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A Poker Life -- Jake Balsiger

Balsiger Parlays Main Event Finish Into New Career

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As a 12-year-old watching the poker boom unfold, Jake Balsiger dreamed of a future career as a card shark. In his mind, he’d imagine that his $5 home games were instead the final tables of big buy-in events he’d seen on television, playing alongside the best in the world.

However, Balsiger was also a realist. Though he entered college with a passion for the game, he knew it was a long shot that he could ever turn it into his profession. In all likelihood, he’d graduate with a degree in political science and become a history teacher.

With his plan in place, a 21-year-old Balsiger took his modest bankroll to Las Vegas for a shot at his first World Series of Poker. Little did he know that four months later, he’d have the bankroll and big stage experience to pursue his dreams.

An Early Start In Poker

Perhaps the Chris Moneymaker boom reached further than even the industry experts had initially realized. While the Tennessee accountant was making a name for himself on ESPN and helping to spark a world-wide interest in poker, Balsiger sat glued to the television, even though he was still nine years away from being legally allowed to sit down at a table.

“I guess you can say that I got a really early start in poker,” Balsiger recalled. “My friends and I would get together to play little $5 tournaments. All I really remember about those games is that I was by far the tightest player. I think it took me about three months before I attempted my first bluff. Obviously, given my reputation, it worked.”

The interest in poker came and went for his friends, but remained strong for Balsiger throughout high school. It didn’t affect his grades, however. Balsiger took honors classes, never turned anything in late and even got a college scholarship to attend Arizona State University.

Though his free time was spent playing poker, Balsiger remained pragmatic about his career path.

“When I first got to college, my intention was to graduate and become a history teacher,” Balsiger admitted. “Poker was my hobby, but it just wasn’t as profitable as I would have have liked, so I didn’t really have any real ideas about turning pro.”

A Big Setback Reveals Poker Prowess

In September of 2011, Balsiger was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle around campus. With his skull cracked and his right arm shattered, Balsiger was hospitalized for nine days. He was forced to take a semester off from school to recover, but he says it took nine months before his personality returned and he became the same happy college student he was prior to the accident.

“I couldn’t bend my arm for two months,” he said. “I had constant sharp pain and was left not only physically injured, but emotionally as well. It was an incredibly long road to recovery. I was sleeping like 18 to 20 hours each day and I didn’t have much memory of the time when I was awake either.”

After getting back his mobility, Balsiger started to frequent the Talking Sticks Resort and Casino about 30 minutes from campus. There, playing live poker, is where he discovered that he had a real knack for the game.

“I didn’t really find my stride as a poker player until I started playing live,” he said. “Online poker never really clicked for me, because I was basically treating it like a video game. But when I played live, I saw more pieces of information and things started to click.”

The 2012 World Series of Poker

In the months leading up to the 2012 WSOP, Balsiger had managed to build a $10,000 bankroll by playing cash games. He decided to take that cash and try his hand at a few of the preliminary events.

“I had friends who were renting a house for the summer. One of them wasn’t coming out for awhile, so the plan was for me to take his room until he got there and then head back home to Arizona afterwards.”

Balsiger played in four preliminary events, managing a small cash in event No. 2 for $3,970. Though his shot at poker glory didn’t end up being a profitable one, he was happy with his performance and packed up his belongings to head back home for a $300 tournament scheduled to take place back at his local casino.

“I had everything stuffed into my car, but I decided to stop at a friend’s birthday party before leaving,” Balsiger recalled. “Right before I was going to leave, a couple of buddies convinced me to stay and play in the main event. I didn’t have buy-in, but by the next morning, they were nice enough to buy some bigger pieces so I could get in.”

Balsiger ran through the field of 6,598, finishing in third place for $3,797,558, making his investors, which included poker pros Max Silver, Sadan Turker, Derek Wolters and Dan Weinman very happy.

Balsiger entered the final table in eighth place, but managed to rebound strong and at one point hold the chip lead. When asked if he was happy or disappointed with his finish, Balsiger put it all into perspective.

“Going into the final table bubble, I was just trying to hang on to make the final table. If we had played the next day, rather than in October, I don’t think I would have finished as high as I did. I really don’t have any regrets and was extremely happy with third place. Some people on the rail were trying to console me, but I didn’t need it. I was a 21-year-old who had just won $3.8 million. There’s just no way to describe how great that feels.”

Moving Forward

Though his bankroll is undoubtedly big enough to support a career in poker, Balsiger wasn’t about to just abandon his degree. The now 22-year-old is in the middle of his final semester and hopes to join the tournament circuit full time once his classes are finished.

“It was important to me that I go back to school and get my degree, but for the time being, that degree is just a backup plan. Once I’m done, I’ll be back on the road playing in tournaments all over the world.”

You may think Balsiger is foolish for jumping into a career based off just one tournament result, but during a break from his classes this January, Balsiger proved he had staying power.

While in Melbourne for the Aussie Millions, he cashed in four events, making three final tables and scoring a second-place finish in a big no-limit hold’em event for $74,955. In February, during a weekend trip to Las Vegas, Balsiger took third in the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza main event for another $63,121.

“My goal for now is to continue to prove myself as a player and not some fluke,” said Balsiger, “In the process, I get to enjoy life and see the world. Maybe 10 years from now, I’ll have a different set of priorities, but for now, I’m just happy that I get to do something I love.” ♠