An Ace In The Hole
By Nat Levy
The cards floated across the table to the final two players. A quick peek revealed an Ace and five of diamonds – a great hand with only one opponent left in this Texas Hold’em poker tournament.
Sean Jazayeri knew this was his moment.
When his opponent, holding a King and Queen, risked all his chips, Jazayeri didn’t hesitate to call. Five cards flipped in less than 30 seconds would determine the winner of this six-day tournament.
The dealer turned over the first three cards, revealing a King, 10, five. Both players had a pair, but Jazayeri’s opponent was ahead with Kings. Jazayeri needed some help. The next card did neither any good. But when the fifth and last card was dealt, it was another five. Suddenly, Jazayeri was $1.3 million richer.
The win marked the end of a long journey for this Iranian-born Bellevue resident. Jazayeri had been playing for more than half a decade, winning tournaments here and there, but this win in March marked his true arrival onto the national poker scene. Now a veteran of the slog of multiple-day tournaments, Jazayeri was in his own personal Disneyland at the final table of the 550-person, six-day 2012 World Poker Tour L.A. Classic.
After days of grinding through the competition, he was one of six left in the field. And after the first two were eliminated, he was the lone amateur. Each of his three opponents had earned multiple millions playing the game. Jazayeri even stood out in terms of appearance. Dressed in all black, with polka dot suspenders, a pinstriped button-down and sunglasses to hide his eyes, Jazayeri had the look of a pro playing against kids lost in a sea of T-shirts and hoodies. He says the pressure of the moment didn’t bother him. As a long-time employee of Microsoft, and later, a higher-up in one of the company’s joint ventures that sent him back and forth to China on a weekly basis, Jazayeri had seen tougher situations.
“I was just having the time of my life,” he says during a meeting at his Bravern apartment, which he has yet to even unpack. “We’re playing cards. I’ve done things that were a whole lot more nerve-wracking in my life before.”
Despite his budding success, Jazayeri is looking at his poker experience much like he does his cards, conservatively. Jazayeri built his career, and later his game, on the concept of calculated risk. Even with his $1 million winning hand, he doesn’t consider himself a pro. In fact, he is looking for a tech job, having been out of work since late 2011.
But in the meantime, Jazayeri has more time to play the game he has grown to love.
Falling for the game
Jazayeri came to the U.S. from Iran in 1973, at the age of 14. Back home, he didn’t play cards, and the interest didn’t develop until college, when he took classes from a professor who wrote a book on card counting. This got him into Blackjack. He spent several years in Las Vegas working tech jobs – he even helped write software used by casinos today. Poker, especially, Hold‘em, had yet to become the game to play, so Jazayeri wasn’t interested.
The game became more popular when ESPN started televising tournaments. The exposure, plus opportunity – Jazayeri was in China on a project and he didn’t know anyone or speak the language – got him started playing online. Some wins piqued his interest further. And a victory in a tournament on a cruise ship in Alaska in 2007 was the final harbinger.
He was hooked.
So it was off to Las Vegas to play in a few tournaments – but much to Jazayeri’s disappointment, the pros and experienced amateurs gave him a harsh induction to the poker world.
Ever determined to make his mark, Jazayeri delved deeper into the game. He read books by famous players and practiced. And he practiced some more. He started inching his way through tournaments, lasting long enough to make some money. But, like many who came of age working in the cutthroat tech world, being good didn’t mean anything. He wanted to win.
“It seemed like I always got unlucky in the end,” he says. “But then I thought maybe it’s not luck, maybe there’s something I’m not realizing.”
Jazayeri went all in on his training and made the jump to enter a World Poker Tour boot camp in Las Vegas, classes which now cost nearly $2,000. That’s where he met Nick Brancato. Jazayeri, student, and Brancato, teacher, made an instant connection. They both spent time at Microsoft – Brancato as a network engineer, and Jazayeri in information technology and later as the general manager of the China-based joint venture. Brancato described him as enthusiastic but “rough around the edges,” when he first came to the camp.
But the same things that made Jazayeri successful in the tech industry, helped him master the great intricacies of the game. His analytical skills, and grasp of math allowed him to learn what many experts fail to understand. Is a bet a good investment based on how many chips the player has left, how much is already in the pot and the possible hands an opponent can have? All of these decisions needed to be made in a few seconds so as to not appear weak. Brancato, himself a successful pro player, says understanding these concepts helped Jazayeri push back when others would put big money in the middle, something he was reluctant to do in the past.
“Poker is kind of like math,” Brancato says in an interview during a break at the World Series of Poker Main Event tournament, which Jazayeri also entered. “You can’t multiply until you can add. He understood you don’t just win by surviving, you win by getting your fair share of chips. He wasn’t afraid to move his chips around at a final table.”
After that fateful March day, Jazayeri’s poker reputation changed throughout the country. But in one place, it stayed exactly the same: at a regular poker night with friends and former colleagues. They continue to play every couple of months. Jazayeri hosts, the players order pizza. They play with a $20 buy-in, not the kind of stakes you’d expect for a million-dollar champion.
But this fits Jazayeri’s laid back personality. While many players can be introverted and shy, Jazayeri is open and welcoming. He displays an ease of conversation, speaking to people he just met like friends he’s known for years.
The games themselves have always been fun and light-hearted, while filled with a mixture of insightful conversation and witty comedic grenades lobbed across the table, says Julia Getsch. She knows Jazayeri through their shared time with the National Iranian American Council. He began inviting her to games about six years ago. She’s never won, but she’s still a force to be reckoned with. Getsch says Jazayeri’s win hasn’t changed the dynamic amongst the group, though everyone shows a bit more enthusiasm when they beat him in a hand. They are all proud to play against him, and they take a little personal pride in his win.
“It feels like a big win for all of us,” says Getsch, a Redmond resident. “Hey, this guy who we play with won. I know I’ve bragged about that to a few of my friends even though I did nothing.”
But moreso, they take pride in the fact that in more than six years of games at home, he’s never won a game.
Nat Levy is a staff writer for the Bellevue Reporter. Contact him at 425-453-4290; or firstname.lastname@example.org