Some dads dream of seeing their sons grow up to be New York Yankees. Some dads dream of seeing their sons grow up to be doctors or lawyers. Some dads teach their sons to play poker.
That story is a poker tournament trope. You can hear it once a day if you listen hard enough. To wit, the WPT’s Vince Van Patten pulled it out here at the WPT World Championship at the Wynn this week. “Some dads play catch with their sons in the backyard,” Van Patten said. His dad, the legendary actor Dick Van Patten, taught his boy how to play cards.
A lot of dads might think, it’s never too soon to start. Turns out, a lot of sons might think, it’s never too late.
I’m a sucker for a dad story, and I’m especially a sucker for a dad story about poker. My old man bought my first crib with poker winnings, or at least that’s how the family legend goes. I like to think my first dreams were poker dreams on a poker-bought mattress and that I just never grew out of it..
On the first day of the WPT World Championship, my friend and fellow poker media veteran Robbie Strazynski asked me if I had a second to talk. He led me down a hallway to shake his dad Josef’s hand.
I’d seen Robbie talk online about this dream trip with his father from Israel where they both live. After all, Josef taught an eight-year-old Robbie how to play poker, and they have played together ever since.
I complimented Josef on the son he’d raised, and Josef said, “The best thing about coming to Las Vegas is hearing people say nice things about my son.”
As a father of two sons, I know that feeling. I get uncomfortable if someone offers me a compliment, but if someone wants to talk about how great my boys are, I’ll sit down and listen forever.
My dad died 11 years ago when he was 64, so I’d not thought much about what it would’ve been like to be in Vegas with my 75-year-old dad this week. Nor had I thought anything about what it might have felt like for him to see pride in my eyes while I watched him play the game he taught me.
No, I’d not thought a thing about that until I looked up and saw Robbie sweating a table of the Day 1B flight of the WPT World Championship. I looked closer and realized Robbie wasn’t watching over the entire tournament. He was watching one player on that one table.
He was watching the man who taught him to play cards when he was eight years old.
Josef Strazynski was playing one of the biggest no-limit hold’em poker tournaments of the year. That wasn’t the incredible thing.
What stood out about Josef?
“He’s a mixed game player. He’s been playing cash games for 40 years. All mixed games,” Robbie said. “This is his first tournament.”
Old timer, first timer
For the unfamiliar, cash games and tournaments are two different animals, and poker has its specialists in both. Though the analogy doesn’t thoroughly track, it’s something akin to medicine. A brain surgeon could probably pull off a heart surgery, but if you had to put your life and brain on the line, you’d probably go with the doctor who spent a career operating inside the skull.
So, obviously, Josef–even after a lifetime of poker experience–was nervous. Robbie chronicled the journey to this point here.
“He’s been practicing and feeling the typical jitters,” Robbie said. “He’s been hitting the books like he was in medical school.”
Josef practiced tournaments with play money online. The day before the World Championship, Josef went to Bally’s Horseshoe to play in a cheap daily tournament, just to get a feel for how it feels to play in a live tournament setting.
Josef got a lesson from poker pro Jonathan Little. He got advice and encouragement from longtime friends in the game. He used a subscription to LearnWPT. He did all he could do get ready.
Sure, he wanted to do well, but one could also believe Josef was working hard to do well because he wanted to impress the person who got him into the tournament to begin with.
Earlier this year, the WPT asked fans to nominate someone from their family to take a dream trip to Las Vegas and play in what has become a tournament with a $25 million-dollar prize pool.
Robbie went all out with his nomination while privately nursing a pipe dream. Not the dream of playing in the tournament himself, but instead watching his dad play on the world stage.
This is how that turned out.
So, the journey began. The practice. The journey. The parties. The tournament.
And more than anything, the pride.
Life, in real time
Sometimes dad stories are made up of nothing but memories, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Occasionally, all-too-rarely, dad stories get to happen in real time.
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Poker is wins and losses, games upon games. Vacations and trips happen when you can make them happen. Money and effort can buy all of those things. But money doesn’t buy a father’s pride in his son, nor does it buy a son’s pride for his father. Those things are earned with interest in real time. Today, tomorrow, and as long as you can make the game last.
Robbie earned his dad’s pride time and again, and that led to Josef playing here this week. And Josef once again earned the pride of his son. At 74 years old, Josef could have slept through the weeks before this event and just enjoyed the trip. Instead, he worked like he was studying for his medical license again.
“I got to witness him preparing for this,” Robbie said. And that was all he needed to say for me to know what he meant.
Yeah, I’m a sucker for a dad story, and even if Josef’s tournament day didn’t end the way he wanted, that really isn’t the point, is it?
There is an age a man reaches, I suppose, at which he could reasonably expect his father to just relax and enjoy his advanced age. There is an age at which a son may grow out of his childhood pride for his father and focus on his own life.
There must be something quite special in being a grown man with a wife, career, and family and still being up to look up to your dad with pride.
There must be some special responsibility a father feels that extends beyond simply raising a son to also being a hard-working and dedicated father all the way to the end.
There must be something beyond the trope of “my dad taught me to play poker” that transforms into a relationship neither father nor son ever expects.
That something must be pride, a father’s and a son’s. For life and forever.