This time last year Bryan Piccioli, once the #1-ranked online poker player in the world, was deep in the World Series of Poker Main Event and updating his friends and family back home in Olean, New York as he made his way through the field. His parents, Dan and Diana, were following along right up until their son busted in 84th place.
The day a player busts out of the Main Event is the worst day of their year and Bryan and his girlfriend Karissa made plans to get away for an extended European vacation.
“I didn’t want to play poker for a little bit, I was ready for a nice break. My girlfriend and I had a nice vacation planned,” Bryan said. “It was supposed to be a 28-day trip and then on the fifth day I got the phone call you never want to get from your mom.”
Bryan’s dad had suffered a serious spinal injury after falling at home. A medevac was brought in to take him to Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo – some 75 miles away – for surgery to alleviate some of the pressure on his spine.
“She didn’t know how serious it was at first. So she kind of waited a little bit to see exactly what the situation was before calling me and it turned out it was very serious,” Bryan said.
Bryan’s dad was suddenly a quadriplegic. Abandoning the vacation, Bryan flew from Copenhagen to Amsterdam to New York City to Buffalo to get back to his family. Once stable, doctors recommended that he be transferred to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, one of the nation’s leaders in spinal injury rehabilitation.
With bills to pay, Bryan’s mom couldn’t afford much time off work and his sister had just started the nursing program at George Mason University in Virginia. Bryan realized what needed to happen.
“Poker gives me the freedom to pretty much do whatever and take however long off I want, whether it be good or bad comes up. Obviously this is very unfortunate. I’m extremely close with my dad,” said Piccioli. “Somebody had to step up to the plate and my girlfriend and I got a two month lease in an apartment in Pittsburgh just to be there with him day after day while he was going through rehab. I can’t imagine what he was going through mentally and he just needed someone to be there.”
In the meantime, his sister Lauren set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the family raise money to pay for the extensive renovations the family home in Olean was going to need to accommodate Dan. Co-workers from Cattaraugus County, where Dan served as Social Services Commissioner, started selling t-shirts to help with the fundraising.
The campaign was a huge success and while Dan was in Pittsburgh learning how to cope with his new reality, contractors went to work.
“For a while there were workers coming in and out every day, construction sounds throughout the house,” Bryan said. “The house is finally done, it looks great. His room had to get expanded for room for his bed and stuff. It looks super nice, the guys did an amazing job. At least he has like a sense of home now.”
Once his dad was back home, Bryan and Karissa had a decision to make. The pair had planned on moving to San Diego in January. That move would mean Bryan would be almost 2,600 miles away.
“I talked it over with both my girlfriend and my parents of course, and they want us to live our lives,” said Bryan. “With poker, I’m able to have the freedom to go back whenever, so once a month I can go back for a week, look after my dad, give my mom a break, and then come back.”
The rehabilitation process gave Dan some limited improvement, but the reality is that his situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, if at all.
“It’s very little and honestly the chances improvements we’ve come to realize are extremely low,” said Bryan. “We’ve heard so many miracle stories about people in the same situation and he’s just so strong and he’s a hard worker so we just hope and pray that things come, but either way we’re there for him.”
Before the start of Day 6 of the 2017 WSOP Main Event, Bryan was still playing, looking to better his 2016 finish and was again keeping family and friends up to date on his progress, including his biggest fan.
“He can’t really use a phone right now, but we usually have somebody there during the day with him so sometimes messages get relayed,” Bryan said. “Usually I just copy and paste my mom and dad the same message, so he’s been getting a lot of updates.”
But Dan isn’t just some railbird who has no clue about the game. He’s the one who introduced Bryan to the game years ago. In 2006, Dan played the Main Event, finishing 537th. It was a memorable experience for a lifelong poker fan, there was just one small problem.
“Him and his buddy came and they both cashed within ten places of each other in the money. They got the min-cash for $12,500,” Bryan said. “He told me this story, they lost money on the trip after hotel and airfare. They cashed the Main Event and lost money.”
He’s also picked up a few other cashes over the years. The last few times he’s been out to Las Vegas though was the cheer on his son.
“He was here last summer, not during the Main, but he came out a couple weeks before the Main,” Bryan said. “He got to see me play in the money of the $5K No Limit. He was sweating that, but then he had to go back to work.”
Through the first two levels of play on Day 6, just 60 players remain and Piccioli sits right in the middle of the pack. While he’s trying hard not to get too far ahead of himself, he’d love to find a way to have his biggest fan on the rail should be make it to the final table.
“We’re still not exactly sure as far as accessibility for him to start traveling in the near future. We have a van, we can drive him wherever, but we’re not sure about airplanes,” said Bryan. “If need be, I’ll hire a team of chauffeurs to drive the van across the country. There’s two days before the final table. I will hire people to drive him in a van. I looked it up, it’s 36 hours from Buffalo to Vegas.”
One of this year’s most endearing stories has given Bryan even more inspiration though. Kenneth ‘K.L’ Cleeton finished in 917th place. The 27-year-old suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and is paralyzed from the neck down – just like Dan.
What if Dan could play the Main Event next year?
“Shortly after the accident I’d mention, ‘When are we going to get you back at the poker table?’ and he was always like, ‘Oh no, that’s the last thing on my mind’,” Bryan said. “But in the past couple of months he’s slowly started to be like, ‘We could make it work somehow, right?’. So I feel like things are slowly starting to work things out. We’re going to figure out a way.”
Sharing the story with his family, Bryan hopes it serves as a bit of inspiration for dad.
“I was tearing up honestly. I told my Dad the whole story. I was FaceTiming with him, ‘Dad, look at this guy. This is the perfect example. You could be out here next year’,” said Bryan.
The 28-year-old has learned a lot about himself in the past year, but he says he’s had some important things reinforced for him.
“I’ve always been super aware that I have amazing parents and I love them so much and for something like that to happen to them, it really puts life in perspective,” said Bryan. “My family is so strong, we’re doing great. We’re getting through it together.”
Even though he’s in Las Vegas now, and enjoys the lifestyle in San Diego, putting his entire family under one roof so they could be together would be the ideal situation. The deeper he gets in the Main Event, the easier it will be to make that happen.
“My dream, hopefully one day, is to be able to get a big house and live with my parents, I don’t know where but if I win this tournament that would help,” Bryan said.