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Players on the Move: Mr. Back-to-Back, The Mentalist, & The Hunter

Ryan Skluzak

Not everyone dreams of going pro. Many people in that tournament field are weekend or recreational players – out for a good time, but honing their games and looking for a win. They could be carpenters, teachers, mechanics, police officers, engineers, or bartenders. Poker is a game enjoyed by so many – something that makes it so appealing. This week, Players on the Move takes a look at a few of those players with day jobs, but big skills and scores on the tournament scene.

Mr. Back-to-Back

Ryan Skluzak

  • Age: 42
  • Occupation: Business owner
  • Hometown and living now: Kimball, S.D.
Ryan Skluzak
Ryan Skluzak and his second straight South Dakota State Poker Championship title.

Historically, the state of South Dakota is well-known for one particular hand – the Aces and Eights that were in “Wild Bill” Hickok’s hand when he was shot in the back on Aug. 2, 1876. Ryan Skluzak is hoping his name elevates above the infamy of Dead Man’s Hand and becomes one of the state’s best at the game.

He’s well on his way after claiming back-to-back South Dakota State Poker Championships in 2016 and 2017 in Deadwood, where Wild Bill met his demise. Skluzak bested a field of 81 people in 2016 for $25,000 and then returned to battle 131 players for $37,500. He hopes for the three-peat this April.

“My success comes from my hunger, finding good spots, and I am very aggressive.”

More recently, Skluzak took home his first WSOP-Circuit ring in early-February after winning the $365 Monster Stack event at Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee for $41,888. The win brings this part-time player’s career total to $142,000. In 11 WSOP-C events, he’s cashed five times with three final tables.

Finding time to play isn’t easy. Skluzak owns and operates his own company – selling corn and soybean seed to farmers. The job keeps him busy after 21 years in business.

“I love poker but don’t get the opportunity to play often,” he says. “What’s great about poker is that in my mind, it’s a lot like golf. Both sports can be highly competitive and can be played at many age levels. So poker is a competitive hobby for me that I happen to make some financial gains from.”

Those gains have been a nice side income. And while he doesn’t play as much as he’d like, Skluzak believes that keeps him focused and hungry for when he can get a few days away and compete.

“My success comes from my hunger, finding good spots, and I am very aggressive,” he says. “I regularly get comments that people have no idea what I have, and I think that’s the best compliment a poker player can get.”

Ryan Skluzak
Ryan Skluzak and his family at Mount Rushmore.

Skluzak and his wife Breanna began playing online after Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP victory. He had never played before but read Doyle Brunson’s “Super System” and a couple of other books. He was soon finding success grinding online cash games.

Starting a family and Black Friday closed his online poker chapter. With limited live poker options in Central South Dakota other than a couple of tiny Indian casinos, he didn’t have time to travel and play.

“My wife is a pretty good poker player as well, but doesn’t get the opportunity to play very often.”

“When I actually get an opportunity to go play a big tournament somewhere, I am hungry, and I focus because I know I don’t get many shots at titles,” Skluzak says. “I have actually laid down more big hands in the past two years than I have in the 15 years prior. Some of those were not the correct plays, but I've learned you have to be willing to muck very pretty hands and that can be hard to do.”

For the Skluzaks, small-town life is perfect. Growing up, Skluzak was active in sports, hunting, fishing, and anything outdoors. A native of Kimball, S.D., population 752, he and his wife still live there today but have moved into town and off the farm. Their three children (ages 10, 8, and 6) keep them busy, and the entire family loves to hunt, fish, and play sports, so they stay active all year-round. Poker is a big part of the family too.

“My wife is a pretty good poker player as well, but doesn’t get the opportunity to play very often,” he says. “She has been very supportive of me and was able to be there when I won my second South Dakota State Poker Championship.”

With some skills and focus, he may just bring home that third piece of hardware for the trophy case soon.

The Mentalist

Ahmed Taleb

  • Age: 26
  • Occupation: Information technology
  • Hometown: Moorhead, Minnesota
  • Living Now: Minneapolis
  • Twitter: @AhmedTalebTaleb
Ahmed Taleb
Ahmed Taleb after his recent MSPT victory.

It was a huge final semester at college for Ahmed Taleb. Finishing up his degree in IT and looking forward to graduating from Minnesota State University-Moorhead in December 2017, one moment stood out. It wasn’t a high test score or an improvement in his grade point average.

Taleb looks back on his breakthrough in August at the Mid-States Poker Tour $1,110 Main Event at the Grand Falls Casino in South Dakota. He took down the title (262 entries) and took home $54,089.

“Last August I was really dedicated and I had a feeling I was going to win,” he said. “I drove four hours to play, which was the biggest buy-in I’ve ever played.”

After arriving at Grand Falls, the win almost didn’t come to fruition. With only $1,600 in his pocket, Taleb’s plans called for playing in the satellite, but no luck. A bit soured from the outcome, Taleb gave up and jumped in a $2-$5 cash game.

"I slept in my car that night because I couldn’t afford a hotel room."

“I did really well, and decided to play the tournament,” he says. “I registered literally at the last minute. I played for around two hours and bagged 15 big blinds or less. I slept in my car that night because I couldn’t afford a hotel room. I ended up winning, and I’ve been doing well since then.”

With that win, Taleb found his groove and notched several nice cashes. At the MSPT in November, he took seventh in the $1,110 Wisconsin State Poker Championship for $20,354. He then added a few smaller cashes in Las Vegas events and then was back at it at the $1,110 MSPT-Venetian main event in early-February for eighth place and $18,545.

Just days later, Taleb finished runner-up in a $600 buy-in tournament at the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza for $41,493. Since hitting the tournament trail in August, he’s amassed more than $152,000 and sits 15th in the MSPT Player of the Year race. Not bad for a guy fresh out of college and snagging his first full-time job.

Ahmed Taleb
Ahmed Taleb

Growing up in Morocco, Taleb began playing cards at a young age, mostly three-card poker with friends. Those early games would a build a love for poker.

“When I moved to the US in 2011, I started playing hold’em online for fun,” he says. “I used to play on Facebook and spent a lot of hours playing Zynga. I started playing for money about two years ago.”

His poker education was fast. Quiet and shy growing up, Taleb found that he was good at reading people. Even though he is shy, Taleb enjoys meeting new people and making friends. He enjoys playing soccer in his free time.

When not working or playing a tournament, how does Taleb work on his game? Lately, the mental side is the center of his attention, and he credits poker mind coach Elliot Roe with keeping him focused.

“I love his podcast,” Taleb says. “I’ve learned a lot from it. I attribute my success to studying all parts of the game, especially the mental side.”

With his big wins, Taleb has probably left sleeping in his car behind.

The Hunter

Mike Englert

  • Age: 29
  • Occupation: Realtor
  • Hometown: Fort Collins, Co
  • Living in: Windsor, Co
  • Twitter: @moneyflickamike
Mike Englert celebrates his win with friends.
Mike Englert celebrates his win with friends.

Fort Collins has one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation, and Mike Englert should know. A realtor in his day job, Englert keeps busy selling homes in this northern Colorado town with breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains.

This real estate-selling poker player has been busy in recent months – notching sales in the market and picking up some big scores on the poker felt.

“I have also been studying the game a lot.”

“I have always been a very successful poker player, but just recently started playing more tournaments and have had much success,” Englert says. “I have also been studying the game a lot.”

The work has paid off. In mid-February, he took down the Heartland Poker Tour $11,650 Main Event in Black Hawk, Colorado, for $200,762 in a tournament that featured 607 entries at the Golden Gate Casino. The event marked his third final table at HPT events, and in July he finished third in Black Hawk in the $1,100 Main Event for $53,550. His lifetime tournament winnings now have topped $250,000.

Englert was born and raised in Fort Collins, and always excelled at math. That has come in handy as he got more and more into poker, which he began playing at a young age with friends and family.

Currently, single with no kids, Englert improves his game by watching tournaments online, reading, and playing whenever he can.

When not selling homes or battling it out for poker titles, Englert can usually be found outdoors; hunting, fishing, or playing golf.

“I'm a huge bowhunter,” he says. “My favorite places to hunt are Canada in the spring for black bears and Colorado in September for elk.”

No doubt he’ll soon be aiming for another big score on the poker felt. And if you’re doing some hunting for a place in northern Colorado – he’s your man.

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas, and the host of the PokerNews Podcasting Network's newest podcast True Gambling Stories.

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