At Ohio State, Craig Kolk gambled and lost early, won later

Craig Kolk, former Ohio State player who is now a player development specialist at Barona Resort & Casino, San Diego, Calif.
Craig Kolk, former Ohio State player who is now a player development specialist at Barona Resort & Casino, San Diego, Calif.


Wide receiver

Craig Kolk’s first big gamble in a life filled with them came up a flop.

As a freshman walk-on receiver for the Buckeyes, Kolk transferred to North Carolina State four games in to the 2002 season, only to experience near-instant pangs of regret. The Wayne, N.J., native returned to Ohio State as a regular student weeks later.

“I came back just as they won the title,” Kolk said with a laugh. “So I kind of have the most raw end of the deal you could ever think of. Every time someone comes up to me, they ask if I have my national championship ring. The answer is no.”

His later bets, however, proved more gainful.

Today, Kolk, 28, is the director of player development at Barona Casino outside San Diego after climbing the industry ladder as a professional gambler.

It is not the path he envisioned. Kolk, who grew up a Buckeyes fan despite no family connection to the school, bypassed several small-school scholarship offers to attend OSU and spent his final three years in Columbus as an ordinary college Joe. He cheered from the stands at Ohio Stadium on fall Saturdays, played poker recreationally and majored in family and consumer science.

But after graduating in 2006, Kolk won $100,000 in a poker tournament in Atlantic City, N.J. The 23-year-old moved out of his parents’ house and onto the boardwalk.

“Caesars, Bally’s, Harrah’s, Showboat, Bellagio, I lived in the casinos for six months,” he said. “I gambled for a living. Poker, blackjack, roulette, craps, everything. I won a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

Kolk then packed up for Las Vegas, where his success continued — and his swagger drew attention. He was hired as a VIP host by Barona Casino outside San Diego and promoted to player development director nine months later.

Though he regularly hosts celebrities and athletes, including former Ohio State teammates, Kolk said his focus is on pampering the casino’s loyal high-rollers.

“I love CEOs and businessmen because if you’re an athlete or celebrity, you know what the red-carpet treatment is like and you take it for granted,” Kolk said. “But when I have a CEO that works his butt off five days a week and only gets the weekend off, then it’s so special to him to have the red carpet, the private jet, the limo pick-up. I mean, I have a helicopter pad on my casino.”