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Ohio's Stein is proving he's a horse for the Main Event course

13 July 2008

LAS VEGAS – For years, Drew Dakoski has been hounding his good friend Craig Stein to take a stab at playing in the World Series of Poker. Finally this spring, Stein reluctantly relented.

He bought his way into a Mega Super Satellite event at the Mountaineer Casino Racetrack in West Virginia and went on to win a seat in the Main Event. Even still, he was debating on whether or not he should actually go to Las Vegas and play, or take the $10,000 and run. One night, Dakoski was driving home from a racetrack sometime after midnight and stopped at Stein's house in Macedonia, Ohio to leave a note on the windshield of his car.

"If you go to the World Series, I promise that one day you will thank me," the note read.

That day has come.

craig_stein

As seen by his demeanor on Saturday at the Main Event, Craig Stein likes to have a good time at the poker table. (photo by Gary Trask/Casino City)

Making his first WSOP appearance, Stein maneuvered his way through the first five days of the event and as he went to sleep on Saturday night in his room at the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino he was guaranteed to cash for at least $77,200. He's having the time of his life and so is his rail-birding fan club, which, on Saturday included his wife of 28 years, Cindy, his son Josh and his girlfriend Claudia, his other son Jacob, and, of course, Dakoski.

"It's exciting," said the 47-year-old Stein, who will begin play on Sunday near the bottom of the chip leader board with a stack of just over 500,000, but he is certain to place in the top 79 of a field that began with 6,844 players. "I think my family and friends are even more excited than me and that's what makes it so special."

Stein is picking up the tab for all the flights and rooms at the Rio for his clan. To him, this is more about the experience than winning money.

"I'm not a wealthy man by any means, but I have all the things that I need in life," he said with sincerity. "When I think about the chance of winning some big money here, I get excited about how it's going to affect everyone else. People like my wife and kids and friends and some other people that I might be able to help out that are less fortunate than me. I'm playing for those people, not me."

Even though he's playing on the biggest stage in poker with ESPN camera crews flying all around him, Stein appears as if he's playing in someone's basement at a home cash game. He doesn't act up for the camera and he doesn't have any online poker room logos plastered all over him. On Saturday, Stein was wearing an untucked black Tommy Bahama shirt, shorts, sunglasses and sandals. He often carried the conversation at the table and always seemed to be laughing, or making someone else laugh.

"Look, I've been playing poker for a long, long time," he explained of his relaxed state at the table. "The worst part for me is the anticipation of playing. Once I sit down at the table, it's like driving a car. You just do it and you don't even realize you're doing it. It's second nature."

It also comes naturally to Stein because he has been around gambling all of his life. His father bet the horses for a living. Stein followed his old man's lead and started playing cards as a means to live when he was 17 and then jumped into the racing business as an owner, trainer and driver of harness race horses for more than two decades. With that came more time at the poker table, because as Stein says, "you can always find a card game at the track."

Stein found success in the racing industry – he won more than 500 races as a driver in what he called his "younger and thinner days – and along the way poker remained a constant in his life. He's a regular at the Mountaineer poker room and he's thrown his hand into a few World Poker Tour events with mixed results. But playing in the WSOP was never in his plans.

"I just never really liked the idea of playing against such a big field of players because I felt there's just too much luck involved," he explained.

But Dakoski, a friend from the horse racing business and a fellow poker fanatic, kept persisting that his good buddy make the trip to the Main Event.

craig_stein_family

The Craig Stein Fan Club, from left, Jacob Stein, Josh Stein, Cindy Stein and Drew Dakoski, have spent as much time on the rail as their favorite player has at the table. (photo by Gary Trask/Casino City)

"He's the best poker player I know and I just knew if I could get him here he could do well," said Dakoski, who owns horses and handicaps the sport for a living, in addition to playing poker. "He's the perfect player for this kind of structure. He's doing great out there."

As Stein pointed out, his friends on the rail definitely seem to be living and dying with each hand more than him. His 24-year-old son Jacob, who joins Dakoski and crew on the rail for virtually every hand of every level, is quick to get his father's attention if he sees something he doesn't like. He constantly updatesd him on the results at the other tables and how the pay structure is playing out. At times, he even massages his father's back and shoulders in between hands.

"I'm just so happy for him because he's such a great guy and has been so good to our family over the years," says Jacob, who moved west from Ohio four years ago to get into the poker business himself and now runs the poker floor at the Hollywood Park Casino in Los Angeles. "I'm not surprised at all that he's doing so well. He always tells me that he taught me everything that I know, but not everything he knows. He's just a phenomenal player."

Meanwhile, Dakoski stands on the rail pacing back and forth with a pen in his hand or mouth, checking the structure sheet and table assignments and glancing repeatedly at the official clock. He is the man who sets the daily schedule for Stein. On Day 1, Dakoski paid for breakfast and Stein had waffles. Dakoski has insisted that's how it needs to be each following day, including him picking up the check. His cell phone goes off every few minutes with people from back home checking on Stein's progress.

Stein says that part of the reason he has been able to take everything in stride is the fact that, although he wants to advance as far as he can, he is at total peace with his lot in life. And he's already been dealt as bad a beat as one can suffer in the business world.

Ten years ago, Stein invented a type of harness racing cart – called a sulky – that had a special aerodynamic design, helping the horse and rider go faster. The invention was a financial success for him, but eventually the United States Trotting Association intervened saying that the sulky gave an unfair advantage to those who used them. The dispute went to court and Stein prevailed. The jury ruled in his favor and he was to receive $1.9 million. But on an appeal, the judge overturned the case and Stein got nothing.

"It was a lot like poker; a lot of highs and a lot of lows," he said. "In the end it will definitely go down as my worst bad beat ever."

Stein retired from the horse business three years ago and currently works as a sales rep for Freedom Health, a company started by his veterinarian friend Dr. Franklin Pellegrini that sells a medicine for horse ulcers. Stein is enjoying his new job, but is hoping his extended vacation in Las Vegas can last a few more days.

"I'll just keep enjoying the ride as long as I can," he said. "And when it's all over with, I'll just head back home and go back to my normal routine, which, to me, isn't such a bad thing at all."

Ohio's Stein is proving he's a horse for the Main Event course is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Gary Trask
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT