EPT10 Sanremo: Texas hold'em: As Italian as mama's meatballs

The former captain of Italy's soccer team, Andrea Pirlo, has just released his autobiography, which is being serialised in a couple of British newspapers. One passage in particular caught the eye of a few tweeting journalists this morning, a matter of 128 words in which Pirlo described what it's like to take a penalty against France in the World Cup Final--a game in which Pirlo was named man of the match.

It is worth quoting Pirlo's words in full:

Caressing the ball was something I had to do. I lifted my eyes to the heavens and asked for help because if God exists, there's no way he's French. I took a long, intense breath. That breath was mine, but it could have been the manual worker who struggles to make it to the end of the month, the rich businessman who's a bit of a shit, the teacher, the student, the Italian expats who never left our side during the tournament, the well-to-do Milanese signora, the hooker on the street corner. In that moment, I was all of them.

You won't believe me, but it was right in that very moment I understood what a great thing it is to be Italian. It's truly a priceless privilege.

Take a breath, let it sink in, and then read that passage again. And again if you really like.

Once you've got over the shock that this was written by a footballer (we can probably assume Wayne Rooney's My Story So Far is not being serialised in Corriere Dello Sport), think about what Pirlo is saying. As captain of the Italian football team, he carries the hopes and expectations of an entire country on his shoulders, and he considers that enormous burden to be a "priceless privilege".

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Andrea Pirlo (front row, centre): Leading his country to battle. (Photo: Football.ua/Creative Commons)

We have been through a few countries on the European Poker Tour, visited some proud nations in all corners of the continent, but nowhere comes close to matching Italy for passion: for the game, for each other and for the country. With their hearts taped to their green, white and red sleeves, many Italians are sitting ducks for the satirists and lampooners, but it's impossible not to have a real respect for players so proud to be from this land, even in this most selfish of pursuits.

Poker in Italy is yet another success story for the game. Texas hold 'em is now as much a part of the culture here as limoncello, Lambretta and a high-carb lunch.

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Winning the prize for the most Italian-looking man in the most Italian-looking pose: Giovanni Salvatore

In December 2008, Salvatore Bonavena became the first Italian winner of a European Poker Tour Main Event, and immediately it was not only a victory for him, but for his country.

"I'm really happy; I feel like up going to cry," Bonavena told PokerStars Blog at the time. "I've done something no Italian has ever done. I feel very proud."

Bonavena remains the only Italian to take down an EPT title and Rudi Gaddo, an Italian reporter who has been covering poker for six years, said today that the victory is still a moment of national pride. "When only one of you has ever won, then even more people will be happy," Gaddo said.

When the final card was dealt in Prague that day, and Bonavena's pair of sevens had held up, supporters piled on to the stage, draping il Tricolore around Bonavena's shoulders and celebrating as if they too had won the title. What's more, the unruly bunch all stayed on the stage through the winner's photo-shoot, arguably beginning what is now an established tradition for friends to pose alongside the champion for posterity.

None of the members of the EPT press pack, nor Neil Stoddart, the EPT photographer, can remember a time prior to the Bonavena win that friends flooded the stage in this way. "It's never strange to see Italians climbing on the stage," Stoddart dead-panned, referencing the Italians' characteristic exuberance, which can sometimes get out of hand. But the point remains: there's a remnant of the Italians' passion in every winner-with-posse photo taken in poker from then on.

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Italy's finest EPT moment: SalBon comes of age

A few months before Bonavena's triumph, Italy had become the front-line for a new approach to online poker regulation. PokerStars.it launched in October 2008, the first time the industry-leading online card-room had obtained a specific license to operate within a single nation, tailored to that country's laws.

"This is a ground-breaking time for the online poker industry, and it's very exciting that the Italian market is pioneering this move," Fabio Angeli Bufalini, then the PokerStars Italian country manager, said. "This is the start of a global template which could potentially be adopted in other markets internationally in the next few years."

Since that moment, Spain, France, Belgium and Estonia, among others, have indeed followed suit--another way in which Italy laid the foundations for today's common practice.

The regulated Italian poker market, coupled with Bonavena's sensational triumph in Prague, brought a new legitimacy to poker in Italy and players flocked to the game. In April 2010, the EPT came to Sanremo for the third time and amassed a Main Event field of 1,240, still the biggest ever assembled at any EPT event.

That summer, Filippo Candio made the November Nine final table of the World Series Main Event, eventually finishing fourth behind Jonathan Duhamel. Candio brought poker into the Italian mainstream, breaking down the familiar wall of scepticism that often keeps poker out of the national newspapers.

"People understood that Filippo was in the final of the world championships," Gaddo said. "That was probably the biggest moment [for poker in Italy]."

The regulated market turned out to be a double-edged sword for some of Italy's players--particularly the best among them, who took up poker as a profession. According to Gaddo, the average skill level in what was still an emerging market was relatively low, meaning the professionals could make a comfortable living without ever needing to develop their game to the very highest level.

After the initial Italian boom waned slightly, and the first wave of recreational players learned that the game was not for them, the sharks were forced into choppier international waters, where they encountered more (and sometimes bigger) predators.

Although their profits suffered for a short period, the new wave of Italian players -- who have now emerged with their games fully formed -- are the best the country has ever seen. Gaddo named Dario Sammartino as a prime example of a player who managed to make a comfortable living for a few years without leaving Italy, but who now is making a splash on the international scene too. Sammartino has close to $900,000 in live tournament earnings, the vast majority of which have come in the past 18 months.

The precipitous growth of poker in Italy has, according to Gaddo, slowed up a little in recent years. (This downswing in numbers in Sanremo would tend to back up the claim.) But just as in other countries that experienced a boom before Italy, the plateau that follows is still found at a remarkably high altitude.

The IPT Sanremo event last week attracted record entires. The cafes in the town have "poker menus" and A-boards that declare "Welcome Poker Player!" Cristiano Guerra led at the end of yesterday; Andrea Benelli and that man Bonavena are running up stacks already today.

How long until we crown a second Italian EPT champion? Not long, one suspects--and the whole country will be ready for him.

"We are like that," Gaddo said. "We are very passionate."

Full coverage of EPT Sanremo is on the main EPT Sanremo page. There's hand-by-hand coverage in the panel at the top and feature pieces below.

Howard Swains
@howardswains in European Poker Tour