A card shark among us

Max Petrunya

By Max PetrunyaStaff Reporter

If you haven’t had class with Eric Molina, you probably don’t know who he is. Even if you have had class with him, you still might not know him. Quiet, shy and soft- spoken are words that accurately describe this 21 year-old Villanova senior. However, this summer, during the Main Event at the World Series of Poker, this Mission Viejo native captured the attention of the entire poker world, catapulting into the spotlight on T.V. and the Internet, ensuring that no one will soon forget Eric Molina.

I met Eric freshman year during orientation. When we realized both of us shared an affinity for the same music, he quickly became one of my best friends. Eric also was the first person to introduce me to the World Series of Poker on ESPN, and teach me how to play No Limit Texas Hold’em.

This summer, which was the first year both of us were eligible to play in the $10,000 buy-in Main Event at the WSOP at the Rio in Las Vegas, we won our entries to the event through playing in satellite tournaments. And while Eric would have much, much more success than I in the Main Event, let it stand for the record that I was the first one to qualify. At least I still have that going for me.

Down to the final $200 from his freshly cashed paycheck from the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas where he interned this summer, Eric approached the blackjack table at the Rio hoping to make enough money to pay for his buy in into a satellite. Turning that $200 into exactly $1,060, Eric had just enough to pay for his buy-in to that night’s Main Event qualifier. He went on to finish in the top six out of the initial 67 entrants, earning him a seat in the Main Event at the WSOP the next week.

Just qualifying for the event was a roller coaster ride of emotion for Eric, but the ride wouldn’t stop when he started playing on Day 1 of the event. Seated with “That 70’s Show” actress Laura Prepon, Eric began the tournament the same way he began his qualifying quest, losing half his starting chips and having to build back up. Prepon beat Eric for 5,000 of his 10,000 starting chips in the first hour, putting him in the very precarious position of having to double up just to have a fighting chance of surviving in the event.

But perseverance was the name of the game for Eric, as he turned his meager 2,700 chips into 9,000 at the second break after making a flush with two other people in the hand. Eric never looked back from there, and ended Day 1 with 54,250 chips. After cheering him on at the end of Day 1 (having being eliminated from the tournament a few hours earlier) I headed to his car to go back to the hotel. As we talked about what the future held for Eric when on Day 2, neither of us envisioned what was to come in the following days.

When Day 2 began, Eric again lost half his chips before gaining not only more of his opponent’s chips, but the attention of poker professionals and the media.

The first major confrontation Eric had that got everyone to take notice of the 21 year-old college student came on Day 2 against Shane Schleger.

Schleger, better known as “Shaniac” to the online-poker community, is considered to be one of the greatest tournament poker players in the world. When he sat down with Eric, the two square-off in a battle that was discussed on websites and message boards all over the Internet, and appeared on ESPN when they premiered the latest episode of the WSOP.

Eric was very talkative at the table, and used that to his advantage to get under his opponent’s skin. Eric and “Shaniac,” however, didn’t see eye to eye on the way someone should act at the poker table, and the two exchanged words before Eric had the final say. Eric eliminated Schleger with a pair of sevens, after Schleger made what he admits was a bad play thanks to Eric’s needling, which “Shaniac” admits never has worked on him in the past.

After winning that battle, Eric was mobbed by ESPN and CardPlayer.com cameras, hoping to get footage of this brash poker young gun. Eric continued to accrue chips with the media following his every move, and eventually got into another highly publicized confrontation with eventual Main Event champion, Jamie Gold.

Gold, who at the time was chip leader in the event, came to Eric’s table talking trash, telling players that he was “the next Johnny Chan,” and that he was “the only person in the tournament playing the players and not simply playing cards.” Eric, however, knocked him down a few pegs, squaring off with him and winning a pot that took Gold out of the chip lead momentarily.

Calling Gold’s pre-flop raise, Eric flopped top pair and bet out 100,000. Gold raised to 300,000 before Eric announced a raise. Before he could say the amount he wanted to raise, Gold said, “You might as well go all-in, you don’t have that many chips.” Not taking kindly to his attitude, Eric announced that he was all-in, while flipping his All-In chip into the middle of the table. The chip bounced into Jamie Gold’s chip stack, and he proceeded to throw the object at Eric. Eric taunted Gold as he pondered calling Eric’s bet, hoping to eliminate him from the tournament. Gold eventually folded, surrendering the pot to Eric and taking him out of the chip lead.

After the hand, Gold’s frustration at losing to this 21 year-old WSOP rookie led him to call the tournament directors over to the table and tell them that Eric had uttered a swear word, earning him a fifteen minute penalty. As he was ushered out of the tournament room to begin his “time out,” Eric would ask the directors what curse words were acceptable to say while playing. When he was told that none were allowed to be uttered on the floor, Eric proceeded to invent his own, using “Carebears” as his choice word. For example, “Go to Carebears,” or “What the Carebears are you talking about?”

His run-in with Gold, and his creation of this new curse word, has been documented on ESPN in the past few weeks of WSOP coverage. Taking that pot off Gold, the eventual Main Event champion, was one of Eric’s favorite moments from the tournament. When I asked him about Jamie Gold, Eric admitted that he didn’t play well, wasn’t a nice guy and isn’t the type of person poker needs as the new Main Event champion.

“He embodies everything I hate about poker that made me want to quit playing before I qualified for the Main Event,” said Eric. “He wasn’t good at all, he just got really lucky.”

Luck plays a role in getting this far in an event, and Eric, who was documented online and on ESPN as a cocky young jerk, humbly admits that what he did wasn’t all skill; he had to get lucky to make it as far as he did.

“I was lucky to make it that far in the event. Also, the person they show on T.V. is different than the person I am in real life,” said Eric. “When you are playing poker, and playing for $12 million dollars, it brings out a lot of emotions that are all in the spirit of competition.”

Eric eventually was eliminated from the Main Event on Day 5 in thirty-first place when his open ended straight draw failed to improve against his opponent’s pair of 9s. He earned $329,865 for his performance, and came away with experiences that he will remember forever.

“Overall, it was an amazing experience. I went there to have fun, with no fear of losing, and I did exactly that. I left with many new friends and memories that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

His parents also felt the effects of their son’s celebrity status.

“I had never seen them more excited. Everyone called my mom and my dad and told them they were watching me online and wanted to see how I was doing. My dad even got on TV”

Aside from getting on TV, Roy Molina, Eric’s father, will also have to live with the memory of passing on Eric’s initial offer earlier that summer, to split the $10,000 buy-in with him and also splitting Eric’s winnings for the event. At least Eric will have something to hang over his dad’s head at the next family reunion.

Eric is currently in the process of qualifying for the World Poker Tour’s Borgata Poker Open in Atlantic City later this month. He hopes to play cards professionally after graduation if he continues the run he has been on since playing in the World Series.

Episodes of the World Series of Poker featuring Eric Molina can be seen on ESPN. New episodes premiere Tuesday night at 8 and 9 p.m. Tune in and check out Villanova’s newest media sensation. But please, keep in mind that the Eric you see on TV is not the Eric you will meet at Villanova. Don’t be afraid to stop and congratulate him if you see him walking on campus.

As I ended my interview with Eric, I had to ask who the better player was among the two of us. As we both laughed, he said, with a smile on his face, “I did finish thirty-first at the WSOP.”

As I begrudgingly conceded this point to him, and admitted that this does put him ahead of me in the poker world for the time being, I realized that his performance at the Main Event, and the attention he gained as a result of it, is something that Eric, the rest of the poker world, and I will never forget.