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Miami John, Poker’s Iron Man, Presses Pause to Focus on His Health

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In March of 2020, just before the world shut down, “Miami” John Cernuto was honored with The Hendon Mob Award at the Global Poker Awards. At that point in time, he had 517 recorded live cashes on The Hendon Mob, which was the most of any player all time.

All he’s done since the world opened back up is rattle off another 71 cashes, including 17 tournament victories. Cernuto recorded a cash on New Year’s Day 2024 to make it 38 consecutive years with at least one tournament result. But in recent weeks, Cernuto has stepped away from the action for what may well be his longest hiatus since the mid-1990s, as he began receiving treatment for an ongoing illness that has put a temporary stop to his efforts to continue to push his all-time record beyond 588 results.

“Being ill kind of sucks, because I have to stay home all the time and take care of things, and mostly rest,” said Cernuto. “I didn’t realize how great of a life I had in my poker days until I became a little bit sick. Having to give it up for three or four months has made me realize how good I had it.”

The timing of this hiatus is particularly tough because of Cernuto’s recent career resurgence. After putting together a tremendous run in the late 1990s and 2000s, which included three career World Series of Poker bracelets, countless major final tables and results in every corner of the United States as well as a dozen other countries, Cernuto hit his stride again over the last few years. In 2023 alone, Cernuto won eight live tournaments, including three victories at Wynn Las Vegas – culminating in an Omaha Hi-Lo title during the 2023 WPT World Championship festival late in the year.

For the duration of that festival, Cernuto’s winner’s photo was on rotation on a video display at the entrance of the ballroom in which the WPT World Championship festival was being held. Cernuto received a bevy of messages congratulating him on the win throughout the month, including one from 10-time WSOP bracelet winner Erik Seidel.

“I feel proud, I felt I was getting a lot of recognition – people coming up to me,” said Cernuto. “It meant something to me, that it was done in such a respectful way. ‘Good game, John.’ I don’t take stuff like that lightly. I think it’s an honor to be told by players like Seidel, like Ari Engel that you played great. For my own personal self-confidence, it really went sky high.”

As he takes one of his longest breaks away from the game of poker, Cernuto has had a lot of time to think about a journey that encompasses more than 40 years around the game.

In the early 1980s, Cernuto was working as an Air Traffic Controller in Florida. When his union, known as PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) went on strike in August 1981, Cernuto had some ideas about what he’d do if he lost his job. A few years prior, he’d had his first taste of poker action in Las Vegas during a convention, and after years of winning in poker in a variety of social situations, Cernuto was confident he could hold his own.

“When I went on strike, it always was in the back of my mind that if I lose my job, I’ll get the chance to do what I’ve wanted to do for the last couple of years – go out and try my hand at being a professional poker player,” said Cernuto. “I had a friend who sold me his car about six months before the strike, and then he bought it back from me at the airport. I came out to Vegas with only my retirement money.”

Cernuto arrived in Las Vegas in January 1982 full of confidence and hope, along with a healthy dose of naivete.

“That first trip out there, it was a guy who had no idea what he was getting into who’s gonna play poker like he did in his home Games ,” said Cernuto.

Still, Cernuto’s instincts carried him a fair way, even if he didn’t understand that he was swimming with sharks.

“I’m sitting there playing a $5/$10 Hold’em and just crushing it,” said Cernuto. “I made something like $1,200, an unheard of amount for that level. This railbird leans over to me and says, ‘If you quit, they’ll all leave. I didn’t know what he meant, and then I quit the game. I turned around after I was cashing out, and the game broke. It was a little bit of a wakeup call.

“I remember running into Freddy Deeb for the first time,” said Cernuto. “I cashed out that $1,200 and he said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said ‘I’m heading to the bank.’ He said, ‘The bank? We don’t use banks out here. We get 200% return on our money – the bank’s only gonna give you 5.’ So I got indoctrinated by a few guys that are still around today.”

Against all odds, Cernuto maintained a solid bankroll as he began to get a better sense of the Games he was playing and the level of competition he faced. But after a couple of years of steadiness, everything went to hell during the first major losing stretch of his career.

“I played nothing but Limit Hold’em at the time, some No Limit,” said Cernuto. “But the third year I had a streak that lasted six months where I’d have overpairs and they’d run out for straights or flushes.

“It took me two years to go through it,” said Cernuto. “Then I went broke.”

Cernuto spent his next few months working as a dealer before returning to Florida, “with my tail between my legs,” Cernuto recalled. He started training for a job as a phone dispatcher at the Daytona Beach Police Department, and poker was briefly out of the picture. That lasted all of four months, at which time a friend at the Las Vegas Hilton, who had just been hired as a floorman, offered Cernuto a dealer job.

He borrowed $600 from his parents, and returned to Vegas around Christmastime in 1987. After a few months of slinging cards, Cernuto got the break he’d been searching for since he got out to Las Vegas – a tournament score that would change his life forever. Cernuto’s victory in a $1,000 Seven Card Stud event at Amarillo Slim’s Superbowl of Poker at Caesars Las Vegas netted him $58,000.

Cernuto, who was still after a steady paycheck, got a new job as a prop player, getting paid by the poker room to keep cash game action going. Over the next few years, the results kept coming and the resume just kept getting stronger. He made his first WSOP final table in May 1989, finishing 4th in a $5,000 Seven Card Stud event. Cernuto scored another career-best cash as he won a $300, 392-entry event at The Bike in Los Angeles for $91,700.

There were some highs and lows in those early years as well, but in Cernuto’s recollection a trip to Laughlin in 1991, in which he made three final tables, got Cernuto’s bankroll up for good.

“I never went broke again, in my life,” said Cernuto. “There were a couple of times where I was low, it was ‘91 or ’92, and then I never looked back after that.”

That’s when Cernuto’s volume of tournament play really picked up. He traveled all over Nevada and California throughout the rest of the early ‘90s. In 1996, Cernuto broke through for his first WSOP bracelet, taking home $147,000 in a $1,500 Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo event. The following year Cernuto hit another high-water mark, banking $159,150 and his second Wsop bracelet in a $2,000 No Limit Hold’em event.

It was around that time Cernuto noticed some of the earliest signs that Limit Hold’em’s time in the poker spotlight was fading.

“Before the Moneymaker effect came into play, we’re talking late 90s, the number one game, believe it or not, was Limit Hold’em – a game we all hate to play now, like watching paint dry,” said Cernuto. “The number two game was No Limit Hold’em, and the number three game was Omaha 8 or better.

“When the No Limit explosion came, I went along with it, I played a lot of No Limit,” said Cernuto. “I still played a lot of mixed Games too.”

Cernuto went on one of the most impressive runs of his career in August 1999, stringing together four wins during the 1999 Legends of Poker as he enjoyed success across all poker disciplines. Finally, in 2002, Cernuto got his third career Wsop bracelet in his game of choice – Omaha – as he bested a final table that featured Phil Hellmuth among several other notables.

As the Moneymaker effect went into full effect, Cernuto’s travels took him all over the world. He won a Heads-Up event in Vienna, Austria in mid-2003, and then crisscrossed the United States racking up more and more results at every tournament series under the sun. Over the years that followed, Cernuto made a pair of televised World Poker Tour final tables, including fifth place at the 2005 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and a second-place finish in the 2007 WPT Celebrity Invitational.

But eventually, while No Limit Hold’em events remained a part of his schedule, Cernuto took a big step back from the game.

“No Limit Hold’em has too many minefields to dodge,” said Cernuto. “As you get near the void in the tournament, between when you got to the money and the final two tables, those Payouts don’t really mean anything. As those tournament fields got bigger and bigger, they became much harder to win, and as it got so much harder, I decided to stay fixed on HORSE events.”

In a post-Moneymaker world, Cernuto settled into a comfortable routine as he continued to rack up results worldwide. There were some health scares along the way; during a Razz event at the 2009 Wsop , Cernuto fell unconscious at the table and was eventually wheeled away on a stretcher. He was later hospitalized during a trip to Foxwoods in 2012. But nothing seemed to keep Cernuto down for long.

He continued the grind through the rest of the 2000s and into the 2010s, but as he reached his 70s, Cernuto’s wins started to become a rarer occasion.

“As I hit my 70s, I noticed a trend in my game,” said Cernuto. “Whether it be No Limit, or the mixed games, I tended to play like an old man. I was not as aggressive. I was more ‘try not to lose’ motivated than trying to win, which is the exact opposite of what you need to be as a winning player.

“I wasn’t really pulling the trigger, and like Amir Vahedi’s famous line, you’ve got to be willing to die in order to live.”

Cernuto credits teaching and coaching, which he did for a handful of players including his close friend James Woods, with reigniting his spark in poker.

“Number one, it keeps you in line. Number two, it brings up things that you’ve done before and may have forgotten that may be wrong or may be right, and you focus on the right stuff and get rid of the other stuff.”

The results speak for themselves. Five tournament wins in 2021, and four more in 2022 before that wave crested in 2023 – Cernuto’s best year financially in more than a decade. He continued to push his all-time cashes records higher, regularly tangling with a handful of players who are chasing him on that list including Roland Israelashvili and Ari Engel.

“I’m a big fan of his,” said Engel. “Over the last couple of years, I’ve started playing a lot more with him as I play more mixed games. We’ve battled a lot, and we’ve actually gone heads up a few times in tournaments. Unfortunately, I’m yet to win in one of those encounters, but hopefully [I’ll fix that soon].”

At Engel’s current pace, he seems poised to take over that No. 1 spot on Hendon Mob over the next few years. From Cernuto’s perspective, he has only the kindest of words for Engel. But he also mentions the fact that while his current total of 588 recorded cashes is a mark he’s quite proud of, it likely falls well short of chronicling all of his career tournament results.

While Hendon Mob records have gone back and picked up a considerable quantity of results from the 80s and 90s, many events from that time have been lost into the ether.

“I went to the Stardust one day to find out, and they said, “We don’t have those records anymore. Same with the Las Vegas Hilton,” Cernuto said.

Regardless of the exact number, Cernuto’s credentials are rock solid. Beyond his volume of cashes, Cernuto has $6.3 million in career tournament earnings, and before the explosion of high roller tournaments he sat as high as No. 12 on poker’s all-time money list. It might surprise you, then, to know that Cernuto is not enshrined in poker’s Hall of Fame.

Part of that comes down to the current Poker Hall of Fame process. The qualifying age for enshrinement is 40 years old, and the bottleneck for induction grows tighter each year as more breakout stars from the Online Poker era reach eligibility with each passing year. In 2023, Cernuto made the list of finalists, but unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, there is no Veteran’s committee or alternate way to rectify past oversights as it gets harder to get in every year.

“I was nominated for the Hall of Fame this past year, but I don’t have the ability to get enough people [behind my cause],” said Cernuto. “There’s all sorts of people that respect my game. People ask me, you know, why aren’t you in the Hall of Fame, John? I don’t know. There’s a lot of inconsistencies [in the process], and I hope that that gets taken care of somewhere down the line.”

For now, poker and legacy have taken a back seat to getting healthy. Cernuto, who recently turned 80, hopes that by mid-2024 he’ll be back out there extending his all-time record and padding his case for the Poker Hall of Fame. He has a lot of people in the poker world rooting for him, from the low-stakes mixed game players he’s befriended in recent years at The Orleans to the younger players following in his footsteps.

“I message with him, and I’m always saying I look forward to getting check-raised again soon,” said Engel. “It’s an honor to battle with people from poker’s old guard that we’ve looked up to – it’s just awesome to be able to play with them. I hope I’m doing a lot more competing with him, and, you know, even though we always joke with each other that one day maybe I’ll take over the No. 1 spot for cashes, he has not made that easy. And I’m hoping the number keeps going up.”

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