One of the top online poker players from roughly a decade ago died on Aug. 13 in what his family called a “tragic accident.” Canadian Matt Marafioti, a 33-year-old who began his online poker career as a teenager and eventually ascended to the top of the high-stakes poker world, leaves behind a young son, along with his parents, younger brother, and other relatives.
“We are devastated by this loss and are working hard to come to terms with it. While consumed with grief, we know we have much to be grateful for,” his family wrote in a death notice.
Marafioti’s funeral was late last month in Toronto.
The Daily Voice reported that authorities confirmed that Marafioti died in a fall from the 28th floor of a New Jersey high-rise. According to the report, which cited posts on the poker pro’s Instagram, Marafioti had been struggling with mental health problems. Many posts on Twitter, as well as on the popular poker community forum TwoPlusTwo, also mention the late gambler’s mental health.
According to Marafioti’s public posts, he was also in the midst of a custody dispute over his young son.
The later stages of Marafioti’s life, which coincided with the game of poker fading in terms of public interest in the U.S., are very difficult to summarize and even harder to pass judgment on. For our purposes, we will try to stick to the gambling, which made Marafioti into a public figure. Perhaps Marafioti’s relatively short life can be an important story for today’s young generation of gamblers, especially as online sports betting continues to explode across the U.S. and many youngsters apparently see sports betting as potentially a consistent side hustle.
But before we continue: Rest in peace, Matt.
A poker life
Marafioti entered young adulthood in the throes of the online poker boom of the 2000s, when robust bankrolls were often amassed overnight. The game felt like a natural fit for the youngster.
“In his teenage years, video games became his focus, which eventually led him to what would become his life’s work, poker,” his family wrote. “While the simplest of tasks might elude Matthew, he could recall every single hand of poker he ever played. If you ever had the occasion to watch him play online, you might have observed him playing dozens and dozens of hands at one time, with an intensity of focus, concentration, and recall that is unsustainable by most of us.”
Marafioti began his poker career on a huge high note, winning $198,000 in a 2007 tournament at the Turning Stone Resort Casino in New York at just 19. Because the casino is tribal, people under 21 can gamble. As a teenager, Marafioti had a score that many players are stuck forever dreaming about. From there, online poker was the terrain where Marafioti became a sensation and inspiration to many young players like him, but not without initial losses and his first glimpse at losing control of his gambling.
After one of his first deposits on PokerStars, which was operating across North America at the time, Marafioti said he quickly developed what is commonly called a gambling problem.
“It turned into a total addiction, where right from the get-go I was playing around the clock and very addicted. I went on to steal people’s credit cards to play and lose most of my money playing poker,” Marafioti said of his online play in an interview with PokerListings during a short documentary from 2012. “Obviously, it wasn’t a lot at the time. At the time a lot would be a couple thousand dollars.”
Eventually, he started winning online. Before too long, he had moved up to the stakes of $25-$50 blinds in no-limit hold’em. The typical buy-in for those stakes is $5,000, and some have recalled days when Marafioti would be sitting with hundreds of thousands of dollars spread across multiple tables.
“I really hope it’s not true,” Doug Polk, a 33-year-old former high-stakes poker pro, tweeted in the wake of the news of Marafioti’s death. “When I first learned about poker when I was 18, I would pull up Stars and sweat the 25/50 games. ADZ [Marafioti’s screen name] would be playing all of them, total boss. I dreamed of one day playing those games. Hope it’s not true, but if it is i’ll always remember this legend.”
At his peak of play, Marafioti was grinding out as many as 15,000 poker hands each day, according to a 2011 profile in Toronto Life. Thanks to his prolific play, Marafioti was able to achieve the coveted Supernova Elite status on PokerStars and unlock all the perks that came with it. As his poker career was taking off, his dad reportedly was working as his manager.
“It requires a lot of skill,” his dad, Sam, told Toronto Life, “as well as physical and mental prowess. Sure, there’s some luck involved, and Matthew’s had very good luck. But he doesn’t play the slots, doesn’t play baccarat. He’s not a gambler.”
Black Friday and the 2010s
When the U.S. government cracked down on PokerStars and other top poker sites offering games to Americans at the time, Marafioti and the rest of his online peers were stuck in limbo. Many of them, including Marafioti, made a bigger commitment to playing poker in-person after the April 2011 Black Friday indictments against the operators of the largest offshore poker sites.
The game of poker has still not recovered from Black Friday, as advertising money dried up and the arms race for U.S. players between PokerStars and rival site Full Tilt Poker was no more. PokerStars was still accessible from Canada, but the entire poker ecosystem was forever changed after the sites had to pull out of the U.S. PokerStars was able to weather the storm, while rival sites eventually folded.
The majority of Marafioti’s deep runs at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the game’s biggest stage, came after Black Friday. He had 23 of his lifetime 27 cashes at the WSOP after that infamous day. Unfortunately for Marafioti, he never won a bracelet, but some have called him one of the most talented players to never take home a piece of WSOP hardware.
Marafioti went missing for 45 days following a pair of cashes at the 2016 WSOP, according to PokerNews. Marafioti, in a public statement, said he was camping and denied a “severe mental problem.”
“We better get ADZ locked in a mental home and killed/tortured before he wins a bracelet so it looks more believable to the public,” Marafioti tweeted in or around the summer of 2016, according to the report.
In a video posted to his YouTube channel, Marafioti said that the poker community that he had long been a part of was “very seedy” and “one-sided.” He added that he was “moving on with my life,” indicating he was looking to quit the game entirely. Also in the video, the poker pro said that he had recently received $65,000 from family “as an advance from the house.”
“I don’t have any friends in poker,” he said, also adding that he was, at that time, estranged from his family. Disturbingly, Marafioti claimed in the video that the rapper Drake, also from Toronto, was trying to kill him, apparently over Marafioti attempting to get involved with the local rap scene.
Many people in poker criticized Marafioti for what they considered a grating persona on and off the card table. But, in Marafioti’s defense, poker was on ESPN, and the game’s brashest personalities received lots of attention. Marafioti offered eye-catching poker content, despite some of his peers thinking he wasn’t great for the game’s image at a time when it was still growing and states were starting to look at regulating it.
Marafioti didn’t have a cash in a major poker tournament in either 2017 or 2018, but he then recorded four in 2019. Marafioti never had an in-the-money finish again at the WSOP after 2016, but he remained a poker player until the very end, posting content to his Instagram of playing $1-$2 pot-limit Omaha on Aug. 8 of this year, far from the stakes he was playing at the height of his career. One social media post showed Marafioti with about $1,000 spread across a handful of online poker tables.
“What’s up, guys?” he said in one of his last posts to his account, “I’m just grinding on ACR here, looking to run up a [bank]roll after losing $30,000 playing dice. I won $7,000 playing on WSOP this week.”
About a month earlier, Marafioti posted a screenshot of his bank account showing funds of $177,000.
Gambling was the backdrop and, arguably, the foundation of Marafioti’s life for many years, starting as a teen. The game obviously shaped his adulthood. While he was publicly dealing with other personal crises, as he alluded to on his Instagram, he was still gambling heavily. It is well known that gambling while under emotional distress can compound a person’s problems.
But poker was his life’s work, a wellspring of both joy and pain.
Marafioti himself admitted years ago that poker was an addiction. Did that ever change? At times it appeared he made moves to get away from poker, but that never stuck. Perhaps he felt like it was all he knew. Younger online gamblers today should take note of his struggles. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, up to 9% of young people experience problems related to gambling, and gambling addiction is said to impact as many as 10 million Americans.
A different story, but one that shares some important features, is the case of Ben “Parlay” Patz. Patz, a young, high-stakes online sports bettor, saw his lifestyle come to a crashing end when he, apparently at a point of losing control of his gambling habits, threatened Major League Baseball players with physical violence in 2019 after a string of losing bets. He eventually received probation for the threatening behavior.
Gambling heavily in a person’s early 20s can potentially shape the way they perceive the world, impacting their mental health long into the future, even if they are able to stop. While we can’t even begin to account for Marafioti’s entire mental health equation, gambling for a living undoubtedly created its own struggles.
“I really don’t know the value of a dollar anymore,” Marafioti said a decade ago, remarking at the time that he’d be happier making $50,000 a year than competing as a world-renowned poker pro.
Marafioti was once regarded as one of the top river players in the game (the river is the fifth and final community card in a hand), due to his aggressive style working well with the pressure of the large pot sizes. Tragically, Marafioti isn’t around for another river card, but perhaps his final chapter can help others.
Photo: World Poker Tour