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Letting it ride on a rock career

After years on the fringes of music, a singer-songwriter gets backing -- $305,000 he won playing poker.

October 31, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Tom Sartori was the classic struggling musician, complete with the creaky old van that carried his amps from his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., to gigs in East Coast college towns. Then, a year and a half ago, the singer-songwriter learned to play poker.

Then, more importantly, he learned how to win.

Now, after winning $305,000 in the World Series of Poker, last summer in Las Vegas, he is attempting to make himself into his very own "American Idol."

The money he won has paid for a reliable car, a publicist, a stylist, a cool vintage wardrobe, studio time and the photo shoot for an album cover. His plan: to independently release an album in January that is paid for with his poker winnings and build on the minor celebrity he is now enjoying as ESPN gives heavy rotation to poker's World Series.

Although Sartori's success at poker has been quick, his music aspirations have proven to be a difficult slog that began at age 11 when his dad gave him a 1961 Fender Stratocaster.

"It's easier winning the World Series of Poker than it is making it big in music the way the industry is today," Sartori said. "But my dream has always been to succeed in music. Music is my life. Poker is my hobby. But it's a hobby that has allowed me to further my music."

His winnings put him in a studio with producer Geza X, the old-school L.A. punk producer who went from guiding the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag to the more radio-friendly Meredith Brooks and Tyler Hilton. The producer said he hears strong potential in Sartori's guitar-driven pop.

"The first thing I noticed about him is that he's a very focused and committed cat," Geza X said. "The songs are really strong ... and, you know, he's got some money to market his stuff on his own. He's like in the perfect spot as an indie artist that can go out there and swing a bat on this and maybe hit a home run."

Sartori is debating how much he wants the album and its marketing to tie in to the card gambling imagery.

"I don't want to go too much with the poker thing; I was really concerned about that at first," he said in the Wilshire Boulevard offices of the World Poker Tour. Sartori was sitting with an acoustic guitar beside a green-felt table dotted with cards and other gambling paraphernalia. "I want the music to stand on its own. I don't want to be a novelty thing."

The traffic at www.tomsartori.comhas spiked since the recent national broadcast of the "World Series of Poker" began on ESPN Oct. 11. The long-term benefits are hazy, but it's clear Sartori is already bringing his poker-face skills to pop. Asked his age, for instance, he replied, "Can we leave that out?" In age-obsessed pop, why show your cards if you don't have to?

Sartori appears to be on a roll. A new Milwaukee's Best beer commercial ties in to the World Series of Poker and name-checks Sartori.

And on Tuesday, the World Series episode scheduled to air not only features plenty of Sartori, but the sports channel is also airing biography footage of the gambler with the black spiky hair.

"Better than that," Sartori said, strumming his guitar, "they're playing my song."

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