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Capture the Flag - Frank Kassela

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


Frank Kassela has been playing poker for 17 years, but it wasn’t until this summer’s World Series of Poker that people began to take notice. The 42-year-old caught fire during the Series, making three final tables, winning two bracelets, and earning more than $1.2 million. Kassela has locked up at least a share of WSOP Player of the Year honors, and currently is in the top 10 of the Card Player 2010 Player of the Year standings, but it wasn’t too long ago that he was strictly a cash-game player.

What started out as a vacation hobby quickly grew into a passion for Kassela as he climbed the limits in the cash games in Tunica, Mississippi. Before long, he was playing in the biggest games that the casino offered, and it didn’t matter what the game was. Now, Kassela splits his time between his half-dozen businesses and poker. In this interview, he explains how he got his start and why he looks forward to competing with the game’s best players.

Julio Rodriguez: You’ve been playing poker for years. How did it all start for you?
Frank Kassela: I started my first business in September of 1993 when I was 25 years old. My wife at the time was a registered nurse. We were just average, hard-working Americans, trying to get something started. It was tough trying to get a business off the ground, so we’d head over to Tunica, Mississippi, three times a month to relax. We liked to go with groups of people, and pretty much everybody would eventually go off to the blackjack tables or the slot machines, but I preferred to play poker.
JR: Looking back, were you any good at the time?

FK: I’d like to think that I was a relatively good player, even from the beginning. You have to remember that the competition in the mid-’90s wasn’t that good. Believe it or not, the big game that was spread was seven-card stud, and that wasn’t too tough to beat. It wasn’t until the late ’90s that hold’em kind of took over, and even then it was limit. I won pretty consistently and was able to move up in the limits as my confidence grew.

JR: When did you start to get serious about the game?

FK: My wife and I separated in 2000, and that was when I started going to the Horseshoe in Tunica more regularly to play. We had games going on at that time that were built basically around Jack Keller and his action — not because he was a fish or anything, but because people wanted to say that they played with him. He was very popular, having won the World Series of Poker main event. If you wanted to play big with him and some other pros, you kind of had to play what they wanted to play. That included some lowball, some pot-limit Omaha, whatever they wanted. I was really at the mercy of the game at that point; otherwise, I would have been stuck playing $20-$40 limit hold’em. So, I guess that you can say that’s how I learned to play all of the games.

JR: When did you play in your first tournament?

FK: That’s actually a funny story. There were no tournaments in Tunica. It was all cash games. Nowadays, every casino has daily tournaments, but back then, it was hard to find them. I played cash games in Tunica for seven years before I even realized how a tournament worked. The very first tournament I played in was the WSOP main event in 2000. I had just gotten to the point where I was playing regularly, and one of the guys who worked for me at the time mentioned that he had seen poker on television. I guess that he had been watching some old episodes of the WSOP. I didn’t even know about the WSOP, but I basically told him that I’d play in it the next time that it ran. After he dared me to go through with it, I put my phone on speaker and dialed the Horseshoe in Las Vegas. I asked when the next WSOP was going on, and the lady on the phone explained to me that it was running as we spoke.

You have to remember, I didn’t understand the concept of a tournament series, let alone the WSOP. She told me that they were only halfway through it, but I didn’t get that; I still thought that I had missed it. Finally, she got me to understand that the $10,000 main event didn’t start until the end of the following week. Of course, I had already been dared to play in it, so I asked her what I needed to do to play. She said that I just needed to show up with the money, or I could win a satellite. Well, I didn’t know what the hell she meant by satellite, so I just decided to show up with the money. Registering for that tournament was another nightmare, since I had no idea that you had to buy in with chips and not cash. It almost took me longer to register than to play in the tournament.

JR: You’ve come a long way as a tournament player since then, having already won at least a share of Player of the Year honors at this year’s WSOP.

FK: Well, Harrah’s said that Michael Mizrachi and I would share Player of the Year honors if he wins the main event, but I told Michael when we were at a featured table of the main event that it was going to be really hard for me to claim half of that award should he go on and win it. I mean, winning the Players Championship, let alone the main event, is a year that nobody could touch.

JR: I’ve heard that you’ve been playing in the “big game” at the Aria in Las Vegas with a pretty tough lineup.

FK: We’re playing $200-$400 mixed games. We play seven different limit games, but we also throw in $50-$100 no-limit deuce-to-seven with a $10,000 cap, depending on who is playing. From what I understand, the real “big game” has taken a bit of a break from Bobby’s Room at Bellagio. The new game is at the Aria, albeit a little smaller. We’ve had a lot of the high-stakes regulars play in it, including Doyle Brunson, Eli Elezra, Billy Baxter, Jennifer Harman, Jean-Robert Bellande, and even Shaun Deeb. Pretty much any Vegas local who plays the mixed games has sat down. It’s been fun the times that I’ve played. It’s a group of players who love action, and that’s been apparent from all of the swings.

JR: You’ve said before that you don’t consider yourself to be a true poker professional, because you don’t rely on poker for your income. What’s your motivation for playing if it’s not the money?

FK: When I first started playing, I needed the extra money, having just gone through a divorce. Over time, my businesses have gotten more and more successful and I’ve done well with some real-estate investments, so I don’t really have to worry about the financial side of things anymore. I don’t need to do well playing, but I want to do well. I guess my motivation for playing has more to do with the thrill of victory than anything else.

JR: How do you think you are viewed now that you’ve gotten some television exposure?

FK: There was a comment made on the ESPN broadcast: “Even he could win Player of the Year.” I got a lot of crap about that from some friends, so now I joke that I’m the Rodney Dangerfield of poker; I get no respect. Obviously, that’s not entirely true, but a lot of people don’t realize that I had a pretty good track record in poker before this summer, especially for a guy who doesn’t play a full schedule. I don’t want to be known as a guy who just happened to run good for a summer, because I’ve been playing for nearly two decades now. ♠