There are few jobs that can pull in more than $500,000 in less than four weeks.
Zachary Gruneberg, 24, of State College, has acquired one of those rare careers.
At the 2014 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Gruneberg won $510,520 and was the only player out of thousands to make three final tables.
Gruneberg’s love of poker began in his middle school days.
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“I got started playing poker when I was 13 just with my friends,” Gruneberg said. “It was just 25-, 50-cent stuff, but it ended up we all just got really into it and played it a lot.”
Then, when Gruneberg was 18, he earned his first big win in online poker.
Gruneberg was playing in an online tournament called a satellite, by which the first-place winner could win entry to a live poker tournament in Australia.
“I think it was on a Sunday and it was actually a free-roll satellite where you buy in with 10 gold chips, not even money, but only first place got the package,” Gruneberg said.
“I ended up getting first and then they normally make you go on the trip, but instead of giving me the package, they gave me the money, which was $16,000.”
For an 18-year-old, $16,000 is an overwhelming amount, but Gruneberg decided he could turn it into an even larger profit.
“You could only cash out $2,500 a day, so I did that one day and I was like, I might as well play a little bit with this money and just keep doing what I was doing,” Gruneberg said. “I ended up making almost $100,000 in cash games because I had the package winnings to build off of.”
After this online success, Gruneberg made the decision to attend the live event in Australia.
“I tabled an event there and won a tournament,” Gruneberg said. “That was my first time ever going to a casino because ... I was 18; I couldn’t in the United States. It was my first time traveling internationally and only my second time on a plane.”
Inspired by his early achievements, Gruneberg continued to pursue a career in poker.
Since the event in Australia, he estimates, he has participated in 30 to 40 live events and thousands of online games.
Gruneberg’s poker skills have taken him all over the world, including Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Costa Rica.
“I lived down in Costa Rica to play online again, just a small little village town, Playa del Coco. It was awesome,” Gruneberg said. “It gave me more appreciation for how lucky we are to grow up in State College, or anywhere in the U.S. really. They’re happier down there with so much less than we have. It gives you real perspective.”
However, a bump in the road halted Gruneberg’s initial progress.
“I kind of stopped playing over the past year or two because I got real addicted to opiates,” Gruneberg said. “It was more of an experiment thing. I never had an addiction problem. I don’t even smoke cigarettes; I just didn’t really know they were the most addicting things in the world.
“It’s kind of an epidemic nowadays. I read about heroin almost every time I open up the paper. I went to rehab twice. I just got out of rehab in February and I’ve been able to stay clean ever since.”
This was Gruneberg’s second time at the World Series of Poker.
“The first time I went was my rookie year,” he said. “I just turned 21 and I cashed one tournament, but that’s right when I started battling my addiction problems. I didn’t have my priorities straight; I wasn’t thinking clearly, so I didn’t really do that well.
“This was my first time ever going into poker totally sober, and the results speak for themselves.”
Gruneberg won fourth place in his first event, a $1,000 no-limit Hold’em and cashed $104,594. The next event he tabled at was the Monster Stack event, a $1,500 no-limit Hold’em with a twist.
“This is the first time they’ve ever done this tournament,” Gruneberg said. “So how the World Series works is you start with triple the buy-in. So, if it’s a $10,000 buy-in, you start with 30,000 chips. Well, in the Monster Stack you start with 15,000 chips instead of 4,500.
“So it’s interesting; it’s really big because it’s a lot of play, a lot of poker. The event got 7,800 players, which was the biggest $1,500 buy-in in the world, and the second biggest tournament they’ve ever had in the world.”
Gruneberg earned eighth place in the Monster Stack.
“When you’re so competitive and you finish in that type of place, there’s a little bit of disappointment,” Gruneberg said. “Then after it sets in and you look at it in retrospect, you think out of 8,000 players, well the money’s great and I wouldn’t have changed any of the hands I played. You just have to look at the positives and realize I could’ve easily finished in 6,000th and gotten no money.”
Gruneberg’s next event, a $1,500 no-limit Hold’em, turned out to be a fortuitous surprise.
“I wasn’t going to play in the next tournament because the Monster Stack tournament was five days long and I was exhausted,” Gruneberg said. “But my friend and I made a last-longer bet, which is you bet with your friend and whoever lasts longer in the tournament gets the money.
“So we made it just this fun little bet because the tournament started at noon and it was already 6 p.m., so we registered at the very last second. He busted the first hand and then I ended up getting third for my biggest cash ever, which was $270,000. And I wasn’t even going to play it, so for a last-minute game and for my third final table, it was pretty insane. I’m still kind of in shock talking about it right now. It just doesn’t seem real.”
Seth Palansky, vice president of corporate communications for Caesars Interactive Entertainment Inc., acknowledged Gruneberg’s achievements.
“Zachary had a great World Series of Poker,” Palansky said.
“It’s really remarkable to reach three final tables of no-limit Hold’em events because the number of participants in these events are huge.”
Gruneberg’s success does not necessarily stop with the World Series; his triumphs put him in the running for the 2014 World Series of Poker Player of the Year.
“In fact, Zachary sits 27th overall in the World Series of Poker Player of the Year race,” Palansky said.
There will be 10 WSOP gold bracelet events in Melbourne, Australia, in October, he said. If Gruneberg plays, he can add to his point total and has the ability to take over the No. 1 slot if he does well.
“Needless to say,” Palansky said, “he’s performed exemplary and should be very proud of his achievements.”
One of Gruneberg’s closest friends was with him in Las Vegas when he achieved his greatest poker feat to date.
“I was sitting next to him when he won his biggest cash ever online,” Neil Abdalla said, “and then I got to see his biggest cash live, coincidentally.”
The two have been friends and poker buddies since sixth grade.
“He’s just always been a good guy,” Abdalla said. “I couldn’t be happier for him for his recent success. He deserves it more than anyone I can think of, especially with everything that’s gone on in the past year. I’m just so proud of him. It’s a big accomplishment.”
The excitement of Vegas wore off quickly for Gruneberg.
“It’s good to be back. I don’t really like Vegas at all,” Gruneberg said. “It’s just a desert. It’s really crazy and it wasn’t ever really hard to stay sober, but this place is so much nicer. The people, the area, and there’s actually weather. It’s definitely nice to be home.”
Despite this monstrous victory after just coming back from a break, Gruneberg plans to be prudent with how he spends his earnings.
“You know I think I’m just gonna take it slow,” Gruneberg said.
“I bought a new car, that was my big thing. I had an old Audi and I sold it during my addiction. It felt good for me because I loved that car so much, and when you’re addicted to something, you’ll do pretty much anything to get the drug. It changes you who are. It overrides your instincts.”
In the future, Gruneberg sees poker as part of his life, but also hopes to expand to other areas of interest.
“I know school is always there for me and I would like to get a degree at some point,” Gruneberg said. “I would like to become an addictions counselor later on or maybe own a bar or a restaurant. If I could own a bar, which is funny because I don’t drink anymore, but to own a bar in State College would be a dream of mine. I want multiple baskets to put my eggs in. That’s what I learned the first time around. Backup plans are key.”
Gruneberg attributes much of his success to his family, friends and girlfriend, who all stood by him and encouraged him even when he was troubled.
“The other biggest positive change in my life is my girlfriend, Cathryn,” Gruneberg said.
“She’s just been so supportive of me and it really speaks a lot for her character that she liked me when I just got out of rehab and pretty much had nothing. My online poker name is Hustler Grune, so I coined the nickname Princess Hustler for her.”
For Cathryn Houlihan, the feeling is mutual.
“Zach is a really special person,” Houlihan said. “He has one of the most positive attitudes and kindness that I think transcends through all aspects of his life. In poker, it’s easy when you’re losing to get down, but Zach just keeps doing him and always plays for the win. His happiness is contagious, and I’ve never laughed so much in my life until I met him. He cares deeply for his friends and family and would do anything he can to help others. All these traits, I think, help him maintain his sobriety and helps him achieve such success in whatever he pursues.”
Reflecting on the past year, Gruneberg feels grateful for everything he has learned and experienced.
“It’s hard for me to describe in words, I guess,” Gruneberg said. “Everything in my life is 180 (degrees). It’s not just poker and money and that stuff, it’s my health, my happiness, the people that love me, and reciprocating that with them. It’s really, really just a blessing. I feel very fortunate and I’m not taking anything for granted.”