Claudio "Swissy" Rinaldi has ridden the wave of pokermania in Switzerland to become a millionaire after only two years as a professional.
The 23-year-old from Lugano, canton Ticino, spoke to swissinfo.ch during a recent tournament in Venice about starting out as a croupier, the "Italian Pirate" and Roger Federer.
Rinaldi, whose $1,314,861 (SFr1,350,000) career winnings put him second on Switzerland's all-time money list just behind Chris Bigler, had his biggest payday in Cannes last year when he took home €511,100 (SFr775,000).
This is small change however compared with the $8.5 million waiting for the winner of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event on November 9.
Bigler, 60, remains the only Swiss player to have made the final table of the WSOP main event, earning $212,420 for his fifth place finish in 1999.
Although Rinaldi's favourite version of poker is Texas Hold'em, he also enjoys Pot-Limit Omaha, Omaha Hi/Lo and Razz.
swissinfo.ch: How did you become so passionate about poker?
Claudio Rinaldi: I've been playing poker since I was 19. I began by sheer chance – no one in my family ever played poker or any other card game. When I was eight or nine I loved playing Magic, a collectable card game from the United States that was really popular during the 1990s. In 1999 I came fourth in the Swiss championship. I've always had a feeling for numbers and maths, but I never reached a level that made me consider studying it at university.
One day, aged 19, I entered the Casino Admiral Mendrisio [in Ticino, one of Switzerland's biggest gaming halls] for the first time and was awe-struck by the lights. So when I finished business school at Bellinzona, I enrolled on a one-month croupier course. That was in 2005 and I can still remember it as if it was yesterday.
swissinfo.ch: Many poker professionals begin their careers as croupiers – does it guarantee success?
C.R.: I've played poker for more than four years and for two of them I fed my passion while working as a croupier. After two years, I realised I could leave the job and turn professional. But every player's history is different.
Certainly, being a croupier can be a stepping stone for this profession because you get to observe everything: the game, the movements, the thoughts, the balanced profile of the players who beat others as a result of their temperament and ability to read the game.
swissinfo.ch: As a croupier, what was your impression of poker players?
C.R.: My initial impression wasn't very positive. The typical player is a chain-smoker who in real life is a winner – an entrepreneur or businessman – but who goes into a trance at the table. You've got to realise – quickly – that if you play poker, you will lose. There's no escape – or very rarely one.
swissinfo.ch: Who are your poker idols and sporting models?
C.R.: I always try to learn from players whom I consider very strong. I've spent a lot of time with Dario Alioto and I've had the fortune to play with Dario Minieri, a genius [who won a bracelet at the 2008 WSOP aged 23]. I also greatly admire Max Pescatori, "the Italian Pirate" [who has won two WSOP bracelets].
Pescatori's history has always struck me: he used to work in a supermarket in Milan, and when poker took off he sold his car, left his job and headed with the money to Las Vegas, where he attended a croupier school in Nevada. Now he's 38 and an absolute point of reference.
I admire people who follow their instincts and whose consistency results in success, but also people like Roger Federer who have a philosophy, discipline, a laudable emotional coolness. When it comes to character I feel very close to Roger.
swissinfo.ch: Why do you call yourself "Swissy"?
C.R.: While I was staying with friends in Milan, we were writing down the score and since there were two Claudios at the table, my mentor Mattia Pozzi started calling me Swissy. Since then I've proudly worn this nickname in casinos all around the world.
swissinfo.ch: You've never gone crazy with all the money?
C.R.: When I worked as a croupier I earned around SFr4,000 ($3,900) a month. When I turned semi-professional – being a croupier at the weekends and playing the rest of the time – I managed to earn SFr20,000 a month. Despite this I kept my feet on the ground because I wanted to be sure of being able to compete with the professionals. The numbers and my performances spoke for themselves, and I knew I could make the jump without losing my head.
In 2008 I won €511,000 in Cannes and I remembered being a croupier. Two days later I left for Barcelona to play in another tournament. This life is like the stock market – there are highs and lows. You have to know how to make the sums add up at the end of the year – as in all jobs. There's one difference: I play to live rather than live to play.
Ambra Craighero in Venice, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from Italian by Thomas Stephens)
In July 2009 the Federal Justice Office revealed that the Swiss spent a record SFr2.85 billion ($2.65 billion) on lotteries and gambling in 2008.
After a slight decline in 2007, last year's figure showed an increase of SFr50 million compared with 2006.
In 2008 an average of SFr370 per capita was spent on lotteries and bets, an increase of SFr10 compared with the previous year.
The turnover of Euro Millions increased by about ten per cent to reach SFr454 million. Turnover at Swiss Lotto fell by SFr24 million but it still ranks first with total sales of SFr545 million.
The record figures at Swiss lotteries also help the cantons, with SFr535 million flowing into the coffers of various organisations, including those connected with sport.
In Switzerland around 126,000 people gamble "excessively", according to a study presented by the federal commission on casinos published in September.
Gambling in Switzerland
Swiss voters agreed to lift a ban on gambling in a referendum in 1993.
The Swiss government granted the first round of concessions allowing casinos to be set up in 2001. The government awarded so-called Class A licences to seven casinos, all of which are allowed to operate with no upper limit imposed on bets.
The 18 members of the Swiss Casino Federation possess 3,223 slot machines and 233 gambling tables.
The government recently proposed to modify the law on slot machines, allowing them to be reintroduced in restaurants. However it was badly received by almost all sectors of the industry.
Swiss casino operators can be fined up to SFr500,000 for letting gamblers who have been barred from playing return to the tables.