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R.I.P., Pete Popovich

A great loss to the poker world

by Todd Brunson |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


It’s nice to be back in Vegas. Montana has most everything that Vegas has, but just not 24 hours a day. Most of the restaurants close at 9 o’clock, and if you haven’t had dinner by then, you’d better have some food at home or you’re gonna be fasting until the next day. The only place that serves food in the town where I live closes at 2 o’clock during the winter. That’s 2 p.m.!

Since my family was up there with me off and on, the only thing I really missed was my friends. Some came up to visit, but many couldn’t seem to find the time. Or, maybe they just don’t like me that much, who knows? Anyway, it’s nice to be back in Vegas, and see everyone and catch up on what’s been going on since I left.

Unfortunately, one of my friends wasn’t here when I got back home. My longtime friend Pete Popovich passed away on Sept. 25. He went in for a simple angioplasty and never awoke from the anesthesia.

Pete was the swing-shift supervisor at Bellagio, which basically made him the number-two man of the poker room. In my opinion, he was the most competent, smartest, and friendliest employee the Bellagio poker room ever had. Anytime someone called for a decision, I hoped that it was Pete who would come to make it — not because he was my friend (he ruled against me once against a guy we both disliked; it was probably the only mistake I ever saw him make on the floor), but because he had common sense and knew poker.

The poker world suffered a serious loss with his passing. My heart goes out to his wife, Michelle, his kids Danielle, Nick, Matthew, and Marisa, and his six grandkids. He will be greatly missed by all!

For years, Pete and I bet baseball together. We spent as much as 12 hours a day, seven days a week, betting on and watching games for months at a time. It never got boring with Pete around. His stories of his old bar, The Colony, and his old life in Cleveland were never-ending and funny as hell.

Every time that Pete and I saw each other, we would bust out laughing the second we made eye contact. We also had several words that only the two of us knew were keys to inside jokes. Many involved Sam Angel, a poker player Pete had to throw out of the poker room several times.

If you have read any of my columns on Sam Angel, you might remember one story in particular:

I was playing in the top section at Bellagio when I heard a loud crash. It sounded like someone had dropped six racks of chips on the floor. Seconds later, there was a louder crash, like 10 or 12 racks of chips hitting the floor.

I ran to see what was going on. I saw that a fight was in progress and the guys were knocking the table back and forth. It was a limit hold’em game — $40-$80, $60-$120, or something like that — and those players always have like five racks of chips in front of them all the time. Those chips were flying around like confetti at a parade.
Pete quickly arrived and broke up the fight. As Pete was breaking up the fight, he said that he felt someone desperately trying to move his foot. He thought that he must have been stepping on someone, so he moved, and when he looked down, he saw Sam Angel scrambling to scoop up as many chips off the floor as possible, and he was trying to get at a few that were under Pete’s foot.

Imagine that. There’s a fight going on, and this 85-year-old man dives on the floor and starts scavenging poker chips off the floor! Now that’s a senior citizen who’s not content to sit back and wait for his Social Security check.

Before the economy crashed and Todd’s Tavern was put on hold, Pete was my first pick to be the general manager. If you think about it, that’s probably the biggest compliment that I could give another human. I mean, it’s a $10 million project (all mine), probably the biggest thing I will ever do, and he was the guy I trusted enough to oversee it all. Pete told me that he couldn’t see leaving his job at Bellagio, because of his insurance benefits and his seniority. Since then, I still haven’t found a suitable replacement.

I would have loved another chance to work with Pete. He was a pleasure and a joy to be around, and I can’t recall anyone ever saying a bad word about him. He was only 57 when he passed, which is far too young. I’ve always wondered why all of the good people seem to go early when so many scumbags seem destined to walk the earth forever.

Rest in peace, my friend. ♠

Todd Brunson has been a professional poker player for more than 20 years. While primarily a cash-game player, he still has managed to win 18 major tournaments, for more than $3.5 million. He has won one bracelet and cashed 25 times at the World Series of Poker. You can play with Todd online at or live at his tournament, The Todd Brunson Montana Poker Challenge, in Bigfork, Montana. Check his website,, for details.