New Jersey’s Frank Marasco Steps Into Poker Spotlight

New Jersey's Frank Marasco won his first WSOP Circuit ring at Harrah's in Atlantic City in March 2020. (photo: WSOP)

It was 5 a.m. on an East Coast Monday morning and 29-year-old New Jersey native Frank Marasco was about to see daylight.

“I don’t remember exactly but it was definitely over an hour we were playing three-handed with this huge jump from third to first,” Marasco said. “Then it happened really fast where we just played this huge pot where I had aces against ace-deuce for, I think, 85% of the total chips.”

The tournament in question was the recent $525 Online Finale Circuit Main Event, the second-largest online ring event the World Series of Poker held all year. And, indeed, the pay jumps at the final table were steep. After JJ Liu bowed out in third place for over $44,000, Marasco was left in control and on the verge of the win.

Two hands later, the tournament was over. Thomas ‘OtB_RedBaron’ Lim grabbed roughly $67,000 as the runner-up and before Marasco logged off, it dawned on him that he just locked up a career-high, six-figure score of $127,535 and his second career WSOP Circuit ring.

“There was no time to even feel the pressure because of the way the tournament ended was so fortunate for me. It was cool because I had already been on a really good run and you’re thinking ‘I’ll probably cool off a bit before it gets better.’ So to win that tournament was crazy.”

It’s true, Marasco, who plays on under his screen name ’spaghettiii’, has indeed been on a bit of a sun run. His Main Event win was his third cash of the Online Finale series. He also made several final tables of the recently completed Spring Online Championships, and in late May he took down the $50,000 Weekly Sunday in back-to-back weeks.

When you start to rack up results like these in the regulated online poker market in the United States, both players and the poker media begin to take notice. And when it comes to poker, this is new territory for Marasco who admits that he has always enjoyed poker as his “solitary retreat”, a solo activity where he embraced anonymity.

That anonymity is in stark contrast to what Marasco spends his time on when he’s away from the felt. For years, while grinding away as a full-time poker player, Marasco has also been grinding stage time in the New York improv scene.

For over five years now, right up until the start of the 2020 pandemic, Marasco had been taking classes with and performing on the stages of the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. The UCB Theater has a reputation as one of the most celebrated improv schools in the country.

“There was this pursuit of being able to play poker full time and being a part of UCB going on at the same time. It was weird because they’re such different things.” Marasco said. “For me, poker was always a very solitary thing. If you’re studying or playing online, even when you play live, it’s a very individual pursuit. And then comedy and improv, it is very community-oriented. So I would find there was this constant tug of war going on, where it was if I wanted to play this tournament slate I couldn’t just hang out with comedians and vice versa.”

It might seem like poker and improv are completely polarized activities. The button clicking of online poker sessions looks to have little in common with performing in front of an audience without a script. But the communities, and the skills required to succeed in each, do have some commonalities.

Both have dedicated fans and ‘players’ who thoroughly immerse themselves in the lifestyle in pursuit of greatness. They hover around the same level as pop culture touchstones, with in-the-know references in books, television, and films that try to give the outside world a glimpse into the nuances of each world. Poker has Rounders. Improv has Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice. And both demand a great deal of dedication before one can really get good.

Not only do each of the subcultures have some crossover, in addition to Marasco there’s been a number of high profile poker players that have dipped their toes into improv. Vanessa Selbst and Mike Binger have been known to take classes at UCB in the past. Back in 2012, Phil Galfond blogged about his extensive involvement in improv.

Just last month, Daniel ‘Jungleman’ Cates tweeted out about looking to take improv classes.

While both poker and improv take a ton of dedication in order to develop elite skills, Marasco, who has found success in both has always been willing to put in the work. Even from the beginning.

Like many his age, the inception of his poker career dated back to 2003 and the WSOP on ESPN.

“I was one of those people who watched the ’03 World Series of Poker and was like, this is cool,” Marasco said. “And then I had a group of friends who on Friday nights we’d just hang out and play poker.”

The middle-school-aged Marasco began to switch his free-time focus from playing as the Master Chief in Halo to playing poker. But while his friends continued to get better on the Xbox, Marasco dove deeper into cards.

By the time Marasco was a freshman in college, he’d studied for years. It was just before Black Friday when the money and action in the U.S. were at an all-time high, but Marasco wasn’t ready to turn pro just yet.

“I think it was Barry Greenstein who talked a lot about ‘having a life’ and so at that period, I became more interested in having experiences. After playing a lot during my freshman year, my sophomore year I did this international school in Prague. It’s ironic because I could have been going to a casino and playing but I was just like, I would rather just be 19 and go to the bar with people. So I kind of put poker on the back burner.”

He continued his studies, got his degree from Boston University, and moved to Los Angeles. In L.A. Marasco found himself working a number of odd jobs from being a production assistant on film sets to working in a pizzeria. And occasionally, heading to The Bike for cash games. That’s also where he started taking classes at UCB.

A move from L.A. to New York saw Marasco, diving even deeper into both poker and improv.

There would be days of solitary sessions of grinding online, then nights of performing comedy on stage in the NY improv scene. Some Sundays he’d be making deep runs in the biggest tournaments NJ had to offer, other Sundays he’d be performing on-stage for a hundred people at the UCB.

“One thing I know for sure, in a weird way, I developed a work ethic to a level I didn’t think I had in me from improv. We spent so much time practicing and doing it. So much so that I was like ‘wow, you can get really good at a thing very fast if you do it a lot and are very immersed in it’.”

Marasco did immerse himself in it, at one point he tracked that he performed well over 100 shows in a single year.

“Watching Frank perform improv you’re struck by how quick he is to observe and react to the reality taking place on stage,” said Ernest Myers, a poker enthusiast and UCB performer based in New York. “For as funny and laid back as he is, he has this side to him that’s very analytical, very studious and he applies that same discipline to both poker and improv.”

The work ethic he took away from improv is one that helped Marasco take his next step in poker. He was working as a mailroom manager in New York, trying to find a way to play poker, perform comedy, and just stay awake during the day. He would plan to take naps on the subway just to try and catch up on sleep. But poker was increasingly profitable and Marasco was performing regularly on stage at UCB. Something had to give.

It’s been roughly three years that Marasco quit his job and started playing for a living. And until recently, he’d been keeping a low profile not branching out into the poker community the same as he did in improv. But a pair of runner up finishes in the 2018 Borgata Spring Poker Open raised some eyebrows. While another pair of deep runs in World Poker Tour side events had some on the East Coast taking notice as well.

“I never thought of myself as being a poker player that anyone would care about figuring out what his screen name was or following or even interviewing. All of a sudden people I don’t know would chat to me using my real name. It’s surreal, I guess is the best way I could describe it. I don’t even think I’m famous at all, just the fact that anyone even cares about me and poker is surreal,” he said. “I think it is actually good and I’ve been trying to get more into the actual community because I’ve not been part of the poker community socially at all for a long time. And it’s kind of weird.”

As for what’s next for Marasco, in his pursuits of both poker and improv, well…he’s planning on playing it by ear.

One thing is for sure, Marasco will be setting up shop in New Jersey to battle for a WSOP bracelet in July and, should travel restrictions ease, he’ll travel to chase a bracelet on GGPoker through the beginning of September.

As for improv, the current conditions don’t offer any timeline for when he might return to the stage.

“I love improv and it’s still so fun for me but I think I’m kind of just waiting to see what happens.”