There were just three players left and thousands of dollars on the line as Steven “Vito” Genovese peeked to see a pair of pocket queens during the World Series of Poker’s Salute to Warriors event in late June.
In an unusual turn, the two other players pushed in their chips and went all-in before the flop — the first turning of cards during Texas Hold Em’. It was do or die for Genovese and he had two choices: fold or go all in himself.
It was the third and final day of the tournament — with the previous two involving over 12 hours of play with only a dinner break to interrupt the games. He was sleep-deprived, as were most of the players, but Genovese had an advantage the rest of them didn’t.
“You’re lucky to get four hours of sleep,” said Genovese. “So I think maybe my background as a firefighter and living with sleep deprivation worked out — it might have helped me.”
Genovese worked for the Los Angeles County Fire Department for over 30 years — with most of that time being spent in the Santa Clarita Valley, at places such as Fire Station 111 and Fire Station 107. He retired in 2009, but his days as a firefighter gave him a leg up, and his older age made his opponents underestimate him.
“I think the persona of an older player, some of the young guys think they can run over you,” said Genovese. “If you kind of do a little reverse psychology and show some aggression towards them, they fold.”
An event such as the one he was playing in was like a marathon — a steady accumulation of chips over time provides a player with a huge advantage once a lot of the players are weeded out.
This tournament had over 4,300 players and all of them were trying to make it to “the Money Bubble” — the point in which they can reach the minimum payout. Since the entry fee is $500 and the minimum payout is $800 (the bubble), players will try to hang on by a thread until they reach the bubble, but only about 15% of them actually do.
If players have a small stack of chips as they near the precipice of the bubble, other players with more chips will bully and knock them out to secure their spot. Genovese admitted he did this a few times.
Genovese had advanced pretty far in a couple of tournaments before, but this time around he had a different approach. In other events he’d have moments of doubt but this one felt different. He said the whole time he just went into “survival mode.”
“As we went up, step by step, I think when we got to around five players left, at that point I was playing for the win — I kind of felt like maybe I got a shot at this,” said Genovese. “So I put my thinking cap on more so than usual and really played close to the chest but I think I made one mistake on the way but fortunately I had enough chips that I could survive that and then I came storming back and got lightning in a bottle.”
At the later stages of the game, Genovese was confident he had a shot. With three players left, things became tense and it all came down to one hand. Genovese and one other player both had a substantial amount of chips but one player had the shortest stack. That player was raised.
The second player, with more to lose, went all in. Genovese had enough to call.
“Now the emphasis was on the very first player who had the shortest amount of chips and he thought for the longest time but he called,” said Genovese. “So now we had all three of us all in.”
With everyone all in, cards were on the table. Genovese had his pocket queens, the first player had an ace and a king and the second player had an ace and a 10. On the flop was a queen, giving Genovese three-of-a-kind. He won the round.
With the first player eliminated, he beat the second player out in three hands. The prize for such a victory was $217,921 and one of the most coveted bracelets known to poker players.
“I’m very excited about it. I never thought it would be me. I thought I’d be, you know, the people that are around the table watching… But then it was really nice to have a few of my friends there… for me that was a really great experience.”
Genovese is used to playing casually with his friends, but now it’s hard to have fun when they know just how good of a player they’re being put up against.
“I’ve taken some flack, but no, we’re all pretty equal. But in reality, I just feel very very fortunate in that tournament. I have some skills that I don’t want to downplay, but it takes a tremendous amount of luck,” said Genovese.
“I’m just overwhelmed with hearing from people I haven’t heard from for 20 or 30 years and that’s really kind of neat to touch base with old friends and things like that… everybody seems to be genuinely happy for me, which really warms my heart,” said Genovese.