- Bernard Lee, ESPN Poker
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You might think of summer as a season for relaxing vacations, perhaps some enjoyable time with family and friends. For Kevin Schaffel, summer means traveling from Florida to Southern California to play as much poker and golf as possible.
"I would play 12 to 18 hours a day and never leave the poker room except to play golf," Schaffel said of his desire to play as much poker as possible. Being a scratch golfer, he prefers playing in Southern California, where there is less humidity than in his home state of Florida. "I can play an entire round with only one glove since I barely sweat."
Schaffel's 2009 summer resulted in a couple of changes from the original schedule. This Floridian took a journey off the beaten path through Las Vegas and beyond his wildest expectations. As if making the WSOP 2009 November Nine was not enough, his spectacular summer featured a ton of poker success that he hopes will continue shining on when he returns to the Rio on Nov. 7.
The elder statesman of the 2009 November Nine is not a casual poker player. He has been trying to make a living playing poker since 2008, and recent life changes allowed him to make the leap onto the felt full time. On a personal level, his kids are grown up and in college, and he is recently divorced. After running the family's direct mailing and printing business for 30 years, he decided it was the right time to close up shop.
"Although the business afforded me a nice living for my family, I was really burnt out," he said. "And there had to be more to life."
Without the traditional home and career responsibilities, Schaffel was able to devote more time to his poker game. He had seen some success over the years, but he really wanted to know whether he could make it playing poker full time. He had competed in several $10,000 buy-in events, including the World Series of Poker main event, where he cashed 42nd in 2004 and 324th in 2008, finishing both events in the top 5 percent. Initially, he was intimidated by well-known pros, but these deep-run experiences in the main event allowed him to overcome his fears.
"During the 2004 WSOP, I sat next to [Greg] Raymer for five to seven hours one day," Schaffel said. "I realized that [the poker pros] are not that different from me. They put their pants on the same way I do. I really believed I could make a living playing poker."
The Breakdown: Kevin Schaffel
Three deep runs recently have made everyone take notice that Kevin Schaffel will not be an easy opponent come the final table in November.
Current position: 6th
Chip count: $12.39 million
Tournament winnings: $1,930,996
WSOP final tables: 1
WSOP cashes: 3
His motivation and confidence started out high, but initially, his poker career did not look promising. After an average 2008, the beginning of 2009 brought a dreadful downhill skid. From January to May, Schaffel experienced a horrendous run at the tables. Nothing went his way. "I was completely card dead," he said. "My friends were sick and tired of hearing my stories."
While others might have given up, Schaffel believes this tumultuous period actually helped his game, allowing him to keep his new life in perspective.
"Even though I was going through this bad streak, I never lost my composure or went on tilt," Schaffel said. "And honestly, how bad could it really be? I was playing poker for a living."
Entering the 2009 WSOP main event, Schaffel felt prepared. He could visualize his previous tournament experiences and recent tough times. "I learned something in every tournament I played over the years," he said. "I analyze every big hand I play and try to learn from it."
After "a typical slow start" (his own words) on Day 1, he had a huge scare during Level 2. Having hit a set of 10s on the flop (J-10-8), Schaffel faced elimination when he and his opponent pushed all-in after his opponent (9-7) flopped a straight. However, Schaffel was not putting on his jacket just yet.
"In the past, I would be preparing to leave, but I just felt that the board was going to pair," Schaffel said. After an unhelpful 4 fell on the turn, the river fortunately paired the board with a jack, giving Schaffel a winning full house.
Instead of an early exit, Schaffel received a key double-up that propelled him to the top of the leaderboard, a position he would enjoy for basically the rest of the tournament. Amazingly, this hand was the only one on which he pushed all-in and was called, where his tournament life was in jeopardy. More than a week later, Schaffel was one of the players left standing and was given exclusive membership into the 2009 November Nine.
Upon his return home, he decided he would keep his skills sharp by playing some events in the upcoming months. In his first tournament back about a month later, he chose to fly west to the World Poker Tour Legends main event in his old stomping grounds of Southern California. At this event, which was meant to be a warm-up for November, he earned another seat to a televised final table. He also shared the WPT Legends final table with a fellow November Niner, Steven Begleiter, who finished in ninth place.
"I felt so comfortable, being in the spotlight and the cameras," Schaffel said of his experience during the WPT Legends event. Although he placed agonizingly in second, this event might have been the best learning opportunity Schaffel could have had before the upcoming WSOP main event final table. "I do not have great experience six-handed, but the final table kind of just flowed and the rhythm felt good the entire time," he said.
As if two back-to-back final tables were not impressive enough, Schaffel flew east across the pond to the United Kingdom to play in the European Poker Tour London main event. His endless summer continued, as he was among the chip leaders midway through Day 3. By the end of the EPT event, he placed in "only" 19th place, close to a third consecutive main event final table.
"It's a combination of everything," he said of his recent successes. "I'm probably learning more. I'm not getting unlucky, which is sometimes the same as getting lucky. I'm not really getting run over by the cards, believe it or not, because I'm still playing the same game, but I really have not gotten unlucky. The hands that are supposed to are holding up for me."
In his final preparations for the WSOP final table, Schaffel can draw on his recent 2009 poker success, and utilize the same work ethic and approach that helped his golf game.
"In both golf and poker, the biggest similarity is preparation," Schaffel said. "You don't go play golf [on a great course] without practicing your chipping and putting, and the same goes for poker. I have been reading lots of books, and I've played in several tournaments. I have been watching all the poker shows and listening to the interviews; overall, just doing my homework."
During the summer of 2009, Schaffel has been on a run at the tables that most poker players can only dream of. Now, he can fully appreciate what a golden season he has had since June. "I feel very fortunate and blessed to be in this position," he said.
Of course, he hopes his run continues just a bit longer and ends with a WSOP championship bracelet on his wrist.
Bernard Lee is the co-host of "ESPN Inside Deal," a weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and author of "The Final Table, Volume I." He also hosts a weekly poker radio show, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," on Rounders Radio and in Boston on 1510 AM. The show can be heard from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and is repeated throughout the week. For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.
9hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler