Flying a plane and playing poker are both activities that require special skill and perfect timing, but there are big differences too.
One is a full of tension, apprehension and nerve-wracking pressure. The other requires a pilot’s license.
Paul Petraglia knows the demanding nature of each, and has been successful at both. The Jacksonville-based corporate pilot recently won $315,723 as the champion of the WPT bestbet Bounty Scramble Main Event, hosted by bestbet Jacksonville. It was the biggest win of Petraglia’s poker career.
“It’s much more nerve-wracking playing poker,” the pilot said of comparing the high-stakes game to flying planes. “Flying is very structured, and we go to great lengths to make sure there is absolutely no gambling involved. We always choose the safest way out when flying.
“In poker, you can’t take the safe way out because you’ll never end up winning,” he added. “In poker, you have to take chances, you have to gamble, and sometimes you just have to go with your gut and hope that the cards cooperate.”
Petraglia, who lives in World Golf Village, beat out 322 other competitors from across the country in the bestbet event. He defeated two-time defending champion Sam Panzica in a head-to-head battle for the biggest win of his poker career.
Petraglia is originally from Rhinebeck, New York, and first came to the First Coast in 1990 to attend Jacksonville University for aviation training. After college, he worked as a commercial airline pilot before returning to the Jacksonville area to work as corporate pilot. Petraglia said being able to win the WPT event in Jacksonville held significant meaning.
“It was a dream come true,” Petraglia said of the victory. “First of all, it was a huge victory as far as my poker game itself is concerned. Just to know I bested a field of 323 players and to come out on top was a huge sense of accomplishment. But it meant more to me that it was my hometown casino, in front of the players and friends that I play with every day and just be recognized for that and keep the trophy in Jacksonville.”
Petraglia said he started playing poker about 14 years ago when the Texas Hold ’Em craze hit, and poker tournaments became nationally televised events full of drama and colorful personalities.
Petraglia said poker, particularly hold ’em, appealed to his strategic mindset.
“It’s the competition,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to assess the situation. It’s like putting a puzzle together in your head. Also, I’m a total math nerd, so there’s a lot of math involved, and I like that aspect as well. And I’m not gonna lie, the money is a nice byproduct of it all, so there’s that.”
Petraglia said early on he was a fan of poker star Daniel Negreanu, who plays the “old-school” style of poker, but is currently an admirer of pro Byron Kaverman.
Petraglia has played poker mostly around the Jacksonville area, but has also participated in the World Series of Poker main event in Las Vegas, although he said he didn’t have any luck there as far as the results went. Winning the WSOP main event may be a poker player’s biggest accomplishment, but Petraglia also wants to remain grounded.
“I don’t think there’s a single poker player on the planet who would say he doesn’t want to win the main event,” Petraglia said. “But for me, I’m more than a recreational player, but I’m definitely not a professional, so I just have tremendous love for the game. I just try to keep my goals practical. I like the small victories, but this one certainly was an eye-opening experience and made me realize I can compete on the level of a lot of professionals and have success with it.”
Despite the obvious appeal of Las Vegas for poker players, Petraglia has nothing but praise for his hometown poker rooms.
“Hands down, bestbet in Jacksonville and bestbet Orange Park are two of the finest poker rooms in the country as far as I’m concerned,” Petraglia said. “I’m their No. 1 fan.”
Petraglia’s victory also includes the $15,000 buy-in for the season-ending WPT Tournament of Champions. And the training process of becoming a pilot may give Petraglia an advantage when it comes to being a successful poker player.
“There’s always a learning curve, and that doesn’t stop,” he said. “That’s similar to flying. Every day is different. There’s always something to learn, it’s never the same thing twice. I think that’s the same approach to poker, as well. No hand is ever going to play out the same way. “There are too many variables, too many outside factors that come in to play,” he continued. “With every hand, just like with every flight, you have to approach it differently and with respect and make sure it all makes sense when it comes together.”