Miami thrice!

May 16, 2005 3:30 AM

In June 1982, John Cernuto was fired from his government job. Cernuto was an air traffic controller based in Miami. His union went out on strike and rather than negotiate a settlement, President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Out of work, Cernuto wasn’t sure what to do next.

Cernuto admits going through a tough readjustment period during the mid-1980s, trying to find his place in life. He started playing in poker tournaments during this period, and to his surprise discovered that he had a talent for the game. That led to a series of tournament victories over the next several years and a gradual decision that his career choice would turn to playing poker professionally. Cernuto gravitated to Las Vegas, and true to his Florida roots, was tagged with the nickname "Miami John."

"At the time, getting fired was not the best thing that ever happened to me, because it was my chosen lifelong profession," Cernuto said. "But in the end, things have really worked out and looking back now, it was a good thing."

Cernuto last week added yet another tournament victory to his impressive poker resume with a win in the World Series of Poker Circuit, $1,500 buy-in no limit hold’em event at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. The win brings Cernuto’s jewelry box count to three WSOP gold bracelets.

Cernuto is widely acknowledged as one of the best Omaha High-Low players in the world, although he admits he is "still learning" no-limit hold’em. With big wins in no-limit at the Commerce Casino (Los Angeles) last year, and another victory here at Lake Tahoe, one must wonder how long his no-limit "education" will continue.

The ironic thing about Cernuto’s latest victory is that it, quite frankly, shouldn’t have happened. Although Cernuto came to the final table close to the chip lead, his first two hours of play were not encouraging. Cernuto lost half of his stack and was "all in" at least a few times. At one point, Cernuto was completely down to the felt and was drawing very slim. When play was six handed, Cernuto was dealt 7-7 and moved "all in" against Tony O’Hagan’s A-A. Just when it looked as if Cernuto would be eliminated, he miraculously caught a third seven on the river, completely reversing the outcome of the final table. That was the jet stream that put the former air traffic controller into the winners" circle.

Lake Tahoe’s no-limit hold’em tournament, attracted 134 entries competing for $194,970 in prize money. Day one resulted in the elimination of 125 players. The nine finalists returned on day two, with Tony O’Hagan holding a slight chip lead over the field. When the dust settled, the heads-up duel between "Miami John" Cernuto and Patrick McMillan began with Cernuto holding a formidable 200,000 to 135,000 chip advantage. McMillan made things interesting, drawing close to even in chips at one point. But this was Cernuto’s night.

McMillan increased his stack with several aggressive moves, causing Cernuto to surrender the pot on many occasions. McMillan took advantage of Cernuto’s caution, which evolved into a counter-strategy whereby Cernuto would look for the right opportunity to set a "trap.’

The trap hand came when Cernuto allowed McMillan to keep betting at the pot, when the turn showed J-J-2-A. With 60,000 already in the pot, Cernuto bet 15,000, McMillan raised 30,000 more, and Cernuto moved "all in." That prompted McMillan to fold and following the hand, he was outchipped by more than 6-to-1.

A few hands later, the six-hour finale ended when Cernuto was dealt pocket aces against McMillan’s A-10. McMillan was "all in" before the flop and the final board — 7-3-2-2-K gave Cernuto the victory.

Patrick McMillan played a strong game and earned a well-deserved $38,995 as the runner up. The St. Charles, MO-based poker player, who prefers playing pot-limit Omaha, started the final table low on chips, outgunned by more than 3-to-1 against two opponents, including Miami John. He took his cards and stack as far as he could given the situation, coming close to the chip lead when the tournament was down to one-on-one. But Cernuto was too strong a force, especially with a flurry of well-timed cards.

"Miami John" Cernuto is one of the elite players in World Series of Poker history. He is a member of the "Millionaires Club," an exclusive group of poker players with over $1 million in lifetime earnings at the WSOP. He added $70,190 to his poker bankroll for this victory. Looking back now, he can thank a lucky seven, pocket aces, and Ronald Reagan — not necessarily in that order.