Kris Kojak’s dream week ended with $86,000 and a thirst for a comeback. It all started decades ago in a hotel room with the UMBC baseball team.
Several retrievers piled into a room each night during the 1992 NCAA Regionals to play poker for each other’s dinner money. Many prominent members of the poker scene will be coming out of those nights, including Kojack.
After nearly 30 years, the Severn resident has elevated gambling among his teammates to the world’s biggest poker level – the main event of the 2022 World Series of Poker, which was held in Las Vegas from July 3-16. Of the 8,663 contenders — 2,000 more than the previous year and the second-largest field in tournament history — Kojak, the state contractor and assistant coach for the Chesapeake baseball team, ranked 89th, with a net profit of $83,600. Wearing a Chesapeake baseball jacket and blue hat, he was the best player from Maryland, which included three of his clubmates.
“I didn’t feel like I did all of that,” Kojak said, “but the top 100 out of the roughly 9,000 people is an achievement of which I am very proud.”
The main event of the World Series of Poker, celebrating this year’s World Champion, is contested over a no-limit Texas Hold ’em. The Grand Tournament requires a $10,000 subscription from each player, but Kojack playing for Poker Club monthly only needs two things to send the top four to Vegas: $200 every third Friday and enough points from winning monthly games.
As Kojak refined his craft over the course of half his life, money closed the door between him and his arrival in Vegas. But by the end of his year with his club, Kojak spent $2,400 just to make his dream come true.
“I went to the club thinking this could fill my list of things and see how good I really am compared to people all over the world,” Kojak said. “To the heart of professionals.”
Kojak not only jumped from the lowest level to the shed. He had kids a few years after they graduated from college and they needed him more than he needed to travel to play poker. So instead, Kojack cuts his teeth on online poker sites where he loads $100 into a credit card and competes in $10 fights.
Soon casinos opened in the area, first in Delaware, then Maryland Live! It opened in Hanover in 2012. For Kojak, getting back to the physical tables became a little easier, and his game continued to improve.
Nine thousand people crowded into the poker rooms of Bally’s and Paris hotels, a mix of real amateurs and semi-pros like Kojack and real pros. Kojak was actually happy to have the last class sitting at his tables, as it was the hardest. They have increased the risks.
“Because I’ve been playing poker long enough, I started to realize on day three that I was playing all the pros and maybe one of the amateurs,” Kojack said. “They are the men you want to be with in pots.”
Friends who participated in the World Championships before gave Kojack tips to stay away from unnecessary locations and play his game, which gave him confidence. But what he was not prepared for—what no one really could prepare for—were the unrelenting hours.
Most tournaments around Maryland usually last 20 to 45 minutes at most, Kojak said. In the first few days of the World Championships main event, Kojak spent 10 hours with short breaks here and there; The third day, approximately 13. Thirteen hours of patience and constant focus.
“You just keep focusing on what’s going on, thinking about everything, just watching the anecdotes, what hand is this guy playing, what is he raising, what is this guy doing?” He said. “You keep constant mental notes, and that takes a lot of mental work.”
What Kojak realized very quickly during the first few days was that he could neither win on day one nor on day two. Folding was safer than losing the risk. Then came the sixth day – the last kojak day.
Kojack came in today with 60 big blinds, or forced bets: $1.7 million in chips. He rode his patience again, winning a few more hands to bring his total balance to $2.6 million. Around him, the scale of the distance he had traveled in the tournament could be felt. The room, which formerly housed so many people that Kojak could not flick without brushing a human, now distributes the last ten tables spaced apart. He could physically see his hundred obstacles to the end. He intended to reach the seventh day.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, I can do that,’” Kojak said. “The first few days were just surviving, not even thinking mentally that you were going to win. … The sixth day, I was about to finish.”
The last man from Maryland placed his bet. The table was folded on Kojack, in his arsenal were an ace, nine diamonds and enough chips to cover 14 big blinds. Payouts jumped to a guaranteed $86,000 for anyone who exited the tournament, but a much greater chance for those who didn’t.
Kojack got into it all, hoping to pick up more initial blinds or other harmless outcomes. Just survive and move on. Cameras turned to kojak. hit nine. Behind him, Victor Lee, who holds an ace and a 10, hits a 10. Then another 10.
“I was dead in the water,” Kojak said.
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Immediately, Kocak called his wife, Patricia, who he said was his biggest supporter since they met in 2009. He was emotional when he told her he had stopped him. He hadn’t realized the adrenaline he was in until the supply stopped. But the happiest moment of the entire week had yet to come.
Unbeknownst to Kojak, his sons Ridge and Taylor have been following their father’s progress online. They had never called him after a tournament before, but after their father finished in the top 100 in the world, they called Kojack to congratulate him.
“This made my whole day,” Kojak said. “My kids are my entire world and have been so supportive of me.”
At the tournament, Kojak absorbed the compliments of professionals for his technique and patience. When he came home to Maryland Live! , at least 75 people approached Kojack with praise. He’s given Kojak confidence, sure, enough to last for the next 12 months. Kojak thinks hunger will bore him until he returns to Vegas next year. He hugged a lot of athletes who had suffered supplement losses, tried to offer as many condolences as possible, and commended them for doing the best they could.
Now, he really understands.
“I have a lot to do to get that over into next year,” Kojak said. “And I plan to try and move on and move forward next year.”