Tennis player finds groove in online poker

VIDEO: Matt Baccarani used tennis as a launchpad to play poker

Sometimes life can serve up unexpected curveballs.

It’s an ability to return serve than can set up the rest of your life.

For much of his youth, Matt Baccarani was focused predominantly on playing competitive tennis. Hardly the background you’d expect for a semi-professional poker player.

Having gotten into tennis at the age of five, the now 27-year-old began taking lessons at York University and started to realize success.

“When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was just one of those kids who showed up at every tournament and lost in the second round,” said Baccarani. “I was talented, but I wasn’t winning that much.

“Then when I was 15, I started putting my game together and hit a growth spurt before some other guys so that gave me an advantage.”

The Etobicoke native’s national success as a teenager was impressive. He finished fifth at the under-14 nationals, third in the under-16 category and made the finals in doubles action six different times.

Considering there are only two Canadian national tournaments per year (in the winter and summer), Baccarani used these as a platform to a tennis scholarship at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

“In my junior year I started considering trying to play tennis professionally,” he said. “I started seeing guys who I played against, and did well against, doing well on the [Association of Tennis Professionals].”

Given his collegiate accolades, playing doubles at a higher level seemed to be within reach. In his freshman year he won the conference Newcomer of the Year Award, and followed that up with four consecutive First-Team All-Conference nominations.

His highest ranking in singles was 60th in NCAA Division 1 play in 2006, while in doubles he attained a fourth place ranking overall in the same year.

Unfortunately, Baccarani was dealt a difficult hand later that season. He suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder that would have required surgery and an additional year of rehabilitation.

Rather than wallow in self-pity, a circumstance had occurred that opened up another door for the 27-year-old.

“One of my teammates [at Ball State] who was a year older than me was a gambler,” he said. “One day we were at his house and we put some money online to mess around with poker and it was just so much fun, even though we sucked at it.”

The sport he had grown up with had led him to an interest in playing online poker. The allure of the online adrenaline rush was something he realized he wanted to pursue.

“If I went to another school and there was nobody on the team who introduced me to poker,” he said, “I don’t know if I would be playing.”

While being used to strict training regimes from his tennis days, he became a student of the game he was beginning to develop an insatiable appetite for.

“With all the people playing professional poker, online games are just flooded with players who know exactly what they’re doing,” he said. “They know the math and when to shove and fold. There are not as many [bad players] as there used to be.”

His proudest poker moment came last year when he outdueled 56,000 other entrants in a one-dollar buy-in tournament and made $9,000 US for his efforts.

Utilizing multiple poker books and online educational software, he has been able to realize a substantial profit while maintaining a part-time job coaching tennis at York Rackets, near Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue.

“I’ve studied the game, and I consider myself part of that group who have flooded the sit-and-go games and made a profit,” said the former tennis player.

“You have to put in the work and you need to know what you’re doing, otherwise you’ll be one of the donators.”