Valerie Zaklama’s WPT Choose-Your-Own Adventure

After winning a surprise seat in the WPT World Championship from Doyle Brunson, Valerie Zaklama is writing her own poker story.

Jeff Walsh
Dec 15, 2022

The story of Valerie Zaklama’s $10,000 golden ticket journey to the WPT World Championship was nearly someone else’s story.

She was originally in Las Vegas in a supporting role of her husband Pascal, who came to Sin City chasing a poker dream of playing in multiple events at the WPT World Championship at Wynn Festival. But after Pascal busted out of the Seniors Event (a three outer no less) the pair, on a whim, hopped into a line to pick up a free signed copy of Doyle Brunson’s autobiography The Godfather of Poker:The Doyle Brunson Story and meet the legend himself.

And inside just one of those books, a free entry to the WPT World Championship at Wynn Las Vegas.

When the pair walked through the doorway into the room where Brunson was meeting his fans, Zaklama was given the opportunity to point out her book of choice. However, the attendant mistook which one she wanted.

“[The attendant] pointed at one that was kind of standing up, but I wanted one that was in the back,” she said. “You know, when you just have a feeling?”

Zaklama, a family law attorney of 20 years from Colorado, made a polite correction to the book she had her eye on. And when that very book was handed to Brunson, he announced Zaklama as the winner.

“I’m not the big poker player, Pascal is. I’m here as the supportive wife, so when I got the book and they said I won I wanted to give it to someone that could actually win the tournament,” she laughed. “Not me.”

Yes, you. The ticket was non-transferrable which meant that Zaklama’s choose-your-own-adventure book was essentially forcing her into chasing a poker dream of her own. According to her, she has very little experience – entry a couple of Ladies Events from Foxwood and Playground in Montreal, some $1/2 home games on occasion. The last time she even played any poker was over a year ago.

Now, she was about to play some of the toughest poker of her life. But in addition to finding the golden ticket, she also found some help. The team from LearnWPT stepped in and gave her access to their website as well as a plethora of advice. According to Pascal, LearnWPT COO Adrian Naggy spent time with Zaklama and she even received some advice from three-time WPT champ Brian Altman as well.

“The WPT team has been awesome,” Pascal said about how they rallied around Valerie. “Adrian has been super awesome, he’s spent quite a bit of time [coaching Valerie]. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

In many tournament grinder circles, finding a bag at the end of the day is a major poker accomplishment. And after Day 1A of the WPT World Championship, that’s exactly where Zaklama finds herself. Still in, with a healthy stack.

“I’m definitely nervous…I packed an extra shirt,” she said with a little nervous laughter. “But I’m just trying to play each hand as it comes and do the best that I can.

“The table was crazy when I sat down, people were going wild. There were a lot of showdowns, a lot of three-way showdowns. I just tried to keep calm and stick with my cards. As the blinds started to go up the table began to calm down,” she said. “I think one of the first hands I played, I raised and I had five people calling so obviously the way that I’m sitting and the way I hold my cards and my chips they can tell I’m a novice.”

But novice or no, Zaklama says that she’s finding her way and when pressed she conceded that “considering the circumstances I think I’m doing OK.”

When asked to compare the pressure of the courtroom to the poker table, it was not even an issue for the attorney.

“I’m more comfortable in the courtroom, because of the job that I do. Here, I’m out of my element. I wish I could just relax and just be completely chill. When the hands come, I just have to focus and I’m doing a lot of math in my head…and it’s actually a lot,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for professional poker players.”

No matter what happens for her here, she couldn’t have picked a better poker story. One she’ll get to tell for years to come.