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A Poker Life: Mark Radoja

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Oct 30, 2013


Mark RadojaLast summer, Canadian Mark Radoja won the $10,000 World Series of Poker heads-up no-limit hold’em event, capping off a four-year run at the annual summer series that included 12 cashes, four final tables and two bracelet wins.

All told, the 28-year-old Guelph, Ontario resident has banked more than $1.6 million on the live tournament circuit despite a very limited playing schedule.

Although poker has made him wealthy, Radoja isn’t taking any chances with his winnings and has spent the last few years working to build a business that will support him financially when he inevitably chooses to make poker his part-time hobby rather than his full-time profession.

Poker Beginnings

Radoja grew up as the youngest of two children on a farm in a little town about an hour west of Toronto called Ariss, though his parents were far from farmers. His mother works as a certified accountant and his father just retired after working for 30 years for the government with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It was in high school that he discovered poker.

“I started playing poker really young,” he admitted. “I was introduced to hold’em just before the Moneymaker boom during season one of the World Poker Tour. I brought it to my high school and we would play for quarters in the cafeteria. I ended up getting into some trouble from the teachers for gambling, but that didn’t stop me. I loved it and have been gambling ever since.”

Radoja made some money here and there from both poker and sports betting, but most of his income came from typical teenage jobs flipping burgers and then later, bartending. Though he was always a good student, his early introduction to poker set him on a different course.

“Getting an education was always the plan after high school,” he said. “My plan was to study business economics and go to university. I went to the student orientation and put down a $500 deposit for my first semester, but poker was going so well that I had a change of heart. I thought that I should take advantage while the games were still good. I wasn’t sure how long that would last, so I took a year off from school to see how successful I could be. I didn’t even know you could make good money gambling at poker. The closest thing I knew about that was being a card counter in blackjack, but once I saw people winning big on television, I thought, hey, I want to do that too.”

A Fast Start Leads To Slow Grind

Poker was exploding in popularity right along with Radoja’s bankroll. Before long, he had made enough money not only to move out of his parent’s home, but also to buy one of his own in nearby Guelph.

“I was playing mostly online. For the majority of the time it was sit-n-gos and small to mid-stakes multitable tournaments, but every once in a while I would take a shot at some bigger stuff. I was doing so well that even my parents were coming around on the idea that I could do this for a living long term. It helped that I set aside money for university and told them that if anything ever went wrong, the money would be there for me as a backup plan.”

Radoja dominated online poker. Not only was he a winning sit-n-go player, but he was becoming a successful tournament grinder as well. In 2008, he won more than $250,000 in just four days playing on Full Tilt Poker. But then came the dry spells.

“There have been times during a particularly bad downswing where I’ve asked myself why I continue to play poker,” Radoja said. “There is a ton of stress to deal with and the games aren’t ever going to get any better. I believe wholeheartedly that poker will continue to get tougher and tougher to beat every year. But I’ve always been overly cautious with my bankroll so I’ve always been able to avoid ruin. Of course, a big score always has a way of changing your outlook on the game.”

Finding Live Tournament Success At The WSOP

In 2010, Radoja traveled to Las Vegas for the summer to play in some WSOP events, hoping for a big score, but not expecting much. He was considering taking some time off from the game to focus on other things if the cards didn’t fall his way, but a third-place finish in the $5,000 six-handed no-limit hold’em event put an end to that thought. He wound up cashing for $262,902.

“Just when I thought I was out, the game pulled me back in,” he said.

In 2011, Radoja returned to Las Vegas and this time improved on his finish, winning his first career gold bracelet in the $5,000 no-limit hold’em shootout event along with the $436,586 first-place prize.

“My first bracelet win was probably the best moment of my life. I remember saying when I first started playing poker that my dream was to just one day play in the main event. That’s it. Just play in it. Then I completely shattered that by actually winning a bracelet. You always hope to do well, but winning a bracelet wasn’t even in my wildest dreams.”

After final tabling an event at the WSOP Europe, Radoja headed into 2012 with the hopes of going back to back. In the $1,500 six-handed no-limit hold’em event, he made it to heads-up play with a chip lead over Card Player columnist Matt Matros. Radoja didn’t play well from that point on and Matros came back to win the title, his third in three years. Radoja took home the consolation prize of $281,502.

“I was really disappointed with myself in how I handled that loss,” he admitted. “I think I played bad heads up and I was really hard on myself. I feel sick thinking back at how big of a brat I must of looked like in defeat. It’s hard, when you expect the best from yourself, to screw it up when it matters most. Having said that, I’ve learned now, no matter what, to look at the bigger picture and not just the moment at hand. It’s all about being thankful for the life you have and realizing, win or lose, it’s not the end of the world.”

Radoja had already earned more than $1 million in Las Vegas at the WSOP, but he wasn’t done yet. In 2013, he entered the prestigious $10,000 heads-up no-limit hold’em championship event, and after defeating the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Justin Bonomo and eventual runner-up Don Nguyen, he had earned his second bracelet and a $331,190 payday.

“Winning bracelet number two was a different kind of special,” he said. “This is the bracelet where you raise eyebrows. Anybody can win one bracelet, but winning two kind of let’s the rest of the poker world know that you can really play. Especially in an event like the $10,000 heads-up that brings out such an elite field of players.”

Putting His Money To Work

Most poker players hit a big score and chose to invest in themselves, playing higher stakes and playing more frequently. Radoja, however, has chosen to invest his poker winnings into his own business.

“I consider myself more of a businessman than a poker player,” he said. “I’ve never been one to splurge my money foolishly, instead I would rather invest it so when I’m ready to go part-time or give up poker completely, I have something else I really enjoy to get into. Some poker players like to let it ride and put it all back into poker, but I took that money and put it into my real estate business. Now, when I not playing poker, I buy and rent out properties. It’s not incredibly exciting, but it’s stable, unlike poker. I’ve got eleven properties now and business has never been better.”

Radoja has also invested in a shared-office space company based in Toronto, which also takes up some of his free time. Though he has had considerable success the last four years on the tournament circuit, he says he only travels about four months out of every year.

“I’ve made a lot of very close friends from poker. I really look forward to every time I do a poker trip, or get to hang out with poker friends all around the world. However, when I get back home, there is almost no poker talk whatsoever. We have a pretty tight group of friends and all of them have normal jobs. It would be tough for me to spend ten or eleven months on the road like some people do. I like to split the difference and spend about four months or so travelling. I’m fortunate that I have family and friends close by and my business to look after, so I think I keep a nice balance.” ♠