THIRD STREET PROMENADE — When Zoran “Zoki” Pavlovic emigrated to America in March of 1976, he wasn’t coming in search of a better life. He was desperately trying to save his.

The 56-year-old Santa Monican was born in the capital city of Belgrade, Serbia with an enlarged aorta, the largest and arguably most important artery in the body. If he had any hope of living a long and fulfilling life, Pavlovic said he had to travel to America, where technology and treatment far exceeded what he could find at home.

“Doctors gave me a 50-50 chance, so I took it,” Pavlovic said while eating lunch at a restaurant on the Third Street Promenade earlier this month. He put down his fork and opened his shirt to reveal a large scar running down the middle of his chest. “It was either die in America, which was good considering, or go on to live an incredible life.”

Taking risks has always been a part of Pavlovic’s life. He gave up a successful career as a musician in Europe to realize his dream of living in America. He gambled with his life savings and ended up creating a successful construction company, which provides the funding for his newest venture — creating “the world’s most educational math game.”

“That surgery helped me,” said Pavlovic, an animated, personable man who isn’t afraid to drop down and do push-ups to prove he still has some gas left in the tank. “It was truly a gift from God. It taught me to appreciate life. It taught me to take chances. I had no fear. I had nothing left to lose.”

Pavlovic has invested heavily in his collection of brain-teasing math games, hiring programmers in his native Serbia as well as folks here at home to come up with the complex algorithms that power his vast collection of games, as well as the catchy titles and graphics to make them marketable. Pavlovic isn’t afraid to pound the pavement himself, visiting the Daily Press more than a year ago to pitch his game Arithmo: Crossmath (www.arithmo.com). The paper decided to give him a shot, publishing his puzzles daily.

His next step is to sell his games overseas and over the Internet. He has sold games to a Japanese toy company and several are available for download on Andriod-powered phones and the iPhone, racking up over 250,000 downloads in roughly three months.

“Math has no language barrier,” said Pavlovic, who speaks four languages himself. “Everyone can play these games.”

Playing is something Pavlovic knows a lot about. While growing up in Serbia, Pavlovic’s father was a wealthy musician who had him playing in front of packed nightclubs before he was a teen. His father started him out on an accordion and then a piano. Pavlovic wasn’t interested at first, cutting the wires to the piano so he wouldn’t have to practice. While his father was pressuring him to study classic compositions, he was more in to the Beatles. His father, a stern but fair man, noticed his enthusiasm for popular music and bought him a guitar. Pavlovic flourished, eventually learning close to 5,000 songs.

“My father was tough, but he was a good man,” Pavlovic said. “He never liked the communist system. They took away some of his properties and that was what triggered his hatred. It rubbed off on me, but we were always careful not to express that. I heard stories of people who talked out and they were taken and no one ever saw them again.”

Despite the oppressive rule and constant fear, Pavlovic said he never gave up on his dream of living in America. He even went so far as to write down his hopes for a class assignment that earned him a C- and plenty of ridicule from his teacher and classmates.

“He called me out in front of the class and teased me,” Pavlovic said. “They couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to America. They thought it was a joke, that I would never make it.”

By the time he was 19, the musician had enough cash to strike out on his own and with his health a growing concern, he flew to New York and settled in Chicago, where he had his operation. He quickly realized that music wasn’t as lucrative in America as it was in Europe, where he could easily make a few thousand dollars a night.

“I decided I should go back to school, maybe be a lawyer or an architect,” he said.

Pavlovic moved to Highland Park, Calif. and purchased a home that he quickly remodeled. Building without much experience, he made some mistakes along the way, but Pavlovic was determined. With the help of a neighbor, Hector Salazar, he was able to get his home up to code. His neighbors took notice and soon he had a burgeoning business.

After a few years, he invested in a motel in Downtown, L.A. and grew his construction business. During that time he would marry the same woman three times, have two children and come up with the idea for his first math game.

Pavlovic was with his construction crew having lunch purchased from a food truck. He remembers giving the cashier $20 and she could not figure out how much change was due. He said her calculator was down and she struggled with simple math, eventually giving him back more than he should have received.

“I thought, what a shame that this girl cannot calculate $20,” Pavlovic said, shaking his head. “I thought, what happened to this country. I love America and thought that I could do something to help people get back that knowledge. People invent machines to build your muscles. Well, here’s something to build your brain.”

The games are entertaining and frustrating at times. Pavlovic loves watching people play, and gets even more enjoyment when they fail, and then try harder and succeed.

“There’s no problem in this world that you cannot find the solution,” he said.

When he isn’t checking in on his construction crew or dreaming up new games with his team, Pavlovic can be found spending time with his second wife, a former broadcaster in Serbia, and their 4-year-old daughter.

While he has traveled all over the world, Pavlovic said he believes Santa Monica is “paradise,” and never plans to leave.

“This is the most beautiful city in the world. If it’s good enough for ‘Whitey’ Bulger,” [the Boston mobster recently arrested in Santa Monica by the FBI], then it’s good enough for me,” Pavlovic said; always cracking jokes, and never afraid to take chances.

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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