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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 23, 2005

Sailor here is online poker champ

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Santino Sgambelluri

Courtesy of Paradise Poker

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A pair of 8s was worth $1 million to a Pearl Harbor man who emerged from a field of nearly 5,000 players to win a free online poker tournament.

Navy Ensign Santino Sgambelluri, 32, returned to Hawai'i this week after dominating a 10-player, "No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em" final Sunday in the Bahamas.

"It hasn't sunk in yet. It's quite a feat," he said yesterday. "I don't even know how to describe it."

Because ParadisePoker.com's annual Million Dollar Freeroll competition is free to enter, the online tournament skirted Hawai'i laws that prohibit gambling. Online gambling is illegal if participants must pay to play and the "house" runs the game profits, according to Jim Fulton of the Honolulu Prosecutor's Office. Fulton was not aware of any local cases in which online gamblers have been prosecuted.

Sgambelluri, an air safety officer, is from Guam and has been stationed at Pearl Harbor for a little more than a year. He said he's been playing poker for about 10 years, but took up Texas Hold 'Em only two years ago.

In the game, players receive two cards each and use five "community cards" to build a hand.

After surviving a Nov. 30 qualifying tournament, Sgambelluri sequestered himself in his computer room at home at 9 a.m. Dec. 3 to start the main tournament along with 4,871 other players. When play was suspended 9 1/2 hours later, the Navy man was in second place in chip holdings out of 29 remaining players.

"Hour by hour people were getting knocked off and I kept getting more chips," he said.

When the contest resumed the following morning, Sgambelluri immediately took the lead and stayed in first or second throughout the day. When he eliminated the 11th-ranked player, a message flashed on his computer screen congratulating him for making the final 10 and announcing the free trip to the Bahamas for the finals, with a guaranteed prize of at least $10,000.

Sgambelluri said he had no idea the finals would be played anywhere else but on his home computer.

He arrived in the Bahamas last Friday, and the final hands began Sunday with competitors from the U.S., Canada and England.

During 6 1/2 hours of face-to-face poker, Sgambelluri faltered only once, when he lost half of his $4 million in chips in one hand. He quickly regained form, and ended up terminating five of the nine other finalists.

He went into the final showdown with a commanding $9 million chip lead. It took four hands for the ensign to beat Ryan Boyes, a utility company worker from Atlanta. On the final hand, Sgambelluri was dealt an ace and an 8. Holding an ace and a deuce, Boyes immediately called, wagering his entire holdings. When another 8 card was put on the table, Sgambelluri had a pair. The best his opponent could do was a pair of deuces.

"Once he flipped (his cards over) I was pretty sure I was going to win," he said.

Sgambelluri said he plans to "wisely" invest his winnings, although he'll use some of the money to pay off a car loan he got just before the tournament to buy a Toyota Matrix.

The Navy man is married to his wife, Elle, and has two sons, Christopher, 10, and Santino Gianni, 10 months.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.