Roberto Romanello is one of UK poker’s greatest exports, with WPT and EPT wins and over $2 million in winnings. So why is he talking about slowing down?
It's February 2006 and Roberto Romanello stands on crutches at the door of the Grosvenor casino in Swansea. His heart is racing in his chest and his stomach is churning with nerves. He steps inside and walks to the poker room, where he watches with a mixture of excitement and horror as a loud Italian guy starts shouting at the other players before they all burst out laughing. Finally plucking up the courage he walks up to the table and sits down and starts to play...
The fates have been strange to Roberto Romanello. When the Welsh-Italian chip shop owner snapped his fibia and tibia in a horrific football accident he had no reason to suspect it was his lucky break. Likewise, he couldn’t have thought it was his lucky day when trudging down the hallway of the Rio to spend his last $10,000 on the Main Event before flying home broke. But then luck is a funny old thing. ‘You break your leg, but amazing things come from it,’ he says.
It’s been a strange journey to the top for the EPT and WPT winner, including a number of strange twists of fate. The latest is the news that his current sponsor Matchbook has decided to end their sponsorship deal with Romanello. But there are no hard feelings on Romanello’s part. ‘I’m very grateful to Matchbook. I’d like to thank them for what they’ve done for me and it’s ended on a good note.’ But it does raise the question of what next for the man from Swansea?
Meeting Romanello on a rare sunny day in London shortly before the EPT Barcelona he looks relaxed, rested and ready to take on the world. Dressed in a smart black polo shirt and expensive jeans, with a suit in a zip-up carry-bag slung over his shoulder, he is refreshingly free of any Hellmuth-style self-aggrandising. In fact he is almost annoyingly down to earth. And he’s obviously keen to talk. His answer to my first question lasts for nearly ten minutes, before he pauses to take a sip of his coffee. But then again he has a lot to say.
Mum’s the word It was probably good luck that meant poker was on the TV when Romanello limped into the sitting room at his parent’s home in Swansea all those years ago. ‘I remember watching and thinking I can do better than that and I had not even stated playing yet. I fired up a Betfair account and was playing $50 sit-and-gos. Housebound, leg in plaster and playing $50 sit-and-gos. This went on for about eight days,’ he says.
The next part of the story is well-known. Romanello entered a satellite sit-and-go by accident, won a seat in a WPT satellite that he went on to win. All of a sudden he went from never playing a hand of online poker to winning a package to the WPT Mirage Classic in Las Vegas. ‘In three months I was going to Vegas. So I started to play some live poker,’ Romanello says his eyes lighting up at the memory. ‘I remember going for the first time. I have always been a confident guy, but I was like a little mouse that day.’ Pretty soon he was playing £1/£2 cash games three or four nights a week and winning as much as £2,000 or £3,000 a night.
He was practically living at the casinos and coming home at six or seven in the morning. For a hard-working lad from Swansea it was a sudden change in direction and his mother was not happy. Not one bit. ‘One minute I’m a hard-working boy and the next I’m in the gambling world coming home at half seven in the morning. She’s a proper old-fashioned Italian mum and she’s going nuts. I would show her the money I was winning and she didn’t care. This went on for months, even though I’d amassed a £66,000 bankroll from small local games and tournaments.’
The turning point for Roberto’s mum was his first major final table, at the Cardiff leg of the GUKPT in 2007. His whole family had come down and his mum watched from the side-lines as Romanello put on a show before busting out in third £58,000 richer (thanks to a Neil Channing-inspired last longer bet). ‘Everyone is cheering and the place is going nuts and my mum is there to see it. And ever since then she’s never had a problem with me playing poker again. Ever since that day she’s always supporting me and is proud of everywhere I go. But my dad plays poker and she gives him stick every single time. Until my dad wins the EPT he’s going to get stick for the rest of his life,’ Romanello says with a laugh. It’s a laugh that says a lot. He knows how important that backing has been. Chips are up Family is a hugely important part of Romanello’s life and one of the main reasons he’s still here at the top of the poker world nearly six years later. Along with his three brothers they run a small empire of fish and chip shops back home in Swansea along with owning a number of properties in the area. The four boys share everything, including Romanello’s poker winnings. ‘We’ve always worked together as a team. When I come home with money I give them every penny. We share everything. When I’m away playing poker they are working in our restaurants.
And when I come home I do my share as well. And sometimes I have to get the apron on and go behind the counter frying chips,’ he says. And he credits his family with helping him take something out of the game. ‘I remember when I first ran good and I had saved up £66,000. It was a lot of money and I felt invincible. I knew the more I played the more money I was going to make. Boy I was wrong,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Within about two or three months my money was gone. That’s when it finally hit home that it wasn’t going to be easy,’ he says. Since that day he’s been careful with his money, and has taken £750,000 out of the game. ‘I count myself very lucky. The only reason I was able to do that was I had a good family behind me. Without them God only knows what would have happened. I’m pretty wild and I like to gamble,’ he says.
‘It’s good that I have a strong family to look after me. How often do you see poker players go off the rails? One minute they have half a million and the next minute they are broke. I’m not saying I am better than them because if I didn’t have my family I’d probably be broke as well. Being wild is what makes me a good player. I’m an all or nothing person.’
It’s an incredibly close family unit and Roberto still lives at home with his brothers. ‘I don’t see the point of moving out. I spend so much time travelling when I come home I want to spend time with my family. I love my family more than anything. Plus my mum spoils us rotten. I am a mamma’s boy, I’m not even going to deny it. I’m in no hurry to leave home at the moment.’ Even when he’s out on the road, playing in the biggest tournaments in the world there is always a part of him yearning to get back home. ‘It’s an amazing lifestyle. You go to these beautiful locations and have amazing banter with the boys. But I need to come home and recharge, and then I’m hungry to get back out there.’
And Romanello is really hungry at the moment. Hungry for success after a somewhat disappointing summer. Fold to victory At the WSOP this year, Roberto came so near and so far from the major score that’s always eluded him in Sin City. He final tabled the $3k shootout, only to finish in 7th spot in what he describes as a crapshoot. ‘The structure was amazing all the way through and I felt really good making the final table as I knew I worked really hard for it. But at the final table, after an hour and a half most of us were playing 10 or 15 big blinds. That was disappointing,’ he says.
He got straight back on the horse and went deep in the $10k no-limit event before busting out in 22nd. He made one last run in the main event and built up a decent stack before busting out with a couple of cooler hands. In the end he finished the WSOP with a profit of $16,600. ‘It’s not amazing, but it’s better than losing,’ he says honestly. But Vegas has always been a learning curve for Romanello, who spent his first two years lost in a haze of partying and gambling. Vegas was also the scene of his greatest and most unlikely turning point back in 2008. With no sponsor and a diminishing bankroll he headed to the Rio with $100k and was down to his last $10k by the time the Main Event rolled around. He walked in to find his seat only to be told he was on the TV table thanks to drawing the same table as Mike Matusow. It was a bit of good luck that would change his life.
Romanello ended up playing a hand that saw him folding a full house and getting Mike Matusow to jump out of his seat and demand that Full Tilt sign him as a sponsored pro. It was a moment that gave Romanello the shivers, and he says now that he knew that moment was going to change things for him.
When he headed for the flight home with no money left he was happy. Really happy. ‘I’m getting on a plane, I am skint, I ran super bad and you would think I would be totally devastated. But I had hope. I was skint, but happy. A few months went past and then I had a phone call asking if I wanted to sign with Full Tilt.’ That deal changed everything for him. Suddenly he had access to buy-ins for all the major tournaments and a stamp of approval from one of the biggest sites in poker. It also changed him in other ways.
When Romanello first burst onto the scene back in 2007 it was with a reputation for aggression and a big mouth. On the first season of the GUKPT he was a constant thorn in the side of the other players. He was constantly chatting, questioning and probing for information with every hand he played. You could visibly see the players tilting on the TV screen, and his chatter was like white noise in the background of the final table. Frankly, to the casual observer, he never seemed to shut up. ‘If I ever had a chance to tilt the bad players I would be an idiot because it was working,’ Romanello says with a shy grin. ‘I was ruthless. I used to push the boundaries really badly. People got used to me being mouthy and they liked it.’
And he’s right. The Welshman has always managed that tricky balancing act between gobby and charming. His table talk was a big weapon and one he used frequently, but never spitefully. So it was something of a surprise to see Romanello re-emerge as a quiet, studied table presence once he became a sponsored pro. It was a bit like watching Mike Matusow or Daniel Negreanu retreat into their shell at the tables. But Romanello thought he had something to prove. ‘I wanted to prove to myself I had another side to me and I had a skilful game as well,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘When I got picked up by Full Tilt I knew I had to be careful as I was representing them as a sponsored player. I knew I had to not cross the line.’ But that’s not to say the old Roberto has gone forever. ‘I have banter with the good players and I get under their skin, but when you’re playing against top class players you can’t take the piss. If you try and make them look bad I think it’s crossing the line. I do other cheeky things, such as constantly three-betting them in position and saying ‘this is so easy, you can’t keep folding.’ I do have battles with good players and they do get super annoyed.’
One of the best examples of Roberto’s ability to get under player’s skin was at this year’s WPT Vienna. He put on a masterclass in tilt-management at the expense of one player who will remain nameless. It started when the player in question made an all-in call with pocket Nines on a board with two overcards. Quick as a flash the Welshman started asking innocent questions to the players sat next to him. ‘What did he have there? Pocket Nines? But he called the all-in?’ he started chatting away as if butter wouldn’t melt. ‘Now this guy is looking at me and his eyes are saying ‘why the fuck are you going on about the hand.’ So I keep asking about the hand and this woman starts joining in, thinking I’m being genuine saying ‘Yeah he called the all-in’ looking all bemused and I go ‘Really? He called the all-in? This bloke is going redder and redder.’
Then after all this the player opened and Romanello three-bet him with 10-3 and showed when the player insta-mucked A-Q. The next time they clashed Romanello made sure he had it and took all his chips. ‘He was fuming. If he had a knife he probably would have stabbed me. I haven’t annoyed anyone that much for a long time.’ But don’t get confused. Romanello is no Tony G. And his humility is probably his greatest asset both on and off the tables. ‘I always have respect for every player at the table, because if I switch off in one hand they can clean me out,’ he says. ‘The day you think you know everything is the day you go broke. You’re always learning in this game.’
He may always be learning, but the question remains: where does Romanello go from here? At the time of writing he’s not sponsored and doubts he can remain a constant fixture on the circuit without a sponsor. ‘I will always play all my life and you will always see me in the big events. But without a deal I am going to consider slowing down. It’s so easy to lose a big amount of money.’ ‘I play virtually every EPT. I love that circuit, they are my favourite tournaments of all time. And I have also been all over the world playing tournaments. But if you are halfway through a season and you don’t get any results it’s easy to be on the verge of being broke. I’ve got businesses and property behind me, but it’s still very hard for me when the results don’t come.’
In some respects he is the ideal sponsored pro. Hard-working, respectful, good with the media and with a knack for the big results. That said, even if the sponsors don’t come knocking he has no regrets. ‘In poker I could never say I’m unlucky ever again. I’m lucky in my family, and I’ve been lucky in poker. I’ve done well out of the game and anything else that comes is an added bonus. I’m still hungry, though, and I’m so excited about Barcelona. I really feel I’m going to do big things there.’ And he so nearly did. Romanello was the last Brit standing at the Barcelona EPT after another deep run that saw him finish in 22nd place. You feel the next big result is coming soon. But you know it won’t change him. After our interview he jumps on a train to make it back in time for the regular Thursday night game. It’s a dealer’s choice £2/£5 game where the action is wild. ‘The pots are massive. I love it. The banter is flowing, and we really push the boundaries,’ Romanello says laughing. And that loud guy at the cash tables, laughing, shouting and causing chaos while winning the lot? That’s Roberto Romanello. And it’s got nothing to do with luck. Well maybe a bit...
‘In this hand Mike Matusow has limped and I have Jacks. I like to be deceitful so I limped behind to disguise my hand. It comes around to this guy and I know right away when he raises he has a premium hand. Mike Matusow calls and I know straightaway I am calling. The flop comes down A-K-J and instantly I am thinking ‘If I am right I am still beat here.’ Mike checked, I checked and this guy checks behind and I thought that was weird. The 10 comes on the turn and that’s a scare card so everyone checks again. Then another 10 comes on the river and I have Jacks over Tens and I’m thinking maybe I’m wrong so I try and get something out of the hand.
This guy sits there and I can see he’s acting a bit and I instantly know he has Kings or Aces. Before he’s even raised me I know there is no way this guy has anything else. I was 99% certain I was right, but I wanted to make sure. I thought if I fold this and I’m right it’s going to look really good on TV. But if you are wrong you are going to look an absolute dickhead. I’m going to be a laughing stock. So I said something just to make sure and as soon as he spoke I knew I was right. When I folded you can see Mike just thinks I have nothing and am wasting time. He already hates my guts a I’ve been annoying him and he’s telling me to hurry up. Then I flip over my Jacks and he goes nuts.’
‘Every time I go online I try to go on a big spin-up and am an absolute nutcase. I always end up doing my money on $25/$50. My biggest spin-ups have been up to $50k from a couple of hundred dollars. I’ve walked away once or twice with a $40k withdrawal, but God knows how many times I’ve done the lot. I had a great spin-up last week. I had no money in my PokerStars account and had hit my deposit limit for the week. So I cashed my player points for a $50, $10 and a $5 token. I put it straight into a $50 sit-and-go. I won that and bought into three hyper turbos, then played some six-handed sit-and-gos before playing $2/$4 PLO for a few hours to get it up to $4,800. I took my mum out for a meal as I was proud I’d spun that up from points. I came home, they all went to bed and I couldn’t help myself and played $25/$50 and blew the lot within half an hour. I felt like shit and thought why did you do that? Hopefully one day I will take it seriously online and see if I could really have the discipline and the bankroll management to do it. I can’t help myself.’
For more poker news, strategies and competitions, subscribe to Poker Player magazine.