Commentary

Pescatori learning from experience

From HORSE to horse racing, the 'Italian Pirate' is always looking for the edge.

Updated: June 12, 2014, 10:08 PM ET
By Dave Tuley | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Max Pescatori is a Renaissance man.

There are obvious reasons for calling him that. He was born in Milan and is known as the Italian Pirate because of the Italian logos on his shirts or bandanas (especially when he sports the bandana). To the public, he's most famous for winning his first WSOP bracelet on July 9, 2006, hours after cheering on his beloved Italy to victory in the World Cup. That victory came in a no-limit hold 'em event, but Pescatori is more known as a mixed-games player. He won a second bracelet in 2008 in a mixed pot-limit hold 'em/Omaha event, earning the second largest payday of his career, $246,509.

On Sunday, Pescatori was one of 200 to enter the $10,000 HORSE championship at the 2014 World Series of Poker. He finished fifth for $112,066 to raise his career WSOP earnings to $1,673,217 (he entered this year's WSOP as the 152nd highest earner of the 303 poker players who had earned more than a million). HORSE stands for the five games that are played in rotation: hold 'em, Omaha, razz, stud, stud eight-or-better, and 30 of his 41 WSOP cashes have come in events that weren't strictly no-limit hold 'em.

[+] EnlargeMax Pescatori
Courtesy Joe GironMax Pescatori finished fifth in the $10,000 HORSE championship event at the 2014 WSOP.

All of those varied skills would qualify him as a Renaissance man, but there's more. You could search through dozens of articles about him online and learn that he was a police officer in Italy, as well as a magazine writer ("I kinda used to do what you do," he said late Tuesday, though he's selling himself short as he's since co-authored two poker books in Italian), and he wrote and tested video games. He moved to Las Vegas in 1994 and was a dealer by day while playing low-limit poker at night to supplement his income. In 1998, he sought out Valter Farina, the first Italian to win a WSOP bracelet, as a mentor and quit his day job in 1999 to become a poker pro. That's all been fairly well-documented.

But you still wouldn't have his full gambling résumé.

This reporter first met Pescatori at Binion's Horseshoe around the turn of the century, but our encounter had nothing to do with poker. Ironically, it did involve HORSE ... racing, that is. I was new to Vegas and before having kids, I would play in all the daily horse racing contests that were prevalent at the time. I'd run into Pescatori most Friday nights at Binion's for their "Shoe Q" contest. We had a mutual friend, Michael Markham, who we would run around town with entering all the contests. Poker was never discussed.

Pescatori first made a name for himself on the horse tournament circuit by winning the MGM Grand's Surf & Turf tourney in 1999 for $77,000, then another $16,000 victory in the Summer Showdown horse racing tournament at the Reno Hilton in June 2002. That fall during the NFL season, he started 27-13 (67.5 percent) against the spread in the Hilton SuperContest and was tied for fifth place through eight weeks. He finished ninth and followed that with a 19th-place finish the next year. I still didn't know he played poker until the year after that, when he won two tournaments in a span of three days at the World Poker Challenge in Reno in March 2003, for a total of $41,000. Pescatori started playing the WSOP in 2004 and the rest, as they say, is history leading to his bracelets in 2006 and 2008.

His journey there, however, wasn't easy.

"I worked at Texas Station from its opening [July 1995] and dealt blackjack, roulette and craps," said Pescatori. "I've always been good playing cards and knew I wanted to turn pro, but I still asked my boss to promise to hire me back if it went bad."

Remember, this was before the poker boom, before "Rounders" in 1998, when pros here in Vegas really had to grind out a living. He played at the Luxor and other small poker rooms that spread limited offerings, searching for stud games, which weren't easy to find. Pescatori turned to hold 'em and adapted to his new game. His name derives from the Italian word pescatore, which means fisherman, so it's a very fitting name for a poker player. At that time, hold 'em was where the fish were.

[+] EnlargePescatori
WSOP.comMax Pescatori smiles after winning his second bracelet in 2008.

"[My income] wasn't enough, so I also had to make money at the horses and sports, anything where I felt I could get an edge," he said. "Whether it's poker or horse racing or football contests, it's all about studying the rules and coming up with the right strategy.

"In one contest you might be trying to pick winners or finding horses that others don't play, or making decisions based on your competition, whether it's other horse players or your opponent at a poker table. In the end, it all comes down to math and probabilities and making the right decisions at the right time."

He certainly made enough right decisions in those horse racing and sports contests to help supplement his early poker career until the poker boom in 2003, when that became lucrative. Pescatori said he hasn't played the SuperContest in several years because he's usually playing tournaments in Europe during that time of year. Even though he says he misses the horse racing tournaments ("Those were great because there was so much dead money in those; people playing all favorites that you knew there was no chance they could win," he says), he has a small stable in Italy, where he has a horse named Ace to Pesca, who has won three races.

Pesacatori said he feels on top of his game after a disappointing 2013, when he only had some small WSOP cashes and bubbled five events. He said he feels ready for a big World Series, even though he counts his fifth-place finish in the HORSE championship as a disappointment because he felt he had a great shot at a third bracelet.

"Playing those other [race and sports] tournaments does help in learning not to panic, waiting for the right time to make the right bet," he said. "It's the same in poker."

The World Series of Poker is a grind, and Pescatori will be back at it today in the $1,500 HORSE event and is planning on playing the Dealer's Choice event (June 19-21), the eight-game mix (June 25-27), and the aptly named mixed max event leading to the main event on July 5. The WSOP's increase in mixed games should play right into his wheelhouse.

"My favorite way to play is classic dealer's choice," he said. "I love to play all games, and being good at a lot of them really is an advantage."

Spoken like a true Renaissance man.

Dave Tuley has covered the Las Vegas race and sports book scene since 1998 and runs his own website, ViewFromVegas.com.

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