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High flyers who gamble it all

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON (England), CNN -- The Internet has made poker into an international phenomenon played by millions around the world. By the nature of the game, most will be losers, but "Texas hold 'em" and the other variations of poker has a professional face, too, not just that of pasty-faced gamblers staring passively at computer screens.

Traveling for a living and imbued with plenty of business nous, the new breed of professional player is blurring the line between poker as a high-stakes hobby and a potentially lucrative, if highly unconventional job.

Isabelle 'no mercy' Mercier and Luca Pagano are two such professional high rollers.

In March, they and other pros joined 700 players from around the world in Monte Carlo, the playground of the rich and trashy, to compete in the European Poker Tour Grand Final. Each had stumped up $13,370 (10,000 euros) just to enter, in the hope of emerging after a week of play with the $2.4 million top prize.

Pagano, a quintessentially affable Italian, was a teenage entrepreneur who set up his own IT company at the age of 17. A 3000-person capacity nightclub outside Venice followed, plus some successful stock market trading, before he was bitten by the poker bug.

"I soon realized that the business risk of playing poker professionally was less than the risk of running the club. I was earning the same money from both, but was risking much less by playing poker," he said.

Playing to win

He grew up with big dreams, so the biggest challenge was accepting that he played cards for a living. But because of his background in business, Pagano has a no-nonsense attitude to the game.

"When I sit at the table, I'm doing it for a job, not for fun."

Despite having been knocked out of the tournament early, he wasn't tempted to go back to the tables in Monte Carlo to try and recoup his losses.

Instead media commitments to his sponsors kept him happily busy until the next chance to win millions in Barcelona and Las Vegas later this month.

"A business brain helps you absolutely with being a successful player, because every time you sit down at the table you always have to make choices," he said.

"It's like running a business. You have to know the right time to raise, much like you need to know when the right time is to increase your business or even when to consolidate. You can always tell who is playing for fun and who is playing to win."

Knowing your own mind and being able to focus are key traits for business leaders and successful players alike -- two characteristics Isabelle Mercier has demonstrated by winning numerous international tournaments.

"You have to be focused. You have to think that your whole life is in front of you at that table and be positive," she said.

Until recently, the Montreal native had no fixed abode and lived out of a suitcase for three years. She gave up her career as a corporate lawyer and moved to Paris working as the poker manager for a casino.

She then took a gamble and sold all of her possessions to fund a poker odyssey that has taken her around the world more times than she can remember. And it's paid off. She's made a healthy amount and recently bought an apartment in Montreal.

In for the long-haul

Even for these high rollers who can now afford to turn left rather than right when they get on a plane, traveling is still a chore.

"Eating well and drinking water are important as is trying to sleep at normal times," said Pagano.

Which isn't easy when you have such an unconventional lifestyle -- big tournaments can last weeks with "working days" often lasting from 2pm to 6am the next morning.

"After spending over 1000 consecutive nights in hotel rooms, I'm an expert traveler," said Mercier.

"After so much getting on and off of planes, I can only recommend checking in online, it helps save so much time and hassle. And a frequent flyer card: it's super important for me and makes so much difference if you can use the business class line and facilities rather economy."

As for tips for following in their footsteps, both suggest you have to start by playing according to your bankroll or you won't enjoy it.

"Be disciplined and believe in yourself otherwise you won't have a chance," says Pagano.

"It's a dream you should follow if you're heart is in it, but you should never forget: it is just a game."


Cashing in on a life of international travel is a rarely realised dream for some.

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