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All-Time Tournament Cashes Leader ‘Miami’ John Cernuto Discusses His Storied Career

Three-Time Bracelet Winner Reflects On Four Decades As A Poker Pro


John CernutoJohn Cernuto is one of the most accomplished tournament poker players in the history of the game. The man known to many as “Miami John” holds the record for live tournament cashes, with more than 500 to his name. The 76-year-old has 65 recorded live tournament titles, including winning three World Series of Poker gold bracelets.

Cernuto was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1944. He graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Finance. He was working as an air traffic controller before the 1981 strike resulted in Cernuto deciding to try his hand at being a professional poker player.

The move paid off, as Cernuto has accumulated more than $5.8 million in live tournament earnings over the nearly four decades he’s been on the circuit. Across that span of time, Cernuto has maintained an impressive level of consistency. In fact, he has managed to cash in a WSOP bracelet event at least once each and every year for 28 years, with an unbroken streak reaching back to 1992.

Card Player recently spoke to Cernuto about how he found his way to poker, the tournament scene of the ‘80s, how he got his nickname, his longevity in the game, and more.

Card Player: Do you remember the first time you ever played poker?

John Cernuto: My first poker experience was in Italian family games. We played seven card stud. Deuces were wild if mom was dealing, and tens were wild if grandma was dealing. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and parents were all players, and it was fun.

I continued playing in college and while I was in the US Army. I was a private on $100 a month paycheck, but I collected $400 a month in payday stakes playing for quarters. As an air traffic controller, we played $1 poker in home games, but it wasn’t until I moved to Las Vegas in 1982 that I learned that all of my previous skills would not suffice in my new world. My aggressiveness was very good but my ranges were far too loose.

Without much poker material at my disposal in those years, I learned from newly acquired friends and the school of hard knocks. I played with the Vegas pros for four years, but I was an amateur for two of those years. I did well, but realized changes had to be made in my game. The first two years I made as much as I did as an air-controller, but when I made only half of that in my third year of playing at the Stardust Casino, I knew I needed to approach this game in a more professional manner.

CP: What games, formats, and stakes did you play back then?

JC: In those formative years I played only limit hold’em and no-limit hold’em. We played $10-$20 limit hold’em, and $20-$40 when the tourists were in town. My no-limit hold’em game was beginner level at that time, and I was playing against much better players like Johnny Chan, Stuey Ungar, and many other good no-limit players.

'Miami John' in the 2014 WSOP H.O.R.S.E. Championship CP: You mentioned that you were an air traffic controller before becoming a poker pro, which is consistently listed as one of the most stressful jobs you can have. Can you tell me about how you came to make the career change?

JC: During the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike I had decided that if I lost my job, I was going to play poker for a living. A fellow controller Gary Lashbrook had pointed out to me that people actually did this for a living and they played in Vegas.

During a PATCO convention in 1979 I went to Vegas for the first time. I played in some of the local games as a tourist. It was fun and I fell in love with the casino lifestyle. So, in January of 1982 I sold my cars and moved to Vegas quite happily, but I did not have any idea of what I was getting into. There were hustlers and sharks waiting for me. I still went to a bank and they kept their money in a box. I missed my job a lot, but it was out of my hands now. I was on my own.

CP: Can you share the story of how you got your nickname, ‘Miami John’ Cernuto?

JC: My nickname came about when I decided to use ‘Miami John’ the day I won my first big event. It was a seven card stud event at the Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker at Caesars Palace. I entered as ‘Miami John’ and won this event, going wire-to-wire and only losing two pots. It was like magic, so I kept the name. I didn’t want to tempt fate.

The origin of the name actually came from a young lady I had met from USC while partying at Sam’s Town Casino. I was playing at the Stardust and back then we didn’t have cell phones, we were always paged. She didn’t know my last name. I’ll never forget this page that came over the loudspeaker: “Line 1 phone call for Miami John Baby Doll.” I dropped the baby doll, of course, but kept the ‘Miami John.’ I am not a superstitious person, but why rock the boat?

CP: At what point did you start playing tournaments seriously?

JC: I was involved in daily tournaments at the Stardust. In 1983, however, they had a promotion that if you were the best overall player you received a $1,000 entry into the Stairway to the Stars. The only catch was this promotion made you play two events per day, six days a week, for nine months. I won the no-limit category and got second place in the limit hold’em.

It was a lot of money back then, and I wouldn’t do it again, but the experience in tournaments I gained was invaluable to me. I played with some of the best players in the world. We got drop-ins too and some were the likes of Ungar, Chan, and ‘Treetop’ Jack Straus.

CP: Can you share with me more about how tournaments were different back then?

JC: I liked the tournaments of old. It’s true we only got dollar for dollar [for starting stacks] but we used $1 chips and we started out 5-10 limits. Obviously, the structure was slower, but you couldn’t do much with your stack. I also liked the low juice which you don’t see anymore. $100 events were $100+$10 and $500 events were $500 + $15. Every year they added $5 to the juice. It is out of control now. Maybe after this pandemic, they might go down for a while. We used to have rebuys that were a separate fund and could not be vigged. Not anymore. There weren’t any re-entries back then which took away the advantage of today’s players using their wallets rather than their survival skills.

Cernuto at the 2006 WSOPCP: Can you talk about your early memories at the WSOP?

JC: In the ‘80s I was introduced to the WSOP and I played my first event in 1984. I had a small bankroll at the time and my rule was to play two satellites for each event that I had an interest in. If I won the seat, I played the event, and if I failed, I played cash games.

My first event I played in at Binion’s Horseshoe was a ‘non-pro’ no-limit hold’em, which was full of pros (laugh). I was devastated as I hit the dead bubble. I probably only played in six WSOP events prior to my first cash in ’89 and three months later I won a major limit hold’em event at the Bike.

After that event, I had a bankroll to play in any event that I wanted to. I enjoyed a streak of winning one event at almost every venue I attended for nearly two decades. Back in those days we only had a base of about 50 players that would pony up $1,000 buy-ins.

CP: You won your first WSOP bracelet in 1996 in stud eight-or-better. Can you tell me about that achievement and what it meant to you at the time?

JC: Winning my first bracelet was surreal. I was a prop player for the LV Hilton poker room and I quit the job because they wanted me to prop a $15-$30 stud eight-or-better game. I didn’t like the game at the time and I kept losing at it. I had a new appreciation for it after winning my first bracelet in it. I wasn’t that skilled at it, as I was more aggressive than smart. I have since learned the game and play it fairly well now. I went on to make several final tables playing the game for three years in a row.

CP: I see that you won $147,000 for the title in that event, while third place got only $36,750. Were payout structures just generally more top-heavy back then, in your experience?

JC: Payouts were more top-heavy in those days, but the fields were also smaller to wade through. Once the fields got larger, they started to flatten the payouts. That was a major cause of debate as many skilled players wanted the big payouts. Eventually, the house got its way and stretched out the payout percentages. It does put more money back into the tours as opposed to the top three spots getting the lion’s share. If you play enough of them, such as I have, it kind of evens out.

CP: You won two more bracelets, one the following year in no-limit hold’em, and another five years later in limit Omaha high. Which win was the most exciting or meaningful for you?

JC: Winning the no-limit bracelet was the biggest thrill of all. It’s the most money I ever won. Phil Hellmuth came to the stands and watched as I controlled the table. [Hans] “Tuna” Lund had coached me and said when you get a pair of tens or similar put in a big fat raise and see how they like their hands. Sure enough, I got pocket tens and had reraised huge, but two of my opponents went all-in. The short stack had A-6 and a hefty stack called off 250,000 with K-Q. The ace hit, but I won the huge side pot and I never looked back after that hand. Shortly after that year I played much more Omaha, stud, and H.O.R.S.E. events and drifted away from hold’em, but that no-limit hold’em championship was my proudest day.

CP: Last year you took the lead on the all-time live tournament cash list, with more than 500 under your belt. What does it mean to you to have set this record, and where does it sit for you on your list of accomplishments?

JC: Getting the award for most cashes was a proud moment. It is up there with a few others. Besides my bracelet wins I had few other accomplishments that stand out. At the Bike, I had won four events during the Legends of Poker series. At the time only a few had won three tournaments in a single series, but to do four was pretty incredible. Another one was while playing day 2 of a no-limit event at the Trump Taj Mahal I decided to support the stud event and only played it on 15-minute breaks and the dinner break.

After dinner, I had the chip lead in both tournaments. The staff moved the two final tables together and I played them simultaneously and won both. That was special to get two Trump watches on the same day.

Cernuto playing dealer's choice in 2019Another thing I am also proud of is that there was a period of time where tournaments were trending downward, but myself and a group of about 50 continued to support them while most others were understandably supporting cash games. In a sense, we became the new pioneers of the tournament industry and held it together until it got very fashionable to play tournament poker again. Now, it’s big business.

CP: Can you talk about the longevity and consistency you’ve shown across the decades?

JC: Maintaining longevity in this business is not an easy task. The first 20 years were all about the money, and all the traveling I got to do. I played from LA to London to Kiev. I was so fortunate to meet so many wonderful people as I grew in the game. Loving the competition is huge when it comes to firing oneself up for each and every tournament. But the biggest factor to maintain longevity is writing and teaching poker to others. Helping others has been inspiring to me, but the constant search for knowledge and learning new strategies has really kept me fresh and curious.

CP: You have cashed in a WSOP bracelet event each and every summer for 28 consecutive series. How have you ensured that your game remains competitive across that incredible span of time?

JC: Keeping my game competitive was easy from age 40 to 70. I spoke, ate, and loved poker, and don’t forget I loved the competition. However, I could feel myself slipping around age 69. My aggression had turned into compassion. Instead of winning strategies, I took a path of least resistance and played more not to lose. I could feel it slipping away as many opportunities went astray due to this fear factor that age had allowed to creep into my game. To be honest, I met a player about 22 years younger than I who played in the same games and tournaments that I loved. This player challenged me on all levels of skill and aggression. For two years we spoke and lived poker many times. Suddenly, the light came back on and my finishes went from min-cashing to many top-three showings. At 76, I feel I have most of my skills intact. It was truly a wake-up call.

CP: What WSOP event would you most like to win, outside of the main event of course?

JC: Actually, I no longer will play the main event. I cannot do seven days of main event after 35 days of non-stop tournaments. If the main was on May 31, I might try it. The Poker Players Championship would be the nuts for me to win.

CP: What motivates you to still go out and play so much these days?

JC: The only thing that motivates me to play 100 events a year is simply to earn money and make a good life for my special needs daughter. She is everything to me. Of course, my son and granddaughter are important to me too.

CP: What advice would you have for younger pros and even serious amateurs who’d like to follow your example and live the poker life?

JC: If you want to play a long time in this industry, you need to learn from mistakes and not repeat them. You need to make good return-on-investment decisions. You need to make good deals that are favorable to you. Speaking of which, I am working on a book with Card Player columnist Dr. Alan Schoonmaker about getting the best of it in poker when negotiating deals at final tables. But the best thing I can say is to be good money managers and make good financial decisions in poker and in life.Spade Suit