John Lallo "All In” For
Time Square and Vegas Poker
John Lallo is on a roll, but don’t call him a gambler. The 30-plus year beach resident and owner of Pete’s Time Out in Times Square has been moonlighting as a tournament poker champion whose sights are set on the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
On July 4th, Lallo will fly to Las Vegas for the crown jewel of poker tournaments, televised around the world on the ESPN networks. "I entered a $75 tournament and got fourth place,” Lallo said of a recent poker tournament in Bonita Springs. He explained that those with the highest cards on the table at the end of the tournament received an invitation to a larger tournament that fed into WSOP 2013.
It wasn’t an overnight achievement, says Lallo.
He became a poker tournament player in 2004 after Hurricane Charley left the north end of the island inundated with water. "We lost the restaurant to floodwaters and I had zero income for two months,” he said. It wasn’t long after, he was winning money in online tournaments and the passion borne out of desperation became like a second job to Lallo. That passion soon affected his family and wife, Debbie also succumbed to the draw of the cards.
"I felt bad because my wife essentially became a ‘poker widow,’ so I taught her how to play the game.”
Lallo explained that last year’s World Series tournament drew 6,500 players to Vegas, the fourth largest in WSOP history. He said this year’s international tournament could draw as many as 7,000, including himself. He and thousands of other players will pay a sizeable entry fee, or buy-in, to enjoy the main event, which is a week and a half of intense card playing.
"There are three starting days,” he went on to explain. "If you make it through the first day—and you can’t win the tournament on the first day by going ‘all-in,’ you just gotta survive—you play three days later. Then, if you win on Day Four, you continue to days five, six and seven, consecutively. I’ll basically be playing 10 hours every day, or a total of 70 hours in a week and a half. It’s not easy.”
"People think you’re just sitting there at a table, playing a card game, but it’s much more than that. There is a lot of math and strategy that goes into it. It can be very exhausting mentally,” he said.
"I’m a Level Four, out of five, player.”
Besides the online tournaments, Lallo also "cashed” in Indiana and twice in New Orleans. He won a trophy and a large cash prize at a tournament in Immokalee, as well. It’s a sport that he takes very seriously.
"I’m not lucky at all. I’ve never been a big gambler. I respect the game.” He explained that the tournament requires a lot of folding and patience. "I don’t bluff too much.”
"You don’t just play the cards, you play the players.” Lallo says that’s one thing at which he’s very adept—reading people. "You’ve got to be really good at it. I watch for any clues I can find—hands the other players lay down, their movements, their mouth and facial expressions, how they handle their cards and throw in their chips, even their breathing.” He watches and makes mental notes that he says have to be stored, sometimes for hours. "You may not face that other player at a table for several hours and you have to remember those little clues and estimate what kind of hand he’s got. I’m telling you, it can be very challenging and exhausting.”
It was the struggling economy post-Hurricane Charley and a flooded restaurant that led Lallo to poker, but it wasn’t Pete’s Time Out that led him to the beach. Lallo followed his brother, Pete named after their father, to the beach to pursue his art.
"My brother moved down here first to work in the restaurant business [prior to Pete’s Time Out] and to be close to our aunt and uncle. I was living in Orlando at the time and my folks were still in Ohio.” Lallo had moved to central Florida from his hometown, Youngstown, to pursue training as a travel agent. "I was attending Southeastern Academy, a travel industry school in Kissimmee.”
The restless 19-year-old wasn’t content with that career path and wanted to pursue a more artistic venture, so he found his way to his brother’s house on Fort Myers Beach. "Our motto back then was, ‘Don’t let the beach eat you…’,” explained Lallo. They didn’t get caught up in drinking and drugs, but balanced their play with work. Lallo was airbrushing t-shirts at the shop within Plaka Restaurant in the heart of Times Square. That’s when his father, Pete Lallo, came down to visit and decided to buy the open-air restaurant next to where John was practicing his art.
In late 1983, Ronnie’s at the Beach became Pete’s Time Out and new owner, Pete Lallo, enlisted his family to get the burger and chili joint up and running. John cooked and his new girlfriend, Debbie, who he had met at Top O Mast, waited tables.
"We met in ’84 and were married in ’85,” John says of he and his wife of 28 years. The two of them bought the restaurant from Pete in 1990 so that he could pursue other interests. One of those interests was the Indian Creek Lounge, now Valerie’s, which he opened on San Carlos Boulevard, near Summerlin Road. "It’s interesting that after Dad sold the place, it found its way back to the beach,” John explained of the lounge that eventually landed in Scott and Kathy Van Selow’s hands.
The Lallo family’s journey to Fort Myers Beach started long before the birth of the MTV Generation and the Rubik’s Cube, however. It was John’s Great Uncle Pete, now 91, who drew Lallo and his family down to our island paradise.
"Our whole universe revolves around him,” says Lallo with robust pride. "Uncle Pete is the greatest guy in the world, a veteran who proudly served his country and worked hard to provide for his family.”
Not only was Uncle Pete a war hero, who saw World War II action during the Battle of the Bulge, but he also took care of a German family he met during the war. "That’s where he met Aunt Liz and fell in love.” Uncle Pete returned home to Youngstown, Ohio, after the war and brought his new love stateside so they could marry and start their life together. By the 1960’s, they were vacationing on Fort Myers Beach. They were the reason John’s father, Pete, emigrated from Germany in the 1950’s and made his home in Ohio, eventually landing on the beach with his wife, Peg. Uncle Pete and Aunt Liz were also the reason John and his brother, Pete, relocated to Florida even before Pete’s Time Out became an island staple.
John and Debbie have been proud owners of the restaurant since they bought Pete out in 1990. John never saw himself in the restaurant business, and says it is tough, but he has learned to love it over the years and has made many friends there.
"You learn to adapt and change,” he says. That’s why he and friend Steve Maillakakis, the owner of Plaka next door, decided to recharge the Times Square Merchant and Event Association started by Bruce Cermak years before. The two men shared a vision to bring the merchants together to revitalize Times Square and capitalize on all the great traffic generated by the amazing sunsets. As a result, the Sunset Celebration was born on December 9, 2011, and has been drawing crowds "and keeping them,” according to Lallo, ever since.
Later, Lallo adapted his restaurant to cater to the changing crowd and added a full service bar to Pete’s Time Out that debuted earlier this year. "We got our liquor license in December ,” he explained. "We wanted to do something to entertain the crowds who come down to the pier for sunset and to keep them in Times Square, so we changed our format.”
Pete Lallo, the namesake for John and Debbie’s Times Square establishment, passed away on December 29, 2009, at age 66. His legacy, including the great burgers, grilled fish and cold beverages, lives on at Pete’s Time Out.
Lallo and the Times Square Merchants will again host a special 4th of July event, featuring live music and entertainment near the Fort Myers Beach Pier, but John won’t be here to enjoy it. "I’ll be on a plane to Vegas,” he exclaims. He’s looking forward to the World Series of Poker tournament, but says not to expect to see him on ESPN. "Even those who make the Top 100 in Vegas don’t always make it in front of the cameras. There’s just no way to get all 6,500-7,000 players on camera during the ten day tournament.”
You won’t find Lallo fishing the open waters around Estero Island, either. The once avid saltwater fisherman now finds himself fishing smaller, fresher venues, like the streams around his vacation home in Georgia. He says the reason is too much sun and occasional sun poisoning while on the open waters in southwest Florida.
Still, if he finds a spare moment between time at the restaurant, his two children—he says they are Debbie’s kids—and six grandchildren, ages 1.5 to 21, he finds his way to an open poker table, real or virtual.
He’s known in the poker world by the nickname, The Melon. "All I’ll tell you is that they all know me as John ‘The Melon’ Lallo, but I won’t get into the details.” When pried for more, he seals up tighter than a Pine Island Clam. And when asked if there are any details of his life that he’s left out of the interview, he simply replies, "I’m all in.”
The WSOP 2013 main event, a $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em Championship, will be held July 6-15 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The result will be a final table of nine players who will compete in a November championship. The 44th annual event will feature a spread of 480 poker tables, a tournament record.
The Times Square Sunset Celebration is held every weekend on Fort Myers Beach from 5 – 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays. It features a live band on-stage between the clock and the pier. The crowd typically swells around sunset, between 8 and 9, but there are always plenty of patrons at Pete’s, Plaka, Dairy Queen, Kilwins and the other sponsoring merchants of Times Square throughout the event.
Pete’s Time Out, a Times Square mainstay, is located at 1005 Estero Boulevard. Their website is petestimeout.com.