Time and time again, the world of poker has watched a young Internet phenom burst onto the poker scene via a similar story:
• Player learns to play poker with his or her friends,
• Makes decision to attends college,
• Starts playing poker incessantly online and/or live,
• Doesn't attend classes,
• Takes a hiatus from school,
• Tells disappointed parents intention of playing poker full time,
• Fights thorough financial issues such as bankroll management,
• And finally, achieves a big score, making friends and parents proud and establishing a name in the poker world.
Sometimes the story is different and the path to greatness comes with a college degree. Alex Masek and his success is the epitome of this less-traveled path. Masek, the all-time WSOP Circuit leader with six victories, took his education even further after gaining interest in the game by earning a law degree. Today, this Los Angeles-based poker pro is the player who every WSOP Circuit grinder is chasing, all the while living in relative anonymity.
Immigrants from Romania, the Masek family came to the United States in the early 1990s, eventually settling in St. Louis. Both parents worked at Washington University; his father as a professor in mathematics and his mother as a computer programmer. Although education was obviously an integral part of the family's culture, Masek's parents recognized the need for their kids to enjoy themselves.
"Growing up, my parents definitely stressed education," recalled Masek, 27. "But they also let me be who I wanted to be as long as got my schoolwork done. I ended up competing in soccer, basketball, baseball all throughout high school."
Poker wasn't part of his youth, but another card game, bridge, was the game of choice in the household.
When Masek enrolled at Washington University in the fall of 2003, the time perfectly coincided with Chris Moneymaker's improbable WSOP victory. Thus, Masek and many of his college friends discovered poker while in school, starting out with low buy-in cash games and eventually higher stakes online. He was initially attracted to poker since "you could make money while still hanging out with friends." Success aside, Masek was dedicated to his education.
"I really focused on school," he said. "But outside of classes, poker really intrigued me, and even if I couldn't dedicate a lot of time to the game, it eventually became more than just a hobby."
Similar to the story above, his parents initially deterred him from playing.
"When I first started playing online, I remember that I cashed for $50 and sent the check to my house. When my parents saw it they both told me that I shouldn't be playing, worried that I would never go to class," said Masek. "I realized that they weren't supportive of it. Although I continued to play, they were the big reason why I didn't think of it as a career."
After graduating with a degree in finance and marketing in 2007, Masek decided to take some time off before heading off to law school at the University of San Diego. During that year hiatus, Masek's attention shifted to poker.
"I became more and more fascinated with the game," he said. "What really intrigued me about poker was the combination of things that you need to succeed: being risk-averse, understanding the math, analytical thought, emotional stability, mental stamina."
After the year was complete, Masek stuck to his plan and headed off in the fall of 2008 to law school, fully committed to earning his degree.
"I was completely focused on going to law school," he said. "I never really thought about quitting school and playing full time. Although I saw people like Moneymaker win millions on TV, I didn't think it was that viable of a career choice I didn't want to go down this path if there was no guarantee, basically."
Coincidentally, law school may have guided him toward a life of poker, especially with the proximity of the plethora of card rooms in Southern California.
"It was a gradual process the first year. I liked poker, but I was focusing on school and didn't consider it an option. Poker was kind of a side distraction, but gradually the more success I had playing live tournaments in Southern California, the more I realized I could make a living off of this."
In March 2009, Masek captured his first WSOP gold ring in a preliminary no-limit hold 'em event, along with three other cashes, at WSOP Rincon. Almost exactly a year later, Masek traveled to Atlantic City for spring break, winning his second WSOP ring. Finally, in March 2011, Masek earned the trifecta by collecting his third ring, once again at home in Rincon. He also made a final table appearance at the stop's main event. During this run of Circuit titles, he also won two preliminary events at the NAPT in November of 2010. In total, Masek earned almost $250,000 during his time at law school. To nobody's surprise, his side distraction of poker slowly began to become his passion.
"Poker slowly transitioned into a primary focus," he said. "The second year, I started doing better. I remember I won about $60,000 in one month and I was thinking this is real money. I realized that if I play full time, I can do really good at this."
Law degree in tow, Masek decided to play full time. His parents still wanted him to focus on his law career, but the results were clear, and they finally recognized their son's ability and gave their consent.
"I'd say as I kept going on and the better I started doing, my parents saw that it was profitable," Masek recalled. "I would say in late 2011, early 2012, they finally came around and are now happy for me."
After graduation, Masek's uncanny success on the live felt continued as he captured his fourth ring in November 2011 in Lake Tahoe. In January 2012, the breakthrough appeared to be imminent as he battled poker pro Freddy Deeb heads-up for the $1,675 WSOP Circuit main event title in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for Masek, his education continued as he finished second.
"It was the best learning experience of my career," said Masek. "I recognized that I had to just play my game and not focus on the money payouts. Of course, it was disappointing to finish second, but I have no regrets, and it gave me a lot of confidence."
The runner-up finish was the first six-figure score of his career. This performance also gave him the self-assurance that he could play against the bigger names in poker and also compete in the bigger buy-in events. From that point forward, Masek became a fixture on the WSOP circuit, playing almost every event on the tour. The hot streak continued as he captured his fifth and record-setting sixth ring in back-to-back months during the 2012-13 season of the WSOP Circuit.
"Alex was a young grinder who I knew would do great things," three-time WSOP Circuit champ and WPT title holder Dwyte Pilgrim said. "He would always say that when he was done in law school [he was] going for the title. I see great things in his future. He is a kid who will always do the right thing."
Aaron Massey, a two-time WSOP Circuit winner, feels similarly and credits Masek for a portion of his success as well.
"From the moment we met, Alex and I have been challenging each other to improve both in poker, and in life," said Aaron Massey. "I have a lot of respect for someone who can challenge me. I have even more respect for someone I can learn from. Alex falls into both of these categories. He's extremely intelligent and has a strong fundamental understanding of the game, often giving me important advice to help me improve. He has been winning consistently for years, and his results alone have given me motivation to be as consistent as he has been."
Masek has learned and achieved so much over the past decade. His loftier goals remain, and there's a challenge to his ability and stamina ahead this May. Masek hasn't had much success during the WSOP, and one of his primary objectives is the dream of all poker players.
"A WSOP bracelet is the ultimate token of achievement," he said. "It would mean everything to me from a career standpoint. Taking down a WSOP event is still my primary focus within the game right now."
Masek's background and ascension into poker is unique, but his success on the felt is legit. His biggest challenges lie ahead, and while cementing his place into the poker spotlight isn't easy, he's off to a great start.