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Too cool for school

1/11/2007

John D'Agostino might be the most famous student to ever come out of Central Connecticut State University -- and he didn't even graduate.

But the question isn't why didn't D'Agostino make it in the classroom, but rather when did he leave school to start schooling others at the poker table?
He left, he says, because when you find out what you're destined to do with your life, whatever that may be, there's no going back. Poker just happened … it never stopped. Like a good wine, it continued to get better with time. And if there's one thing that's on the side of one of poker's youngest guns -- who just turned 24 in November -- it's time.

"I love my life … I really do," D'Agostino says without hesitation, relaxing at home in Egg Harbor, N.J., just one week after returning from a trip to Niagara Falls, Ontario.

D'Agostino had placed eighth in the World Poker Tour's North American Poker Championships, netting $96,587 and adding yet another final table to his already impressive poker résumé; a résumé that includes more than $1.6 million in tournament winnings and a longstanding poker deal with Full Tilt.

"People ask me all the time what else I would've done if it weren't for poker, but most poker players will tell you the same thing: When you're a poker player, and it consumes you the way it should if you're committed to it, there is nothing else," he said. "You can't even think about what would've been."

Not only were John D'Agostino's pockets fat from poker winnings by the time he was 19 years old, but he'd made more than enough money to quit school and support himself by playing full-ime. His hardworking, middle-class mother and father weren't exactly doing cartwheels after hearing his decision.

But in 2004, shortly after turning 21, D'Agostino, a virtually unknown amateur, silenced any doubters when he made two televised final tables less than six months after he could legally set foot in a casino: once at a WPT final table with Gus Hansen, Hoyt Corkins and Daniel Negreanu; the other when he was heads-up against Phil Ivey in the first ever main event poker tournament to be televised live and unedited at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y.

He didn't win either of those tournaments, finishing fifth and second respectively, and those near-misses gave him a clear message that, as fast as he was coming up in the poker world, his game still needed some work. And D'Agostino is the first to tell you, failing to seal the deal isn't something he's used to.

"The way I see it, me winning a tournament isn't really a matter of if, but when," he says confidently. "I don't know when, but I'll definitely get there."
Getting himself in position to do so hasn't been a problem so far, which is pretty amazing considering he has just five years of experience on the felt under his belt, and only two playing $10,000 buy-ins. But just as amazing is how the kid they call Dags sprang from being a small-time limit cash game player to one of the more feared pros on tour in so little time.

"These days he's playing in some of the biggest cash games online and he's already made a few final tables, and the kid's -- what -- 23, 24 years old?" marvels fellow pro Mike Matusow, who has become good friends with D'Agostino after initially assuming he was just another "cocky kid" who thought he could hang with the pros. "We talk every day and if there's one thing he does well, he listens. He soaks up everything there is and then he goes out there and uses it like a maniac at the table.

"There are some people you just know are going to go broke sooner or later, but John's not [that guy]. He'll always make it in poker."

Don't check his ID … please

If you played in a cash game at any level at the Mohegan Sun's poker room from 2001 until 2003, you might remember a short, dark teenager with the scowl of a gangster, sitting at the end of the table and trying to look as inconspicuous as possible behind a pair of black shades.

Why should his opponents care that he wasn't old enough to be there? The kid had driven almost an hour to get there, looked pretty green, and they were ready to take his money as they would anyone else's.

The kid, of course was D'Agostino, and that was just the type of attitude he counted on every time he set foot on the casino floor.

"I never played a single tournament until I was 21, because in cash games, they never card you, while in a tournament, you've gotta show ID," he says. "When I'd play these cash games, the other players probably knew I wasn't old enough, but they also probably thought I sucked and I was just going to call off all my chips. When in reality, it was the other way around. The games I was playing were so soft, I'd get paid off, like, 99 percent of the time. And people would just look at me when I'd turn over K-4 off for two pair or 6-7 for a straight and they'd whine, 'What are you doing?' or 'How can you call with that?'"

Never wanting to make enemies or create a scene at a poker table where he wasn't even supposed to be, Dags' face would stay as straight as possible as he raked in the chips, while on the inside he was giggling like a little kid, thinking "How can I call that? I'll tell you how I can call that: because you play so bad, it's ridiculous."

Dags would cash in his winnings and head home, recounting to friends on his cell phone how he'd come to Mohegan that night with $150 and was leaving with $1,500.

"In the summer of 2001, I went on this run where I won 18 sessions straight and I'd walk out with $2,500 or so every night after starting at like $200 or $300," D'Agostino says. "After I started having success and making money, I quickly moved up from the $5/$10 structure and went to $20/40, and [the winning] didn't stop. I'd say 95 percent of the time I was walking away up, which felt like a million dollars for an 18-year-old college student. I just couldn't believe how easy it was. It was truly scary."

Even scarier was the fact that, growing up in Seymour, Conn., a former mill town with sprawling hills, country landscapes and old-world Victorian homes, cards were the last thing anyone in D'Agostino's family thought about.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a deck of cards in the D'Agostino household. With his father John Sr.'s many hours spent tending to his privately owned business, and his mother Janice assuming full-time care of the house as well as of John Jr. and his two brothers, Nick and Marc, games were not of great importance.

Sports, however, were an entirely different story. Had it not been for sports, D'Agostino says, he'd never be as good as he is today at poker.

"Why do I think I'm a good player? Because I absolutely hate to lose and I'll keep coming after you until I win," he says. "Growing up, my father and my uncle Pat used to beat me at anything we played: wiffleball, basketball, football -- you name it, we played it, and they never let me win. That just made me so competitive in everything I did, and even today, when I play anything with my 10-year-old brother, I never let him win. In a best three-out-of-five match of anything, I might let him win one or two, but at the end, I just can't lose. It's just not gonna happen."

D'Agostino laughs, adding: "And that's kind of sick, I know."

While he played just about every sport at one time in his life, once he got to Seymour High School in 1996, baseball had consumed him, and playing in the big leagues was a dream he held on to. That is, until he found poker.

"I like to think I was a pretty good [baseball] player and I was actually going to play in college once I graduated [in 2000]. I still had a dream that I was going to play for the [Boston] Red Sox," he says. "But then I just started playing poker with my friends all the time in college, and the more I played and the better I did, the more I started thinking, 'Hey, I can do this.'"

His parents, however, didn't care what their son could do at the poker table if it didn't involve school. After all, for a "well-behaved kid who did so little wrong growing up," as he describes himself, poker was borderline abnormal.

"I mean, I never drank, didn't smoke, didn't get into trouble at school or anything like that. I just played sports outside with my friends all the time, played Nintendo, went to school and hung out with my brothers," he said.

"So, when [my parents] found out I was playing poker and spending a lot of time in the casino -- more than I was going to school -- they weren't thrilled. To make matters worse, I was pretty close to graduating when I told them I was going to quit and try to make it in poker."

"Pretty close" is actually an understatement. Dags was less than a year from his diploma in accounting, a major he said he
hated, and John and Janice D'Agostino were justified in being more than a little ticked off that their boy was trading in his book bag for a big stack of $100 black chips.

But D'Agostino's fortunes turned at the Turning Stone in 2004. That's where he faced Ivey heads-up for the 2004 Championship at Turning Stone, making his little mark on television history.

And by the time Dags left -- a legit poker star and $250,000 richer -- it wasn't just his parents' eyes that had been opened.

The Strongest Right Arm in Poker

In 2004, Full Tilt Poker was growing fast, and the popular online poker site was heavily represented at the Championship at the Turning Stone. Full Tilt poster boys John Juanda and Phil Ivey came in first and second in overall chips when the All-Star final table was set, and FTP front man Howard Lederer was a commentator for the tournament -- the first ever to be televised unedited, showing every hand played. Not far behind were well-established pros Randy Jensen and Robert Williamson, as well as former WPT champ Paul Phillips.
And then there was D'Agostino -- the same kid you might've once seen at the Mohegan wearing his sunglasses and trying not to stand out; only now he had no choice. And believe it or not, every pro at the final table knew what he could do.

"Even though that was like my second or third tournament, it wasn't my first final table," says Dags, referring to six months earlier when he set sail on the WPT PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, paying $10,000 out of his own pocket and finishing fifth for $99,450. "I think most of the guys at Turning Stone knew me from the PokerStars tournament, but I was still the only amateur there."

Not for long.

Shortly after the tournament ended, Juanda approached Dags and asked if he would be interested in joining the Full Tilt team, which, in 2004, had fewer than a dozen pros -- all of whom were considered among the best in the world.

"The first time we met, we were moved to the same table [at Turning Stone] with two tables left, and I just remember being very impressed by how he played and thinking what a great player he was for being so young," says Juanda, who ended up third at Turning Stone. "Howard had seen him play because he was there announcing the tournament, so he knew what [D'Agostino] could do, and I thought really highly of his game. So he was a good addition to the team.

"One of the main reasons is that John has one of the strongest right arms in poker, and he'll never be a calling station. The great players will always stay in control, and John knows how to do that really well."

Despite the fact that D'Agostino says he's frustrated by not taking first place to date (he feels like he's always the bridesmaid and never the bride), Juanda says it's not as big of a deal as some might think.

"John's more of a cash game player and he doesn't really play that many tournaments, so by the law of probability, he won't get as many chances to win them as the players who play them all," Juanda says. "He's done very well so far, and he shouldn't worry about not winning one yet, because he's so young, and he will win one. Plus, the poker community isn't really that big and all the players know who the great ones are -- the best out there -- and John's quickly established himself as one of those guys."

Home Sweet Home

Shortly after D'Agostino forged his friendship with Juanda and members of the Full Tilt crew, he decided that as much as he liked the games in Las Vegas and being around his newfound poker mates, sticking close to his family in the Northeast was where he wanted to be. Plus, his results at West Coast tournaments, including the World Series of Poker, were less than impressive, while $1.4 million of his $1.6 million in earnings have come in tournaments held on the East Coast (sixth at the 2004 U.S. Poker Championships, fourth at the 2004 WPT Borgata Open and second at the 2005 Borgata, all in Atlantic City).

"I don't know what it is, but I have noticed that," D'Agostino says, "I guess I'm just more comfortable over here."

Maybe it also has something to do with his girlfriend of two years, Mariealena, and their newborn daughter Isabella -- two reasons that Dags is eager to stay close to home and off the road.

"That's one of the main reasons I don't play as many tournaments. I have other things in my life besides poker and I can't just go here or there and leave what really matters most," D'Agostino says. "I've got everything I need right here."

And that's fine by Mariealena, a professional poker player herself, whom Dags met years before they started dating, when the two used to battle in cash games at the Mohegan and Foxwoods.

"I remember the first day I saw him. I'll never forget. He was wearing sunglasses and never really said much, but everyone always knew he wasn't old enough to be there," said Mariealena, who is 10 years older than D'Agostino and, like many girlfriends or wives of high-profile players, serves as John's personal assistant, handling every aspect of his career. "But the more we hung around together, the closer we got and, after he turned 21, we finally started dating. And now here we are years later and we have a baby and house together and we're both close to our families; it's all very comfortable. But the crazy thing is, I've always been a very independent person and so has he, so did I ever see this happening? Not in a million years.

"But I am very proud of what he's accomplished and it's exciting to be a part of that."

And while Dags might seem to have everything in order right now, he also never would've guessed in a million years things would have ended up the way they have.

These days he can be found spending most of his time in the comfort of his home, sharing time between $100,000 swings in the highest limit cash games on Full Tilt Poker, while being able to log off and spend time with his little girl and Mariealena. He'll play about a dozen or so tournaments in the next year and he's been recruited to play in the upcoming Professional Poker League, set to debut in 2007.

D'Agostino's even thinking about marriage somewhere down the road; he has a five-year plan.

"I would say, five years from now, I'll still be playing poker, and maybe even by then we'll get a small place in Vegas, but we'll never get rid of our home in New Jersey because I always want to be close to my family and friends," he says. "In poker five years from now, I want to be one of the best in the world, hopefully playing in the Big Game. I play in the biggest now online. I'll never back down from any game and I'll test myself every day.

"I mean, you don't get any better playing against people who are idiots and are worse than you. To be the best, you have to face the best, and that's what I'll do."

And despite the fact that his parents now approve of their son's life, the question still lingers: What about that final year of college?

D'Agostino just laughs, saying, "I know I would've graduated by now if I'd stayed, but who knows? I never thought I'd be a poker player, and here I am, so I guess anything's possible."

Chances are, Central Connecticut State University would welcome back their most famous alum, with open arms.

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