Try to get Matt Vengrin’s attention right now. It’s not an easy thing. More than two weeks of the Spring Championship of Online Poker have been on, and that doesn’t even begin to consider the NBA playoffs, an important Vengrin distraction.
How important? Well, the kid’s first word was “ball.” Once he could walk, he started playing, and he didn’t stop. He played all the way through high school where he competed for the New York state title. He got recruited to play at SUNY Plattsburgh (hence the PokerStars screen name), and fell in love with the team atmosphere. Now, he remains a diehard ball fan, which, again, makes this a really distracting time for him.
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Nevertheless, Vengrin has once again won an online poker championship. He won his first in WCOOP 2014, the year we first got to know him as a guy who grinded so hard at an arcade that he got banned. The next came a year later when he won a second WCOOP title and revealed himself and his life even more deeply. Now, he’s a SCOOP champion after taking down the $215 FL Triple Draw event last week.
With that kind of introduction, it would be easy to see Vengrin as a kid who was destined to be the online poker killer he is, one who never had to try that hard, one who followed a path to being a pro rather than blazing it himself.
That would be really, really wrong.
As it turns out, there was a time back when he had just finished up his first year at Plattsburgh that Vengrin’s path to today could’ve ended right on the famed Atlantic City Boardwalk, a day that in just one moment could’ve meant we might never have known poker player Matt Vengrin.
Don’t get the wrong idea: he was never in mortal danger.
But his poker life was, and if you wrote a screenplay about it today, it would be called Matt’s Magical Summer Movie.
It was summertime, and things were not going well. Vengrin once had $2,000 in his PokerStars account. Now he had nothing. He was waiting tables in Vermont to pay his bills, and his tip money wasn’t making his nut. He had reached a point where he was going to have to do the unthinkable.
“I was basically broke,” Vengrin said. “Even though my parents had told me poker was bad, it was gambling and they would not support it, I still went down to Cape May while they were vacationing with plans to tell them they were right, and ask them for a loan to get through the summer and the next school year.”
So, there he was. He had $270 to his name, and he was going to do the one thing he simply didn’t want to do. To do it, he had to spent $50 on a new drivers license and $20 on gas.
That left $200.
He put his car on the Garden State Parkway and started to to drive. As he steered toward Cape May, he saw a sign for Atlantic City. He was 21 years old. He had $200 and a tank of gas. If it had been a movie, it would’ve been dark, and he would have been wearing sunglasses. Hit it.
“I figured, if I was about to hear it from my parents, I may as well go enjoy some live poker before I do,” he said.
His first stop was the Taj. He put $70 into a poker tournament, and it went about as well as the rest of his summer had. Before deciding to take a knee in front of his parents, he had $270. Now…
This is where, if it had been a different movie, the sad music would’ve started playing over the saddest scene in a poker player’s life: Vengrin sat in the food court eating Sbarro and wondering what he could possibly do next.
Imagine that. Imagine yourself there with pepperoni grease on your chin and sensing that spot in your pocket that feels so much emptier than it did even two hours before. The crust is chewy and thick. The cigarette smoke from the casino is wafting in and mixing with the smell of a spinach calzone.
What do you do, hotshot? What. Do. You?
“I remember being the most nervous in my life,” he said.
He put his $130 on the table in a cash game and doubled up. Then he did it again. And then, just because this is like a scene from a movie, he hit quad fours in a monster pot. By the time the game was over, he had $1,300 in his pocket.
“I actually had a Taj security guard escort me to my car, because this much cash was a lot and all the money I had to my name,” Vengrin said.
That conversation with Mom and Dad? Didn’t happen. Instead, Vengrin got a job at a hotel, essentially babysitting for vacationers’ kids.
“My schedule that summer was basically: wake up at noon, go to the beach, have some lunch. Work the kids’ dining room for a few hours, and then go to Atlantic City and grind cash games at night,” he said.
The day job paid $6 an hour plus tips. Thing was, Vengrin wasn’t getting any gratuities at all. So, he had an idea.
“I decided to put a few dollars of my own money into the tip basket before anyone arrived. I started the experiment with two dollars. That day a handful of adults tipped a few dollars, and I made some extra money!” he said. “I then got ambitious and started putting ones, fives and tens in there.”
Before long, he was making okay money at the babysitting gig, and grinded his $1,300 roll up to $5,000.
For a summer that started so poorly, everything was going pretty damned well.
At least, it was going well in real life. Meanwhile, back on PokerStars…
Vengrin hadn’t figured out the online game. It just wasn’t working for him. In fact, his time at PokerStars was going so badly, he took his last couple hundred dollars out of his account and left himself less than a dollar online. It was about that time he had an idea.
“Why not try to run this 40 cents into a bankroll?”
He hit the lowest limit tables and turned his 40 cents into a $1. Then $2. After three hours, he had $5.
You know what $5 was good for back then? That’s right. A cheap sit and go. Which, of course, because this is the Matt Vengrin Movie, he won.
Because the man literally has no give-up in him, he took that profit to a rebuy tournament, and by the end of the night a final table deal had left him with $5,000 in his PokerStars account.
“I remember at that moment thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this,’ and I’ve never looked back,” Vengrin said.
Today, Vengrin thinks of it as his Magical Summer.
“That was one of the most fun summers of my life,” he said.
Take this on board: Matt Vengrin’s story is not one you should try at home. For most people, working in such dark magic would end up like most magic: Now you see me. Now you don’t. Seriously. Do not be like Matt. Only Matt is Matt, and he’s the only one who gets a movie with this script.
Indeed, most success stories are more like a tired academic film, one that extolls the virtues of bankroll management, slowly rising in stakes, and not counting on poker money to live. That’s the screenplay we want from you.
That’s just not how Vengrin did it, and because he lived a magical summer, today he is a pro living in Mexico, surfing when he wants, and living a life he couldn’t have imagined when he was 21 years old. He has three COOPs, untold other online winnings, and nearly a million bucks in live cashes.
If that’s not magical, I don’t know what is.
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Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging.