By SEAN CHAFFIN
Special to the Herald-Banner
The scene is a massive convention space at the Rio Hotel and Casino in early-June. It’s the final table of a Texas hold ‘em tournament at the World Series of Poker, and several players clutch their cards and riffle their chips.
Among the final nine is Greenville resident Malissia Zapata. No stranger to the poker felt, this poker-playing obstetrician and gynecologist bets and bluffs her way to a respectable third-place finish and $76,904 in cash.
The WSOP is the biggest poker spectacle in the world, attracting players from across the globe for a shot at big money and the dream of winning a gold bracelet – the most prestigious trophy in poker. The annual event culminates with $10,000 buy-in Main Event, which is broadcast on ESPN. However, there were 60 other preliminary events with varying games and buy-ins and broadcast online on the official website of the WSOP.
Zapata, who plays two or three tournaments each summer, had bought into a limit hold ‘em (which features fixed betting limits, unlike no limit hold ‘em) tournament for $1,500.
And while the finish was not what Zapata had hoped for after reaching the final table, a third place finish is very respectable considering there were 645 competitors in an event that lasted three days. It was certainly her biggest finish.
“This years experience was amazing,” Zapata said. “I had no expectations. I had not played much this year and just decided to have fun. The WSOP is really a measuring stick for most professional poker players. Success can at times be measured by bracelet. It’s like winning a championship game in the playoff while the Main Event is like the Super Bowl, if I had to compare it to something. For the recreational player, it’s major bragging rights.”
As she watched more and more of the game on TV, Zapata grew more and more interested. She began playing in at the WSOP in 2006. That year she finished in the money in the Ladies Tournament at the WSOP, and had two other nice finishes in smaller buy-in tournaments in Las Vegas. She was hooked.
After her finish this summer, she fulfilled another dream by playing in the $10,000 Main Event with some of her winnings – after leaving Sin City for competition of a different sort.
“This summer, after winning I actually left Vegas to run a marathon,” she said. “I usually don’t run in June, but my sister talked me into it this year. I always tell her June is for poker. I had told my friends if I won enough to play the Main Event that I would. It’s one of those bucket list kind of things. This year I played the event. I didn’t do well, but I’m happy I did.”
Growing up in Big Spring, Zapata says she was very focused on school. She is an avid sports fan, and says her dream job if she hadn’t gone into medicine would have been working as an ESPN sportscaster. Running has always occupied much of her time, and she now has a goal to run a marathon in all 50 states. She has completed 16 marathons and countless half-marathons. Running and poker both seems to stoke Zapata’s competitive fire.
“While poker is a pleasure, running is my passion,” she said. “The guys I played poker with used to give me grief because I would leave games early because I had an early run the next day. I now play less poker due to opening my own practice and attempting to accomplish my current goals. I don’t think I’m competitive, but my family laughs when I say that. So I guess I am. I love to win, but who doesn’t? I especially like to beat my boyfriend in poker. We actually met playing poker. He’s actually a better player then me, but I will never tell him that.”
As a full-time OB-GYN, Zapata keeps very busy when away from the poker table so playing regularly is pretty tough. The job is very demanding, but very gratifying. Most of her days begin by 7:30 a.m., either at the office or hospital – seeing patients and delivering babies.
The life of an obstetrician doctor is very unpredictable, she says. She has been practicing in Greenville since 2004, and opened her own practice in 2010. Despite her busy schedule, Zapata loves her work and helping others into the profession.
“This has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. I really enjoy taking care of women and promoting health care,” she says. “I’m also a preceptor for the University of North Texas Health Science Center Physician Assistant Program. Students rotate in my office at various times. I feel this makes me a better physician. The interaction of teaching student helps me in being a better physician.”
And how does her work compare to a final table at the World Series?
“Comparing being a doctor and final table at WSOP is actually pretty hard,” Zapata said. “Taking care of patients is less nerve-wracking. I have concrete information to make a diagnosis. I feel confident about my skills and knowledge base. I strive hard to be the kind of doctor that patients feel comfortable coming to and recommending to their family members. The final table is a completely foreign concept to me. When you play poker, you have incomplete information to make a decision. There is more guesswork. The good thing is no one’s life depends on you, or if you make a mistake you just move on. Medicine and patient care has to always be on point because it affects people’s lives.”
After such a nice score, Zapata says her entry into the Main Event was her only big purchase, but a nice watch might be in her future. Never one to slow down, Zapata has no immediate poker plans, but another competition is on her horizon.
“I don’t have any plans for poker the rest of the year,” she says. “I will try to play some circuit events, but mainly it’s race season and I have plans to run the New York Marathon this year.”
While that WSOP bracelet may have fallen just out of her grasp, Malissia Zapata keeps rolling from the poker felt to the streets of the Big Apple to the delivery room. And she may still yet bring home a WSOP title. Don’t bet against her.
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. His new book, RAISING THE STAKES: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering and Poker Faces, is available as an eBook and in paperback at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. He is also editor of www.PokerTraditions.com, all about poker history, lore, and people. Follow him on Twitter at @PokerTraditions.