A member of the notorious new breed of young poker pros who are winning—and losing—millions

A member of the notorious new breed of young poker pros who are winning—and losing—millions

Matt Marafioti is a mouthy, high-rolling university dropout who plays 1,000 hands of online poker a night

Poker Face | Matt Marafioti

This past September’s Epic Poker League No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em Tournament had been underway for about an hour when Matt Marafioti strode into the ballroom at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Epic is a relatively new poker league, co-founded by Jeffrey Pollack, a former NASCAR exec. His mandate is to professionalize the game and promote its most elite players. The tournament had attracted almost a hundred such players, including superstars like Phil Hellmuth, Erik Seidel (the current top money winner) and Tom “Durrrr” Dwan. The buy-in was $20,000, but more significantly, in order to qualify, each player had to have made a minimum of $1.25 million in live tournament play. Marafioti was late because, for the second time in a week, he had lost the key to his safety deposit box, and the box had to be drilled open so he could extract his bankroll. When he did finally arrive at the ballroom, the armpits of his tight heather-grey T-shirt dark with sweat, he sat at the wrong table.

All of these missteps seemed to distract Marafioti. After he moved, with a hint of embarrassment, to the correct spot on the other side of the room, his chips dwindled quickly. He was uncharacteristically quiet, almost sullen at the table, while other players around him joked and deconstructed past hands, read their Kindles after they’d folded, received hour-long back rubs from the black-clad masseuses who roamed the room. The relaxed, joshing atmosphere was not much different from your average $20 home game—there was plenty of palaver about women, single-malt scotch and football—but it was miles away from the ambience in the public casino that sprawled across the Palms’ first floor. There, ghoulish gamblers, wreathed in cigarette smoke, ordered early-morning drinks and carbo-loaded in the food court. The dress code seemed to mandate pajama bottoms, shower sandals and sunglasses worn on the back of the head. There was a disproportionate number of motorized wheelchairs. Upstairs in the ballroom, you couldn’t smoke. The young bucks there—the average age in the room was around 27—exuded a healthier, brainier vibe. Know-it-alls ringed every table. The typical BMI was significantly lower. The never-ending, eardrum-eroding jangle of the slots was absent, replaced by the unmistakable chirp of chips—players working their stacks like worry beads—and the sporadic pinging of iPhones. Downstairs, it felt like Dawn of the Dead, but one floor above, it was something closer to the set of The Social Network.

Marafioti is 23 years old. Toronto is his home base, but he spends a lot of his time playing tournaments in Vegas and Europe. He is one of the more notorious figures in this new generation of poker stars, young guns who honed their games not in barrooms but online. Players who have, for better or worse, completely revolutionized the pace and structure of the game and who have made extraordinary sums of money doing so. Marafioti is a provocative presence in both online and real-life games, renowned for his high-rolling lifestyle, brash play and mouthiness. In his four-year poker-playing career he’s made more than $5 million. While 37-year-old Daniel Negreanu, the most famous player ever to come out of Canada, has reportedly made at least five times as much, Marafioti, in his way, is more integral to the continued success of the poker industry. Poker’s history is rich with charismatic characters—the steely-eyed saloon gambler, the suave Monte Carlo millionaire—but Marafioti embodies a different archetype: the poker genius who first struck gold with a laptop. The Epic Poker League now ranks him the 19th best live player in the world.

Only three hours into the EPL tourney, however, an increasingly glum Marafioti wasn’t feeling like a prodigy. He was the short stack at his table, and after being dealt a pair of jacks, he moved all of his chips in before the flop (the first three community cards dealt to all players). He was called by another player with pocket jacks, and they split the pot. Marafioti took out his earbuds—he’d been listening to what he described as “electronic-techno-house”—and put on a pair of Bulgari prescription eyeglasses. He’s a stocky guy, about five-foot-seven, and has the physique of someone who spends 10 hours a day sitting at a table or in front of a computer: a premature, sedentary softness that he tries to keep in check through frequent gym sessions. That week he was sporting a chinstrap beard that gave him the appearance of an Amish club kid. During a break in the tournament, he told me he was “still having fun,” but the look on his face, something like dazed exasperation, suggested his idea of fun involved more pain than most people’s.

At these 15-minute breaks, which occurred every hour-and-a-half, Marafioti collected himself in his room at the Palms, taking hits off a large bong. The league had given him the room for the duration of the tournament, but he used it exclusively for this restorative, nerve-quieting purpose. He also rents an apartment in Las Vegas that he shares with two other young players, a furnished 5,500-square-foot suite in the Panorama, which is home to many professional poker players. His apartment is blandly decorated with prefab, vaguely Asian art, a study in beige and brown. Littered with expensive sneakers, stuffed animals, video game consoles and, in the kitchen alone, three additional bongs, it sort of resembles Tom Hanks’ apartment in Big. The rent is $8,500 a month, and Marafioti, who occupies the master bedroom, pays half of it.

Poker Face | Matt Marafioti

By 4:30 p.m. that first day of the tournament, the cards started going Marafioti’s way. This run continued into day two, after half the field had busted out. Marafioti was seated to the right of Phil Hellmuth, a player nearly twice his age and infamous for both his petulant outbursts—he’s known as the “Poker Brat”—and the record number of World Series of Poker championship bracelets he holds (11). Marafioti was playing more aggressively now, looser. He smiled often, stacked his chips into a tall, multi-hued tower and thumbed the click wheel on his iPod with a compulsive frequency. The older players teased Marafioti, constantly referring to him as “Kid.” He laughed this off. “They fear me,” he said later. “When Phil sat next to me, he was like, ‘Who is this Internet wizard?’ ”

As Marafioti went head to head with Hellmuth over several hands and repeatedly beat him, Hellmuth started fuming behind his wraparound sunglasses. Marafioti was vanquishing the Poker Brat. A few times, after winning pots, he flipped his hole cards with abandon, tauntingly giving the table free information about the kinds of decisions he’d been making (he hardly ever bluffed). Hellmuth subscribes to the theory that 70 per cent of poker is being able to decipher an opponent’s tells, and, just as he had begun to figure the kid out, the table abruptly broke (players are assigned new seat placements as their numbers drop). Hellmuth slammed his fists down in a rage, scattering chips.

Early on day three, though, Marafioti’s luck turned again. At a six-handed table, his pocket kings were defeated by pocket aces and he busted out. Only the top 12 players would take home any money, and he had finished 18th. But he didn’t have time to dwell on the disappointment. He’d been impatient to get back to online play, and the World Championship of Online Poker, with a prize pool of nearly $50 million, was in progress. By the next day, Marafioti was back at his townhouse near Casa Loma, playing once again as ADZ124, his online avatar. It was quiet. Music or TV would be too distracting. Unlike in Vegas, where he could play only a single hand at a time, he would now be playing on anywhere from six to 35 different virtual tables at once. He switched on his two iMacs. Fired up the bong. Took a swig from a large, blue bottle of San Benedetto water. The Internet wizard was back, conjuring cards.

In about the same time it took to transform the music industry, digital technology has completely alchemized the game of poker. In the late ’90s, budding players perfected their skills far from the felt, using CD-ROMs that simulated the game with nearly flawless verisimilitude. In the early 2000s, a flurry of new websites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker created virtual poker rooms where players from around the world, including some of the best-known, top-flight pros, could play against each other, 24 hours a day, for real cash. In 2003, an unknown 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker qualified for the World Series of Poker, bypassing the $10,000 buy-in by winning a $39 satellite tournament (competitions with small buy-ins designed to feed bigger tournaments) on PokerStars. He went on to win the WSOP, his first live tournament ever, picking up a prize purse of $2.5 million and becoming an overnight poker legend. The “Moneymaker effect” is now shorthand for the aftermath of this heretofore unheard-of miracle. As Howard Swains, poker columnist for The Times of London, put it, “Young pretenders worldwide learnt that staying at home in front of a computer screen could be more profitable than going to work.” The year Moneymaker won the WSOP, 839 players entered; seven years later, there were 10 times that number, and the $8.9-million top prize went to Jonathan Duhamel, a 23-year-old university dropout from Boucherville, Quebec.

As of spring 2010, according to a study by Poker Players Research, a U.K.-based market research company, 14.5 million people played online poker for real money at least once a month. Online poker differs from live poker in several significant ways. You may not be able to physically observe how your opponents behave at the table—eliminating, obviously, the usefulness of tells—but you can view statistical charts that will tell you exactly how they’ve played past hands. While there’s no one to converse with per se, you can chat in real time, tapping out table talk in short, grammatically idiosyncratic bursts. (Marafioti has occasionally been banned from chat because of his potty mouth—profanity is strictly prohibited.) It’s a much faster game, with entire hands sometimes taking just seconds to complete—on an average day, Marafioti plays 1,000 hands—and since you can play several hands simultaneously, a practice known as multi-tabling, the learning curve has dramatically accelerated. Someone too young to legally enter a casino can compress a lifetime of action into a few bleary-eyed years. And you could potentially try your luck against the greatest players in the world, many of whom now routinely play online. No matter how many sets of Virtua Tennis 4 you’ve played on your Kinect, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re never going to face Rafael Nadal at centre court. But in online poker, you could very well confront Phil Ivey or Gus Hansen or Negreanu (who plays under the username KidPoker), the most recognized players on the planet.

What’s rewarded in this cyber realm is a more aggressive, even reckless style of play. The structure of the game has changed spectacularly. Pre-flop four-betting—repeatedly re-raising the players who bet before you—a squeeze play strategy that was once only advisable if you had pocket aces, is now commonplace. Multi-tablers, so used to volume and speed, often re-raise with mediocre hands in an attempt to steal the bets.

Poker Face | Matt Marafioti

Marafioti is unfazed by the risk. “I treat it like a video game,” he says, “and I think that’s why I’m so good.” When I asked him at the Palms if he was nervous about losing his $20,000 buy-in, he just smiled. “Why should I be nervous?” At Marafioti’s level, losing, in a way, is just another way of winning. Or at least a way of saying you have won so much, you can afford to lose a lot, you are proud to lose a lot. (The blog he maintained briefly on the PokerListings website is a litany of lost hands, with Marafioti almost gleefully chronicling beats and his constant brushes with tilting, the term for an upset player who plays badly because he’s ruled by his emotions.) Losing provides a kind of nihilistic freedom, a masochistic thrill.

Marafioti was born and raised in Hillcrest, near St. Clair and Bathurst, the eldest of two boys. His upbringing was comfortable and privileged: he was close to his parents, both of whom work in the medical industry. His mother, Donna, is a senior executive at Public Health Ontario, and his father, Sam, a former school trustee, is the vice president of corporate strategy and development at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Sam describes Matt, with some pride, as a “high-octane” kid: “His grandmother liked to say, ‘He needs an army of people to keep up with him.’ ” Marafioti attended De La Salle, a private Catholic high school, where he was a competent student, though not quite as gifted or interested in math as you’d expect of a card shark. He was a sociable, popular, mischievous teen who played football, as well as endless video games; he was particularly devoted to Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter game that pits terrorists against a counter-terror team. Online poker, which he started playing when he was 17, offered a comparable rush, but with tangible, real-life results: he could make real money with this game and, a bonus to someone who’d been telling everyone since Grade 9 that he would one day be a millionaire, he could make it fast. He was instantly addicted. “The first time I deposited $50,” Marafioti says, “I played for 24 hours straight.” He adopted the username ADZ124, a reference to his brother Adam’s nickname, Adz. At first, his parents weren’t pleased with their son’s hobby. After he stole their credit cards to finance his habit, they installed firewalls on the family’s computers, blocking him from poker sites.

At Queen’s University, where he went to study business, his dorm room was known as Gollum’s Cave. “He just stayed in there all the time, playing,” says his childhood friend, Geoff Plant. “His nose was always pressed against the screen of his laptop.” When a brawl with five bouncers at a Kingston nightclub left him badly beaten and humiliated (his nose was broken, he soiled himself), an angry Marafioti began playing even more. He never went to class, never turned off his computer. In Marafioti’s retelling, this turning point in his nascent career has the epiphanic quality of a superhero origin story. Winning at poker became a way to get back at the world. He played around the clock, sharpened his skills and, over time, began to win. A lot. In just a week, a borrowed 18 bucks ballooned into $48,000. Soon after, when he was 19, he played his first live poker tournament, the Empire State Hold ’Em Championship, in upstate New York. He finished in first place, raking in almost $200,000.

Marafioti dropped out of university before the end of his first year, devoting himself full-time to poker. In 2009, at his first World Series of Poker tournament, he made $172,000. He played in casinos in Aruba and the Bahamas, and in underground games, he says, “with gangsters in Woodbridge.” Poker, like baseball and boxing, is a game awash in myth and metaphor, and the narratives that coalesce around it fetishize existential crises—the cosmic see-saw of luck, the kaleidoscopic self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. Marafioti seems drawn to the romantic promise—the game offers travel, fancy cars, fawning women—and to the lasting aura of a criminal underworld. The volatility of the game, the unbelievable highs and the gut-wrenching lows, also suited him. His default mode is an adolescent bravado, flecked with the argot of gangsta rap. When I asked him what he liked doing when he wasn’t playing poker, he said, “Shopping, eating at good restaurants, fucking bitches.” Many of his stories begin or end with the threat of violence, of low-lifes who have ripped him off and the retribution he exacted (or plans to exact), of the many times he’s put his fist through a wall.

The key to his success, he says, is simple: patience and practice. In 2009, in order to qualify for Supernova Elite status on PokerStars—a rating that only 30 players held that year, and that confers all manner of perks, including a chance to play in the European Poker Tournament—he had to rack up at least a million VIP points. Realizing he was behind on points at the beginning of December, he calculated that he needed to play 15,000 hands a day. So, during that month, Marafioti played more than 1,000 hands an hour and slept only six hours a day. “I had a lot of heart in those days,” he says. “I worked hard.”

Poker Face | Matt Marafioti

Marafioti’s father, Sam, compares him to an NFL quarterback, constantly studying tapes of his opponents, learning their moves and strategies, strengths and weaknesses. Matt, he says, can recall exactly how an opposing player has reacted in a certain situation, and can likewise remember just about every hand he’s ever played. The hand history videos he watches run constantly in his head. When you watch him play, or listen to him talk to other players—he’ll recount the intricacies of hands played weeks, months, even years ago—his eidetic memory seems extraordinary, even a touch Aspergian. His 25-year-old girlfriend, Lauren Kling, a professional player from Florida, calls him the best river player she’s ever seen. (The river is the fifth community card turned over in hold’em, and playing the river well means effectively using the knowledge you’ve gained about your opponents by carefully observing their behaviour in the early betting rounds.)

Sam Marafioti, who acts as his son’s business manager, thinks of poker as a competitive sport. “It requires a lot of skill,” he says, “as well as physical and mental prowess. Sure, there’s some luck involved, and Matthew’s had very good luck. But he doesn’t play the slots, doesn’t play baccarat. He’s not a gambler.” To players like Marafioti, gambling means taking stupid chances, not playing the odds, relying on luck. He plays poker with discipline, shrewd study, relying on brains and hard work—and rewarding himself for that hard work.

After the second day of the EPL tournament, I had dinner at the Vegas steak house N9ne with Marafioti and two American players, David Baker and Sean Getzwiller, both well-scrubbed, polite young men. All three ordered 24-ounce rib-eyes, with ahi tuna tartare and sashimi to start. As they devoured their meals, the conversation largely pivoted on money and the day’s poker hands. Marafioti wouldn’t let one of his losing hands go, replaying it over and over. When Getzwiller discovered how many chips Marafioti had—something like 10 times Getzwiller’s stack—he told him to “shut his beak.” They talked about the food at Nobu. “I’m there like three times a week,” Marafioti said. “I’m like their best customer. Really­—I asked the waiter, ‘Who comes in here more than me?’ ” When discussion turned to how an old-school player repeatedly didn’t pay back poker debts he owed, Baker said: “The difference between us and old-school players is that they’re just not good people. They’re gamblers, degenerates.” The bill arrived, and they pulled out their credit cards in a game they called credit card roulette. The cards are placed in a pile, then blindly drawn; the owner of the last remaining card pays.

“We always call those guys degenerates,” Marafioti said, smiling broadly.

“Those guys never win,” Getzwiller added. No matter how many hands go their way, he suggested, they will always be losers in life.

The feeling among the old-schoolers is mutual. At the beginning of the third day of the EPL tournament, I struck up a conversation with Michelle Lau, a professional player in Vegas who also, in a somewhat quixotic attempt to unify and standardize the industry, co-wrote the International Poker Rules and co-founded the Federation Internationale de Poker Association. Lau was charmingly candid, even cynical, about the poker world. She eagerly gossiped about the Epic Poker League organizers and was dismissive of most of the 23-odd players who now sat in front of the cameras in the temporary, cobalt-blue television studio that the EPL had erected for the tournament. “I play in several charity events every year,” she said. “These guys would never be asked to participate because they’re social misfits. They don’t have personality. They can’t dress, they can’t talk, they can’t do interviews.” She was equally critical of the way they played, adamant that the explosion of online poker had drained the game of finesse and, worse, that the players who were making all the money were incapable of properly managing their bankrolls. When I told her how Marafioti was spending his winnings, she sneered: “He’ll be bust within a year. But there’s an old saying—you’re not a real poker player until you go bust at least once.”

In Positively Fifth Street, arguably the best book ever written about the intoxicating, skeevy, heartbreaking world of high-stakes poker, author James McManus writes, “It’s important to understand that money is the language of poker, its means of keeping score.” Last year, on his Poker Listings blog, Marafioti mocked Daniel Negreanu thusly: “I am more marketable than you, I live a better life off poker and I don’t get a free 2 million from PokerStars every year like you do to keep me from going broke (I actually win my money in the game of poker).” Marafioti repeatedly challenged Negreanu, whom he described to me as a “mediocre player,” to heads-up play at any stakes, offering him $500 an hour per table as an additional incentive. Marafioti also bet Negreanu $100,000 that he would cash in for more during the next 10 live events they played together. Negreanu didn’t take the bait (nor did he respond to a request to be interviewed for this article), but he did issue a riposte during last year’s World Poker Tournament, saying he doesn’t have the time to respond “to every insane nut job on the Internet.”

Poker Face | Matt Marafioti

If Marafioti’s example is any guide, how you spend your winnings is a barometer of how well you live the poker life. His idea of a good poker life is one lived in a kind of hedonistic haze. During the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event, he accepted a $5,000 prop bet (a side wager unrelated to the table action) from Tom Dwan that he couldn’t drink 10 shots of Patrón tequila in 15 minutes without puking. (Marafioti succeeded, then was promptly kicked out of the casino for swearing.) In the first phone conversation we ever had, he informed me within five minutes that he spends a minimum of $200,000 a year on food, that he routinely dines at Michelin-starred restaurants (where he prefers to order “good French Bordeaux”) and that his Casa Loma townhouse is worth $2 million. “I’m like a 40-year-old in a 23-year-old’s body,” he said. He drives an Aston Martin Vanquish and owns 25 pairs of sunglasses (the most expensive of which, he says, cost him $4,000). He has a $38,000 Cartier watch, one of several around that price point. For Father’s Day, he bought his dad a $9,000 gold and silver Zegna fountain pen. “I live a life of excess,” he said, shrugging.

“I really don’t know the value of a dollar anymore.” Such avowed ignorance doesn’t usually seem to perturb him, though one time, after I overheard him arguing with his girlfriend on the phone, he told me he was happier when he was making $50,000 a year.

“You don’t have to keep it all,” I said. “You could give a bunch of it to charity.”

“Hey, if I could trade it all tomorrow for world peace, I would,” he said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

On April 15, 2011, a date the poker community refers to as “Black Friday,” the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that the three largest online poker sites—PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker—were laundering money and defrauding banks, and using elaborate schemes to get around gambling laws. They were forced to close their doors to American customers, the owners were arrested, and millions of dollars of players’ funds were frozen. PokerStars, the largest site, immediately cashed out more than $100 million to its former customers in the U.S.; it continues to operate (though Americans can’t buy in). Full Tilt hasn’t been so forthcoming. In September, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, described Full Tilt as a “global Ponzi scheme,” and the Department of Justice accused the company of bilking players of more than $400 million. (Full Tilt denies the charge, but admits the company may have been “mismanaged.”) Earlier that month, in the Superior Court of Quebec, a Canadian law firm filed a class-action suit against the owners of Full Tilt.

Marafioti, who plays mainly on PokerStars, says he had only about 20 or 30 grand tied up in his account on the Full Tilt site, and he has no expectation he’ll get it back. He’s more concerned about how much more onerous online poker has generally become. “It’s just getting more difficult. There are a lot more players because it’s so popular. It’s more competitive, and there are fewer fish,” he says, referring to the less skilled players pros prey upon. Some old-school players, as well, have now successfully adjusted their games, becoming as aggressive as the younger stars, eager for a cut of the online action. While the American pro players were out of commission for a couple of months, leading to an uptick in attendance at live games, they’ve scrambled to set up residences in other parts of the world—Monaco, Costa Rica, Malta—so they can continue to play online. Marafioti personally knows at least 50 Americans who now have temporary homes in Canada, including his Vegas roommates.

After Marafioti and I returned to Toronto, I spent a couple of weeks trying to meet with him again. He didn’t answer the phone at any of the numbers I had for him or respond to any of my Facebook messages, and it was only after I sent an imploring request through his father and then left an even more imploring handwritten note on his front door that he finally sent me a 2 a.m. text message that read, “Tmrw we can meet up. Sory I didn’t hear doorbell today. Lost 80k last nite was up till 6am and slept in.”

It turned out that he had been entirely consumed by the World Championship of Online Poker, playing what he referred to as an “absurd” amount, even for him. Some days, as several of the games he entered were scheduled according to European time zones, he was sleeping for only a couple of hours. There were still four days to go, and he had lost around $50,000 in the first few days—something he referred to as a “normal swing.” When I dropped by his place at 11 p.m. on a Thursday, he was both fried and manic, dressed in track pants and a blue Louis Vuitton T-shirt, barefoot. His beard had gone full Amish. His three-storey townhouse, which he’s lived in for two years, was just slightly homier than his Vegas condo. With granite-grey walls, brown drapes and unremarkable abstract art, it had the generic luxury feel of a high-end hotel. In the living room, a bookshelf contained only about half a dozen poker strategy books, some high school yearbooks, a couple of tournament trophies. Nearby, a pair of expensive guitars rested in a rack. The nerve centre was an immense wooden desk, where Marafioti’s computers sat, currently noiseless and dim.

He was done playing for the day, just hanging out with Kling and Geoff Plant, trying to get the Apple TV going on a gigantic flat screen built into the dark wood, wall-sized entertainment unit. But for my observational benefit, he walked over to the desk, logged on to PokerStars and half-heartedly poked away at a half-dozen games on one screen. His avatar image was the comic-book Joker. He played absently, casually, smiling only when his Vegas roommate, William Reynolds, playing in Vancouver, re-raised him. The blinds were just $5 and $10, but thousands of dollars were changing hands in seconds. “I could easily make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year just playing these stakes,” he said. His dexterity was remarkable, and he was folding hands before I could even process what cards he’d been dealt. When I remarked on this, he shrugged again, as if his prowess wasn’t news. “It’s just a computer game,” he said.

Poker Face | Matt Marafioti

But what happens when the computer game stops being fun—or profitable? There’s a reason that the majority of the best players, like professional athletes, are under the age of 30. The burnout rate is high, and even the most skillful players are susceptible to the random vagaries, and psychic toll, of luck; poker isn’t chess. Marafioti lives too much in the moment to really think about the future much, but when pressed about it, he allows that he’d like to do something “entrepreneurial” when he’s done with poker. Real estate maybe, or he might make some instructional videos. At one point, he’d pinned his hopes on a reality show about poker players—a cross between Entourage and The Hills—produced by and starring him and his buddies. It was called The Kid. PokerStars was interested in it, but the pilot was roundly mocked online—Marafioti’s performance in particular—and Marafioti winces when talking about the show now. He’s trying to figure out how to get back the $85,000 he sunk into it.

Balance is a common buzzword among poker players. As in, how do you balance your career with everything else in your life? Marafioti says he admires the balanced life of his 19-year-old brother, who’s studying psychology and sociology at Ryerson. “Balance means finding happiness in things that are genuine,” he says. He enumerates these things: going to the gym, not getting fat, resting a lot, eating healthier, trying to smoke less.

The WCOOP ended—Marafioti barely broke even, after playing for two straight weeks—and he spent the next day sleeping in, grabbing lunch at Sassafraz and buying fancy candles for his mom, who had frequently dropped off meals while he and Kling were playing. His laundry, which she had also done, was sitting in a basket by the front door. When I dropped by, Marafioti was on PokerStars. He was only playing three tables and said we could talk while he played. I asked him again about losing, and how that affected him. He seemed confused by the question, and then, after a loss of $2,500 at one of the tables, instantly angry.

“What is this shit?” he said, abruptly standing up from the computer. “How do you think I feel if I lose? Obviously, I hate losing. If a basketball player doesn’t win a game, does it affect his confidence? Of course it does.” He sat down on the couch, lit the bong, inhaled deeply.

“Yeah, but a basketball player still gets paid if his team loses,”

I said. “You lose, you’re losing your own money. If you’re on a really bad run, how long do you keep playing? You said you’re addicted to the game. Do you keep playing until you lose your house?”

“I’ve set boundaries for myself. I now play smaller stakes and only games that I beat consistently. I think I’m smarter than most people. Okay, if not smarter, then more careful. Most people make $300 in a day. I can make $1,500 before I even get in the shower, but I could lose it, too.”

I proffered my theory about how losing is just another form of winning. Marafioti vehemently disagreed.

“No, that’s not a winning attitude. In this game, you have to be able to lose everything you have. And not bitch about it. And then win it all back. I’ve done that several times in my career. Six-, seven-hundred-thousand-dollar downswings. I had to be disciplined to win it back.” He sank into his cream-coloured couch, pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head and grinned sleepily.

“I know what I want and I know how to get it,” he said.

“What do you want?”

“I’ve got everything I want,” he said. “Anything after this is just a bonus.”


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