Like most teenagers who grow up on the Jersey Shore, Tom Cannuli got a summer job at the family restaurant, the Sea Shell Ice Cream Parlor in Wildwood, as a busboy.

He lasted three days.

“I came in on the third day and wiped off a table and left it too wet,” Cannuli, now 23, said with a laugh. “My dad (also named Tom) got really mad at me, so I walked out and decided to dedicate myself to being a poker player. I started with $400 playing online, and by the end of that summer, I had turned it into $200,000. I haven’t worked another job in my life.”

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Now, the 2010 Lower Cape May Regional High School graduate is on the brink of poker stardom. He’s among nine players at the final table for the World Series of Poker’s No-Limit Hold’em Main Event at the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

The tournament, which began in July with more than 6,400 players, will determine its 2015 champion today through Tuesday. ESPN and ESPN2 will provide live TV coverage.

The winner will earn more than $7.68 million and a coveted WSOP bracelet.

“That’s definitely life-changing money,” said Cannuli, who is already guaranteed at least $1 million. “But that bracelet is more important to me. You can’t get into the Poker Hall of Fame without a bracelet.”

Cannuli enters today’s action in sixth place with 12,250,000 chips. Joe McKeehan, of North Wales, Pennsylvania, is the chip leader with 63,100,000. Also among the group is Marlton’s Joshua Beckley with 11,800,000 chips.

The table will be reduced to four players today. Two more will be eliminated Monday to set up a one-on-one final Tuesday.

Cannuli expects to have a large cheering section on hand. More than 100 friends and family members will be there, including his parents, Nikki and Tom Cannuli, and his girlfriend, Allison Renock.

“I’m just so happy for him,” Nikki Cannuli said. “He’s been doing this since he was 16 and has been very dedicated. I’m just so excited to see him getting the chance to live his dream.”

Cannuli, who is sponsored by the New Jersey online poker site 888 Poker, was among three players with local ties who fared well in Las Vegas during various WSOP events over the summer.

Jeff Tomlinson, a 51-year-old North Wildwood native and Wildwood High School graduate, won a $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em 8-handed event and earned $567,724.

Chris Brand, a 25-year-old Pinelands Regional High School and College of New Jersey graduate from Little Egg Harbor Township, joined Cannuli in the Main Event. He finished in 24th place and pocketed $262,574.

Like Cannuli, Brand is a professional poker player. He makes his living primarily by playing cash games at Maryland Live, a casino just outside Baltimore. He lives in a house across the street from the casino, along with five other players.

“I was a poker dealer at Borgata when I was 19 or 20, then started playing when I turned 21,” Brand said. “I graduated from college with a degree in business administration but couldn’t find anything in my field that I really wanted to do, so I decided to be a poker player.

“I moved to Maryland because there’s more action and there’s more people willing to gamble with disposable income. In other words, there are a lot of fish in that pond.”

Cannuli plays primarily online, but when he gets the urge to go fishing, he casts his line either in Las Vegas — he spends two months there every summer — or at Borgata.

And like Brand, he usually doesn’t have to wait very long to reel in a keeper.

“If you know what you’re doing, you can make a lot of money,” said Cannuli, who plans to move to Brigantine after the tournament. “There are a lot of people in poker rooms who have no idea how to play and are just there to relax and have a good time. It’s almost like taking candy from a baby.”

Cannuli started playing poker as a teenager, when a family friend nicknamed “Mojo” pulled him aside and showed him how to play. A few months later, during the summer before his sophomore year at Lower Cape May, he decided to do it for a living.

Playing poker eventually served as an outlet from a difficult high school experience.

As a freshman, he developed an immune deficiency that forced him to miss a lot of school. As a result, he was forced to give up a lot of sports and was unable to participate in many school activities.

“High school wasn’t good,” he said. “I was constantly sick and spent a lot of time at home. But the good part was that it enabled me to become a better poker player.”

Two years later, he became a better person.

On the advice of a friend, he took a 100-day “life course” in Las Vegas in 2012.

“It was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Cannuli said. “It allowed me to realize how powerful I am as a human being and also as a poker player. Whenever I’m playing poker now, I see myself as a gladiator. I’m not afraid of anyone.

“And it taught me to never give up, no matter how far I get pushed down. That’s a message I want to give to other people, especially the young people of Cape May County. I’m living proof that dreams can be attained.”

Contact: 609-272-7201

Twitter @PressACWeinberg

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Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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