Local poker professional wins big in Vegas

June 20, 2011 — The World Spectator

Moosomin native Tyler Bonkowski’s perfect poker face has led him all the way to the top at the world’s biggest poker event.

The World Series of Poker is a big deal, with more than 70,000 participants competing for more than $180,000,000 in prize money. Surrounded by ESPN cameras and live streaming online, players compete for more than just money—but for poker’s most prized possession, a WSOP bracelet. Playing in the Limit Hold ‘Em event last week, Bonkowski sat at a poker table, with a worldwide audience, and put it all on the table.

“After day two, there were 18 players left, I was third in chips and I was thinking ‘I’ve got a really good shot at winning’,” he says in an interview from his Las Vegas condo. “Then when it got down to four players, I was chip leader and I was sure I would win . . . but anything can happen still. It doesn’t matter who the best player is, there is still a lot of luck involved.”

After eliminating more than 300 players throughout the tournament, Bonkowski found himself face-to-face with his final opponent.

“We started off heads-up, but then he got up to a 12:1 chip lead, so things weren’t looking good,” says Bonkowski,“But I still thought ‘This is destiny, I did not come here to get second.’ “

With his sights set on winning, Bonkowski had more than just cards on his mind. He wanted to take down his opponent and prove himself to the audience.

“The atmosphere for the final table, there was probably 20 or 30 players cheering for this other guy, and I had one of my buddies in my corner and that was it,” says Bonkowski.

“I just wanted to silence the crowd, because they were cheering every time he won a hand and it was dead silent for me.”

And the underdog came out on top— Bonkowski won the final hand, his K-10 trumping his opponent’s K-Q after the dealer revealed a 10. The win came along with $220, 817, a coveted WSOP gold bracelet and Championship bragging rights. Bonkowski is thrilled with his winnings, but says the cash wasn’t his only motivation to do well.

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“It wasn’t so much about the money. I was happy with anything in the top four for a payout—once I was in the top four I just had to win,” he says. “I just had to come out as the winner of the tournament.”

“The bracelet is also big, and I know a lot of my friends and family were watching so I didn’t want to fall short, I wanted to do it for them too.”

Adding to the loot that came along with victory, Bonkowski was the first Canadian to win a series tournament this year at the world- renown Las Vegas showdown. Although he exuded confidence and came out on top, Bonkowski started out shaky at the World Series.

“Starting in the tournament, I was kind of miserable,” he says. “I had just lost a tournament, and some big money. I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t have registered for this.” But as he gained confidence, his playing hand improved and Bonkowski pushed forward in the tournament.

“Things just fell into place the way they should.” he says.

And as things fell into place, money fell into Bonkowski’s hands. What will he do with the six figure sum?

“Nothing in particular. I have a house and that was my biggest goal money-wise —to get a house and be comfortable,” he says. “So now I’m going to continue playing poker and I don’t have one special thing that I will go out and spend it on.”

This wasn’t Bonkowski’s first time playing his hand at the World Series. Last year he won a total of $19,710 in three different events. Also winning a at a number of other international tournaments, Bonkowski is gaining some major attention in the poker network. But it’s more than just talent that is leading the young poker pro to the top. His poker face might have something to do with it too.

“I think it’s pretty stone cold,” says Bonkowski. “I’ve got some compliments before from pros in Australia that said ‘If I could just have that poker face, I would be unstoppable.’ I don’t give off too much emotion or anything.”

Although he is now playing in the most major international poker tournaments, Bonkowski started his career as a university student, experimenting with the card game and looking for some extra cash.

“Me and my friend Kurt Russell from Moosomin were living together in Regina and we had just finished moving . . . we sat down and started watching poker on TV, and it was the World Series,” Bonkowski remembers.

“Once we got back to Moosomin for the summer, we started playing home games. I wanted to be better than everybody. I’m pretty competitive, so I bought a strategy book and that ended up making me a little bit better.”

As he learned more about the game and improved his skills, Bonkowski decided to try playing poker online.

“I deposited 20 bucks and within a year. I turned that 20 into a few thousand,” he says.

His confidence continued to build, and before he knew it Bonkowski had caught poker fever. The young student quit school and his job to pursue the game as a career. Although it was a risky move, Bonkowski is happy with his gamble.

“It worked out really well,” he says.”There have been lots an ups and downs along the way—I have failed a ton of times but you just never quit. And as long as you think you’re good, you’re probably good.”

He admits that being a professional poker player is very unpredictable and he compares it to flipping a coin, but he does his best to keep his spirits high, even when he’s losing.

“The biggest downside is that you never know whether you’re going to win or lose going into a day, you just know that overall in the long run you should be ahead,” says Bonkowski.

“It’s easier to handle if you’re just having a bad day, but if you’re having a long streak, it can be quite tough.” But Bonkowski has no regrets with his choice to pursue the game of chips and chance. “None whatsoever. I am extremely happy with my choices and I always think that if I want to go back to school I can go instantly.”

“If I want to do something else I always can, I like having that option.” Bonkowski will continue to try his hand at winning some more money, and maybe another bracelet. Over the course of the World Series, he will play in about 20 tournaments, in addition to the five or six tournaments he plays at international venues during the year.

“There are tournaments here every day until the middle of July, and then there is the final event, so I’ll be here for that time,” he says.“After that I’ll probably relax in Regina for the summer and get back to the tournament grind.”

At 26, Bonkowski has bluffed his way to the top, and gained championship status at the biggest poker event in the world, but he certainly doesn’t plan on folding anytime soon.

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