Judy and Tom O’Meara Sr. are inside the Amazon Room on Sunday afternoon, sweating the early action from Day 1B of the World Series of Poker Main Event. Neither one of them play poker and they’d be hard-pressed to pick out any of the players who made the final table last year.
In their hearts, they were hoping to be at the WSOP cheering on their son, Tom Jr. The 52-year-old real estate agent picked up the poker bug not long after Chris Moneymaker’s win in the 2003 WSOP Main Event and then started organizing small buy-in tournaments in his neighborhood in Dacula, a suburb just about 45 minutes outside of Atlanta. Like a lot of poker players, he always dreamed of playing in the Main Event.
In early 2016, Tom Jr. was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had hoped to finally play the Main Event last summer but was simply too sick to get to Las Vegas. He died in September before ever being able to cross the Main Event off of his bucket list.
“His wife passed away in June, so we did his will at that point and that’s when he made up his mind on how he wanted to distribute his assets because he didn’t have any children,” said O’Meara Sr., who had traveled from their home in Michigan to be with their son in his final days.
With his wife gone and no children to leave things to, Tom Jr. made sure that five of his home game buddies got to do the thing he never had the chance to do and he wrote into his will a 2017 Main Event buy in for five of his home game friends.
That’s how John Nichol, Keren Jackson, Jerry Hanes, Miltos Tzinourtas and Steve Pavlichek ended up in the 2017 WSOP Main Event, with Judy and Tom Sr. cheering them on from the sidelines.
“He wanted to be here and couldn’t, so he said ‘hey, how about my best friends?,’ said O’Meara Sr.
Before he died, O’Meara made sure to let each of the five know that he’d picked them to play the Main Event.
“I was on way to golf, gorgeous day, I’ve got my top down on my convertible and he calls me and he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know, because I didn’t want it to be a surprise, you’re in my will.’ And as soon as he said that, goosebumps all over, because there’s only one reason he put any of us in his will,” said Hanes. “He’s like ‘I’ve been hoping to get to this year’s Main, I’m just too sick I can’t do it. I’m not going to get it off my bucket list, but I’m going to make sure you do’.”
Jackson, the lone female in the group, remembers getting his phone call from Tom Jr.
“He called me personally. It was soon after he went to his attorney after he found out his fight wasn’t going to end with success,” said Jackson. “We cried because I’d rather he be here to do this. It’s an honor. It’s a gift and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”
As for why Tom Jr. chose her as one of the five, Jackson recalled impressing her neighbor during some home games.
“He said he liked my moxie,” remembered Jackson.
Tzinourtas was away on business in Australia when he got his phone call. Blown away by the generosity of the gesture, Tzinourtas knows that he and his four friends have been given a chance to pay homage to their longtime friend while also living out a dream of their own.
“I don’t think there’s any better way to honor Tom, honor his life and honor a guy that basically came from working in Detroit as a janitor, barely making ends meet and becoming who he ended up becoming in the end, a great, great guy,” said Tzinourtas.
Each of the five describe Tom Jr. the same way; overly generous, willing to do anything to help out a friend or make the neighborhood a better place. Even though he and his wife didn’t have a family of their own, each Halloween he transformed his house into the one that everybody in the neighborhood would talk about.
The five have honored Tom by wearing shirts with Tom’s name on them and the king of hearts. That card was chosen with purpose.
“He really was the king of hearts. He would do anything for anybody,” said Hanes.
His generosity and passion for helping other people have left a lasting impression on those closest to him. For Tom Sr., he looks back at the way he handled the last eight months of his life.
“He knew what was coming, but he was a champion and from the beginning he just said ‘it is what it is, i’m okay with it and at peace with everything’. I couldn’t get over that,” said Tom Sr.
The group also had special coins made with each of their names on one side and Tom’s on the other to serve as card protectors. The $10,000 buy-in to the Main Event is a pretty steep jump up from the usual $40 tournaments they play back home.
“This is the third or fourth time I’ve been in a casino, but this is the first time I’ve played any kind of tournament. I’m a real home game player,” said Nichol. “It’s unbelievable; his generosity, his love of the game. We used to play poker back when we first started and he was head and shoulders above everyone else.“
Tom Jr. likely would have been the most comfortable of the group had he lived long enough to play the Main Event. He regularly made trips up toe Cherokee, North Carolina – the closest casino to Dacula – to play poker. One such trip, last June, ended up being the last thing he did before passing away six weeks later.
“The last time he actually went out of the house, he wanted to go to Cherokee and so he went with Miltos and Steve and then Tom and I went in a separate car. That was the last time he played,” said Tom Sr. “They watched and made sure he was okay and he had a good time.”
Judy remembers worrying that he wasn’t going to be able to go on that trip.
“That was the last time he went out socially and he didn’t even think he could do it. He was very ill the night before. He was bound and determined to get out there,” said Judy.
Tom and Judy are only staying in Las Vegas until Monday before heading to Arizona for a short visit with Tom’s sister before returning to their home in Michigan for a wedding next Saturday. While they’re unable to stick around see how the five do over the next few days, they’ve learned something about their son by meeting the folks he chose to represent him.
“I can see why Tom picked these people,” Judy said. “They all have stories too.”