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Tampa poker prodigy ready for final table of World Series of Poker

TAMPA — The kid's story follows the arc you might expect from a professional poker player: Down, up huge, throwing cash around as if the streak couldn't end, slumping, borrowing, then back at the big tables — his fate dependent on how the cards fell.

John Racener has clawed his way to the final table of the World Series of Poker at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Nov. 6. He is just one of the "November Nine," with a shot at winning as much as $8.9 million in the nationally televised event.

On Facebook, he lists his occupation as "Entrepreneur – Professional Poker Player."

His activities include "poker, sports, nightclub." His interests: "poker, girls, money, Moet."

He drives a loaded Range Rover and has $1.7 million in career winnings.

Ever watch Entourage? That's how Racener, 24, rolls. He's got three best friends nicknamed "Michca," "Cheeky" and "Sally." Racener is "Spiky," with a porcupine mane almost as loud as the flashy bars he hits almost nightly.

You might see him in South Tampa at the Drynk, the Lodge and, like clockwork, the Kennedy.

Living the dream became living beyond means when Racener's luck stopped matching his lifestyle. That's when he found a mentor who saw a chance to live out his own poker aspirations by helping Racener get his finances flush and cards straight.

For Racener, becoming a championship poker player began by being an obsessed baseball card and autograph collector. Janeen Racener often took her two kids from their Port Richey home to Braves and Yankees spring training and Tampa Bay Rays games. John Racener and his younger sister, Patty, stalked Ken Griffey Jr., tossed baseballs to David Justice and tiptoed up to Marquis Grissom's booth at Pizza Hut.

Racener loved sports. The boy couldn't sit still, his mother said. He always had to play some game, which is why he and his classmates would finish their schoolwork as fast as they could and play hands before their teacher caught them.

At 16, Racener begged his mom for her credit card and turned $50 into $30,000 in about six months playing poker online.

At 18, he was at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and back rooms across the city. He beat 3,300 people and won $130,000 in his first big online tournament, now known as the PokerStars Sunday Million.

On his 21st birthday, he won $103,527 at Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City.

With the sign-on "$JMONEY$," Racener played between four and 12 games online at a time, sometimes until 4 a.m., while earning an associate's degree from Florida Southern College. He dropped out of the University of South Florida after he couldn't take a test early in order to play in a tournament in Aruba.

He's always been a math wizard, taking Advanced Placement classes in high school. He's tough to read emotionally, his mother says. "Ma, all the questions, enough already," he'll tell her.

He grew up an introvert and observer, which probably helps him spot tells and tipoffs now.

He erases bad hands from memory like a quarterback forgets interceptions.

"Poker doesn't make me nervous," says Racener, of South Tampa. "It's what I do. I have nerves of steel."

He'd treat himself to $8,000 diamond earrings or giant-faced watches. He put his sister through college and picked up thousand-dollar tabs for his boys and everyone around him.

He once called up his friend, Micah "Michca" Marcano and told him to be ready to go out since he was flying back from Vegas with two women.

He flew his mother and sister to a Los Angeles Lakers game and Vegas on Patty's 21st birthday. Casinos would ask him how he wanted his winnings, and he'd come home with a backpack full of dollars that he'd stuff in safes and deposit boxes.

His mother would tell him to "cool it," stop being a "big-time operator." But she was a mail carrier, not a financial planner with the advice he needed.

About two years ago, he hit a slump that lasted nearly six months. He needed backers to buy him into tournaments, and they'd skim the standard 50 percent of winnings. Racener's luck returned, but his cut was less than he was used to.

About two years ago, he ran into Jeff Gigante at the Lodge, one of five South Tampa bars or restaurants Gigante co-owns. An avid poker player, Gigante knew Racener from card games and casinos a few years back and marveled at the prodigy.

He noticed back then how Racener seemed "high up" — insulated and surrounded by friends. Although polite, Racener seemed unlikely at the time to accept advice.

But here he was, downtrodden. Gigante, who grew up without a father, and Racener, whose father died two years ago, clicked. Gigante helped get Racener a life coach, agent and financial adviser.

Gigante, 42, became Racener's manager, helping him get sponsorships from Full Tilt poker and drink supplement Fein Energy.

Gigante says he's not in it for any money — he has plenty — but to cheer Racener to the top, to get the gambling grail he gave up for his family and businesses.

"I get to live vicariously through John's life in the poker world, and that's a huge deal for me," Gigante said. "It gave me closure."

It's all led up to Racener getting a seat at the final table of the 41st World Series of Poker, fourth among the November Nine. The contest started with a field of 7,319.

"I want to be up here," Racener says, his hand raised high above his spiky hair in a place even loftier than his dreams. "I don't want to be down there again."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Tampa poker prodigy ready for final table of World Series of Poker 08/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 23, 2010 12:05am]

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