Every four years, all eyes focus on the World Cup and the world's most popular sport. The 2014 edition was hosted by Brazil, and the home team was favored to capture the title. The last time the South American country hosted the event was 1950, when they agonizingly lost to Uruguay. Brazil hoped to avenge the lost this summer, trying to capture their sixth championship in the process.
Their dream turned into a horrendous nightmare when the Brazilians were demolished 7-1 in the semifinals by eventual winner Germany.
Although the country mourned its beloved team's loss, Brazilians suddenly rallied as they had another reason to celebrate: One of their sons maneuvered through a field of 6,683 poker players to qualify for the 2014 November Nine.
Bruno Politano became the first Brazilian ever to make the World Series of Poker main event final table, and although he's the short stack at the table with 12.1 million, he still has more than 30 big blinds. During the final days of the main event, the fans on Politano's rail were among the most spectacular and memorable in the history of the tournament. The unparalleled carnival-like atmosphere helped the 32-year-old remain focused and energized as he headed toward the final table.
"Together, my rail and I are one person," said Politano. "Hearing the screaming and cheering, they are sending me good energy and good vibrations whether I win or lose a hand. My opponents don't have the support that I have. I play with the support of 200 million people."
Politano began playing poker with his friends more than a decade ago. He fell in love with the game; it "completed him." And, according to his sister, it was perfect for him.
"He is ridiculously smart. In school, I never saw him taking a note or writing anything in his books," said Grazielli Politano, his sister. "He just listened to the teacher during class and that was it. Also, I don't recall seeing him studying at all. He just has this wonderful brain and a great ability to focus."
Brazil didn't have much literature about poker at the turn of the last century, but Grazielli, living in Philadelphia, mailed Bruno several poker books. He trained at home via online poker videos and used Poker Tracker as he began to take the game more seriously. After studying diligently, Politano turned to regional events, such as the Brazilian Series of Poker.
In December 2008, Politano captured his first title, winning the R$1,700 buy-in event in the Brazilian Series of Poker. The hometown hero said this tournament was a key turning point in his poker career.
"After this tournament, I felt that I would really take poker seriously," he said. "It was once a hobby to play with friends, but now I believed that I was really good. I had more determination and focus than others. I began to look at poker seriously and as a profession."
After gaining experience playing on the live felt, Politano decided to test his skills at the WSOP. In 2011, he flew to Las Vegas and played in a few events, evaluating his attempt as a tremendous disappointment. Politano was down on his game, but wouldn't give up.
"I came back to Brazil very sad, not for the money, but for my game," said Politano. "I was not satisfied."
Disappointment led to motivation. He wanted to prove to himself and the world that he could compete against the best. Fortuitously, he began concentrating on a company, Couro & Cia, that sells handbags, shoes and leather accessories. As the business expanded, he opened up a store in the chic downtown area of Sao Paulo. The timing of this store was perfect as Brazil regulated poker in 2012, and one of the most active poker cities was San Paulo. Having tournaments available every week, Politano found another avenue to develop and improve his game.
"I always studied, but the best thing ... is playing a lot of tournaments in San Paulo," he said. "I played lots at the H2 poker club. I played a lot of tournaments and also played more online poker. This all bettered my poker game."
After a couple of years of solid work and multiple cashes (including six final tables in the Brazilian Series of Poker), Politano thought he was ready to test the Las Vegas waters once again.
"I wasn't ready in 2012 and 2013, but in 2014 I was feeling prepared for the WSOP. My game had evolved after my first experience in Las Vegas. ... I felt this was my moment."
This year, he took a different approach; he arrived in Las Vegas on June 16 and never left the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino until he made the November Nine. For one solid month, Politano played primarily WSOP bracelet events and became thoroughly immersed in the WSOP.
"I just played poker," he said. "I did not go out and party. Sometimes, I went to the gym and to do some shopping, but mainly I focused on poker, poker, poker."
After a solid summer, including a 17th-place finish in Event 39 ($3,000 no-limit hold 'em), Politano felt confident about his game heading into the WSOP main event. He survived the first few days and finished Day 3 near the bottom of the chip counts with only 110,000 in chips. He found his stride on Day 4 and bagged almost 2.3 million.
"Everything happened on Day 4," he said. "I doubled up twice. I won a flip versus Phil Ivey [9-9 vs. A-K], then I flopped a set vs. a flush draw for all my chips. I was able to play very aggressive and finished the day with a very good stack.
Early on Day 5, Politano continued this trend with a set-over-set (kings over nines) that resulted in a 4.6 million-chip pot. Suddenly, the Brazilian was the chip leader. He finished Day 6 with 11.6 million, good for sixth among the remaining 27 players.
Day 7 was a completely different experience.
"It was a very hard day because you are playing, just thinking of the final table. Each elimination took a long time. Of course, there was a lot of pressure, but that is part of the game and I was very focused."
Politano methodically maneuvered his way to the bubble. After building his stack to about 20 million, he kept his composure even after losing two big hands to Mark Newhouse when the American hit sets against the Brazilian both times.
When the final-table bubble was reached, Politano ended up being directly involved with the bubble hand.
In mid-position and with blinds at 200,000/400,000 with a 50,000 ante, Politano picked up 10-10. He raised to 900,000 and Newhouse called from the button. WSOP bracelet winner Luis Velador moved all-in for about 6 million and Politano tanked, then folded. Newhouse called with 5-5, leading Velador's 4-4. All in attendance stood up.
The board rolled out A-A-6-3-A and the entire room exploded as Velador fell in 10th place. Politano's rail stormed the ESPN stage and lifted their newly found hero on their shoulders.
"It was the best time of my life," he said. "I never felt that way in my entire life. One dream of my life has come true."
After making his dream a reality, he was not terribly disappointed about his fold.
"I think it was an easy fold, especially with Mark Newhouse calling on the button," he said. "I did not want to flip for my dream. I'm happy with my fold and I would do it again."
Since qualifying for the 2014 November Nine, Politano has continued to work on his game, hiring Ariel Bahia, a good friend and top Brazilian poker player, as his coach. Politano is the only member of the 2014 November Nine to make the journey to Melbourne, Australia, to play in the WSOP Asia-Pacific. There he made the most of his trip, making the final table in the A$2,200 no-limit six-max event, where he played against 13-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth.
"I played a lot of hours before the final table with Phil Hellmuth, who is the bible of poker," Politano said. "It was a very good experience to play with one of the best players in the world ... [especially] before the WSOP main event final table."
As Politano prepares to return to Las Vegas and the Penn & Teller Theatre, Politano recognizes that he is representing not only himself and his family but also the entire country of Brazil.
"It's a very exciting moment for me, but it's not only my dream, but also the dream of everyone in Brazil," he said.
If Politano can ride his chip stack to the top, he will instantly change the face of South American poker forever. As if the possibility of winning $10 million wasn't enough pressure...