You are going to react to Robert Salaburu. You might like him or you might not. You might approve of his tableside antics or you might not. You might love the way he snap-makes his decisions or hate how he calls other players names at the table, but one way or another, you'll have a powerful reaction to him. He's just not the kind of guy who fades into the woodwork.
Salaburu is a force. "I'm vocal and like to have a good time," he effusively told ESPN. "I'm not a shy guy. Either people like me or they really don't. That's just the way I am. That's who I am."
He's also a member of the World Series of Poker's final table, perhaps the least likely of all because he wasn't going to play. It's an amazing, beyond the numbers story that the 27-year-old San Antonio native has made it to this incredible moment in his life. The product of a single-parent family, the professional poker player grew up without a lot of money.
"Mom raised me," Salaburu recalled. "She was everything. She had me when she was 40, got divorced a year later and me and my brother went with her. She raised me. She went back to school and got an education It was a new world. My brother was 11 years older than me, so she went back, got trained as a teacher [and] they don't make a lot of money. I give her all the credit in the world. Yeah, she did everything. We didn't have a lot of money, but it never felt like that was an issue. We ate every night I just didn't feel it. Now, I lose the kind of money in a month she made in a year. She knew how to make a dollar stretch. She was teaching at private schools, so I was getting a good education. She was very good at not letting me become uncomfortable in life."
"It's fair to say I'm a mama's boy," he added, smiling. "I'm the baby. Mama's boy for sure."
The comfort Coco Salaburu offered played a key role in Salaburu's poker success, because he has never played like a man with something to lose. "It was never about the money," said Robert. "It was like a video game. How high could I run the score? I was never scared of going bust because I could always run it back up. I didn't get that it was all about bankroll."
That lesson was a hard one in the learning. Salaburu's roll grew and depleted in leaps and bounds. A naturally aggressive player and person, he made his plays at bigger games ahead of his time and suffered for it. The frustration that resulted made tournaments more attractive. "That's all I played for 2½ to 3 years," Salaburu said. "I had some pretty major scores online and some big swings . With cash, I would always take shots and run it either straight up or straight down. Nothing in between."
Salaburu's style stands out in that he's incredibly fast at the table with his decisions. None of those hands filmed during the WSOP broadcasts took him more than five seconds to make.
"He is very unconventional," says older brother Yul Saraburu, 38. "His method of play is to try and throw opponents completely off their game. He plays out the hands and possibilities of cards that could hit before they hit, so if the cards do come up he already knows what he wants to do. That's why people think he snap calls."
The combination of the pace he sets and the aggression he plays with makes him a tough opponent. Players need to keep their own timing at the table, but against Salaburu, it's a challenge.
Salaburu cites maturity and discipline for the apparent turning the corner his main event final table represents. He also spent the summer in Las Vegas, in the company of poker players for the first time in a long time. That culture helped him solidify his thoughts about the game.
"I met a lot of guys this summer who were all phenomenal," Salaburu said. "Being around the guys and the way they think helps me. I think it's fair to say I improved a lot this year . Being around those online guys, getting into exercise and in better shape as a result, it's amazing what a year can do. I feel like the exercise really cleared my head, got some excess energy out."
The results are there for the showing. Salaburu, whose ups and downs continued through the summer, told friends he didn't have the roll to play the main event as it approached, leading to offers for a staking arrangement. His early tournament was an up-and-down affair that included a bubble misplay that cut his stack in half. After Day 4, it was smooth sailing. He enters the final table seventh in chips and, asked if he would win, his response tells you all you need to know about the attitude he'll bring to the table on Oct. 29 (ESPN2).
"When I win," Salaburu corrected. "I will relax. For sure. First thing is buy my mom an air conditioner for her house, then take her on a vacation, to Europe. She likes to travel. Then, I have a niece and nephew who are awesome, so I'll do something for them. Then pay taxes, set up a condo prep myself so if the [stuff] hits the fan, I'll be ready. I hate that I've made money and have nothing to show for it."
While there were rumors that a win would see Salaburu walk away from the game, that's not quite true. "It's my money and I'll do what I want with it, but in the same sense, I won't fall off the face of the earth," he said. "If there were sponsorships like there were two to three years ago, it'd be different. If someone was offering me a million to go play tournaments later, it'd be different. I just don't want to get in a rut again, and it can happen. If lightning strikes, I need to take full advantage. If I were given a deal to go around and be a champion? Of course! The reality is, you look at 80 percent of the pros out there and 80 percent are degens drunks or broke or whatever. It happens. People lose all their money, game over. It doesn't stop if you keep playing. I don't want to be that guy. I want to run it up and get out and invest in something else. This is my one big opportunity where I can change everything and be done."
He'll get his chance. With the final table just weeks away, Salaburu is ready to play the game of his life. For his future, for his mom, his time is now. He's not going to wait more than a few seconds at any point to try to grab it. You're going to notice when he does.