then that straight happened.

Fazzone’s friend Michael White had gone with him and was updating people about Fazzone’s progress via Facebook.

“It was cool to have that many people behind me. I wanted to win it for them,” Fazzone said.

Fazzone said that he had a list of goals for the event. He completed the first three: make it to Day 2; make it into the money; make it to Day 3.

The only goals he has not yet accomplished are to make the final table and win the whole thing.

Before the World Series event, Fazzone did much of his gambling online and at Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va. He won his first tournament at Mountaineer and played in several others.

His father, William, also plays poker and frequently accompanies Fazzone to the tournaments at Mountaineer. Fazzone said they often take turns knocking each other out of different tournaments.

The same summer Fazzone learned the game in his friend’s basement after a high-school sweetheart’s dance, he signed up for online poker and won his first tournament. He said he was hooked at that point.

A friend’s dad runs local “Valley Extreme” poker tournaments, and Fazzone also plays in those twice a year.

Fazzone is a 2008 graduate of Ohio University, where he majored in journalism and served as sports editor for The Post, Ohio’s student newspaper, during his senior year.

After graduation, he worked at Nemenz IGA in Struthers until November 2009, when he took a job in the billing department of American Medical Response Co., an Akron ambulance company.

Now, Fazzone said, his old routine seems slightly out of place.

“It’s kinda hard, getting back to the daily grind,” he said.

Fazzone said he would like to compete in a series at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in November. If he doesn’t make that, he plans to wait for next year’s World Series of Poker and try again.

“I have unfinished business,” he said.

The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator.

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