Three days in Las Vegas can be costly for all too many serious gamblers
But defying long odds, a poker-playing former city councilman who heads San Diego's largest municipal labor union came back Tuesday night with a check well into six figures.
At 43, Michael Zucchet was among the oldest of 2,882 players in a "World Series of Poker" tournament at the Rio Hotel & Casino.
His thousand-dollar buy-in, chump-change to many of his competitors, paid off a grander return on investment than those of only three of them.
And along with his winnings, he came home with the after-glow of high-pressure risks and psychic rewards.
In an interview Wednesday with NBC 7, Zucchet couldn’t wipe a grin off his face – but spoke modestly about collecting $143,642 for a fourth-place finish in a no-limit Texas Hold 'Em tournament, where the first place winner left with more than $450,000.
"Nobody ever did to me what I did to other people on a few occasions,” he said, by way of explanation. “So over the course of thirty-plus hours of play and three thousand people, you need luck -- and I had it."
He also had skills honed over 15 years of playing in card clubs, minor buy-in competitions and a few World Series events.
But this time around, kiting higher and higher in the tournament echelons: "I was ready to pass out, and barf and cry all at the same time. But when you're at the table and the lights are on, it's so stimulating you don't do anything of those things. You just, you get back to poker."
He went out on the last table with an all-in, semi-bluff play to the winner, Dana Castaneda.
“She was hilarious,” Zucchet said. “Her whole family was there. Half a million dollars is completely transformative to anybody, but to her and her family it was really unbelievable. So I was really happy for her, and the guy who finished second was a really nice guy.”
Zucchet says he felt the letdown of defeat for about a minute, then: “You get over it quickly – especially when you go to the payout cage and get an obscene check.”
These days, he also appears to have gotten over the turmoil of being caught up in the Cheetah's strip club scandal a decade ago, losing his City Council office and enduring years of trial and successful appeals.
As general manager of the Municipal Employees Association, whose staff he joined in 2009, Zucchet confines his 'poker face' to bargaining labor issues.
"I ain't quittin' my day job,” he declared with a laugh. “And I'm not delusional -- I'm not doing anything with the money other than putting it in the college accounts. Actually, starting college accounts (for his preteen son and daughter). We didn't have any to begin with. And so, you know, it's just awesome."
Zucchet figures Uncle Sam and the state's Franchise Tax Board will wind up sharing nearly 40 percent of his winnings.
He has no plans to ramp up his competitive schedule going forward, preferring just to concentrate on annual World Series getaways to Las Vegas, and a few minor events here and there.
As for his competitors at World Series tournaments, Zucchet stands in awe of their card-playing.
“It doesn’t mean I can’t beat them on a single day,” he says, “but to do this over a longer term? They’re on a completely different level of aggression and bankroll and ability and experience. I don’t have any illusions about that. And I couldn’t wait to get home.”