Kassela more than a face in the crowd
The moment you win your second bracelet in one year, you become more than just some small sliver of World Series of Poker history. By scoring the double, as Frank Kassela did this year, you join an elite club.
Kassela doesn't play for the money. Sure, he'll tell you that winning money doesn't hurt, but through a series of remarkably successful business ventures, the semi-professional who's leapt into the public consciousness this year won't ever be made or broken by poker winnings and losses. He's driven by what may be a more profound drive.
"I'm driven to compete, because nothing beats the feeling of accomplishment you can find in this game," said Kassela after narrowly missing his third bracelet of the summer in the $25,000 six-handed event. "I mean, having the ability to do well, to walk with the best in the world, to compete on their level, to beat them and walk away with the recognition everyone in the room wanted to have how do you beat that?"
Really, you can't.
"I was telling people for the month leading up that I was going to have a really good World Series," Kassela said. "I'm sure I was always optimistic about it [in years past], but the cycle of my play lets me know when I'm going to hit well, and I'd been running good in my cash games leading up to the Series. If you go back and look at my record, you'll see clumps of cashes. I've always been really streaky. Right now, my game just feels great.
"'Seeing the ball better' because of confidence is a great analogy. When you're in the zone, you get into it and it just feels like your decisions are righter. You feel confident with the big lay down; bad beats roll off your back because you're just feeling the game.
"Winning those two bracelets has been an interesting experience because within the poker community people have known me for a long, long time, but the public at large doesn't know who I am. I know the people within the community wouldn't have expected me to win two bracelets in a year, but you know, I think my game's always been capable of it. It's just a question of bringing together the right discipline, the right focus and keeping an even keel. All those things came together for me this month."
When it comes to poker goals, Kassela is operating on a different level. Where so many would be happy with two bracelets, he's not content to just win three. Kassela's looking to win the main event, starting his run towards gold in Thursday's Day 1D. He'll also go to the WSOP Europe and look to win a fourth bracelet in 2010. If he fails in the main event, he'll want two in Europe because no one has ever won four bracelets in a year before.
It all sounds a little ridiculous until you realize he'd been calling the Player of the Year race he's all but won for years now.
"Player of the Year was a goal, but it was a happy circumstance of winning also," he said. "It wasn't the driving force, but it's been on my mind for years. There are people out there who I've told for years that if I went on one of my streaks at the right time, I could win it."
Sound a little far-fetched? I asked the friends he'd mentioned.
"Yeah, Frank's been telling me that for years," pro player Allie Prescott said. "Everyone has a level of arrogance in their game and believes they can do amazing things if everything comes together. Frank has great confidence in his game. He's definitely a very positive person. He has a lot of energy, lives life pretty fast. He feels like if he wants to do it and has the means, he'll do it."
That final sentiment has translated to Kassela's poker success. When he's at the table, his enthusiasm pours through in the form of a constant stream of chatter. It's not intended to distract the opposition; it's just a natural mode for a man who truly loves to play.
"In 2000, I started going to the Horseshoe Casino and playing regularly, like five times a week," Kassela said. "Then in mid-2003, I won a seat online to a tournament in Aruba. I finished ninth there and started to think I could really compete. In 2005, I made my first WSOP final table, finished fourth and then really started chasing Card Player's Player of the Year. I really gave it a shot. I traveled all over and played everywhere for the rest of that year."
Now, the dedication he's applied ever since is paying off in a huge way, though Kassela doesn't seem to recognize the changes that could be in store for him as recognition goes.
"I don't think I really have a lot of feelings about fame for the sake of fame itself," he said. "I don't know enough about it to know if it's a pain in the ass. I'd love to do some of the things that help to create fame play on 'Poker After Dark' or 'High Stakes Poker.' But fame in and of itself? I wouldn't want to put much into it. It doesn't seem realistic right now. I've only been asked for one autograph."
More are sure to come. Kassela's performance this year all but assures he'll get seen on ESPN's broadcast of the main event, at which point the recognition will begin. Should he win Player of the Year, which could only be prevented by a top-three finish by John Juanda or a victory by Michael Mizrachi, he'll be invited to NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Nothing like a little national television exposure to increase one's recognition.
You get the feeling Kassela will handle everything that's coming his way. As Prescott alluded, the man is possessed of a remarkably positive energy that seems to seep into his every endeavor. That includes the main event.
"I want to jump through the next fiery hoop," Kassela said. "With the completion of goals come new goals. For someone like me who's been in the trenches for years, I have to strike while the iron is hot. I want to pile that recognition on top of more recognition if I can."
With that kind of attitude and his newest accomplishments in hand, it's not going to be long until poker fans from the inside and out know who Frank Kassela is and the desire he has to win this main event. His journey towards that next fiery hoop begins Thursday on Day 1D.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.