At the ripe age of 20, Tom Koral looked 16.
That was 2004, when Koral was trying to get into casinos to play poker. Like many college students, Koral eventually snagged a real ID from "some guy at a bar in Lincoln Park" who resembled him.
That "guy" was Jeff Denapoli and it was Koral's new name at the casino. He was seven years older, shorter and fatter--at least that's what his new ID said. He used that ID to get into the Trump Casino (now the Majestic Star) in Gary, IN, and win tens of thousands of dollars playing Texas Hold 'em.
"Everyone knew me as 'Jeff D' at the casino," Koral said. "I would even introduce myself as Jeff at the poker table and kinda' just ran with it."
Today he's just Tom, and he's earned the privilege to call himself a professional poker player. The young gun is coming off a monstrous win at the 2011 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, finishing 47th out of more than 6,800 players and was awarded $160,036 for his efforts.
The World Series of Poker is just that--the biggest poker tournament in the world. Typically referred to as the "Main Event," players from around the globe ante up $10,000 for a shot to win the $8.7 million first-place prize, not to mention all the fame and endorsement deals that also come with it.
Now 27, the Skokie native and former graduate didn't even know about poker until his freshman year in college. Originally a finance major at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Koral first picked up the game from a friend he met at school. The two started off simple, playing small $5 poker tournaments between friends.
Five dollars turned into $10, which soon turned into $20. And it wasn't long before Koral started ditching classes in favor of 12-hour poker sessions. Like many first-time gamblers, Koral would eventually lose everything--$150 to be exact--and was flat broke.
"I'd be hungry for a cheeseburger but wouldn't have the money to buy it," he recalled. "I would lose all my money and have to ask the guy that wiped me out to spot me for a $2 cheeseburger."
Koral has come a long way since then, earning more than $1.2 million through poker tournaments from 2004 to the present. To many, his days are fascinating; one day he's playing cards on ESPN with the grandfather of poker, Doyle Brunson. On other days, he's losing what most don't even make in a year.
"I've lost as much as $84,000 on one hand. Some of the hands can get ridiculously big -- it's definitely interesting to deal with when you're so young," Koral said. "It's just another day at the office."
Koral said he generated six-figures during his first year of college playing poker. He soon dropped out, questioning the point of earning a degree when he was making so much money playing cards.
For his mother, Margaret, the idea of quitting school in favor of being a professional poker player was ludicrous.
"This was not possible," she said, referring to her son's decision to drop out in 2005. "Education is extremely important, you don't get the same opportunities without one."
Both Margaret and her husband attended college. The Polish immigrants worked at United Airlines for more than two decades. Margaret is now retired while her husband is an airplane mechanic, she said.
Koral's mom added that neither her husband nor herself could have had their careers if it wasn't for their college education. Eventually, his parents read up on professional poker playing on the Internet and began taking him more seriously after seeing their son’s bank statement.
Soon they began supporting his decision but with condition: He had to finish college.
"It took him a little bit of extra time," Margaret said. "But he finished and he has a degree he can fall back on, just in case."
Just two days after bringing home more than $160,000 from the 2011 World Series of Poker, Koral said he was considering becoming a day trader, adding that he was going to shadow one of his friends in the next few days to learn the trade.
“Tom is extremely smart and well-grounded. He is very good in math,” Margaret Koral said. “It wouldn't surprise me if he went into another field--he's always enjoyed challenges. We're just so proud with what he's already accomplished at such a young age.”