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A Poker Life With Billy Pappas

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jan 07, 2015

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Billy PappasHave you ever heard of the man with a plan? Well, that’s the antithesis of Billy Pappas. The 30 year old who recently finished fifth in the 2014 World Series of Poker main event, prefers to keep things loose and with as many options as possible.

Pappas, who was born William Pappaconstantinou, just banked $2,143,794 in the biggest poker tournament of the year, but he has no idea what’s up next on his agenda. Perhaps he’ll play more poker. Maybe he’ll even return to his day job as a dealer.

Whatever he decides, Pappas knows that now he has the financial freedom to pursue whatever path he wants, and, for a guy who doesn’t like to be tied down in one spot for too long, that’s priceless.

Staying Out of Trouble

Pappas grew up as one of three children in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell is not the ideal place to raise children, especially in the late 80s and early 90s, when it was ranked as one of the most violent cities in the U.S.

“Growing up in Lowell was definitely tough,” Pappas recalled. “There were a lot of gangs and the city itself wasn’t so great, but it’s definitely improved since I was a kid. I spent most of my time early on playing basketball and foosball.”

Basketball and foosball kept Pappas out of trouble. While other kids were stepping into the criminal underworld of drug trafficking and other gang activity, Pappas spent hours each day perfecting his game.

“I started playing foosball when I was seven. We had a table at our house. I used to go to this place called Mad Maggie’s, which was this awesome arcade. As I got better, I started to play in these tournaments four times a week in Londonderry, New Hampshire, which were run by this guy named Steve Rogge. My mom and her boyfriend were very competitive in foosball as well, so we would go there all the time.”

It was through foosball that Pappas met future two-time WSOP bracelet winner Steve Billirakis, whose parents were also professional foosball players. In fact, when Pappas and Billirakis were just 10 and 11 years old, they won a 17 and under doubles foosball tournament as partners.

Becoming One of The Best

It wasn’t long before Pappas realized he could make some money at the professional level of foosball.

“When I was about 16, I realized that I was playing at another level,” he said. “I teamed up with a buddy of mine, Mike Yore, and we took second place in a super doubles tournament and also won the pro doubles tournament. This was in Texas and it paid $5,000.”

“A foosball tournament is a lot like a poker tournament, in that you put up an entry fee which goes into the prize pool and then you try and win the event,” Pappas explained. “However, unlike poker, foosball divides players up by their ability level. There are rankings that determine rookies, semi-pro, pro, pro-master, and even beginners.”

In his late teens and early twenties, Pappas began traveling both domestically and internationally to play foosball. In 2005, he won the International Table Soccer Federation (ITSF) World Championship Series stop in Dallas, Texas. In 2006, he won in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2009, he won again in Dallas and then in Tulln, Austria, before being named the World Champion in singles Tornado, an honor he earned again in 2011. As recently as 2013, he again came out on top in Salzburg, Austria.

Despite all of his success, however, Pappas recognizes that there isn’t enough money in foosball to make a living at it full time. With the cost of travel, lodging and tournament entry fees, one would have to win nearly every tournament in order to consistently turn a profit. Even still, Pappas hasn’t resorted to hustling to scrounge up some cash.

“The foosball community is so close that all of the players really play for pride or the prestige of winning more than anything. It’s not like billiards where you can just walk into a bar and start collecting money from unsuspecting amateurs.”

Dealing With It

It’s only natural that a kid fascinated with games would find poker, especially in Lowell.

“Card games were really big where I grew up. A group of friends played a bunch of card games. That’s how I started out. Then I picked up hold’em and started playing online. A buddy of mine won a $1 tournament and turned it into $27,000 the next day. That really got me hooked.”

Pappas played poker throughout the poker boom, with limited success. In fact, prior to his WSOP main event final table appearance, he had only racked up about $85,000 in live tournament cashes. To supplement his income, he took a job dealing poker and other table games at Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire.

“My first month dealing, a couple of guys got into an argument at the table,” he recalled. “I honestly wasn’t sure it was an argument at the time, because the locals have a tendency to just talk tough and aggressively with each other even when they are joking. I was a little late in realizing that it had escalated to the point of a fight when one of the players walked around the table and tried to gouge another player’s eye out right in the seat next to me. Of course, our room is so chill that the floor came over and told me to continue dealing like nothing had ever happened.”

Pappas enjoyed dealing. It was a fun job and he actually found it to be pretty relaxing, despite the occasional confrontation or scuffle at the table. More importantly, dealing gave him the freedom to set his own hours so that he could continue traveling for foosball competitions.

“It’s always been really tough for me to settle down in one spot. For example, I spend the first half of the year dealing and a lot of the second half living in Europe, playing foosball. That way I have a consistent income but I also get to travel and continue playing the game that I love. I really don’t want to work my life away and I’ve always tried to live by that philosophy.”

A Life-Changing Score

Last summer, Pappas went on a magical run at the WSOP main event, making the final table and becoming a member of the November Nine. According to the ESPN broadcast, he was the table’s lone amateur, trying to prove that anybody could win the main event given the right set of circumstances.

“People keep telling me that I’m an inspiration and that I proved to everyone that an amateur can really do well at the WSOP. That’s great, but I’m not exactly the beginner that the coverage perhaps made me out to be. I think I played very well and never felt out of place at the table. There was never a sense that I didn’t belong there.”

When asked what he did to prepare for the final table, Pappas admitted that he didn’t do much. Most of his time was spent trying to stay out of his own head. It almost worked out for the best.

Had a crucial coin flip with eventual winner Martin Jacobson gone the other way, Pappas would have likely earned even more than the $2.143 million that he picked up for fifth place. Pappas was hoping to take down the bracelet for his poker buddy and mentor Jonathan Dempsey.

Moving Forward

So what is Pappas going to do with his newfound wealth? Most poker players would add the majority of it to their bankroll and play for higher stakes.

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” Pappas stated. “I’ve always dreamed of being a traveling pro. I used to tell myself that if I ever got a six-figure bankroll, I’d just go and play $5-$10 somewhere full time. But now that I have the money, I’m not sure what I want to do. I know I want to travel, maybe deal or play.”

Deal? Could Pappas really see himself going back to dealing after such a windfall? What if he found himself pitching cards in the box next summer to Martin Jacobson himself?

“That would definitely be weird, but it would be a lot of fun, too,” Pappas said with a laugh. “I’m down for that. I’m pretty realistic about my own skill set in poker and I don’t have an ego. I’m not going to be one of those guys who blows all their money trying to be the best. I know it sounds crazy that I don’t have a plan, but that’s just how I choose to live my life.” ♠