WCOOP 2014: The day Matt "plattsburgh" Vengrin got banned
In the tiny spot where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, there is a little town called Cape May, New Jersey. It's a vacation place known for bird watching and Victorian homes. At any given time, there are fewer than 4,000 people who list Cape May as their permanent address. One of them is a crotchety arcade owner who doesn't like to lose, one who many years ago accidentally discovered one of the world's up-and-coming star poker players.
Matt Vengrin was a kid back then, a tall one with knack for games and an eye for a new laser pointer. His parents took him to Cape May for vacation. Along the boardwalk sat an arcade with a crazy game encased in a big glass box. There were tubes upon tubes, all of them stacked on top of each other, each one's exit smaller than the one before it. Players used a joystick to work a battering ram-like device through the tubes. If done right, the ram would push prizes out to the player. If done wrong...well, Vengrin didn't do it wrong. And that's where things started to go sideways.
"The higher the tubes went, the more elusive the prize, and the smaller the tubes got. The bottom tube had about an inch of margin of error on all sides to win the prize. The top tube only had about 1/8th of an inch. You had to be very precise," he remembered this week. "The top tier of the tubes were filled with laser pointers. And I liked laser pointers."
Remember, Vengrin was exceptionally tall for his age. In his personal stratosphere, he was right at eye-level with the top tier of tubes. After a few tries to figure out the machine, he started winning. Over and over again.
"The man who ran the arcade watched me one day, and after I won three in a row, he told me I could no longer play the game," Vengrin said. "I guess laser pointers being rapidly won decreases the ROI for an arcade."
The savvy arcade owner might have been the first person to know he was dealing with a ringer.
"I am a natural-born game player," Vengrin admits today.
He was the kind of kid who could drop one quarter in the slot of an arcade game and play it until the end, a boy cut from the same cloth as Billy Mitchell, a sight that could terrify even the most hardened of boardwalk hucksters. That arcade owner might have been the first person to lose money to Matt Vengrin, but he wouldn't be the last.
That's because just 35 minutes north of Cape May sits a better-known place called Atlantic City, home to many of the east coast's casinos, and the first place Vengrin ever sat down to play live poker.
"Some would say that poker chose me," he said.
Ten years ago, Vengrin was a junior at SUNY Plattsburgh in upstate New York. His friend (Alistatus33 on PokerStars) introduced him to online poker. After sitting for ten minutes trying to come up with a screen name, Vengrin just typed "plattsburgh" on the screen and started playing.
Today the name "plattsburgh" is legendary in online poker circles. Vengrin has more than $2.6 million in online poker tournament winnings and another $800,000 he won playing in live casinos. Late last week, he earned a World Championship of Online Poker bracelet. He put up $320 and walked away with more than $53,000. It took him 19 hours of play over two days.
"It was grueling," he said. "The level of focus these things take to win is tremendous, and I was elated to be able to survive such a tough field."
It might have been grueling, but that's something Vengrin says after the fact. When he's in the middle of it, he's of one focus.
"I am ultra competitive and hate losing," he said.
When poker found him, Vengrin found poker legend Annette Obrestad, a young phenom who could've easily told him to bug off. Instead, she offered advice that helped turn Vengrin into a professional, one that's spent a decade in the game earning millions. He's won a lot more tournaments than laser pointers, but his recent win was his first WCOOP bracelet. The closest he'd come before was a 2009 runner-up finish to Daniel Kelly.
"Its nice to get this monkey off my back," he said.
Since online poker's Black Friday in April 2011, Vengrin has had to travel to Mexico to play on PokerStars, but Cape May, New Jersey remains his favorite place on Earth. He goes back every year. In fact he was there just a few weeks before this year's World Championship of Online Poker started. The old arcade owner was still there keeping close eye over the machines on the boardwalk, including that old tube game.
"There are no more laser pointers in the machine," Vengrin said.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging