WSOP 2016: Is that Luca Pagano?
"Luca Pagano seemed to be hypnotized. Occasionally he shook his head or brought his fingers to his lips. But, basically, he just sat there staring into nothing." ---Season 1 EPT report
There are scenes that will stick with a man. A glance from across a bar. The way the air smelled on a childhood summer night. The way Luca Pagano endures defeat.
I know these things like I know my own breath. They trigger a visceral reaction, one that tugs as hard on the memory as it does the heart.
I know this about Pagano because of a night in early March 2005. It was the fourth tournament I'd covered for PokerStars. We were in Vienna on Season 1 of the European Poker Tour.
At the time, Pagano was already an Italian star, one who had two final tables in the inaugural season of the EPT. He would go on to earn $2.2 million on the live circuit and untold other riches online. Before he reached the World Series of Poker Main Event this year, he would also turn himself into a successful business owner and partner of the EPT.
But that night in Vienna, he marked himself as a man who feels defeat so deeply, it might as well be the marrow in his bones.
The first night in Vienna ended in a way I'd not seen that early in my career. I thought about it most of the night as I wrote my wrap-up, and as the sun was coming up over Austria, I wrote this.
The room cleared, the chips fell into bags, and the room's cacophony slipped into a quiet buzz. Almost all the players had taken taxis back to the hotel. One sat alone in his seat, a painfully blank stare set on his face.
Luca Pagano seemed to be hypnotized. Occasionally he shook his head or brought his fingers to his lips. But, basically, he just sat there staring into nothing.
It had been the last hand of the night. Almost all the tables had quit. Luca Pagano was facing a bet that would force him to call for all his chips. The board was about as scary as it gets. Four cards were already down, with one left to come: AKQ9 with two spades. The man who had bet into Pagano had him covered by quite a bit. Watching from tableside, I tried to put them both on hands. I considered every option. The made straight, the flush draw, two pair. All of them seemed to be possible. Pagano was in pain.
The opponent said, "Do you have the ace?"
Pagano allowed a smile, "Of course, I have an ace."
Minutes went by. I thought for a moment that Pagano was going to call, which surprised me. I was sure he would lay down the hand. Pagano is a fantastic, but conservative player. I didn't think he would call with any less than two-pair, or better yet, the made straight. Finally, after some murmuring from the railbirds behind him, Pagano said, "I'll believe you" and mucked and ace and king face-up. Top two pair. I exhaled with the words, "What a laydown."
Then, his opponent, with no particular flair, turned up AQ.
Pagano had just laid down the almost sure winner.
And so he sat staring into nothing. He still had more than 30,000 in chips going into Level 10 tomorrow (600/1200/100). But, in his mind, he had just blown it all.
He was still sitting there an hour after the game was over. He was still sitting there when I left. I wouldn't be surprised if he were still sitting there when I return later today.
That year, Pagano managed to recover and went on to finish in 14th place. It set off a globetrotting career that made sure Pagano would be a part of poker lore forever.
As he aged, he got better. He got smarter. He got richer. What he didn't get, however, was any less vulnerable to the slings and arrows of poker. By and by, we saw more of Pagano working in a suit while tending to his business while seeing less and less of him sitting at the table.
"Business requires a lot of time, energy, and focus. The poker business and many other businesses are changing dramatically because of technology and new trends," he said today. "You really need to be focused if you don't want to lose what you've been working for during the last ten years."
And so, many times, when we went looking for Pagano the Poker Player, we didn't find him.
Today, there is something new in Pagano's eye, even if the beginning of his Main Event went about as bad as it could.
Before the day was even properly underway, Pagano's 50,000 stack was cut to 2,500. Most of that came in one hand that would have Pagano talking to himself for the next few hours.
With the blinds at 150/300, Pagano was facing a raise and call to 650. He repopped it to 1,800 with pocket queens. The flop fell Q85 rainbow, and the original raiser made it 2,500. The guy in the middle folded, and Pagano opted to play it slow. It would prove to be a costly decision. When a seven came on the turn, Pagano's opponent made it 5,000 to play. Pagano took his foot off the brake and raised to 15,000. The response? His opponent shoved for 33,000. Pagano, figuring there was almost no chance he was losing made the call to see six-nine for the completed gutterball straight.
"Beauty of the WSOP!" he said.
He sat and stewed on it for a while, recorded a brooding Facebook live video, and then went back to work. When we caught up with him an hour later, he was all smiles.
"I'm still planning to win this tournament," he said "A little bit of drama makes wins more exciting."
In addition to his other business interests, he's working on a wide-ranging Twitch channel and other still-secret projects. He's also finishing up a graduate program at Stanford. But none those are keeping him from his mission.
"I really recovered a lot of mental energy which is really needed. Every poker player needs mental energy. I feel that I have recharged," he said. "I wanted to recover my energy and get ready for the EPT which is my battleground."
That's where the real story is right now. Even if he doesn't recover in this Main Event (update: he went bust about an hour after dinner), he's got a plan to hit the EPT hard this year, first in Barcelona next month.
"That's the very good thing about poker. You can take a break for a few months or a few years and get back at the table once you have recovered your A-game," he said. "You can still challenge everyone, which is different from other sports where when you get older, that's it."
For Pagano, his career is far from over, and if you watch him today you will see a lot of the fire he had back during his EPT-crushing days. Though he may still reel when bad beats come, there is something quicker about his recovery time.
Put another way: This is not a new Luca Pagano. It's a better one.
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Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Follow him on Twitter: @BradWillis. WSOP photos by PokerPhotoArchive.com.