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A Poker Life -- Will Failla

Failla Hustles His Way To The Top Of The Tournament Circuit


Will FaillaFor many people around the world, poker used to be thought of as a way to escape from your day-to-day life, have a drink with your friends, and tell some dirty jokes. With the rise of televised poker, we saw the game go from a lighthearted pastime to a serious competition, full of stoic professionals who sat mostly silent and observed their opponents.

Sitting silently is the last thing Will Failla does at a poker table. The boisterous East coaster can be heard from around the room as he wisecracks, interrogates and laughs his way to the bank, raking in $2.8 million in tournament earnings. He recently won his biggest title to date, taking down the World Poker Tour Legends of Poker main event for $758,085. With five final tables so far this year, he is also in the running for the 2011 Card Player Player of the Year title.

Like many in the poker world, Failla is a self-made man. He came from a modest household to where he is today through hard work, dedication and entrepreneurial savvy. If “The Thrill” has anything to say about it, he is just getting started. This is his story.

Putting In Work

Born Emmanuel Failla, Will was the son of an iron worker and a seamstress who moved from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island where Will was born and grew up. After graduating from high school, Failla attended Nassau Community College for two years. While many young men Failla’s age were still putting off work as they decided what field they wanted to enter, he had already been at it for years.

“I was in business right away,” said Failla. “You know, I was a hustler, making money any way I could. I was selling things. Not drugs or anything like that, but what in my neighborhood they called ‘swag.’ I would sell swag, hustle things, do whatever I could to make money. You know what I mean? I was in the landscaping business as a kid, and was working in three different gas stations at a time. When I had a day off at one I worked in another. So I was hustling, right out of the gates. I already owned two houses at that age.”

Will FaillaFailla wasn’t working for extra spending money, however, he was working to help out his family, which was struggling to make ends meet. “My father died four days before I was born,” he said. “My mother was left with four kids, no money, no job and a mortgage. I had to grow up quickly and do what I could to help.”

After graduating, Failla took the money from his various jobs and opened a carpeting and flooring store. ”I started with one, just a small store, and I grew it into a chain of six stores. Then I kept buying houses with whatever money I had. I was twenty-six years old, still lived at home with mommy, but I owned like eight rental houses at the time.” The same drive for financial independence that made Failla successful in business would soon find another outlet, one which would make him a notable poker pro with millions in winnings.

Poker and the Birth of “The Thrill”

While investing in real estate and running his other businesses, Failla would sometimes make trips to nearby casinos to indulge in some high-stakes wagering. “The only thing I did at the casino was play Baccarat,” Failla recalled. “My average bet was like $1,500 a hand in those days. I was always a gambler, and then all of a sudden one of my friends invited me to a home game to play poker.”

Will watched his friends play and tried to learn from them. He liked the game, and quickly found himself playing poker all the time. “The game in New York then was stud. Seven-card stud or sometimes five-card draw. Those were the only two games that were really played. People couldn’t even spell Texas hold’em in Long Island back then.”

He continued to play for years as he ran his businesses, all the time being known simply as Will, as he had not yet acquired his now famous and integral nickname. It was one of his lady friends, however, not a fellow poker pro, that gave him his moniker.

“That all started with a girl I used to hang out with,” he remembered. “She just called me ‘the thrill.’ She happened to be with me one day in the poker room, watching me play. I won a big hand and she said to the table, ‘That’s why I call him the thrill.’ All of my friends started making jokes, making fun of me, and before I knew it everyone was calling me the thrill. On Long Island they were just busting my balls, but before I knew it my poker friends were calling me that and it stuck. Now at the end of the day at a tournament when I sign my chip bag I put Will ‘The Thrill’ on there because it’s been good luck for me.”

Becoming A Touring Pro

Will FaillaLike so many others, he ended up being drawn even deeper into the poker world after watching Chris Moneymaker win the 2003 World Series of Poker main event. “I didn’t start playing tournaments until Greg Raymer won. I started the next year at the World Series of Poker. I hadn’t played one hand of hold’em up to that point of my life.”

Failla experienced some decent early success playing tournaments, but kept the game a hobby until he scored a breakthrough at the 2007 WPT Foxwoods Poker Classic. In the span of one week, Failla cashed four times in preliminary events, making three final tables and winning a $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em event for $207,968.

“In the last event, I went heads-up with Kathy Liebert and I was able to beat her,” Failla remembered. “I knew that she was one of the best players in the world and I beat her fair and square. There were no suck outs or anything. After that, I told myself that maybe I really had a shot at this. You always have that insecurity, until you really beat someone that you know can play the game.” After that, Failla sold his businesses, except for his real estate interests, and became a touring pro on the poker circuit. The life of a traveling professional is exciting, but not always easy. The weeks on the road can be tough for anybody, but they are especially hard when they draw you away from the ones you love.

“I’m a divorced father,” Failla said. “My son is ten years old. My best times are spent with him. He’s my friend, believe it or not. I can actually say that my son is my friend. Everything I do is for him.” Failla does the best he can to balance his traveling schedule with his son’s, trying to align their free time, but the life of a tournament pro calls for sacrifices to be made.

“I hate being away from my house,” he explained. “I love being home with my kid. But, I also love what I do for a living. It’s a true statement when they say that poker is the hardest way to make an easy living. I hate living out of a suitcase, and I’m in hotels 30 weeks out of the year. One day I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream, and I looked around and didn’t know where I was. I said, ‘Where the f—k am I? Am I in Vegas? No, I think I’m in L.A.’ It took like ten minutes to realize I was in Atlantic City. All the hotel rooms start to look the same after awhile.”

A Legend of Poker

While there are certainly strains put on the professional poker pro on the road, there are also great rewards. Failla had built up more than $2 million in lifetime earnings over several successful years on the circuit, but he still lacked that one shining marquee win. All of that changed when he took down the $3,700 buy-in WPT Legends of Poker main event, adding a career-best $758,085 to his winnings. Failla topped a tough 757-player field to earn his first major title.

“It was the greatest feeling of my poker career, the only thing that could have made it better was if I could have had my poker friends from the east coast there.”

Despite the sizable field and the quality competition, Failla said that the tournament went relatively smoothly. “It was easy up until one of the later days, when I got pocket kings all in against pocket tens. I flopped a set of kings on an all diamond board, and Ray [Henson] sucked out with the ten of diamonds. In the old days when I used to get those hands in key spots like that, my morale would go down dramatically. I stayed positive this time, and just didn’t let it bother me.” From that point on, Failla played well and things just seemed to go his way. “I ended up getting lucky at the final table twice myself, which didn’t suck. Now I really can’t complain when the cards don’t fall my way.”

Moving Forward

Will FaillaIt appears that Failla isn’t addicted to poker, but instead is addicted to working. Just as he opted to pick up another shift at a gas station on his days off as a young man, the adult Failla isn’t using the biggest win of his career as an excuse to rest, but more as a spark to light an even hotter fire under him. Except now, his motivation isn’t for himself, it’s to provide his son with everything he will ever need.

Within days of winning in Los Angeles, Failla was in southern Oklahoma playing another tournament on his way back to the east coast. The next week he was in France, playing the Partouche Poker Tour main event. Unsurprisingly, he made another deep run, with a 14th-place finish worth €45,000. With five final tables in 2011, Failla now finds himself within striking distance of the Card Player Player of the Year title.



over 10 years ago

It's often the case that most poker celebrities that rise to notoriety
do so as a result of a unique abberation or extended lucky hot streak. As a result many of them tend to be one dimensional and often quite boring, with minimal contributions to the poker community and industry at large. There are actually few that shine as luminaries in one's poker mind as great poker branding assets that are good for the inside game and outside public awareness and perception.

No so when it comes to Will. Will's rise brings a much needed appreciation of a special kind of core DNA that is structured by many of the qualities that make a great champion. The poker media at large would do well to take notice of; and, leverage the special brand of passion and perseverence that drives players like Will.

I hope that luck continues to favor Will long enough for time to show that his rise may be a nautral evolution of one of poker's hidden assets about to emerge.

Joe Cortese