Life of Bryan: Part One
The poker champion revolutionizing web3
It may be family game night, but 12-year-old Bryan does not come to play.
The white-and-red Monopoly box emerges from the game closet, its corners held together with flaking medical tape. With a whoosh, the boxtop reveals the ragged board, the properties, the money, and the tokens.
Bryan Pellegrino’s eyes lock on the battleship. It has always been his favorite token; he likes that it sinks everyone else.
Bryan captains his token ruthlessly. He loads up each property he steams past and when his little sister Angela’s iron gets caught in the wake, tears follow.
But she’s not the real enemy. Legs splayed in a W on the floor, he cocks his head, bends his fingers back to his wrist, and fixes his gaze on his half-brother Manie. Bryan and Manie are the best Monopoly players in the family. They’re also the most committed.
Their mother Audrey remembers padding downstairs at 3 AM to find them, the only two left standing, still chugging. “Go to bed,” she’d say.
When the game is finally over, the winner is charged with cleaning up. To Bryan, this feels like targeted punishment. The trials and tribulations of frequent winning have followed him ever since.
Like his favorite board games, Bryan’s life has played out according to a set of rules.
RULES FOR PLAY:
THE BRIEF IDEA OF THE GAME of BRYAN’S LIFE is to PLAY with such determination and WIN frequently enough that one never has to stop—aka get a real job.
At this Bryan had succeeded nearly completely, notwithstanding several painful, gainfully employed days in high school and college in his home state of New Hampshire.
Starting from the trusting, safe “NH” square, players seek to win chips as they travel around the world according to hands dealt and skills gained.
Bryan’s turn as a professional poker player—which began at age 15—would see him travel the world, playing online and in person at its most preeminent tournaments. These included the 2012 World Series of Poker, where he placed second in his format.
When a player lands on a space whose ownership is contested, he may choose to wager with other players on the outcome of a match of physical skill like foosball or volleyball.
Such contests were legendary. Bryan would bet against his friends on everything up to and including his freedom. Losing one infamous bet would have him become a golf caddy for a year. Another would turn his co-founder into his personal butler. He learned to become unemotional in the face of great and terrible wins and losses.
ALLIANCES with other players may be formed by co-investing and building companies together. Here, the objective is “doing something cool” rather than seeking profit.
Collaborations over the years have included building a daily fantasy sports site, investing (nearly all of Bryan’s liquid assets) in renewable energy, mining cryptocurrency, and even co-purchasing a bank in southwest Wyoming.
The SATISFACTION of playing the game is in sharing it with loved ones—especially children who are new to the game of life. Players must educate them with patience, but never, ever go easy on them just because they are young.
Sometimes players get scammed by people they trust!
Unfortunate, but true.
The game is one of elite talent and amusing trading and excitement.
With those parameters, the game went on for years and despite some quibbles—the players’ wives often wondered, as one put it, why they “hate[d] money” so much—everyone enjoyed it.
Over time, the types of challenges that interested Bryan grew more technologically complex and the groundbreaking solutions he arrived at—in collaboration with his college roommates and wunderkind co-founders Ryan Zarick and Caleb Banister—started earning attention.
In 2019, after more than a decade of working together, the trio published a paper outlining their creation of the most powerful poker-solving algorithm the world had ever seen. And in February 2022, the trio would launch their newest project. It was called LayerZero, and it would be fundamental to the emergence of web3.
The game had turned into something world changing.
On vacation in Dubai, the 34-year-old founder is less circumspect.
“Like, I just—I don't care,” he says. “At the end of the day, I don’t care to be remembered for something. I’m not trying to win awards. I’m solving hard problems because I like solving hard problems.”
It’s 3:40 AM Dubai time and Bryan’s wife, Mel, and their three young kids—ages 7, 3, and 7-months—are asleep. Bryan, sitting in the living room of his high-floor hotel suite, wears a black crewneck T. The lights of the desert glint through a window wall behind him. Orbs of red and gold dangle from the ceiling.
It’s Christmas Eve.
Bryan’s had all of four hours of sleep over the past three days, but he’s articulate. His speech rolls like a freight train—unstoppable.
“I'm trying to make the lives of my family better,” he continues, “the lives of the people around me—people that I care about—better, make the community better. But when I'm gone it's okay to just be gone.”
In a couple of days, Bryan’s siblings and parents will arrive in Dubai for New Years. It will be just like family holidays of old in the New Hampshire mountains, but warmer.
In a matter of weeks, LayerZero will officially launch. Bryan’s team is working out the final details, crossing its Ts, dotting each I. It’s a crypto startup so legal considerations are multitude.
Bryan takes breaks in speech only to sip from a plastic water bottle. Even on late nights like this, he never drinks coffee, never downs energy drinks. His considerable energy is all his own. “There's so little difference between like zero drinks of coffee and one drink of coffee in your life,” he says, shaking his head. “It sounds so stupid. It's just one of those things where you can never go back.”
As we pressed—“But you’re a curious person, how can you explore the world if you don’t try things at least once?”—his reasoning honed in on a more sacred influence: that of his parents. Bryan’s dad, Steve, has a liver condition that prevented him from drinking when Bryan was young. His mother, Audrey, following a formative early-in-life experience with substances, also abstained.
“I saw my dad being athletic and cool and all this stuff,” Bryan explains, “but without drinking. I don’t want to take that from my kids.”
Bryan, intense in childhood as now, expected absolute consistency from his parents.
“There was a Christmas party or something,” he remembers. “My mom had a drink. I felt so betrayed as a kid; that everything she had stood for was kind of like, robbed.”
He’s forgiven her now. In fact, when Bryan has trouble with his kids, his parents are his first call.
“How did you do it with me?” he asks them.
EQUIPMENT: The Gathering Years
Bryan James Pellegrino was born in 1987 in the spring—as the Granite State thaws and its famous purple lilacs bloom. He grew up in a town called Danbury, just down New Hampshire Route 104 from Lake Winnipesaukee. Danbury looks as though it came in a Lego kit: just the essentials. It has two gas stations, a country store, a church, a library, a post office, a community center, and a handful of houses that straddle the intersection of 104 and U.S. Highway 4.
With just 800-odd residents, baby Bryan won’t be lonely here—nearly every other house is owned by a relative. His mother Audrey’s family, the Phelpses, have been here “since they got off the boat from England,” she says. She estimates that nearly 250 aunts, uncles, and cousins live in the immediate vicinity.
When she and Steve Pellegrino—a Hartford, Connecticut, transplant who always wanted to live in the country because of “its quiet and peacefulness”—first got married, they tried living elsewhere in New Hampshire. But Audrey soon found that she missed her family too much. So the couple sold their house, packed up, and moved the eight miles back into Danbury. They’ve lived here ever since.
Their son—named Bryan, for one of Steve’s school friends—is preternaturally calm, not prone to fits. He does, however, develop an early knack for digging his heels in. “Argumentative,” his mother wrote in his baby book when he turned two, “but lovable.”
Despite the occasional arguments, Bryan maintains a sweet disposition, even taking it upon himself to kiss his mother’s cheek every night after dinner as he leaves the table. He was never taught this. He never saw it on TV. To this day, he doesn’t know where the habit came from.
The taste for debate persists. He likes going toe to toe with his mother (but never with his soft-spoken father) on unimportant topics of all kinds. “He wants to get to the bottom of things,” his sister, Angela, remembered. “He will argue his point for all time—for eternity.”
His verbal jousting never veers acrid, though; debate is his love language. It’s a form of highly mobile game-playing. “The other day,” his mother said in 2022, “we were having a debate about religion, and it just makes me want to pound my head sometimes, because all he wants to do is debate for hours.”
“Yeah, we argue,” Bryan’s wife Mel said, who recounted a recent back-and-forth about traffic directions. “But it’s never in the screaming, angry way; it's just our normal. We like to think through things instead of just saying ‘oh, you said we should do something, let’s just do it.’”
Bryan’s co-founder, Ryan Zarick, also enjoys debating. “It’s the reason Bryan and I always got along really well,” he said. But from Bryan’s perspective, the game of debate is also an opportunity to seek something deeper. “I’m really just trying to find ground truth,” Bryan told us. “Do I want to be right? Absolutely, I want to be right. But I never want to be seen as right when I know I’m wrong.”
The back and forth that Bryan started with Audrey at the age of two has formed the basis of LayerZero’s truth-seeking culture. “We’ll have days where [my co-founders and I are] on the phone and we’re just yelling at each other,” Bryan said. “Our wives think we hate each other, but that’s just the way we work together.”
Bryan's love for verbal games is matched only by his taste for board and video games.
Audrey—blonde, warm, and bubbly—traces the family’s game craze to her grandmother. “Talk about Puritan,” she said, dropping her Rs. No games with dice were permitted on Sundays, even Parcheesi. And if you wanted to play Sorry!, well, Sorry!, but every Sorry! card had been removed from the game. “So you didn’t feel bad,” Audrey explained.
Though her grandmother passed away when she was 11, Audrey never forgot the cozy feeling of sitting around a table playing games together. When she had a family of her own, Audrey made sure the game playing continued. “I don't know,” she said, shrugging. “It’s tradition.”
As generations have passed, the family’s commitment to games has only grown. Audrey’s grandmother’s sanitized Sorry set has expanded into Steve and Audrey’s full-fledged, floor-to-ceiling, custom-built game closet. The collection includes classics like Risk, Monopoly, Parcheesi, Stratego, and Chess as well as lesser known titles.
In Bryan and Mel’s Vancouver, British Columbia, dining room, sits a custom game table in place of a formal dining table. “We prefer games to any sort of stuffy formal dinner setting,” Bryan said. The table takes up most of the room.
On Fridays we play games
As soon as Bryan and his sister Angela arrive home from school on Fridays, the waiting begins. Audrey, also home from school—she teaches kindergarten—tells them their father will be back soon. As the afternoon goes on, the anticipation builds until finally Steve, fresh off his 12-hour shift driving the winding mountain roads for UPS, sweeps through the door with Manie and Deanna, Bryan’s older half siblings, in tow.
The weekend festivities commence.
For Steve—soft spoken with dark brown hair—the real work is just beginning. He kicks off the night by making a child’s cornucopia of food: nachos with sharp Vermont cheddar, every chip covered; Turkish pistachios, a Steve Pellegrino special order; and sometimes pizza, from a recipe that came to the family by way of Steve's mother, who dedicated herself to learning Italian cooking after marrying his father, an Italian immigrant. She would simmer the sauce for a week—Steve gets away with a day.
As the scale of gaming has grown over the generations, so has pizza sauce preparation time dwindled. Mel now makes the same pizza, but simmers the sauce for just a few hours.
To finish: ice cream floats prepared with orange soda and vanilla chocolate chip ice cream. “I don’t know where he got that combination,” Bryan said.
These Friday nights—melting Vermont cheddar wafting through the air to the 90s synth soundtrack of the video game Tekken—is the stuff of Pellegrino nostalgia. It may also be the source of Bryan’s diet preferences. “If you let us each choose,” Mel explained, “my meals would be very colorful—with lots of fruits and vegetables. His would be white and brown. He is my hardest child to get to eat greens.”
Bryan’s longtime friend from his poker days, Ryan Dodge, remembers visiting an ice cream shop together. When Bryan ordered a mint milkshake, he was dismayed to find that the shop had used real mint and not mint syrup, as he had expected. “He’s like ‘this milkshake is one step too healthy for me,’” Ryan remembers. “‘I don’t even want to drink it anymore.’”
Tekken 3—the Pellegrinos’ game of choice
Then, clad in his trademark hoodie, Bryan plops onto his father’s lap (he was “always a cuddler,” his mother said, “still is.”) and the family turns the television to TGIF on ABC (check out our profile of Bob Iger, who greenlit this lineup), which featured shows like Family Matters, Full House, and, Bryan’s favorite, Boy Meets World.
Finally, the time came to mine the game closet.
The standby, Monopoly, was a big-time favorite of Bryan and Manie, but less so for Audrey. “I hate Monopoly,” she said. The game could hold Bryan and his siblings’ attention for hours on end. Sometimes, when the power went out on their street (it happened frequently), they played into the wee hours of the morning by kerosene lamplight.
But like any accommodating mother, Audrey overcame her distaste for the game and sewed her sons a set of Monopoly pajamas, a full Monopoly sheet set, and, when Bryan graduated, a quilt featuring the Monopoly man on it.
Besides Monopoly, the Pellegrinos played “everything you can imagine,” Audrey said—kitty whist and Parcheesi were two other favorites. Today Bryan is known among friends not just for his prowess in specific games, but for his domination of new ones.
I have this open challenge to all of my friends that I will walk into any board game store, any video game store, close my eyes, spin around, pick out five random games—doesn't matter if it’s My Little Pony—doesn't matter what it is.
I'll bet any amount on me winning more games than they do. Give me the rules. And let me just come up with a strategy. I've never had anybody take me up on this challenge.
Whatever the game, Bryan took winning very seriously. “I grew up with a competitive father and a brother who's four years older than me,” he said, “so I was always trying to beat them, chasing down everything.” And beat them he often did. “Monopoly and Risk with Bryan is brutal,” Angela said. “He's just so good.”
On one of his regular trips home in college, his mother once beat him at Settlers of Catan—breaking a 20-year losing streak. She ran through the house shouting “I won! I won!” to the chagrin of her son. Adopting the family’s “you’re only good as your last game” mantra, she has never played him in Catan since.
But he did lose sometimes. Despite his competitive spirit, Bryan rarely became upset. “He was never a bad loser,” Angela remembered. “But he definitely wanted his revenge.” Bryan would only become red-faced and angry when he perceived unfairness. Deviations from the rules of the game—or more accurately, his mother told us, from his interpretation of the rules—earned his ire.
Even later in life, when Bryan lost tens of thousands of dollars, or nearly all of his savings at the time, to a scam perpetrated by a fellow poker player masquerading as a friend, he was more stung by the sense of having been wronged by someone he trusted than by the financial loss.
For Bryan, Friday game nights combined two of his favorite things in the world: competition and time with his father. Better still was competition with his father, which often lasted late into the night. Steve would sometimes stay up past midnight on work nights just to play long enough to beat his children then head to bed with a: “Remember, you’re only as good as your last game.”
It’s unclear if these nights were more a testament to his love for his children or thanks to his own competitive streak. “[My dad’s] super competitive,” Bryan said. “Even now he’s way more athletic than I am—he's 61 years old. My brother set the three point record for New Hampshire and my cousin won All-State and my dad played them two-on-one my cousin’s senior year and crushed them.”
In all competitions with his children, Steve stuck to a time-honored Pellegrino rule: never go easy on them. His kids knew that when their epic Tekken (Playstation), Mortal Kombat (Sega), and Donkey Kong (SNES) battles late into the night, it was thanks to their skill in combination with an added incentive: the more they won, the longer they had with their father.
With his long days keeping Steve on the road well through dinnertime, time with him was a rare and sought after commodity. His children—and Bryan especially—regarded him with near reverence.
“We all super idolized my dad,” Bryan said.
Even when they became teenagers and their friends outgrew family time, Bryan and his siblings never missed game nights. They simply started inviting their friends to join in. “It’s pretty much an open door policy around here,” Audrey said.
The Pellegrino kids rarely strayed far. Audrey can count on one hand the number of times her four children have gotten in trouble. Asked how she explains it, Audrey answers without hesitation. “A lot of it has to do with Steve. He’s never ever raised his voice or gotten upset.” Pleasing their father proved a powerful motivator. “They would rather cut off their hand than upset their father,” Audrey told us.
When Bryan was in seventh grade, he was asked to write an essay about what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A father,” was his response. The teacher thought Bryan wasn’t taking the assignment seriously, but it was true. “From the time he was four years old,” Audrey explained,” the only thing he’s ever wanted to be was a father.”
In fact, it was the only thing Bryan knew for sure about his future. Growing up he had a vague sense that he wanted to work with with computers. Of fatherhood he was certain. He said the same thing when he was 20, a sophomore in college, while his classmates at the University of New Hampshire partied, drank, and did drugs.
“It made me feel like I must be a great father if he feels [that fatherhood is so important],” Steve said. “I was very proud.”
‘Is there a longer trail?’
The Pellegrinos also played outside sometimes, thanks in no small part to Audrey who canceled the family’s cable subscription when the kids weren’t in school. They suspect it was a ploy.
In the winter, they skied. Danbury is home to Ragged Mountain Resort, a perpetually bankrupt, extremely charming ski hill with three lifts. Here, the Pellegrinos and their friends made the most of Danbury’s 71 inches of annual snowfall. Bryan could be found in the terrain park with his partner-in-thrill-seeking, Manie, or off in the woods tearing through fresh powder.
In the summer, the Pellegrino brothers rode dirt bikes. Once, Bryan was riding on the back of Manie’s dirt bike and fell off into a muddy puddle, where he lay nearly drowned and unseen by Manie, who rode over him. Bryan emerged choking; barely alive, per Manie’s recollection. “It was scary,” he said. “I always felt really bad about that.”
It was only one of several incidents involving the brothers. In another, Bryan and Manie were riding a bike, and Bryan split his head open, requiring nine stitches. Another time, Manie was driving a snowmobile up an embankment with Bryan on the back. The snowmobile flipped, shattering its windshield on Bryan’s leg.
Here too, Bryan is not circumspect. “It was just a constant case of him saving himself and me just getting wrecked,” Bryan said. Today, the near-death experiences have passed into hilarious lore between the brothers.
Even today, Bryan is unusually risk averse. His long-time poker friend, Greg Tiller, remembers hiking with Bryan in Red Rock, outside of Las Vegas. “We climbed up to this platform along the cliff that was overlooking this massive drop,” he said. “I'm standing against the wall of the cliff—terrified. Bryan is having the time of his life, and he just starts climbing up the cliff. If he were to fall backwards, he would have just died. It was at least 100 feet up. I just remember watching him and thinking ‘we’re two different species of people.’”
Bryan’s poker friends credit his risk tolerance, in part, for his success in the game. Greg remembered one hand in particular. Bryan was “on the bubble”—just a single player had to be eliminated in order for Bryan to advance in the tournament. Bryan was dealt pocket aces, a good hand—and a situation in which most players would have folded. Bryan instead went all in. On this occasion, Bryan lost the hand. But Greg says this was classic Bryan. “He was willing to take risks where other players would not,” Greg said.
When we talked to Audrey and Steve, we noticed that Steve’s profile picture is of him skydiving. When we asked about it, they both laughed. “Bryan’s love of high-risk activities comes to him from his father,” Audrey said. The trip was a gift from his kids. Bryan plans to take Steve hang gliding soon.
The family also enjoyed quieter activities like swimming, camping, and hiking.
Over Bryan’s middle school summers, when Audrey was off work as a teacher and taking a break from her myriad graduate degree programs, she would take the children on hiking trips with a special incentive. Once they had successfully scaled 10 peaks (and posted Polaroids from each on the family fridge), Steve would take time off work and the family could hike Mount Washington together.
Bryan loved these hikes. On one, when he was not yet in seventh grade, he sighed to his mom: ”I wish there was a longer trail.”
Audrey told him there was, something called the Appalachian Trail. “So I said ‘let’s go,’” Audrey remembered. It was decided: Audrey would take Bryan and four of his closest middle-school friends on a four-week trek the following summer, before Bryan’s eighth grade year. Steve would meet them to stock supplies along the way.
“I really felt like that time in his life, for a young man—to be outside and to become self-sufficient and confident in himself—was really important,” Audrey said.
With medical waivers signed—Audrey’s idea, “God knows what happens out there”—the team took off. On trail, the teens thrived. Bryan wasn’t naturally as fast as his friends, but he made up for it with tenacity. Even in the woods, Bryan found ways to compete. He staged peeing contests with his friends: Who could pee the farthest? Who could hit that tree? Who could go the longest without peeing?
Peeing games were one way of taking the edge off the group’s 20-mile days. Others included hot chocolate with 5:00 AM oatmeal breakfasts. Each day started early in order to beat the crowds to the next overnight shelter. Audrey, whose fragile knees kept her moving slowly over the treacherous path, couldn’t keep pace with the boys. “In my defense,” she said, “my 50-pound pack was twice as heavy as theirs—I was carrying all the food.”
But her 13-year-old son was happy to abandon his friends to hang back. “He was a great hiking buddy,” Audrey said. Mother and son discussed anything and everything. They talked about the origins of the universe. They proposed theories as to why one gray squirrel followed them for two days. They also talked music.
The hike was “one of the most impactful experiences of my life, for sure,” Bryan said. Whether playing poker for money while his high school classmates studied for tests, or dropping out of college to pursue it full time—Bryan has always taken the road less traveled. Hiking the Appalachian Trail with his mom was an early lesson in how valuable that could be. “I was doing something that was so different than what [any of my friends or classmates] had done,” he remembered.
Bryan, whose unusual intelligence was clear from an early age, benefitted from experiences like this that allowed him to escape the strictures of traditional education. In seeking them out, Bryan found a co-conspirator in his mom.
The year before the Appalachian Trail trip, Steve took Bryan to Key West for a week during the school year. The school administration objected. They said Bryan would fail the grade if he left for the trip. So Audrey wrote a letter explaining his absence to the school. “Show me something that he will learn in school that is more valuable to a 13-year-old boy than a week spent with his father,” she remembered writing.
She drove him hours to play in Magic: The Gathering tournaments. She got him guitar lessons at age six, figuring that playing music would help him avoid social ostracization for his intelligence. She encouraged his digital explorations on the family’s Gateway PC. When he was looking at colleges, Audrey took Bryan to Seattle to check out DigiPen, the video game design college.
She opened his world to music that most children his age would not have enjoyed. She took Bryan—who now describes his music tastes as “eclectic” —to hear Tim McGraw open for another band, his first concert. “I wanted it to be a country concert,” Audrey said. “I told him his liver was too young to go to a rock concert. I didn't want him to get second-hand high.”
Audrey also bore the brunt of Bryan’s never-ending questions. “It was exhausting,” she said with a laugh. “With Bryan, you could never say something is the way it is ‘because’; you’d have to know why. You’d have to explain it in detail.” Bryan held his parents to high factual standards. “You could never be less than 100% truthful with Bryan,” Audrey explained. “We never told them about Santa or that there was an Easter Bunny. If they asked us specifically, I'd be like ‘I'm not telling you there's not, but there's a man who was named St. Nicholas…’ and then [Bryan] would get bored and wander off.”
The instances in which people he trusted were not 100% honest stand out in his memory. Manie, who shared a bedroom with Bryan and ran warm blooded, insisted on having the windows open while Bryan, perpetually skinny and cold, piled on the comforters. Manie told Bryan that animal noises outside the window came from New Hampshire’s fearsome wolverines. And Bryan, trusting as ever, believed him. “I can't even tell you when I realized that Wolverines don't live in New Hampshire,” Bryan said. “I love my older brother, but he definitely tortured me.”
Other than wolverines, Bryan enjoyed a largely happy upbringing. He credits his parents and the freedom they gave him. For their part, Audrey and Steve say their children’s good behavior required few boundaries.
“They weren’t perfect kids,” Audrey said, “but they were perfect for us.”
Cyberpunk Computer Lab
School didn’t offer Bryan the same freedom.
As a result, “he was basically very lazy” Audrey said. Stephen Morgan, Bryan’s class valedictorian and close friend, put it more charitably: ”He was optimizing for efficiency.” Stephen remembered feeling jealous that Bryan could get away with putting little to no work into his classes and still manage to succeed so consistently. “There were times in English he would get better grades than me when I actually read the book,” Stephen remembered. “Sometimes, I thought ‘man, I just want to rat you out!’”
From Bryan's perspective, most things in school were “pretty boring.”
The two exceptions were math and computer science—subjects that came particularly easily to him. It also helped that his computer science teacher, Chris Duggan, viewed the world a little more like he did. When Chris first met Bryan, he remembered thinking, “I wonder if I can teach him anything.”
Chris, whose formal computer science training consisted of a single Fortran course in 1969, had previously taught computer science at Lowell Technological Institute in Massachusetts. Without a PhD, it was up or out, and Chris decided to entertain a job offer at Newfound Regional High School, where Bryan went. There, he served as both a computer science teacher and the head of IT for the school district.
An old-school cyberpunk, Chris took an unconventional approach to teaching computer science.
“The way I ran things was: once you test out of computer literacy, I offered a basic programming course, and then advanced computer topics. You could take that more than once. Bryan would constantly sign up for advanced computer topics….He worked [on projects] very independently.”
The approach worked for Bryan, a precocious budding computer scientist. He blasted through yearlong course material in mere weeks and scored a perfect five on the AP computer science exam his freshman year. Not only was Bryan the best-scoring freshman in Newfound’s history, he was the only student in the school’s history to score a five on the AP CS exam period.
While Bryan was largely self-sufficient vis-a-vis the class’s academic material, Chris was able to impart wisdom in other ways. A sci-fi fan, Chris offered Bryan his first introduction to the genre with a gift of Snowcrash. It's one of Bryan’s all-time favorite books.
When Bryan graduated high school, Chris gave Bryan and his other advanced CS students a gift bag.
The bag contained:
Two of Chris’ original design t-shirts with the word “Prole” from George Orwell’s 1984 written across them.
An original mixtape featuring covers of classic rock-n-roll songs covered by unexpected artists—songs like Johnny B. Goode played by Jimi Hendrix.
A recording of Firesign Theatre, an improvisational comedy troupe that predated Monty Python, along with written scripts (Chris copied them out himself) of two of the group’s most famous sketches: We’re all Bozos on this Bus (about a clone) and Nick Danger.
A copy of the speech given by Pelonious to Laertes in Hamlet: “To Thine own self be true.”
A tape of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.
“There weren’t a lot of cyberpunks around [Danbury],” Bryan said. “He was that old school guy who was true, early days, hardcore cyberpunk.” Bryan’s life work shows the imprint of Chris’s idealism. Bryan has sought to build technology he finds interesting, rather than work that will enrich him. The ethos guides his work in other ways too: LayerZero will be open source when it launches.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Chris said, of this legacy. “I guess I had a good run.”
In other classes, Bryan was considerably less engaged. He was famous for waiting to finish his homework until the class period preceding the one in which it was due. He was expert in hiding the book he was actually reading inside of the textbook for the class he was sitting in.
The first time his Honors English teacher, Nancy Mills, caught him doing this, she reproached him. “His face turned beat red,” she remembered. “I felt so bad for picking on him that I didn’t do that again. It just became a thing where I gave him a look and he’d close his book and put it away.”
Despite this, Nancy, a veteran teacher at Newfound, appreciated his contributions. “He had a depth of thought that I didn’t expect at first,” she said. Bryan offered surprising insights, she remembered, and particularly enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. Bryan “never liked to waste time” in class, she said, shooting dirty looks and shushing those who did.
After conquering Chris’ computer science curriculum, Bryan ran out of academic runway. His parents advocated for an independent study, they even asked the school to allow him to get credit through a local university. The school, citing inadequate resources, demurred.
“That definitely dampened my love of learning,” Bryan remembered.
The experience shaped how he thinks about education today, especially when it came time to find a school for his oldest son, Benjamin. “I want my kids to experience life a little bit differently than I did,” he said. “What I want more than anything for my kids is the ability to explore the stuff that they find fascinating. Maybe that’s not technology; maybe that’s theater. Whatever it is, I want them to have the ability to find wonder in the world.”
When he finally found the right one—a private school in Vancouver that affords students a great deal of freedom—“they’re planting gardens, they have a woodworking studio, they do rocketry”—he went “crazy” to gain his son admission. “If he didn’t get in, I think we would have moved to Lisbon or Melbourne,” Bryan said.
Bryan now lectures to the school’s graduating class, as well as its AP calculus classes about his work and opportunities in technology. He will keynote the school’s annual programming competition this year.
His path blocked in computer science, Bryan decided to take another direction. “I did everything you could possibly do in high school,” he said. He joined three varsity sports, for a start.
Bryan wrestled. “He was always trying to gain weight,” Audrey remembered. Going into his freshman year of high school, Bryan was underweight—less than 75 pounds, well below the minimum 103-pound weight required for wrestling at the high school level. “It was a great summer,” Audrey said. “He did nothing but drink milkshakes and eat ice cream.”
Besides eating constantly, Bryan’s wrestling required that he practice his holds. Angela, his younger sister, was granted the unenviable distinction of being the “de facto wrestling dummy” for her older brother, who she looked up to religiously. “Our entire childhood,” she remembered, laughing, “it was never violent, but I definitely got put in all the holds.”
For all his efforts, Bryan performed well. He was one of five students in Newfound history to join the “100 Wins Club” of wrestlers who won 100 or more wrestling matches. He also went undefeated his senior year.
Bryan ran both cross-country and track. We asked Nancy Mills, Bryan’s English teacher, if she remembered how Bryan did as a runner. It turns out that her husband, Earl Mills, was Newfound’s track coach. “Honey, Bryan Pellegrino,” she yelled across the house. “How was he?”
“Average,” came the reply.
Bryan competed on the school’s math team, he joined science club, and he took part in improv comedy through an extracurricular called Destination Imagination. His team was good enough to make it to the organization’s Global Finals in Nashville, Tennessee, three years in a row. Stephen Morgan, who was also on the Destination Imagination team, remembers Bryan taking an unorthodox approach to one of the team’s sketches in Nashville.
They would give you some random object and you’d have to insert it into the sketch. The object [at nationals] was bees. So at one point in our sketch, we started yelling “BEES!”, and Bryan decided that he was getting attacked by bees, so he started flapping his hands and then they became killer bees. And Bryan pretended to get stung by these bees and die.
And he laid there starting halfway through the sketch and just laid there, in the middle of the stage, for the rest of it. He’s just so hardcore; he didn't care.
The foundational skill in improv is to learn to thrive amidst extreme uncertainty—invaluable training for running a crypto startup, where the ground is notoriously unsteady. “The most impressive thing about Bryan,” Joel Moxley, an investor in LayerZero said, “is seeing him navigate the dynamics of this business—who to partner with, juggling all the moving pieces in the ecosystem. It’s like watching a master at work.”
In life as in improv, Bryan pushed boundaries of convention, rocking shoulder-length hair, baggy sweatshirts (to keep his slight frame warm), and backwards baseball caps, which he was allowed to wear in between classes but not during them. “I looked like a punk from the town,” he said. “But I was super polite to everybody and did well and was smart. I was just happy to live in that enigmatic space.”
Bryan also liked to play card games with his friends in between classes—an activity prohibited by school administration after a school board member visited the school one day and found kids playing cards in the halls. “It could lead to gambling,” Nancy Mills explained, summing up the administrators’ thinking, “which we can’t have.”
So in order to play their games of hearts and kitty whist, Bryan and his friends hid their cards under the table. “The funny thing,” Stephen remembers, “is that there were kids throwing food. And yet we were the ones getting yelled at for playing hearts.”
As the game-playing ringleader, “Bryan was well liked,” Nancy Mills remembered. He had a number of good friends in high school, was captain of his wrestling team, and even had a couple of girlfriends.
After school, Bryan and his friends would sometimes go over to the next town, Bristol, to spend time at the community center. But their favorite haunts were each other’s houses. And at an age where most teenagers suddenly find their parents painfully uncool, Bryan was happy to have his friends come over to his place. “He could not be embarrassed,” Audrey remembered.
It helped that his friends liked his parents. “Honestly,” Stephen said, “Bryan’s parents are the nicest people ever.”
PREPARATION: The game becomes a life
When Bryan was fifteen, he was selected to be a part of the Presidential Classroom program. Hosted at Georgetown, it brought together promising high schoolers from across the country to experience the upright splendor of Washington, DC, and inspire them to join the honorable tradition of American public service.
With $20 dollars in spending money from his mother, Bryan flew to the nation’s capital. There, he was less impressed with grand monuments and more interested in a new game, introduced to him by an off-beat new friend. “He certainly didn’t care about being a future leader,” Bryan said, smiling. “He was just this degenerate, funny kid.”
Bryan doesn’t remember his name, but he remembers what happened next: the boy invited Bryan to join an illicit game of poker. He thought, “A new game to learn—exciting!”
The nation’s future leaders brought out all the pennies, nickels, and dimes they had in their pockets and started playing. Bryan won a few bucks. “Okay, I think I understand this game,” Bryan remembered thinking. The stakes rose and Bryan put up all $20 of his mother’s money—risk tolerance on full display. Not only did Bryan not lose Audrey’s $20, he came away from the game with $60, which he spent on a gray Georgetown hoodie. “I still have that hoodie hanging in my house today,“ Bryan said.
As Bryan was leaving the program, the poker pied piper casually mentioned something that would change the course of Bryan’s life.
“You know,” he said, ”you can play poker online.”
Thank you, as always, for reading to the end. This has been Part One of our 3-part series on Bryan Pellegrino: The poker champion revolutionizing web3.
Over the next several weeks, we will be bringing you Parts Two and Three of the series. We’ll cover Bryan’s adventures in poker, meeting his wife in Budapest, his various entrepreneurial pursuits, his groundbreaking work in AI, and his pioneering work in crypto with LayerZero. Be sure to subscribe to get it all straight to your inbox.
We’ll be continuing our coverage of technologists, financiers, and operators in the coming weeks—starting with Steve Jurvetson, followed by Josh Wolfe and Carl Icahn. Further down the pipeline, we’ll also be returning to our six-part series on founding venture capitalist Arthur Rock, and Part 2 on Bob Iger. Other people we’d love to cover include Vitalik Buterin, Laura Deming, Dan Rose, Sam Bankman-Fried, Jack Dorsey, Roelof Botha, and Evan Moore. If you know any of these people and feel moved to give us warm introductions, or even just personal stories, please reach out over email or Twitter.
See you next time,
Dan Scott and KG