Note: This interview was taken some months ago when Roberto Romanello was a Full Tilt Sponsored Pro hence the reference to it during the article.
Full Tilt Sponsored Pro Roberto Romanello, still works as an active member in his family’s chain of fish and chip restaurants in Gorseinon. When I arrive at his address, there are actually two restaurants called Roma on the same street, and the Romanello family business owns them both. I thought it was a little strange to own two restaurants on the same street but as you would expect, with Romanello involved, both had full houses!
I find the right shop and walk in. The place is buzzing, vibrant and the smell just divine and I am starving. Romanello shakes my hand and asks me what I want to eat. I ask for fish, chips and mushy peas and Romanello takes off his jacket and heads into the open view kitchen and cooks me my food!
So what is a guy, who has just flopped a full house, to win the EPT Prague title after besting a field of 754 players to take home €640,000, doing working in a fish and chips restaurant and cooking me food?
“My parents have had them ever since we were young. My brothers and I all left school early and went straight into the family business. We had three or four shops that were thriving businesses and we have all worked very hard at it ever since.”
So how did someone who was working around the clock in the family business stumble across poker?
“I had a terrible accident playing soccer that resulted in a broken right leg. I was housebound for 3-5 months and had to undergo a lot of surgery with bars and nails keeping my leg together. In that time I started to watch a lot of poker on TV and started to think maybe I could play this game. I never owned a laptop back then. I asked my brother to go out and buy me a laptop because I read you could play this game online, my brother got me the laptop, and I started playing SNG’s. I was playing $20 SNG’s and then went up to $50 SNG’s. I was sitting on the sofa with a broken leg and this was just a way of passing the time away. I played for about 8-9 days straight and was really enjoying it and then one day I entered a $50 SNG and it was in red and not in black. I remember thinking why is this SNG in red and not black? I looked into it and it was a satellite and I didn’t even know what a satellite was? So I played it, and won a seat into a WPT qualifier, and then later that evening won that as well. I chose the tournament in Vegas and ended up bubbling it. I then realised I wanted more.”
So what happened next?
“The WPT trip I won was three months away. I realised that I was going to Vegas in three months time so in the meantime I started to travel to the local casinos in Swansea and Cardiff playing tournament poker. In those three months I built up a bankroll of £50,000.”
£50,000 playing tournaments in your local casino is pretty phenomenal stuff isn’t it?
“I was playing four or five tournaments per week. I couldn’t work in the restaurant because of my leg so I just played poker. I was literally winning two if not three tournaments per week. I was absolutely killing the local game winning £2,000 or £3,000 at a time. Then I was looking for bigger games so I started traveling to the festivals in the Grosvenor casinos. These were a little tougher to win. I found it very good playing against the local players. I was memorising the way that everyone was playing in the local games and so I found it easy playing against them. When I started traveling to the festivals I found it not as easy because I had to start my reads from scratch. But slowly I started to get results in the festivals and then they started the GUKPT and I started to make final after final on that tour.”
So you went from, sitting on a couch with a broken leg, playing $50 SNG to winning £50,000 in the local casino tournament scene. What were the most important milestones along the way?
“As soon as I started playing poker I knew I had an edge in the game. To me a lot of it has to do with natural talent. Some of these people still play the same games, but more importantly they still play the same way, where my game has evolved and changed. When I was playing locally and was winning I got off my arse and went for it. I believed I was good enough and wanted it bad so I went for it. I kept thinking what is my next step? Where do I go from here? I remember the day I came 3rd in GUKPT Cardiff for £58,000, a few days later I was flying to Monte Carlo to play in the £10,000 event, which was not wise, but that was the hunger I had for the game. Then I remember playing these huge tournaments around Europe. From the £50-60,000 I had - I went down to virtually nothing after playing three or four tournaments in Europe. Then I thought how the hell is everyone else managing this and I realised that they were all sponsored so I thought I need a sponsor.”
So how did you eventually gain a sponsorship deal?
“I had a big mouth at the tables but I was always friendly. I knew my charisma and banter made a lot of people laugh and also needled a few. I knew people would like to see this on TV, so I knew I had an edge there, but also had to prove I had the game to go with the banter. So I knew I had a chance but it was so tough. I had to keep playing and get some results. After making a lot of GUKPT finals I received e-mail to join a TV tournament and wear a Full Tilt badge and I would get a little reward of a few thousand dollars. Nothing happened in the TV tournament and time went on and I got invited to another TV tournament. The same contact again asked me to wear a Full Tilt badge and I agreed.”
Did you ever directly ask your contact for a Sponsorship deal?
“No never. Who was I to ask for a sponsorship deal? I didn’t think I had deserved the right to ask at that point. I knew I had to prove myself and if I did I would get rewarded.”
Tell me about your first WSOP experience.
“When I was winning locally, people started to tell me that I should go to Vegas for the WSOP. I looked up when the Main Event was and flew out the day before. I didn’t know there were side events! I flew out with two friends and all I am thinking about is this Main Event. When I get there I find out that there are 9,000 plus people playing in it and I am thinking, wow! Anyway, I play in the Main Event out of my own pocket and out of 9,800 odd players I finish 312th and cash for $39,800. So you can imagine how I am feeling about poker in my first year. There was like 8 million for first place and I am sat here with 300 left.”
And your second experience?
“A local businessman backed me and I went out there with $80,000. I played tournament after tournament and it was very depressing. I was going very deep and was getting terrible bad luck, but that is poker. The guy that I was dealing with in the TV tournament was in Vegas. I used to walk down that long corridor in the Rio and I would see him every day. I really wanted to get a result to show this guy that I could play. I kept dreaming of walking down that corridor with him approaching me and asking me to sign for Full Tilt. I had done all of my money with just the Main Event left. I was playing day 1C and walked down the corridor and the Full Tilt guy said, good luck, and I said thanks. I got to the table and there is no one there but a sign saying all the players have to go to the main TV table. As soon as I saw this sign I felt like it was meant to be. Then someone approached me and asked me if I would wear a patch for some money. I knew I needed to get my arse back into the corridor and tell the FT guy I am on the TV table. I ran out and told him and he put a badge on me.”
So what happened on that table?
“I just remember thinking this was my chance to do something special. I sat down and realised that we were on TV because Mike Matusow was playing. I just knew I had to play the game of my life. The first three or four hours go by and I have logged my reads and I was in the zone. Then special things happened on that table for me. I lost pots that would change my life forever. Mike Matusow limped into a pot and I looked down and saw two Jacks. I didn’t want to raise and so I decided to limp and play my Jacks pretty deceptively. Then this guy Gellar raises. As soon as he put 800 chips in that pot I knew there was a 90% chance that he had KK or AA. I had been playing with him for four hours and he was shit scared of Matusow. He was flat-calling him with AKd, AKc and even a pair of Queens. When he made this raise, and Mike instantly called behind him, I am thinking for 600 more lets hit a Jack and get paid. So I called to hit a Jack and the flop came AKJ and I remember thinking, that doesn’t look good, because if my read is right I am screwed. We all checked and then I thought maybe you are wrong? Then the turn was a ten and everyone checked. I am not excited about my hand at all now. The river was a ten and Mike checks, and I have a huge hand, so I am thinking maybe if I am wrong I could get a little bit of value so I bet 1,800 with 23,000 behind. When Geller starts moving about and fiddling with chips I thought, shit he has got it. Then I realise that I am going to have to make a huge fold on ESPN. I am thinking if I am wrong I am going to look like an idiot. Then I tell myself you are not wrong. Everything he did and said told me that I was right. I am now 99% certain that I am beat. It is not about calling just because I have a full house. I feel I have a massive edge in my live tells so use it. If I am right I look incredible and if I am wrong I look like a donkey. Make the right play Roberto! I told myself, and fold your hand and in the end the fold was a no brainer. So that is why I folded. When he showed his hand (KK) I just knew I was going to get sponsored. It is a weird feeling.”
So you try so hard to win something in order to get noticed, and get sponsored, and it happens because you lose a hand?
“I just knew it was a lock on a deal because I knew it would look special. Matusow went crazy and then later on I get involved in another hand against Geller when I have nines over aces and Geller has tens over aces and I fold. When Matusow saw that fold he got up and I got the shivers. He said, this is fucking unreal, this guy is just incredible. He gets away from another fucking full house. This guy should be out, why is he still in this tournament? He walked over to some guys in the audience and said - you have to sign this fucking kid now. I already knew something special was going to happen but when Mike went over and said that I will never forget that moment. At that point I was down $70,000 and nothing seemed to matter. In fact I left $80,000 down but I knew special things were about to happen for me.”