Father's Day gift fuels Schaffel's run to the Main Event final table
By Gary Trask
It was about a year ago at this time when Kevin Schaffel met Phil Ivey for the first time. Schaffel was in the clubhouse eating lunch at Shadow Creek, the renowned Las Vegas golf course, when he spotted Ivey sitting a few tables away.
As Ivey got up to head to the practice range, Schaffel walked over to him and explained that he was a scratch golfer and a new player in the world of professional poker. He offered to trade Ivey golf lessons for poker lessons, straight up.
Ivey responded with a laugh and a smile and then said, "Thanks, but not thanks."
As it turns out, Ivey's decision to pass on giving Schaffel lessons may have been one of his better reads in the last year. Because in a few weeks, Schaffel and Ivey will meet again, except this time in a less intimate setting. The two players will be sitting right next to each other at the World Series of Poker Main Event final table in front of thousands of poker fans at the Penn & Teller Theater with $8.5 million at stake.
"I'll remind Phil about our last conversation," laughs Schaffel, who will begin the final table with the sixth-highest stack (12,390,000), just ahead of Ivey, who has 9,765,000, and well behind chip-leader Darvin Moon (58,930,000). "I'm sure he won't remember, but I'll tell him the offer still stands."
Ivey will likely decline once again. But if you take a look at what Schaffel has accomplished at the poker table during the last year, you get the feeling he's going to be just fine. Not only was Schaffel one of just nine players to survive a field of 6,494 and advance to the Main Event final table, but during the four-month break leading up to the second-annual November Nine, Schaffel has continued to run hot.
After leaving Las Vegas with a check worth more than $1.2 million for making the final table, Schaffel took second place just weeks later at the World Poker Tour's $9,800 No Limit Championship Event in Los Angeles, earning him $471,670. Also at the final table at the WPT event was another '09 November Niner, Steven Begleiter. Then in early October he went to London for the European Poker Tour's £5,000 No-Limit Main Event and took home £17,000 after placing 19th in a field of 730 that included former Main Event champs Peter Eastgate and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, as well as 2009 WSOP Player of the Year Jeffery Lisandro.
"It's been a nice run, no doubt about it," says Schaffel, who turns 52 next week. "It just goes to show how streaky poker can be. Before the World Series, I was running pretty bad. Now I have a chance to win the Main Event. It's amazing."
The dreadful streak that Schaffel endured in the months leading up the World Series was as bad as he's ever experienced as a poker player. It lasted a solid four-to-five months and most of the money he lost came in cash games. He credits a Father's Day gift from his son Jeremy, 20, and daughter Melanie, 18, for helping him snap out of the funk.
Jeremy had recently read the best-selling book "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne. The premise of the book is that "every human being has the ability to transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power, perfect peace, health, and abundance."
"The book really helped me and I knew my father was having a tough run and needed some kind of boost," explains Jeremy, who had recently been forced to give up a hockey career due to a series of concussions.
Jeremy and Melanie came up with the idea to Photoshop their father's face onto a photo of Eastgate holding up piles of money after he won the Main Event last year. They presented the photo to Schaffel on Father's Day, just as he was getting ready to leave for the World Series.
"I don't even know if they realize it, but I put that picture in my wallet and I've been carrying it with me ever since," says Schaffel, who at one point during the Main Event got a hearty laugh out of Eastgate when he showed him the photo. "I look at it every time I sit down at the poker table. I guess the power of positive thinking really works.
"Who knows?" Schaffel continues. "Maybe if I go on to win the Main Event, I'll get invited to go on Oprah."
Once the Main Event started, Schaffel had to draw on that positive energy earlier than he expected. During Level 2 of Day 1, Schaffel's stack was dangerously thin at 25,000 chips when he picked up pocket 10s and hit a set on the flop (8-10-J). He pushed all-in, putting his Main Event life at risk, and his opponent insta-called with 7-9 and a made straight.
"Normally I would have started to pack up my stuff and get ready to walk away because it looked pretty grim," Schaffel says. "But for some reason I didn't that day. I remained calm and I just had a feeling I was going to survive."
When a Jack came out on the river, he did just that thanks to a full house.
"All of a sudden I'm back to 50 thousand chips and about five minutes later I had it up to 80 thousand," he says. "About an hour after that I was well over 100 (thousand) and I never had an all-in moment that put me at risk for the rest of the tournament.
"On Day 3, I got moved to another table and when I got there I sat down with my four trays of chips and I looked up and saw the guy who I beat with that miracle full house. He looked at me and said, 'Aren't you the guy I should have knocked out on Day 1?' We laughed about it, because he was right. I was lucky to still be alive."
But truth be told, Schaffel's ability to ride through the tough times before the WSOP and make it all the way to the Main Event final table is probably more of a testament to his even-keel demeanor, rather than the power of positive thinking.
"I've never seen him get upset," says Jeremy. "Not once my entire life."
Schaffel says his calm disposition helps him with more than just poker. It was a huge benefit to him in his professional life before he became a full time poker player and it's especially helpful on the golf course, the one place where he admits he occasionally gets a bit heated. He also thinks his age, experience and demeanor will aid him when he sits down at the final table on Nov. 7.
"A lot of people ask me if I feel old because I'm going to be the oldest guy at the final table, and the answer is no," he says. "I think my age will actually help me. I think I'm a very patient person. I know how to sit at a poker table for four hours without getting any cards and refusing to get rattled. I play against a lot of younger people who can't go 45 minutes without getting frustrated."
Maybe Schaffel is so calm because right now in the game of life he's playing with the house's money. He's making a great living as a professional poker player with nearly $2 million in career earnings. He spends much of his free time on the golf course playing at least two or three times a week. He also enjoys racquetball and playing gin rummy. And since his divorce in 2006, he travels to northern Florida as much as possible to visit his children, who both attend college in the area.
"I'm very blessed to be doing what I'm doing," he says. "But I feel as though I paid my dues. I worked hard my entire life and now it's paying off."
After graduating from North Miami Beach High School in 1975, Schaffel attended Florida State and earned his degree in 1979. His father had started a family direct mail and printing business in 1952 and that's where Schaffel worked right out of college. He also started to get into golf after graduating from college and along with a friend he joined TPC at Eagle Trace in Coral Springs.
It was a time before he got married or had kids so he spent as much time as possible on the golf course. When he joined Eagle Trace in 1986 he was a 12-handicap. But after regularly playing with a bunch of guys were single-digit handicaps for a couple of years, he had his handicap down to scratch.
"It's just like poker; the more you play with people who are better than you, the better you get at it," says Schaffel, who is still a member at Eagle Trace and estimates he has won a piece of the stroke or match play club championship six times.
In addition to fine-tuning his golf game during those years, Schaffel also became more involved with the family business in Hialeah, Florida and before long he was running the company. But in 2008 he saw the writing on the wall. The economy was just beginning to decline and the printing industry was also about to crater. He knew the time was right to try something else.
"I was starting to feel burned out and I was wondering if there was anything else out there for me to do with my life," he explains. "So I started to play more poker. My trips to Vegas started lasting 10 to 12 days instead of five days or a week. I realized that I really could do this for a living so I just went for it."
Schaffel, who has also been an avid online player for more than 10 years, lived the ups and downs of a poker pro for the next year. He cashed at the 2008 Main Event when he finished 324th and earned just over $32,000. He had varied success until the dry run just before this year's WSOP that really tested him as a player.
"I withstood a really tough time and I think today I'm a better poker player because of it," he says firmly.
Schaffel decided not to go out and hire a coach during the final table pause. But he did befriend last year's third-place finisher Dennis Phillips over the last few months. The two first met when the WSOP asked Phillips to speak to this year's edition of the November Nine in July right after the final table was decided. Then while in London for the EPT event, Phillips and Schaffel went out to dinner almost every night with a group of other poker pros. They have also corresponded via text and e-mail during the break.
"He's been very helpful," Schaffel said of Phillips, who had the biggest fan base watching him at last year's final table and seemed to relish the big spotlight. "He's been there before and he handled it very well. He's a great guy to speak to about how to handle this whole thing."
While Schaffel has leaned on Phillips and others to help him learn how to deal with the away-from-the-table parts of the November Nine experience, he is not planning on changing his approach to the game of poker. He's a firm believer in doing what he's always done because it's got him this far.
"I'm hoping I can double up at least once early on; I think that's what all of us short stacks are going to try and do," says Schaffel,. "I can play my game for a while, but what you want to avoid is falling all the way down 30 big blinds or so. You've got to try and build a stack before you get to that point. But I really feel that the player who gets the best cards is going to win. Hopefully it will be me."
Win or lose, Schaffel says he intends on enjoying the entire experience. He'll have close to 100 friends and relatives in attendance and he says that's what he likes best about the long delay.
"I'm a big proponent of the break just because it's going to enable me to have so many people that are close to me out there to enjoy the experience with me," he says. "This is really a lifetime experience; something I'll probably never go through again. It's like a reality TV show that I don't want to end. So I'm going to go out to Vegas, play some golf, have some fun with my friends and then try and win eight million dollars at the poker table. Who wouldn't want that kind of opportunity?"