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Severn resident and Chesapeake assistant baseball coach Chris Kojack fulfills bucket list item at World Series of Poker

Chris Kojack’s dream week ended with $86,000 and a hunger to return. It began decades ago in a hotel room with the UMBC baseball team.

Several Retrievers piled into a room every night during the 1992 NCAA regionals to play poker for each other’s dinner money. Multiple notable members of the poker scene would emerge from those nights, including Kojack.

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Nearly 30 years later, the Severn resident rose from gambling between teammates to the biggest poker level in the world — the 2022 World Series of Poker Main Event, held in Las Vegas July 3-16. Out of 8,663 contenders — 2,000 more than the year before and the second-largest field in tournament history — Kojack, a government contractor and assistant coach for the Chesapeake baseball team, finished 89th, walking away with a net gain of $83,600. Clad in a Chesapeake baseball jacket and a blue cap, he was the top finisher from Maryland, which included three of his own clubmates.

“I didn’t feel like I’d done all that,” Kojack said, “but top 100 out of almost 9,000 people is an accomplishment I’m very proud of.”

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The World Series of Poker Main Event, crowing the year’s world champion, is contested over a game of No Limit Texas Hold ‘em. The grand tournament requires a $10,000 buy-in from every player, but Kojack plays for a monthly poker club that only needs two things to send their top four to Vegas: $200 every third Friday and enough points from winning monthly games.

While Kojack refined his craft over half his life, money held the door closed between him and getting to Vegas. But by the end of his year with his club, Kojack only spent $2,400 to get to his dream.

“I went to the club thinking this could fulfill my bucket list thing and see how good I really am compared to people around the world,” Kojack said. “To flip the professionals around.”

Kojack didn’t just jump from the lowest level to the penthouse. He had kids a few years out of college who needed him more than he needed to be traveling for poker. So instead, Kojack cut his teeth on online poker sites loading $100 on a credit card and competing in $10 battles.

Casinos soon opened in the region, first in Delaware, then Maryland Live! opened in Hanover in 2012. For Kojack, returning to physical tables became a little easier, and his game kept getting better.

Nine thousand people crowded the poker rooms at Bally’s and Paris hotels, a blend of true amateurs, semi-professionals such as Kojack and true professionals. Kojack was actually glad to have the latter category sitting at his tables, harder as they were. They upped the stakes.

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“Because I’ve been playing poker long enough, I started to realize Day 3 I was getting all professionals and maybe one amateur,” Kojack said. “They’re the guys you want to be in the pots with.”

Friends who competed in the World Series before gave Kojack tips to stay out of unnecessary spots and play his game, which gave him confidence. But what he hadn’t been prepared for — what no one could really prepare for — were the unrelenting hours.

Most tournaments around Maryland typically take 20 to 45 minutes at most, Kojack said. The first few days of the World Series Main Event, Kojack put in 10 hours with little breaks here and there; the third day, close to 13. Thirteen hours of nearly nonstop patience and focus.

“You just keep focusing on what’s going on, thinking about it all, just watching for tells, what hand is this guy playing, what is he raising, what’s that guy doing?” he said. “You’re keeping constant mental notes, and it’s a lot of mental work.”

What Kojack realized very quickly through the first few days was that he couldn’t win the first day, nor the second. It was safer to fold than risk losing. Then came the sixth day — Kojack’s last.

Kojack entered the day with 60 big blinds, or forced bets: $1.7 million in chips. He rode his patience again, winning a few more hands to up his stack to $2.6 million. Around him, the magnitude of how far he’d gotten in the tournament could be felt. The room, which previously housed so many people Kojack couldn’t twitch without brushing a human, now spread the final 10 tables far apart. He could physically see his 100 obstacles to the end. He intended to make it to Day 7.

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“It’s like, ‘Wow, I could do this,’” Kojack said. “The first couple days was just surviving, not even mentally thinking you’re gonna win. … Day 6, I was almost there.”

The last man from Maryland put in his ante. The table folded to Kojack, in his arsenal were an ace, nine of diamonds and enough chips to cover 14 big blinds. The payout jumped to $86,000 guaranteed for anyone who busted out of the tournament, but a chance much, much more to those who didn’t.

Kojack went all in, hoping to pick up a few more blinds or other innocuous results. Just survive, move on. The cameras turned on Kojack. He hit a nine. Behind him, Victor Li, holding an ace and a 10, hit a 10. And then another 10.

“I was dead in the water,” Kojack said.

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Right away, Kojack called his wife, Patricia, who he said has been his biggest supporter since they met in 2009. Emotion washed over him as he told her he busted out. He hadn’t realized the adrenaline he was on until the supply stopped. But the happiest moment of the entire week was yet to come.

Unbeknownst to Kojack, his sons Ridge and Taylor had been following their dad’s progress online. They’d never called him after a tournament before, but after their father finished in the top 100 in the world, they called Kojack to congratulate him.

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“That made my whole day,” Kojack said. “My kids are my whole world and they were so supportive of me.”

At the tournament, Kojack digested compliments from professionals on his style, his patience. When he returned home to Maryland Live!, at least 75 people approached Kojack with praise. It’s given Kojack confidence, for sure, enough to sustain on for the next 12 months. Kojack reckons a hunger will bore at him until he returns to Vegas next year. He’s hugged so many of his athletes suffering playoff losses, trying to give as much condolence as he could, praising them for getting as far as they did.

Now, he really understands.

“I have a lot to do to push past that to next year,” Kojack said. “And I plan on trying to push past and go even further next year.”


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