If you read the recaps of big live poker tournaments, you'll notice it's all about the poker players. This player wins another big title, that player is in an excellent position for his or her next bracelet, and another player got knocked out in cruel fashion. Rightfully so, as players are front and center in live poker tournaments, but there are equally important people working hard behind the scenes.
A tournament room is crowded with people with all sorts of jobs and from all walks of life. First and foremost, you have the dealers. You also have floor staff, tournament directors, masseuses, poker reporters, technicians, photographers, camera operators, producers, people that man the information desk when you enter and plenty more.
In the PokerNews Behind the Scenes series, we want to take a look at some of these people involved in the poker world that are, well, more "behind the scenes."
Today's spotlight is on Dana Perianu who works as a massage therapist at poker events all over the world. She got poker famous when a photo of her massaging Phil Ivey went viral, but there's a lot more to talk about than that one instant in Monaco.
A Mall Masseuse
Like so many people that find themselves in the world of poker today, Dana Perianu had no intention of making a living surrounded by card players. After finishing high school, Perianu had no idea what to do next. Her mother suggested going to university to study physical therapy, and since she enjoyed making people feel good, she did.
"They were superstitious and thought I was the reason they were winning."
She became friends with girls who were doing massage classes besides studying physical therapy. She joined them and ended up massaging in a mall for some income while studying. Set up with a massage chair in one of the corridors, she would massage anyone willing to spend a couple Romanian leu to get refreshed.
Poker wasn't a thing in her life at all, but that would soon change. While hanging out with some of her Italian friends, some of them started playing poker. They would play while Perianu was present and they would win. It wasn't just a single instance; they would win whenever Perianu was in the room.
"Every time they were playing online and I was around, they were winning," she said. "They were superstitious and thought I was the reason they were winning."
In fact, they were so superstitious that they wanted her to be around whenever they played. Perianu was their lucky charm and they repeated their beliefs so many times it truly became a shibboleth, a belief repetitively cited but untrue.
As her Italian poker-playing friends got more successful, they planned a trip to Monte Carlo for the European Poker Tour Grand Final to play. For them, it went without saying that Perianu had to come along or they would certainly fail. And while she wasn't too thrilled at first going to an expensive place like Monaco, she eventually succumbed and came along.
She had been a mall masseuse for over a year and a half at the time, but she had no idea she would eventually become one of the most in-demand poker masseuses in the world.
Monaco and a New Career
She had been around players for some time before her first poker trip, but she wasn't well versed in the world of poker at all.
"I had no idea about poker; I didn't even know the hand rankings," she said.
Still, she hung around for a few days, bringing luck to the group she was with. She wasn't giving massages to the players she was with, but she did go from table to table to see if her luck would rub off on them.
"At one point I started believing myself that I brought people good luck," she said. "I became superstitious as well, since my friends kept winning."
Maybe her friends were just good players, but being able to run good in a card game wasn't something Perianu knew was possible at the time.
"I just visualised all the chips coming their way. I could just see the dealer pushing the chips towards them," she said. "As that tended to happen a lot, I said to myself, 'OK, I'm attracting good luck.'"
"Phil Ivey once paid me €1,000 for a 3-hour massage."
Fascinated by the new world she found herself in, Perianu met Sookhee Hallberg, the owner of Thee Best Hands, the massage company hired by organisers from all over the world to exclusively bring massage therapists to their poker tournaments. Perianu, with a year-and-a-half experience as a masseuse in a mall, asked Sookhee if she had any job openings so she could join the team.
The job interview consisted of Perianu giving Hallberg a massage. When that was done, she was hired.
"She said OK, I'll bring you to the next tournament and give you a chance," Perianu said. "So, really, I wasn't their lucky charm, but they were actually my lucky charm, as coming along with them to Monaco brought me a lot."
Excited at the prospect of going to another poker tournament, but now to make money doing so, she pushed Hallberg to give her her first assignment. The first big tournament Hallberg would go to herself was EPT Kiev after the summer, but she did have World Poker Tour Barcelona in between, where she would be sending masseuses.
Initially, Hallberg wasn't thrilled to send a new masseuse on her own to her first event, but after some pushing, she agreed and Perianu was on her way to the Catalonian capital for WPT Barcelona 2009.
A New World, A World Where Money Doesn't Matter
Perianu was exposed to a new world where money didn't seem to matter to a lot of people. For Perianu, originally from Brăila, Romania — one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest countries in Europe, this was like finding El Dorado. In a couple of hours, she had made more than she did in a month back home. As soon as she started working, she couldn't stop. She even skipped dinner.
"I didn't want to go eat," she said, remembering her time at the tournament. "Fifteen minutes of work was €25; plus I would have to spend money on food, so not only would I miss out on money, going to dinner would even cost me money. That was insanely expensive for me, so I decided I wasn't going to eat."
At 1 a.m., after a day of nonstop work and nothing to eat, she just about fainted and did grab a quick bite. Not eating wasn't happening anymore, but she kept working extremely long days for the remainder of the trip.
"Two hours of massaging was equal to my dad's salary — I just had to work!" she said. "I was a robot. I would work till the casino would close each day."
The next event for Perianu to work was EPT Kiev, the EPT Season 6 opening event eventually won by Maxim Lykov.
"When she saw that I was working 15-hour days, she was shocked but impressed."
"The other girls at the time did not do as good as I did, and Sookhee didn't expect that," Perianu said. "When she saw that I was working 15-hour days, she was shocked but impressed."
From that moment on, Perianu was on the core team and welcome to come along to all events Thee Best Hands was hired to be at.
Like all masseuses, Perianu is an independent contractor hired by Hallberg to work the events. She gets a cut from the €1.50 clients pay per minute. Being in high demand, she didn't have to ask anymore if she could go to certain events.
"I was her best seller. I had the most clients," Perianu said. "It was great."
She quickly built a packed Rolodex of regular clients. Now, eight years later, she rarely massages someone totally new.
"Most of my clients take massages that take a couple of hours, so I only have room for a few clients a day," she said. "They don't give me time for new faces."
Perianu gets Facebook and Whatsapp messages all the time, but has to disappoint quite a few people as there are only so many hours in a day. When she starts, she won't quit until the client has had enough. One client, two-time Belgian Poker Challenge champion Arne Coulier, might be the craziest of them all. His massages often take 10 hours or longer, depending on how long he lasts in an event. Fortunately for Perianu, Coulier goes deep often, and she doesn't leave his side when he does.
With so many clients on the waiting list and not enough time to get to them all, Perianu introduced her friend Anka to the world of poker massaging and directed some of her clients to her. The two have known each other for 16 years and are inseparable. Where Perianu is, Anka can often be found.
Living From Her Suitcase
Perianu does have a place back home in Romania, but she's hardly ever there.
"I go from tournament to tournament, and when there's no tournament, I often go on vacation somewhere," she said. "I live from my suitcase."
"I became a gambler. At one point I was playing online 12 or 13 hours a day."
She visits home once per season to swap wardrobes. Besides Anka, who naturally lives the same lifestyle and is wherever Perianu is, she doesn't have friends back in Romania. When she does go home, it's to see her parents. But more often, she brings them to a poker tournament or on holidays.
Hopping from tournament to tournament and averaging over two different countries per month is the jet-set life she could only have dreamed of when she was young, but it also comes at a cost. Being on the road so much makes it hard to engage in a relationship.
"I always tried, but in the end, it never works out," she said. "I've taken my boyfriends with me to tournaments and vacations, but in the end, being away so much never works. While two weeks together is a lot, being away the other two weeks of the month is difficult for them. Because I'm working so much, time passes quickly for me, but for them, just waiting for their partner is tough."
There was an unwritten rule that massage therapists couldn't date poker players, but that wasn't strictly enforced.
"Come on, I mean I work in this world for eight years so that's impossible," Perianu said.
She was seen with Sorel Mizzi for some time, but she's never had a true long-term relationship with a poker player.
"First of all, poker players only talk about poker," she said. "Besides that, it's difficult to maintain a relationship as you're always in the same place."
As she visited more and more events and got to know more and more poker players, Perianu's interest in the game grew. Often allowed to see what cards players were playing, she picked up the basics of the game. She bought some poker books and started to play a bit here and there.
"I'm a person that loves to learn new things and have new experiences," she said. "I really loved getting the hang of poker."
When she started, things went extremely well. She didn't only bring others good luck, it seemed she was lucky herself.
"I have an addictive personality, so when I started, I couldn't stop," she said. "I became a gambler. At one point I was playing online 12 or 13 hours a day."
She started out running hot, but that didn't last. While she bought more poker books and talked more with poker players, the downswing hit hard.
"I broke a lot of laptops and I excluded myself three or four times because I had no self-control," she said.
Perianu won playing live, but "online, it was a disaster."
As contractors aren't allowed to play during work, Perianu often plays the last day of an event.
"At PokerStars events, I play the $100 Hyper Turbo and the $300 Turbo on the last day," she said. "In some other places, like Cyprus, I play cash games. I really play all the time. I'm a gambler!"
While she enjoys playing the game of poker a great deal, she would by no means pursue a career as a professional poker player. And really, she doesn't have to. Of all the people surrounding a poker table, she might average the highest hourly.
Like in any job in the service industry, massage therapists sometimes get tips. And because poker players are the clients, some are exorbitant.
"The biggest tip I ever got was from Phil Ivey," she said. "He once paid me €1,000 for a three-hour massage."
Massaging Phil Ivey wasn't only good for a fat Christmas bonus, it also gave Perianu celebrity status among a subset of the poker world. A photo by French poker site ClubPoker of Perianu massaging Ivey at the 2010 EPT Grand Final went viral on TwoPlusTwo. After user "jaybeee" posted the thread "Phil Ivey Photoshop potential" in the News, Views, and Gossip subforum, creative minds soon fired up their image-editing software to alter the photo. The thread quickly got hundreds of replies, and now, seven years later, the thread still exists with 1,691 comments and tens of thousands of views.
While some of the comments in the thread weren't as gentle and subtle as they could be, Perianu wasn't disgruntled by it at all.
"I liked the attention — I'm a girl what do you think?" she said. "I enjoyed reading the pages. TwoPlusTwo was going crazy. I remember that. But then people tried to pay me to wear a T-shirt with that photo and it got a bit weird."
Perianu isn't sure how much Ivey liked the photo.
"He doesn't like to be too much in the spotlight, so I'm not sure if he'd think the photoshops were funny," she said.
She can take a joke, but some poker players go further than that.
"There are some very rude people," she said. "Some of them talk to me in a very sexual way and I don't appreciate that."
Other than rude comments, Perianu doesn't have any gripes.
"I treat everyone the same as long as they aren't rude," she said. "They can even be smelly; that doesn't really matter to me, it's only logical after playing poker for an entire day."
More Than Just a Job
Being on the road all the time, working extremely long days and being surrounded by poker and poker players all day means that right now, poker is Perianu's world.
"It's more than just a job; it's my life," she said.
She has thought of doing something else, but it's never been more than flirting with the idea.
"I find it hard to stay away from it," she said. "When I stay in the same place for two or three weeks, I get bored and I need to leave. All my friends are here. There are no people that I know at home."
"It's more than just a job, it's my life."
Not only does she not know anyone back at home anymore, she's not interested in reconnecting at all.
"I don't even want to know those people at home," she said. "I come from the worst city in Romania, the mafia kind of way. There's nothing good left; it's all rotten."
Her plan is to earn enough money to take her parents out of Romania as well. Her sister, former tennis pro Anda Perianu, lives in New York and Perianu sees herself based there in time.
"I'm 30 now and I need a change," she said. "I still love this job but I think I need a fixed place to live for a bit. Hopefully, I don't grow bored of it again."
While some changes might be at hand, Perianu would've never missed the adventure for the world.
"I consider myself a very lucky person," she said. "All my life I've been lucky. This opportunity I got has brought me great things. I love to be a masseuse. It's tiring for me but I still enjoy the atmosphere and I still enjoy massaging people."
* Lead photos by Danny Maxwell, additional photos by Neil Stoddart, PokerStars and ClubPoker