before the days of Internet poker, and the proliferating casino tournament scene of today, one might wonder how
poker players ever earned a living, let alone became what they are in the first place. Back in the days when “major”
tournaments were numbered in the single digits on a yearly basis and “four figure” first place prizes were considered huge,
how did anyone grind out the rent? In Pizza, Pasta and Poker, professional poker player and author Vince Burgio chronicles a very
entertaining and succinct account of how it came to be for him; beginning with a nostalgic look at his earliest card-playing influences during
childhood, all the way up to his ongoing involvement in today’s “poker boom” with his most recent triumphs at and away from the poker table.
If you’re not at least an occasional reader of “CardPlayer” magazine since 1999, Burgio may be the most successful poker
player you’ve never heard of. With the advent of televised poker, however, it’s unlikely his name doesn’t at least ring a
bell (quite loudly in fact) to anyone following the game. Vince tells his life story in an easy to read, down to earth,
“regular guy” fashion, and leaves readers yearning for more details necessarily omitted from this epic saga covering several
decades. Jumping ahead too many years at a time at certain stages is perhaps the only issue one might take with Burgio’s timeline,
but it’s completely understandable and compensated by his focused and concise narrative.
Growing up in Kansas City as the middle child among 4 sisters, Burgio’s exposure to card playing began at a very early age,
at home games and in his father’s restaurant (between lunch and dinner crowds). His poker skills were honed in college and
the air force, and really started to affect the lining of his pockets upon his first visits to the public card rooms in
Seattle, where “Lowball” was the game of choice. It was in these surroundings where Vince heeded the call of a true “rounder”.
Aside from the obvious focus on poker, Burgio takes the reader on a nomadic and sometimes exhausting journey as he tries to
find his way in life. We travel back and forth among the different cities he called home, lured him to new job and business
opportunities and kept him close to his family. We meet the women in his life, the daughters he cherishes and the many friends,
all who influenced his decisions (some good, some bad) to either settle down or pack up everything he owned and start
anew – something he did several times in his early adulthood.
Particularly touching along the way are Burgio’s recounting of the passing of his beloved parents (his father while he was
still a young college student), and a reunion with his 29 year old daughter (put up for adoption after an early failed relationship)
that he had not seen since she was only days old. Much more importantly than all his poker accomplishments, it is through Vince’s
personal life experiences that we come to clearly understand what makes him tick, and why it is not surprising at all that he
succeeded in just about every endeavor he undertook, including poker. As he explains in several scenarios, “I think we are all
motivated by the desire to make someone proud of us.” Ultimately, in the end, there is little doubt he accomplishes that and more.
As the years progress, many factors make Burgio’s poker life and name become more “public” and well known. Inarguably, televised
poker tournaments would change everything about how professional players were looked upon, and how their success was gauged.
“Player of the Year” publications would measure one rising star (or “returning” in his case) against the next. Vince’s turn
at such exposure was inevitable due to his consistent winning ways in the most prestigious poker tournaments of the day. His
extraordinary feat of winning three consecutive tournaments in three days at the “World Poker Classic” (in 2005) held at the Plaza
Hotel had other players doubting the daily bulletins were being updated, as the winner’s name never seemed to change! Appropriately,
Burgio earned the nickname “Plaza Vince”.
The winner of a World Series of Poker gold bracelet in 1994, (for Stud High/Low, or “Stud Split”), Burgio would go on that same year
to almost win the $10,000 Main Event, finishing in 4th place. He recounts the circumstances and hand that crippled him at the final table
(vs. Russ Hamilton’s first ever WSOP final table straight flush), but refuses to divulge the actual cards he held. It will remain a mystery
until his hand is engraved onto his headstone.
Another amusing anecdote from the same event is the revelation of Burgio’s firsthand knowledge of why Barbara Samuelson (Gold) may
have failed to become the first woman in WSOP history to make the final table (she finished 10th). Without spoiling the story, it
had less to do with her poker playing, and more to do with another player’s “call of nature”.
Depending on one’s age, ethnicity and upbringing, reading “Pizza, Pasta and Poker” will stir the emotions, memories and interest of
readers in varying degrees. There can be no doubt that Burgio’s Italian-American heritage greatly influences some of the experiences
he narrates, and the humor, compassion and honesty found within his style of storytelling. Yet his bottom line is universally appealing,
and his charm and savvy make this autobiography a worthwhile read. It is perhaps not until Burgio’s entire picture is painted that one
realizes how inspirational the book truly is, owing to his modestly understated list of accomplishments. In the end, Vince leaves his
readers gratefully reassured that his significant poker achievements are not what define his success in life. Rather, it is family;
and being a husband, father, uncle and grandfather that are constant to him, and “the titles that really count.”
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