When Thomas Cannuli walks into the Penn & Teller Theatre on November 8, he might very well be the least recognizable face amongst his pack. That's not to take away anything from Cannuli, but when you roll with a rail including the likes of Sorel Mizzi, Jeff Gross, Antonio Esfandiari, and Brian Rast, you've got some tough competition.
"He's like a little brother, a protégé," Gross said of his man. Cannuli, a frequent visitor to Turning Stone and Borgata.
The 23-year-old player from Erma, New Jersey, has $52,235 in live tournament earnings, including a 26th-place finish in the 2013 Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza III Main Event for $13,473 and eighth in the 2014 WSOP Circuit Harrah's Philadelphia for $13,648. Cannuli plays primarily cash games and online, but he does have some Main Event experience. Last year he found himself fourth in chips after Day 2 and ultimately went on to finish in 691st place for $18,406. That proved his largest score leading into this year's World Series of Poker Main Event.
"It's a dream come true," Cannuli said with a big smile about reaching the final table. "I feel like I'm in fantasy land right now. It's incredible."
Indeed the dream has come true for the remaining nine competitors in the tournament, and Cannuli recognizes the hard-fought battle he went through to reach this stage, which includes a little bit of help from Lady Luck.
"I've gotten very lucky to be here," Cannuli said. "I was all in one time behind the whole tournament, but I won all of my pots I was ahead in, and that makes me very lucky. I'm just very blessed to be in the situation I'm in. It's a dream come true for me. I've been dreaming of this moment for six years now. It wasn't the easiest road for me. I've went through struggles. This is just amazing for my friends and family to see what I've accomplished."
It's those friends and family that know the time and effort Cannuli has put in over the years, but to him he's still an unexposed commodity to the greater audience.
"The last six years, I started out online and pretty much played cash," Cannuli said. "So, I didn't have much exposure. Nobody really noticed me or knew about me because I never really put myself out there and played tournaments. At the same time, I have played some tournaments online and I was gaining confidence and knowledge of how to play these."
Cannuli does have some experience at the WSOP, too. As mentioned, he was one of the big stacks early on before going on to cash for over $18,000. While it's not a ton of WSOP experience, Cannuli has taken the small portion of it and learned what it takes to get through the big one.
"Having two years of experience at the WSOP gave me a really good feel of what I need to do to survive in these," he said. "The survival factor in this Main Event is so key, and I played a lot of hands differently so my stack wouldn't be exposed. I believe that's why I'm here, because I wasn't exposed in one single pot."
Now, one might ask how someone who operates under the radar generates such a marquee supporting section with Mizzi, Gross, Esfandiari, Rast, and others. Cannuli said that has to do with his background.
"In the last year online, I would play $2/$4 to $25/$50 online," he said. "Mostly, I play $5/$10 and $10/$20. I've been grinding. I've been playing for six years now, it's not like I'm anybody new. My rail — Brian Rast and everybody that was there — they know me because they've seen me in cash games. [The rail] has been there for me. They're great people. Jeff Gross has stuck it out with me and had my back throughout the whole time I've been playing poker. He's by far the number one person that's showed up for me. He introduced me to Rast and all those guys years ago. I've been around. I play bigger live. I was playing at the Borgata a lot. Then, I kind of stuck to online. My girlfriend and I had a better schedule and were together more. This past year has been mostly online in NJ. "
One thing that an online player can use to his advantage is being able to get hands and playing time in front he comfort of their own home. For those that live in New Jersey, Delaware, or Nevada in the States, games are readily available, whereas others may have to travel to get the action they want. This will certainly fit well into Cannuli's plans to kick back and relax a bit during the November Nine's time off.
"I'm definitely taking a break [in the interim time]," Cannuli said. "I'm going to relax because I've worked really hard the past couple of years playing every day for 10-12 hours a day. In about a month and a half, I'm going to get sharpened up and play some tournaments."
Entering the final table in November, Cannuli will have 12.25 million in chips — good for sixth on the leaderboard and 31 big blinds.
"I'm here now, and I'm going to do everything I can to be a champion."
Stay tuned to PokerNews as we follow Cannuli and the other 2015 November Niners leading up to the WSOP Main Event final table later this year.