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The Exalted Amateurs

Poker is one of the few arenas where money can buy an amateur the chance to bust a pro
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, July/August 2010

(continued from page 3)

In the course of playing in the 2005 World Series of Poker main event, Russo buddied up with Black and quickly predicted that he'd win the tournament (close; Black finished fifth and took down a profit of $1,750,000). "When you're a relatively new poker player, you have a tendency to discuss bad beats," explains Russo. "Obviously Andy thought this was a waste of time. Before he would discuss a hand and how it should be played, he wanted to know everything about the hand: my position, my chip stack, where I was relative to other players. It took me aback, but it also helped to elevate my thinking, taking me up from the first level."

Over the course of his time playing tournaments, as he transitioned from amateur to pro, Russo came across his share of the game's superstars. He says that his toughest opponent, thus far, has been Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi. "He made one or two laydowns against me that I could not believe," marvels Russo. "At Foxwoods, I flopped top set, he flopped bottom set, and he got away from it after I check-raised a non-scary board. I didn't misplay my hand, but he made a hell of a laydown."

Other times, Russo discovered, his status as an amateur (or at least as a little-known pro) can be used to his advantage. "At the 2006 Main Event, I had Phil Ivey on the cut-off [one to the right of the dealer button] when I was in the big blind," remembers Russo. "I was relatively short stacked, he had more chips than me, and I knew I would not be getting a free ride; guys like Ivey are pure aggression and they will raise with any two cards. My philosophy here is that I will call wide-knowing how aggressive he is-and if I hit the flop I will make a lot of money. If I don't, I will fold and lose a little. I wound up losing 2,000 in chips to win 7,200 after I hit a flop pretty hard."

By playing against fearless pros, Russo has learned lessons that would never come to him if he stuck with games that only attract weaker amateurs. He knows that his playing at this level has helped him to make more careful decisions.

"You need to be disciplined enough to fold when the flop doesn't hit you," he advises, but he's also learned a few of the game's more subtle moves. Russo remembers one hand in which he made top set against the talented young pro David Williams. Williams, who appeared to be on a straight draw, folded to Russo's river bet. When he asked Russo what he had, Russo was at first a little cagey, only revealing to Williams that he had him beat. "Then I told him that I had the set," says Russo. "Telling him proved to be a good thing. It kept him a little more in line against me."

A couple days after our conversation, Russo headed to Atlantic City to play in the Borgata's Spring Poker Open, which culminates with a tournament that guarantees at least $1-million in prize money. He acknowledges that it's been a somewhat rough road thus far, with plenty of ups and downs and obstacles. But Russo views poker as a business and he is optimistic about his future in it. "This is like any start-up," he says. "I've been playing seriously since 2006, and I recognize that you experience some break-even stretches while hoping for a monster year. I'm confident about having that monster year. I'm in it and always learning."

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