Ronnie Pasztor, co-owner of Sticky Rice in Fells Point, is one of 12 Marylanders going to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas after winning a tournament at the Horseshoe Casino.
Ronnie Pasztor, co-owner of Sticky Rice in Fells Point, is one of 12 Marylanders going to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas after winning a tournament at the Horseshoe Casino. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The hospitality industry, unfairly or not, bears a reputation for work-hard-play-hard debauchery, degeneracy, vice and fiscal irresponsibility by both its patrons and employees. Despite owning a popular restaurant and loving poker, Ronnie Pasztor doesn’t embody or identify with that stereotype.

“I wouldn’t consider myself an overly risky person” he said during an interview in early May at Sticky Rice, the Asian-meets-pub-fare-fusion spot he co-owns in Fells Point.

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Seated in a private room with graffiti-covered walls, Pasztor, 42, cuts the image of a service industry lifer. His intense eyes and demonstrative gesticulation suggest the gregariousness of someone used to managing the front and back of the house. But Pasztor, self-employed since coming to Baltimore from southern California almost a decade ago, is an accountant by trade who knows he can’t bet the farm on poker.

“I never bought into a game trying to pay rent, buy food or pay my employees,” he said. “As far as risk is concerned, I would never scratch together $10,000 to go play when I didn’t just have $10,000.”

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That’s the sum Pasztor would have had to pay to buy into the no-limit Texas hold’em competition at the 50th World Series of Poker, which starts Wednesday in Las Vegas, had he not won a spot through a satellite tournament at the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino. Games with smaller buy-ins that kicked off May 29 all lead up to this contest, also known as the “Main Event,” at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.

The international media circus surrounding the world’s premiere poker competition largely revolves around prior winners like Scott Blumstein and John Cynn, as well as celebrity competitors like Jennifer Tilly and Ben Affleck that lend it popular appeal. The bright lights shine far less on the likes of Pasztor and others who play for reasons other than the glory and fortunes. He joins 12 other Marylanders who the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino sent to compete.

The Baltimore Sun spoke to Pasztor and two other such competitors to learn more about what leads normal people, without tremendous wealth or credit lines, to get good enough to compete at poker’s most prestigious event.

Pasztor’s love of poker began in his early 20s, with small games among friends at wine gardens or local casinos in California. “We used to play all the time, in home games,” he said. He took a break after his daughter’s birth, returning to it after several years and a move to Baltimore, where he picked it back up at the Horseshoe. He cited the arc and problem-solving poker requires as part of the draw after all those years.

“I enjoy the strategy and the story of it,” he said. “It’s really interesting, because you’ll watch ‘World Poker Tour’ and other tournaments on TV, and that’s never the whole story.”

He noted that tournaments can last much longer than what TV networks will broadcast; for instance, during the final table at last year’s Main Event, the last two competitors played each other for over 10 hours.

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“Any casual poker fan will watch the shorter, cut-down [version], because there’s a lot of folding,” he said. “When you edit it down to two hours [or so], there are so many storylines leading up to that that you don’t see.”

Alex Sofillas, a 26-year-old high school teacher in Rockville, began playing card games at home and used his dad’s online account before the Department of Justice made most online gambling illegal.

“Then, all throughout high school and college, I was trying to play with my friends as much as possible,” he said. “When I finally turned 21, I started going to casinos, and when I realized I could win more than I lose, [I realized] that it was a fun hobby to have.”

Michael Mather, conversely, only got into poker in the fall of 2010. The 58-year-old resident of Manchester in Carroll County, who runs a small drywall business, got into a home game that an assistant coach on his daughter’s softball team hosted. “That was my first introduction to losing money,” he said, laughing.

Like Pasztor, Mather and Sofillas both became good enough to compete at the WSOP by practicing through playing. This may appear counterintuitive, given how much money one can lose on the way – which isn’t lost on any of these contenders.

“This buy-in represents about one sixth of my salary, which is pretty crazy,” Sofillas said. “[But] I’ve never played out of my means. I have separate money that I’ve accumulated over the last five to seven years that is just for this.”

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Although most popular media depicts the casino floor as a place to drink recklessly through a game’s highs and lows, Mather said that his desire to get better actually helped him moderate his problem drinking.

“I was coming off of 20 years of a DJ business and … drinking heavily,” he said. “Poker is, I’d consider, a lifesaver for me, because when I started playing and enjoying it, I realized that I was pretty good at it, but I wasn’t when I was continuing my habit. So I completely stopped drinking and that’s as long-running as my poker life.”

Mather added that he avoids the free-flowing alcohol that casinos make available in order to keep that competitive edge.

All three players qualified for the WSOP through a satellite, or qualifying competition, at Horseshoe Baltimore – one of several casinos within the empire of Caesars Entertainment, another of whose subsidiaries runs the WSOP. This was another strategic decision for Pasztor.

“Anyone can show up and play $10,000 in Vegas,” Pasztor said. When asked why he chose to do the Horseshoe satellite, he simply responded, “The opportunity to pay $250 instead of $10,000.”

Pasztor and Mather met through the satellite and formed what the latter calls “an instant friendship.” Despite the competitive stakes, neither of the three players expect to win the grand total.

“The hardest thing for me in poker is focusing on what the other person has – why did they call that bet? What do they have that they’re calling this bet?” he added.

Ultimately, none of these men plan or even hope to become millionaires in Vegas in the coming week. Many players, like Pasztor, simply seek a fun and exciting challenge.

“I’m not going to the World Series of Poker to try to change my life,” he said. “I’m going to really enjoy the experience.”

“I’m just going to concentrate on playing the best, hopefully, five-plus days of poker that I’ve ever played,” Mather said. “I’m really going to lean into this, try to make my family proud and represent myself well.”

Check out if these Marylanders or your other favorite players make the telecast when ESPN and ESPN2 air the main event starting July 3. Find the full schedule at ESPN.com. Those itching to watch other WSOP events can do so via CBS All Access and PokerGo.

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