Dario Minieri is a true EuroStar who shot to fame by accumulating enough FPPs on PokerStars to buy a Porsche
It is June 2008 at the Rio in Las Vegas and Dario Minieri is down to three-handed in the WSOP $2,500 no-limit hold’em event. He is within touching distance of his first bracelet and after agonisingly missing out in third in two previous EPT events – in Baden and his home casino of San Remo – the young Italian is desperate to avoid a similar disappointment. However, this fear does not translate itself into cautious play. Minieri has ridden roughshod over his final table opponents in typically aggressive style. A commanding chip lead sits in front of the Italian as only Americans Seth Fischer and Justin Filtz stand in the way of a first coveted bracelet. With at least a million-chip advantage and with the way he has dominated the final table it seems that Minieri is destined to take the title.
However, after 100 hands the stacks are virtually even and the kid in the scarf has a fight on his hands. Minieri suddenly faces his biggest fear at the poker table – the dreaded third place finish. He finally overcomes this hurdle and an epic three-handed battle, complete with a succession of suck-outs ends as Filtz hits the rail – the stage set for a heads-up duel. Into heads-up, Fischer raises to 180k and Minieri, aggressive as ever, makes an audacious move to steal the blinds and antes by pushing all-in for about 1.5 million. Fischer calls his bluff, instantly showing Ks-Kd and with his championship at stake Minieri reluctantly turns over 3s-4s. With odds of just 19% has the young Italian blown his chances of a bracelet?
Fast-forward eight months and we catch up with Minieri in a hotel lobby on the first day of EPT Copenhagen. As poker pros like Peter Eastgate, Annette Obrestad and Ivan Demidov mill around we find Minieri with fellow PokerStars pro, Isabelle Mercier. He is nursing a bad cold and feeling decidedly under the weather but is nevertheless in good spirits as we whisk him away for the photo shoot. Top of the list of topics (as often seems to be the case with Minieri) is football. He enthuses about the upcoming Champions League game between Arsenal and his beloved Roma – excited that he has managed to secure tickets to the Emirates stadium. Minieri’s face lights up when he talks about football and it is the same look I see each time he talks about what seems to be his three greatest loves: poker, football and Italy.
The taxi driver chips in to ask why we are in Copenhagen. On finding out that Minieri is a poker player the driver teases him that all poker players are reckless gamblers. Minieri bristles at this and what follows is a good-natured debate about the nature of poker and its place within the gambling world. Minieri is adamant that poker is not a gamble – to him it is much more of a skilled sport. ‘How can it be a gamble when there is so much skill involved?’ he says as we reach the photo studio. The taxi driver doesn’t buy it but it is clear that Minieri is motivated by a lot more than the riches the game has already brought him.
Home Sweet Home
Among the poker community Minieri’s look and poker style has attracted a lot of attention and with it some derision from the poker fanboys on forums. There is something about the Italian hotshot that seems to polarise opinion. He is at once idolised and ridiculed on the poker forums. When he burst onto the live scene in 2006, with his aggressive poker style, shades and long maroon and golden yellow AS Roma scarf he was met with jibes about his Harry Potter look. So, what is the story behind the scarf? ‘The reasoning behind it is that what I love other than poker is football. When I talk about football I am happy. The support you get in football is one of the funniest things. In my country and especially my home city of Rome we have the most fanatical supporters. To wear the scarf always reminds me of something else that is so important to me – so if I bust out I’m not so upset. It is similar to my PokerStars sponsorship – when I am running bad I can look at my sponsorship and be proud of that – it gives me confidence.’
It is a surprising answer. I tell him I expected it to be just another lucky mascot and he shakes his head. ‘The scarf is not a luck thing,’ he says. ‘It’s just that I am proud to be from Rome and I don’t want to forget that – that I’m proud to be from Italy and from Rome.’
Minieri has also attracted, perhaps unwarranted, attention as a precocious poker upstart. Watch his play at EPT Baden in 2006 when he bluffed Thang Duc Nguyen off a pot, betting every street with nothing and staring down his opponent before slamming his cards down to show the bluff. As he runs off to laugh and celebrate with his ever-present contingent of Italian fans you’d be forgiven for thinking this is just another young arrogant poker punk. However, the Dario Minieri we meet in Copenhagen is polite, gracious and accommodating – far from the aggressive, ruthless ‘Italian Imp’ portrayed by some on the message boards. He throws himself into the photo shoot – his long straggly fringe getting in his eyes – with a boyish enthusiasm. He seems to welcome the fame that comes with poker ability and is relishing his time in the spotlight. But how does he cope with it? ‘It is fun to be playing in tournaments and to be recognised. I enjoy it and like to see how it affects other players at the table.’
Minieri has certainly attracted some flak in his short career. His aggression and ruthlessness at the poker table has often been belittled as style over substance. His online and live tournament play in the last few years have surely proved many of the doubters wrong and he has regularly shown, in both the online and live arenas, just what a poker talent he is.
Minieri first came to the attention of many poker observers when he accumulated enough frequent player points on PokerStars to buy himself a Porsche Cayman. ‘My friends were joking with me about whether it was possible to get enough points for a car. So I started playing a lot of sit&gos, multi-tabling for long periods of the day. After three months, I realised that it was really possible, given the average of time and number of games I was playing.’ But racking up over three million frequent player points in just 10 months seems like an unreal feat of stamina and dedication – how did he manage it? ‘Well, I was playing sometimes 10 hours a day – sometimes six hours. I was multi-tabling 8-10 games at a time – $200 sit&gos, $500 sit&gos, $500 heads-up, $1,000 heads-up,’ he says rather matter-of-factly, unfazed by the details of his efforts. And was it all worth it? How is the Porsche? ‘Well, I sold it,’ he laughs. ‘I couldn’t get my driver’s licence and I still don’t have it. You have to be two months in Italy to take the test and I never get the chance to stay two months In Italy. But I will get it.’
Minieri grew up in Rome and came to poker, like established players David Williams and Eric Froehlich, through collectable card game Magic: The Gathering. How did playing Magic help with his transition to poker? ‘Magic: The Gathering is a good school because of the study of strategy. It helped me work out the best strategy in poker. Also the mathematical and psychological aspects of Magic helped me with poker,’ he says.
Through friends his interest in poker was piqued and he made his first deposit on PokerStars and was introduced to hold’em (previously he had only ever played Italian draw poker). His initial online success convinced him to take a break from his Psychology studies in Rome to focus on poker – a break he is still on. So does his background studies and interest in Psychology help him at the poker table? ‘I think that just loving Psychology – more than studying it – has helped my game. Because when you love it you can evolve your theories and apply them in the same way.’ Minieri has developed a reputation as being an ultra-aggressive player but this is not how he sees himself. ‘A lot more people are now playing aggressively. More and more people are adopting the best strategy and I often think that is to play aggressively. But I really believe the best strategy is to adjust to the particular table. My style always updates. I don’t define myself as just an aggressive player – I adapt my game to the table.’
Minieri’s love of heads-up confrontations seems to be a fall back to his deep interest in psychology. ‘Heads-up is one of the most fun games. I love the psychological side of it. You have to study every move of your opponent. You have to study and change strategy as and when you think is best.’
His homeland is also a big part of Minieri’s make-up. The poker scene in Italy has seen a dramatic rise in popularity in the past year or so and Minieri is just one of many young Italians breaking through on the European scene. This must make the young Italian very proud? ‘Italian poker has not had American [hold’em] poker for very long but it is now growing and getting very popular. We already have some quality Italian players coming through and there will be many more in the near future.’ He mentions his friends Mauro Stivoli, winner of the World Heads-Up Poker Championship in Barcelona last October, and Alessio Isaia as up-and-coming Italian players to watch out for.
So what other European players does he look up to? ‘I respect the way William Thorson plays. He is very aggressive and reads hands very well. I also respect a lot of the Scandinavian players – and of course Patrik Antonius is the idol of everyone from Europe.’
Minieri is unsurprisingly desperate to take down the main tournaments on the European poker scene. His record of three EPT third-place finishes (Baden in 2006 and San Remo and Warsaw in 2008) obviously still rankles with him. ‘I’d obviously like to win as much as I can. I’ve never won an EPT – three times in third but never first – this is one of my dreams.’ It was at the final table of the EPT Sam Remo in 2008 that Minieri experienced what he call his ‘favourite poker moment’ and also what could be described as his biggest career disappointment. In front of a packed home crowd in his local casino, the stage looked set for Minieri to take his first EPT. Time and again players would come up against the young Italian only to be busted out by Minieri’s aggression. Down to three-handed, against young American pro Jason Mercier and Frenchman Antony Lellouche, Minieri and Mercier faced off in a monster hand while short-stack Lellouche looked on. Minieri opened for $140,000 and Mercier re-raised to $340,000. Minieri called and the flop came 8d-7h-2d. Minieri bet $400,000 and Mercier announced he was all-in. Minieri insta-called flipping pocket Queens but Mercier had the big draw with Ad-4d. A 3d on the river stunned the young Italian sending him out in third and silencing the Italian crowd. ‘To be at the final table of an EPT in my country was my favourite moment. I had the chance to win in my country – it would have been a dream.’
Amazingly, just a few weeks after his EPT heartbreak, Minieri sat once more staring defeat in the face at the WSOP – another story of what might have been. As his 3s-4s came up against Seth Fischer’s pocket Kings, the Italian masses in the crowd fell silent. The flop came 2d-8s-Js, giving Minieri a flicker of hope. A 4d turn gave the young Italian more outs but it seemed too little too late. But in keeping with the nature of a crazy final table a four of hearts on the river doubled him up and put him back in the driving seat. A runner runner set of fours has rescued the Italian’s dreams of a bracelet.
This final suck out seemed to take the wind from Seth Fischer and just a few hands later he moved all in pre-flop with K-10 only for Minieri to call him with pocket Queens. Flop, turn and river provide no help to the American and the bracelet was Minieri’s. As his Italian fans and friends celebrated wildly in the stands the young Italian headed straight for the bracelet sitting in the middle of the table.
Minieri remembers the emotions of that topsy-turvy final table vividly – especially when play reached three-handed and it looked like he may exit in third once more.
‘It was crazy. When we were down to three it seemed that no one was going out – there were so many suck-outs. It kept happening that there wouldn’t be a player out after every all-in. It was driving me crazy because I had been out in third place a lot before. I came third in San Remo and Baden so I was so scared to come in third again. When it came to heads-up Seth Fischer was raising every button, the blinds were so high and I was short-stack. I moved all-in with 3-4 suited and I think I got some variance back because before that I lost a flip and two sick hands where I was favourite. So I think the luck came back. The day before Fischer was in 7-9 against Jacks and also Ace-King against Aces and both times he was out if he lost those hands. He won them both. So I think that luck definitely goes back and forth.’
The Fame Game
Minieri is one of a new breed of young European poker star – like Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier and Ilari ‘Ziigmund’ Sahamies: young, charismatic players who appeal to the online community and attract the cameras whenever they appear at live tournaments. He is due to increase his poker fame by appearing on our screens in the new seasons of High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark. It seems he experienced mixed results on his introduction to the TV cash games. ‘Well, I enjoyed one of those two!’ he laughs. ‘No, It was a great experience. It was one of my dreams to participate in these big TV shows. It was so great to come up against so many big names. I think Durrrr is the best cash game player so it was great to come up against him on High Stakes Poker.’
And the young Italian star is clearly still hugely ambitious as he sets out his live tournament goals for the future, ‘I want to win the EPT Monte Carlo – it is the most prestigious European event. It is the ultimate dream – other than the main event of the World Series, of course!’
He has cashed four times at the WSOP and was chip leader after day three of the main event in 2007, eventually finishing in 96th place. But last year he was unable to build on that promise. ‘Last year, the main event was not great for me. I didn’t start well and was short-stacked early and lost. Vegas is where they give bracelets so it’s the best place for me to play poker. I just want to win as much as I can,’ he says.
Minieri feels the best way to do this is treat poker like a sport. He approaches the game as if he were playing for his beloved Roma. I ask him about the conversation with the taxi driver at the beginning of the day and a comment he made about viewing his online game as like a gym to train him for his live game. Is this how he really sees the game? ‘There are a lot of things in poker that are similar in sport. You have to keep your mind fresh. It is not a gambling game as many people think. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work. It’s a mind sport but it is still a sport – you also need to be physically ready to play.’
And with that he is off to finish the photo shoot. Courteous and friendly away from the table and fiercely competitive and aggressive on it the young Italian is a stand-out star in the recent swell of European poker talent. As with his famous scarf, there is far more to Minieri than meets the eye.
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