The Poker Millionaire Who Wants to Be a Congressman

The World Series of Poker on July 15 in Las Vegas Photograph by Julie Jacobson/AP Photo

Frank Kassela, familiar to ESPN viewers as the 2010 World Series of Poker player of the year, is going to run as a Democrat for Congress from Nevada, per this Mother Jones story by Molly Redden. He’ll look to unseat two-term Republican Representative Joe Heck, who currently represents Nevada’s 3rd district, which encompasses part of Las Vegas and the area to the south.

Why is Kassela folding his cards and hoping to leave Las Vegas for Washington? Well, that’s not entirely clear. He hasn’t been politically active. He hasn’t hired a campaign staff or issued any press releases. And he only became a Democrat last week. (He does have a campaign website.) Still, as Redden notes, Kassela has on his Twitter feed expressed exasperation with Republicans’ comments on rape, and he appears to have told Jon Ralston, dean of the Nevada press corps, that the government shutdown impelled his move into politics.

Whatever his reasons, political feature writers will be thrilled to have so colorful a subject in what is shaping up to be a moribund and depressing election cycle. I am familiar with this temptation and would like to offer a warning to reporters: Gamblers make great profile subjects, but don’t take your eye off the ball.

Back in 2004, I was hunting around for a political profile subject and wandered downstairs to consult with Chuck Todd, now host of Daily Rundown on MSNBC, but at the time the editor of The Hotline and a bountiful source of tips and suggestions. Chuck suggested I consider either of two candidates running for the Democratic Senate nomination in Illinois. One was a state senator from Chicago whom insiders had pegged as a comer. The other was a former gambler and math whiz named Blair Hull, who’d made a small fortune as a card counter in Las Vegas then parlayed it into a large fortune by founding a computerized options firm that was acquired by Goldman Sachs.

It wasn’t close. I hooked up with the Hull campaign and flew out to Illinois. Hull didn’t disappoint and made a wonderful profile subject. At one point, he grabbed my notebook and jotted down an algebraic formula that purported to explain how he was going to essentially buy himself the Illinois Senate seat. (You can read the piece and marvel at the formula here.)

In the end, Hull flamed out, largely as a consequence of a domestic scandal but also because the guy I’d deemed not colorful enough to warrant a profile turned out to be a pretty good politician. Only then did I realize that the novelty of Hull’s gambling background had blinded me from paying attention to the state senator, whom I really should have been writing about. His name was Barack Obama.

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