By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
When envisioning a vacation getaway, one might picture a Corona beer commercial—a hammock lazily swaying between two palm trees, overlooking a pristine white sand beach and a shimmering blue ocean. Think the Caribbean. Think Hawaii.
When native Hawaiian Derek Kadota envisions a vacation, he sees a green felt table, stacks of clay chips and king/king, ace/deuce suited in his possession.
The 41st Annual World Series of Poker kicks off this Thursday in Las Vegas and Kadota, a self-proclaimed amateur poker player, will be there working at his favorite vacation activity.
Kadota thinks poker gets a bad rap. He shies away from its reputation as gambling and instead embraces it as a sport. Most poker pros would agree. In fact, ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, agrees as well, having expanded its television coverage of the WSOP from not only the main event, but also several of the satellite tournaments, and even past tournaments on ESPN Classic.
The jocks out there might strongly disagree with poker’s self-assessment as a sport, while the moralists out there undoubtedly cry foul that it isn’t gambling. After all, poker is played for money, the simplest definition of gambling there is. The bigger the stakes, the bigger the adrenaline rush. There is no runner’s high. There is no physical exercise.
Kadota, a Yonsei from Hilo, is looking to not only change this perception, but also raise the representation of the Japanese American community in the world of professional poker.
“I’m trying to educate and bring awareness that hey, the game of poker is not all about gambling,” Kadota told the Rafu Shimpo during an interview at a weekly family-style poker tournament out in Whittier. “It’s about playing the player and being able to have a keen sense of who you’re up against.”
According to him, poker is 95 percent skill and only five percent luck. In fact, he dislikes when people tell him, “Good luck” before a tournament. He much prefers “Good skill.”
And his skill is good. Over the past three years, it’s earned him nearly $30,000 including third place finishes at the 2010 World Poker Challenge the 2009 Grand Poker Series, a 51st place finish at last year’s WSOP, as well as an 11th place finish at the 08’ WSOP.
All of those were Omaha tournaments, a game similar to the ever popular Texas Hold’Em, only every player is dealt four cards instead of two and must use at least two of those cards in conjunction with the community cards.
“The type of players are older,” Kadota said about the Omaha crowd. “It’s almost like you’re playing bridge because it’s very social and there’s not a lot of aggression to it. Not a lot of bluffing involved.”
Being from Hawaii, Kadota found himself really vibing with this aspect of Omaha, utilizing his patience to make the right play. At one tournament, he didn’t play a hand for six hours. In fact, the more laidback nature of Omaha suits his tastes far better than the rollercoaster experience of no limit hold ‘em. Citing Chris Moneymaker’s unlikely win at the 2003 WSOP, Kadota believes no limit is a game that involves a lot of luck.
He also feels like there’s too much of a risk factor involved. That’s why he shies away from playing no limit tournaments and opts instead for the smaller Omaha tournies. The money might not be as big, but that too suits his tastes just fine, because he has no desire to go pro, and instead treats poker as a hobby.
He has seen the ugly side of addiction. How to many of the locals at the casino, poker is a disease. Kadota emphasizes to those interested in taking part in the sport the importance of playing within their means including the necessity of learning bankroll management. Knowing when to say when, something he’s been able to successfully control and something that has helped him in life in managing and organizing the way he wants his life to be run.
So while the earnings might not be huge, he’s been able to steer clear of the nasty lows.
And yet, no matter how he tries to distance himself from gambling, he’s undoubtedly connected. It was, in fact, a gamble that set his life on the course it currently runs. Kadota was working a duty free shop on Waikiki when 9/11 happened. Tourism dropped dramatically and he was let go as a result. Collecting unemployment and surfing everyday, he quickly became bored with “the life” and decided to do something drastic.
With no job, no firm plan for the future, he boarded a plane with two suitcases and his resume and flew to Los Angeles, taking turns living with his two aunts, one in Monterey Park, the other in Torrance.
Of course, a stones throw away from Torrance is Gardena’s Hustler’s Casino, a place Kadota spent a good majority of his time after work, learning from the older players and honing his poker skills.
In many ways, he’s also been extremely lucky. He came to Los Angeles on the eve of the poker boom, getting a year’s worth of study and practice in before poker exploded onto pop culture, filling casinos and flooding online sites.
He’s also been lucky in the friends he’s been able to meet. Many of whom support him and a few of whom even sponsor him.
“Some of my friends want to put some action down,” he said. “They know they’re not capable of playing in such a big tournament. They’ve tried in the past and failed miserably. When they find out that I’m consistently cashing in tournaments, they want in.”
Kadota received sponsorship to enter into the $10,000 Omaha high/low tournament at this year’s WSOP. There, he’ll face some of the best Omaha players in the world.
“I’m never rattled when I play against these pros, maybe being from the acting world,” he said, referring to his acting career that included a role in the World War II drama “Only the Brave.”
“I don’t get too star struck,” he said. “I don’t get too consumed about playing against Phil Helmouth or Phil Ivey. I just play my game and adjust to it when certain players are on the table.”
In his first ever WSOP three years ago, the $1,500 pot limit Omaha tournament, Kadota knocked out some big guns including Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Joe Hachem, and David “Devilfish” Elliott, on his way to an 11th place finish.
In addition to the $10,000 tournament, Kadota will once again play in the $1,500 pot limit tournament as well as the $1,500 limit tournament this year.
“I don’t put any expectations as far as making the final table, or making the money,” he said. “If I know that I’ve made the minimal amount of mistakes in one tournament, which is zero, I call it a good tournament.”
That being said, he did acknowledge that he would love to win a World Series bracelet and match Cliff Yamagawa, the only other Japanese American to take one home.
He’s putting in the work to do so, having spent this entire week playing nonstop online, picking up how people bet, and foregoing sleep in preparation for the stress levels and tiredness he’ll face once the tournament begins.
Kadota will celebrate his 34th birthday on June 11, the night before his debut in the big $10,000 Omaha tournament. June 11 is also King Kamehameha Day in Hawaii. A day that honors the great monarch who first unified the kingdoms of Hawaii.
“It’s treated as a regular working day here,” Kadota said laughing.
Even still, Kadota will be on vacation, hopefully with a birthday bracelet to show for it.
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Kadota will be playing in three tournaments: May 30 to June 1 in the $1,500 limit Omaha high/low; June 12-14 in $10,000 limit Omaha high/low; and June 22-24 in the $1,500 pot limit Omaha high/low. For more information on the WSOP visit www.WSOP.com. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo which neither condones nor condemns poker.