The Italian Job - Pagano and Minieri

January 2009 cover

08 January 2009

Vespa bikes, leather jackets and cool looks... Bluff Europe meets up with two Italians keen to take on the world. Ladies and gentlemen, let us introduce you to Dario and Luca.

Dario Minieri and Luca Pagano are single-handedly fanning the flames of a poker revolution in Italy, yet these two firm friends couldn’t have more opposing natures. There’s Dario, the taciturn, hyper-aggressive enfant terrible of the felt, and Luca, an affable motor -mouth, whose play displays all the caution that comes with maturity. On the one hand we have a brilliant young firecracker exploding across the European Poker Tour and World Series, and on the other, an older and wiser pro, building on his results carefully and methodically; a World Series champion and an EPT Player of the Year. Welcome to the world of Dario and Luca.

Italy seems to be in the midst of a poker boom, guys. Why is that?

Luca: Poker in Italy has always been popular in bars and private clubs but it was always draw poker. Then, through television, and because of the poker federation, we’ve been able to create about 300 clubs which are able to promote the game to young people and also convert the old players from draw to Hold’em. Then, of course, Italy is a country of “players”.

Dario: I think people in Italy have always liked to play games and because we can now play Texas hold’em legally, it’s great, and people are playing loads. I think Italy sends one of the largest numbers of players to the EPT.

Are you two partly responsible for the Italian poker boom?

Luca: The numbers from Italy are really important, and I want to take a little of the credit… just a little bit. I do the commentary on TV in Italy, so for me it’s important to promote the EPT and poker. The only thing now is that there are a lot of players from Italy who lack experience. That’s natural, but it’s also really important that they start discussing the game – it’s a skill game, but for most players in Italy it’s still a game of luck.

The two of you have been on fire recently. Dario, how would you describe Luca’s play?

Dario: Luca is a very experienced player and very solid. I think he knows when to change his game and get crazy. He’s solid but he’s smart.

Luca: Dario plays the new generation’s game. If you want to be successful I think you must follow that direction more than my style, or the old style. Poker has changed a lot. Now there’s a lot of pre-flop action and there is much more bluff and semi-bluff, which is exactly Dario’s game. Of course, that style of game is very difficult. The people who don’t know Dario’s game think he’s just raise, raise, raise. But he knows when and how to raise and that’s his most powerful thing, because he’s unpredictable. He’s also good at laying down hands – a very important mixture.

So Luca is the more careful player and Dario is the more explosive. Both agreed?

Dario: Yeah, maybe I play a little more aggressive!

Luca: Solid. I prefer the world solid (laughs). You must be able to adjust according to the field, though. There are tournaments where you have to be more aggressive – and Dario and I have spoken about this – about him trying to play more solid. Basically we’re getting closer – I’m getting more aggressive and he’s becoming more solid.

But what exactly is it that makes Luca the solid player and Dario the so-called maniac?

Luca: I think it’s interesting to see poker as a mirror of the life of the player. Your personality comes out at the table. In my life I like to take calculated risks, but only when I have to or when it’s worth it. It’s part of me. Dario, because he’s young, he wants to conquer the world in a few days and has a different approach – he wants to destroy the tournament, which is probably the right way these days. But I think in the next few years the game will change again and will cool down, like it was a few years ago.

Would you agree with that Dario?

Dario: I think sometimes, for sure. But I’m not sure how much is personality and how much is in the mind.

You both have very different World Series experiences, bad in your case, Luca, with only a handful of cashes. Why do you think that is?

Luca: There are a few reasons. First of all I think American players have more experience and they play better, so the tournaments are a bit tougher. Honestly, it’s about mental preparation. For me, it’s very difficult to play for six weeks every single day. I need to recover energy; I need to play when I feel OK. If I keep playing every day I don’t have the time to recover that energy and I then play because I have to play and that’s the worst thing a poker player can do.

I didn’t do well in Vegas this season maybe because I’m not playing every day but I’m playing every week, because of the EPT and some tournament in Italy or other, so I don’t have the time to recover my energy. I don’t want to say it’s karma – but for me mental energy is really important, that’s what makes the difference.

So your world is totally poker but not always at the table.

Luca: I’d say at the moment 80% of my time is away from the table, but it’s always poker. I think I’ll need a break from poker soon for at least one month, I need to recover. But I think it’s important for a player, especially a professional player, to be able to realise this. When you realise you have problems with your game, you just have to accept it and try to understand what the problem is. When you find the problem you can try to solve it. This is something young players have difficulty understanding.

Which young players?

Luca: The young Scandinavian players who think the luck factor is not a part of the game. They think that variance doesn’t exist. They think they can go from a €10 bankroll to a €3 million bankroll in one month like somebody else did, and I think this is the wrong message for young people. I’m trying hard in Italy to help the young guys to understand that luck is involved – there is variance and you have to understand why you’re playing bad and what you can do to improve.

It seems like you feel you have a responsibility towards the Italian players…

Luca: Yes, I feel a little bit responsible for the boom in Italy so I’d really like to see a lot of Italian players getting good results. That might sound strange, because another person in my place might think, no, I want to be the most famous, and together with Dario be the best player, blah, blah, blah. I really don’t care about that. Also because, from my point of view, the better the Italians are doing the better my business is doing. It’s good from a business point of view to help them play well.

Dario, your World Series experience was very different. Tell me about the bracelet.

Dario: It was a dream winning the bracelet. I’d realised one of my dreams, and I’d said to myself that maybe it would never happen, but I always tried to believe it and do my best. You need some luck as well, of course.

Las Vegas seems a long way from Rome, what’s your background there.

Dario: I’m happy with the choices I made. I was going to study psychology at University but I decided to switch to poker because I loved the psychological factor and the mental aspect of the game, of course – that for me is the best.

So Luca, did you teach your dad or did he teach you?

We started together but I’m very proud to say that I started one week before him! We have a very similar style of play but I think with his age and experience – not at the poker table, but his experience dealing with people – he has something more he could teach me; but it’s the kind of experience that’s very hard to teach – you just have to learn by yourself.

Back to what you said about the personality of the player...

From playing with my father in Monte Carlo, I can tell you that poker is really a reflection of your life. All your feelings come out at the table; all the relationships you have with friends or enemies or parents come out. I think this is what I really like most about the game at the moment.

So what does the typical parent think when their son tells them they’re going to play poker for a living?

Luca: I would say that in Italy poker still has to stop being taboo, although with television it’s getting better. So yes, most parents are scared if their son plays poker. Somehow I agree with them because most young people don’t have the right approach to the game. If they had the right professional approach I’d say to the parents let him go, because he has a career.

My parents accepted that I was a player but also they supported me when I was running bad, which is great, because usually a father or mother would say, “OK, you tried, you got lucky, now you get a life!” Instead, they realised it was my dream to become a professional player and they supported my dream. I think that any dreams I’d they would have supported me, because they trust me. So I think that younger players should give a good reason to their parents to trust them, and then let them go.

Alright, you guys have a bit of spare cash lying around, what cars do you drive?

Luca: I drive an Audi Q7.

Nice. How fast does it go?

Um, I think the maximum seed is 230mph. It’s a really nice car! I’m not used to spending money on these kinds of things but last year I felt it was the right time to give myself a present. And I’ve been really surprised and proud of it. I drove 60,000 kilometres with no problems, and really comfortable!

Dario, you famously had a Porsche Cayman delivered to your door, purchased with your Frequent Player Points. Do you still have it?

Dario: No, I sold it because I still haven’t learned to drive. I’ll take a Ferrari as soon as possible.

You don’t have a driver’s license?

Dario: No, I need to be in Italy for two months. I’ll take my test as soon as possible in the next few months. Then the Ferrari.

Do you both still live in your home towns?

Luca: I live in Treviso, really close to Venice. I can say my residence is there but I’m never really there. Last time I was at home was around seven weeks ago.

Dario: Last time I was in Rome for two months straight was last year – I don’t know – it varies. I still live with my parents but I’ll be living by myself as soon as possible, I’m responsible for myself now.

Luca: I’m away probably ten months per year. Two years ago my father had a really bad car accident. Now he’s recovered but we were really lucky. But from that experience I learned that quality of life is one of the most important things. It’s useless to be a super millionaire if you can’t enjoy it. So it’s much better to earn half the money and enjoy it. I think it’s something that some businessmen and some poker players forget.

It’s a shame it takes that kind of experience to realise that…

Luca: Exactly, and then these kinds of problems, like health, mean it’s nothing to compare to your aces cracked, and this is something poker players forget. They only complain about luck, or they complain about a game or they complain about their other problems. You should feel lucky you’re able to play in such a great tournament like here in Prague with a €5,000 buy in. I mean, with €5,000 how much can you buy? So many people have problems to pay rent, so....

You both live busy lives. What happens in your spare time?

Dario: I like watching DVDs, eating pizza with friends. And Roma, I love watching football so much; it’s one of my great passions.

A typical young bloke’s life then. Luca?

Luca: Well, considering that I don’t have much free time anymore, in those couple of hours of free time per day I’m trying to play golf now...

Really? You’re settling into middle age very well...

Luca: (Laughs) And it’s not because of the game. Maybe I still don’t understand much of the game – I mean, basically you just have to hit a ball, but the fact that you’re alone, in the middle of nowhere and you’re just focusing on the ball. You turn off your cell phone and it makes you feel super. It’s the best way for me to recover and get a bit of energy.

The worst kept secret in poker, Dario, is that you and Isabelle Mercier are seeing each other. Is it me or are you dressing better?

Dario: (Laughs) I always dress like this, I didn’t change my style. But I’m happy and positive about everything.

And you, Luca, will happy middle age include settling down?

Luca: Err. Let’s say we are dealing! We’re working a deal!

That’s good enough. Finally, you’ve both had great years, what have been the highlights for you both?

Dario: For me, in my career, being chip leader in the WSOP main event in 2006 was one of my highest moments. This year it has to be the EPT San Remo third place and the EPT Warsaw third place.

Luca: April 2008, from a professional point of view, has been the best month; the best period of my life. I was able to organise a very successful tournament in San Remo, which was my biggest worry last year. It was very important to show my organisation – my business – all over Europe, and it went very well.

Two weeks later I was able to make the final table in Monte Carlo. I’d say that was my best period. I don’t want to think it was just a coincidence. I think that the relief of EPT San Remo finishing, and that it was a success, gave me the positive energy to arrive in Monte Carlo and to play well. I can’t think it was just a coincidence – it was about mental preparation, positive karma – whatever.

So you’ll be organising San Remo again this year, Luca? Another April in the EPT sun?

Luca: We are already arranging San Remo right now. Our plan is to make it the biggest EPT ever.