Ron “Grumpy” Ware turned a hobby into a small fortune when he placed 75th in his first appearance at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas earlier this month.
The 4-year-old Tracy resident and San Ramon real estate agent reached Day 4 of the No-Limit Hold’em tournament before a slew of poor cards — no better than a pair of 9s — sent him packing.
His payoff? $107,950.
Ware — a longtime poker player who once played for 33 hours straight at table in Hayward and says he often plays for more than 20 hours — has made a living at the game for years and entered real estate in January simply for the stability of it.
He compares the concentration required in poker to that of a chess player facing nine opponents at once.
“When it’s a good game, you just don’t want to leave the table with that much money still on it,” Ware said. “And even when you get on a winning streak, you can’t spend that much because you want to go up to a higher game. At least with a job, when you get a bonus, you take a break and get to spend it.”
That job certainly hasn’t dulled his skills at the table.
On the third day of competition in Las Vegas, Ware found himself holding a pair of kings when his opponent went all-in. Despite a decent hand, Ware folded, avoiding what would have been a huge loss to what turned out to be a pair of aces.
“You have to be aware of the game whether you are in it or you folded your hand,” Ware said. “I was watching that guy all day, it was very uncharacteristic for him to go all in so I knew he had a high hand. I was looking to make it to the next round, so I folded and saved my chips for the next game.”
In addition to his success in the main event — which will land him an appearance on ESPN’s Tuesday night poker show, though he’s not sure when — Ware finished 11th in the seven-card stud hi-lo tournament to net an additional $7,187.
“That was a great part about getting that kind of attention even when you don’t make the top nine,” Ware said. “The exposure lets people know who you are and that you can play. Every player’s dream is to be so well-recognized that they get invited to tournaments instead of paying to get in.”
Ware’s performance was especially impressive considering he initially went home after the seven-card stud tournament. A local poker buddy convinced him to take a shot at the big challenge, and Ware finally decided to give it a shot. He flew back to Las Vegas the night before the main event began.
The decision worked out pretty well for Ware, though the World Series of Poker hasn’t always been so lucrative.
The tournament began with a collection of the best players from backroom bar games and riverboat tournaments brought together by Las Vegas mogul Benny Binion in 1970. It’s grown to 5,500 players and now includes celebrities like James Woods, Tobey Maguire and Shannon Elizabeth.
This year’s winner, Joe Hachem, took home $7.5 million.
“For the longest time, most cities have been trying to get rid of card rooms, and still think of poker as a game played in the back of a bar,” Ware said. “Now with the national attention, people are starting to change their minds.”
Ware was 13 when he first sat in on a game with his brother-in-law and a group of 20-something guys in a garage in San Ramon.
His opponents were older, but Ware kept winning and eventually found kids around the neighborhood that he could play against.
The currency at that age was baseball cards. The regular players met at least twice a week and put Topps, Hostess and Kellogg’s cards on the table instead of chips. Ware won and kept winning, and eventually stashed enough cards that when he moved to Louisiana in 1984 he was able to open his own card shop.
His stern behavior while playing earned Ware the “Grumpy” moniker when he was a teen, and the Disney character’s likeness tattooed on his right arm says everything Ware’s expression doesn’t.
“Well, he has a tattoo on his arm that says it, and he never smiles even when he wins,” Ware’s mother Betty said. “Everyone in the family calls him that, and even the kids call him Uncle Grumpy.”
Ware played three nights a week in Louisiana before moving back to San Ramon in 1991, and there he worked for five years as a dealer at the Outpost Casino. But he quickly realized that playing in his spare time earned him more than dealing ever could.
For the last eight years, Ware has lived off of his poker winnings by playing in large games in Hayward and other Bay Area cities.
He still plays regularly and is preparing to attend more tournaments in Los Angeles and Las Vegas later this year.
“I’ll try my hand as long as the money lasts,” Ware said. “I’m hoping that the money will grow and I can come back to the (World Series) next year.”