Los Angeles, CA
"Bit concerned about how many people I know turn out to be murderers."
It all started with a cryptic tweet from Dana, one of my friends back in London. I thought it was snarky British humour and supposed to be a back-handed compliment to a mutual friend. We often joke around that our colleagues in the press are mentally deranged. Well, joke is the wrong word, because mostly everyone I know in the poker circles is batshit crazy. You have to be in order to do what we do, so yeah, we're all a few cans short of a six-pack, but despite everyone's mental instability, no one has gone off the deep end -- yet. We've had a few incidents when people disappear for days, weeks, and months without a trace, but they resurface a bit later. However, no one has actually succumbed to violence, although I did once threaten two drunk German railbirds to a fight in Leicester Square at the WSOPE in London. But aside wanting to beat the shit out of a few loudmouths in the pressbox in Vegas over the years, it's a fairly mellow scene.
Getting a gig in poker media is sort of like becoming a union member because you have a job for life no matter how hard you fuck up. It's more similar to being a cockroach during a nuclear war. No matter how massive the blast, you get nuked to all hell, yet still scattering across the scorched Earth in search of some scraps.
Yeah, you can do anything short of killing someone without getting fired in poker media. Heck, I still have a career and I'm a known drug fiend. Most of my peers are outrageous alkies who spend most of their lives drinking away the misery in hotel bars (have you seen the "expense reports" from the EPT?), but compared to all of the basket cases, drunks, pill poppers, and known-plagiarizers, I'm still employable.
As you can tell, the poker world is somewhat forgiving. Heck, even if you steal millions from your fellow poker players, you can still get away without any semblance of retribution. Thieves in poker don't get imprisoned, whacked, or have a hand severed with a butcher knife. Heck, if anything, the more of a lying stealing douchebag you become in poker, the more press that you get.
With that said, poker is a forgiving community because many of us are misfits and outcasts who took up refuge in the poker world for whatever reason, so we tend to look the other way when we come across a fellow fuck up. I know a few folks in poker who actually come from well-adjusted former lives, but they are well aware of the hazards involved. I guess they want to travel on the road less traveled, and seeking out something alternative than the proverbial rat race.
And then you have people like me who have no other place to go.
But despite frolicking in the darkness with the vampires, zombies, and urchins, I've never actually come across someone who took another life. After the EPT Berlin robbery, scenarios were hypothesized among the British about a Columbine Massacre at the WSOP or at a regional poker tournament. That's everyone's biggest fear, isn't it? Someone losing their shit? I've never worked at the post office, but I read enough Bukowski to know that that job can drive civil servants mad to the point of rampant alcoholism and in the worst case scenario -- an outburst of violence. But postal workers killing with weapons have since calmed down a bit, and the term "going postal" is so early 90s that you kinda roll your eyes when you hear it, just like an old Pearl Jam record.
We have come a long way since the days of the wild wild west and having to keep a loaded gun nearby as both a car protector and a life protector during a card game. Over the last few years, murder has popped up in the same breath as poker. Home game robberies or underground card room heists gone bad are the usual culprit. A few years ago, a woman killed her husband who was a (broke dick) poker pro in Vegas. Then there was the incident at the Taj in Atlantic City that involved a stabbing when two players go into a spat. Considering the testy nature of poker, usually the worst thing you have to worry about is getting flamed on 2+2. You don't think for a second that someone would actually carry out premeditated manslaughter.
One of my friends pointed out an article by Vicky Coren titled Ron Fanelli was my friend. How did he go on to be a murderer? The PokerStars pro from the UK is also a fantastic columnist at The Guardian. Coren gave some insight into Ron Fanelli, the American known as "Mad Yank" whom she came across during the early 2000s at the Gutshot Club, renown poker room in London.
Fanelli was under arrest in Thailand for murdering Wanphen Pienjai. In a drunken rage, Fanelli plunged a knife into the back of the bar girl. He attempted to dispose of the body by cutting up parts of the corpse and breaking her wrists and ankles in order to stuff the remains into a suitcase, which he carried on his scooter before dumping it alongside the road. He told police that it was an "accident."
"You remember that guy from the 2006 WSOP," said Benjo. "He (Fanelli) was sitting in the hallway in front of the Amazon Ballroom playing nonstop poker. That was years before Unabomber's attempt at the endurance record."
Once I saw Fanelli's photograph (the ones above circa 2006 courtesy of Benjo), the handlebar mustache was a trigger to an instant flashback. I don't have my of notebooks from 2006 with me, but I'm sure somewhere in them, there's an entry about the "dude who looks like the Super Size Me director" who is probably jacked up on speed while playing nonstop heads-up poker.
At the time, Fanelli was an American ex-pat living in the UK. He was a frequent player at the Gutshot, although the regulars were not particularly keen on the "Mad Yank." Benjo pointed out the defunct blog, Poker Bastard, which was penned by an anonymous British pro who was not fond of the Gutshot. In a post from October of 2004, the anonymous pro didn't have too many nice things to say about Fanelli and referred to him as "That Cunt."
Poker pros make a living at reading people. But it seems as though many of them dismissed Fanelli's quirkiness because having propensity of kinky and violent sex with multiple prostitutes hardly constituted him as a criminal. Obviously, he became somewhat detached from the poker scene and drifted away from London when he moved to Southeast Asia full time. A series of bad relationships and dissolved marriages sent him spiraling out of control. He eventually snapped.
Dead hookers have become such a cliche that I drove my Lost Vegas editors crazy with that hackneyed phrase. But in this case, the cliche fits.
Glancing at Fanelli's scant Hendon Mob database will tell you that he was hardly a pro with less than $45,000 in live winnings, and nothing since 2004. He's supposedly had a few scores online, but nothing to sneeze at. If anything he was one of thousands of players who took his shot and missed. His fifteen minutes of fame came and went. Well, until now, as he pops up in Google alerts as that crazy poker player who chopped up a dead Thai hooker.
I hope the mainstream press chooses not to sensationalize this as a "poker-related" murder, when it's far from it. That shouldn't be too hard right now. Lindsay Lohan is in jail, so the jackals running the MSM are distracted with a starlet in distress. But if you're an anti-poker politco type in search of ammo, then expect one of those Bible-beaters to wrongly utter Fanelli's name in congressional hearings when preaching about the evils of online poker.
Fanelli was another bad drunk with too many demons to overcome who reached the end of his rope. It just happened by sheer coincidence that this guy traveled in the same circles as friends from the UK. Many of them thought he was an asshole, while a few others, thought he was just another oddball miscreant amidst the poker fabric.
Except... they were wrong.
I get paid big bucks to write fabricated rubbish about the dozen or so players who take the shot and succeed. We put them up on pedestals but we often ignore the plight of those who take a shot and fail. Ron Fanelli is a causality of war, but what about the collateral damage that happens in the wake of his implosion? This time it was a young woman, who will eventually be forgotten because no one cares about another broke-dick poker player disposing a prostitute's mutilated corpse.
Update: Check out Bill Rini's post Should We Feel Sorry for Him?. He pointed out an organization where you donate money to a scholarship fund that will assist Wanphen Pienjai's children.
Rotary Club of Patong Beach Charity AccountThanks for the follow up, Bill.
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