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Seaford poker champ recalls winning moment

Michael Esposito at the 43rd World Series of

Michael Esposito at the 43rd World Series of Poker, No-Limit Hold'em main event. (July 2012) Credit: WSOP

The hand that set up Michael Esposito for a guaranteed $754,598 payout and a shot at a far greater fortune next month at the World Series of Poker came late on July 15 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

By then, the 44-year-old Seaford man had played nearly 12 hours of no-limit Texas Hold 'em every day for a week. There'd been 6,598 players in a room as big as a football field; now there were 27.

In this group made up mainly of men in their 20s and 30s from around the globe, Esposito said, he kept to himself and spoke little. Conversation breaks concentration, and his was absolute.

Esposito carried no good-luck charm and observed no rituals. He wore neither the sunglasses nor the hoodie that have become de rigueur in the age of televised poker. He hunched over the table, a thin, balding father of two in jeans and a T-shirt.

He is an anomaly both at the poker table and away from it. Five years ago, he was obese, and now he is a competitive triathlete.

Equally rare in this group composed largely of professional gamblers, he has a day job that requires him to get up when they are hitting the sack. He takes an early-morning LIRR train to Manhattan every weekday to trade electricity and natural gas for Tullett Prebon, a commodities firm.

There is a critical link between these spheres of his life. It is not an urge to test himself against others by competition, or the rewards of navigating the shifting calculations of risk and return. The link is self-mastery, he said. "It takes discipline to play poker nonstop for eight days," he said one recent afternoon. "It took discipline to not slam the alarm clock off at 4:50 this morning."

During this year's tournament, he said, he sometimes played for hours without betting on a pot. "Your chips are dwindling because you're not getting cards, and you're paying blinds and antes," referring to the money a player pays just to be part of each deal.

It's a slow bleed that could frustrate anyone. Where he's different, or likes to think he is: He won't let frustration tip into desperation. For Esposito, that's worse than being unlucky. That's losing mastery of oneself.

"It's a different style of play than what you see with the younger generation, particularly the ones in their 20s, who learned to play online. They're a lot more willing to play a kill-or-be-killed style," says Norman Chad, a poker writer and commentator for ESPN's World Series of Poker broadcasts. "Esposito's not going to play that way. He's more conservative, and sometimes he'll get pushed around, but it's made him survive."

Esposito explained: "I never tried to win the tournament on any one day. I just tried to keep moving day to day."

But it was a big, gutsy, potentially fatal play that pushed Esposito to the final table.

On day 7, according to the World Series of Poker website, Esposito drew a pair of 10s and bet $275,000. Daniel Strelitz, a college student from California who cut his teeth playing on the Internet, held an ace and king and quickly raised to $660,000. He could build his hand with the five common cards yet to come or scare off Esposito. Esposito responded with a $1.875 million bet.

Neither man knew the other's cards, but Esposito said he was confident in his pair and confident, too, that Strelitz would stay in the hand.

He was right: The younger man pushed in $5.905 million. Realistically, Esposito was in too deep to fold, even if he'd wanted to. He called. He was all in.

In an instant, Esposito would double his money or be sent home, but there was no drama in his recollection. "I'd already made my decision," he said. "You make a decision, and you go with it."

He had a better than 57 percent chance of winning; his opponent, just under 43 percent, according to an online poker odds calculator.

Five more cards flipped, and as they did Esposito found none to match his 10s, but Strelitz found none for his ace or king.

Esposito suddenly owned $12.05 million in chips, a stack that sustained him for the run to the final table.

Tournament chips aren't real money. Real money is present only in the $10,000 tournament buy-in, and at the end when prizes are paid. The last of nine men playing at this year's final table holding chip money will take home 8.5 million very real American dollars.

Riches notwithstanding, Esposito said he has no intention of turning pro. In a decade of tournament poker, he has appeared in two previous World Series. But there are too many times when a poker player finds himself making "coin-flips," he said, facing even odds and advancing or failing to advance purely on luck, not skill.

He said he does not want to live out of hotels, trudging from game to game. He owns his house near the water and a boat.

Asked how he might spend $8.5 million in sudden wealth, he offered nothing more fanciful than saving for retirement and traveling to more triathlons.

If he wins after play resumes at the Rio on Oct. 28, Esposito said, "I would go back to work and live the life I live."

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