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New Jersey Monthly Magazine
Atlantic City
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Poker Face

Life as a professional poker player.

Posted December 19, 2007 by Jennifer L. Nelson

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It wasn’t long ago that Egg Harbor resident John D’Agostino was winning or losing $100,000 to $200,000 a day playing poker.

He’d spend all day and all night at casinos and hop flights on a moment’s notice to the Bahamas and Australia to compete in tournaments.

But the first time he held his daughter, Isabella, in his arms seventeen months ago, he knew it was time to cash in (some of) his chips for carriages and cribs.

It all began when a lucky streak at the Mohegan Sun Casino tables with his college buddies prompted him to drop out of Central Connecticut State University in 2003 to pursue poker professionally. To his surprise, he won $500,000 in his first four tournaments. He learned along the way from players who “couldn’t keep their mouths shut,” studied on his own, and amassed $1.7 million in total tournament winnings.

“I didn’t want to be an accounting major anymore, and I was looking for something else to do,” he says. “I figured if it didn’t work out, I’d go back to college—but I just kept getting lucky.”

Since then the 24-year-old, known on the gambling circuit as “JDags” or “Dags,” has played on four World Poker Tour tables, in the first live televised poker tournament at New York’s Turning Stone Casino, and at the Taj Mahal for an ESPN event. He is  scheduled to appear again in season five of the Game Show Network’s High Stakes Poker, which airs at 9 pm Mondays. 

The birth of his daughter inspired D’Agostino to “cut back on some of the craziness.” He travels only to major tournaments and considers poker a business, with a 40-hour work week aimed at amassing steady earnings.

His strategy? Playing with opponents less skilled than himself. “If you’re the tenth-best poker player in the world, and you’re playing with the nine better players, you’ll be broke by the end of the day,” he explains. “Now I know that making money is more important than trying to be the best player in the world.”

His girlfriend, Mariealena Calabrese, 35, also plays poker professionally, though not in the “nosebleed, psychotic” games D’Agostino sometimes does. They take turns watching their baby—he’ll hit the Internet poker scene on weekdays, she’ll check out the Borgata on weekends—to pursue what JDags now says “is just a job.” Will there someday be another generation of D’Agostino poker players?

“We want our daughter to get an education, find a job that she likes, and have a stable career,” Calabrese says. “Less than 2 percent of poker players who try to play for a living succeed—and it isn’t due to lack of talent.”

“I’ll teach Isabella how to play,” he says, “but I certainly hope she doesn’t do it for a living.”


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