Cash game turned tournament pro John Juanda talks us through his game: “I used to play in LA every day. In 2001, I was the biggest winner in the cash games there by a long way”

5th on the all-time money list, we meet up with John Juanda, an often-overlooked poker master

John Juanda may very well be the most underrated tournament player around today. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey and Allen Cunningham – three men who along with Juanda started out their illustrious poker careers as close friends in the mid 1990s.

But today, while Negreanu, Ivey and Cunningham continue to take the plaudits under the spotlight of the media, the fourth piece of that jigsaw remains something of a mystery to most.

However, avoiding the spotlight hasn’t caused Juanda any harm – when he first arrived in America from Indonesia in 1990, his lack of English resulted in a back seat being taken in social situations. This allowed him to develop the people-reading skills that have contributed to his eye-popping tournament record; since a breakthrough win at the World Poker Open in 2001, six WPT final tables have complemented three WSOP bracelets with $7 million in tournament winnings.

Years living on the breadline with no family and few friends have taught him something that a lot of poker players ignore; there’s more to life than fame and fortune. So just what is it that makes this silent danger man tick?

How did you first get into poker?

John Juanda: I started playing in 1996 with very little money. I had $100 and at the time I owed my credit card company $15,000. Within three months I won enough money to pay off my debt. But I didn’t move up levels for a long time. I was living by myself in the USA with no family and no long-term friends. So, I had to be very careful with my money.

So how long did it take you to move up to the really big games?

JJ: For four years I played very conservatively. I needed to. Where I’m from it wasn’t a cool thing to be a professional poker player. I couldn’t go home and tell my mum I had gone broke. Of all four of us [Juanda, Cunningham, Ivey and Negreanu] I was the only one who never ever went bust. Phil Ivey, as great as he is, has been broke before. It’s not because I am a better player than them, but because I simply couldn’t afford to.

What was the turning point for you?

JJ: I started playing in the bigger games after I won my first big tournament in Tunica.

How high did you start playing?

JJ: I was playing 400/800, and I even played the 4,000/8,000 game with Phil Ivey and Doyle and those guys. How did I do? I broke about even. They played a ridiculous number of games so in order to do well you have to learn them all. They were playing some games I had never played before like stud hi-lo with no qualifier, limit Omaha hi and a bunch of other crazy games.

You are best known as a tournament player, so a lot of people would find it strange to see you in the Big Game

JJ: I started off as a cash game player. I used to play in LA every day. In 2001, I was the biggest winner in the cash games there by a long way. If you added the second and third biggest winners in that game together, they wouldn’t have won as much as I did. Nowadays, I play most of my cash games online at Full Tilt.

Your game is based on reads and tells more than maths, so do you find it tough to play online?

JJ: It is much harder for me online. A lot of the players who rely on maths and betting patterns are better off online. I’m still a winner, but not as much as I would like to be. I have better results in the live game because I can watch and observe players.

How do you go about picking up tells at the table?

JJ: It’s instinctive. I spend 15 minutes observing the players and the pattern of the game then you just get a feel for it. The great players are all like that. You watch the game and figure out a way to take advantage of the situation. That is what poker is all about: figuring out the players and taking advantage of the situation.

Do you think of yourself as one of the world’s best players?

JJ: If you ask people who know poker, particularly no-limit tournaments, I’d be very surprised if I didn’t make the top five.

Do you think you get enough respect?

JJ: I’m not playing to satisfy other people. To be recognised by the public you have to spend a lot of time doing the media relationship thing. I’m not into doing interviews or writing articles. Most of the time I turn down interview requests. I don’t even play that much poker. I only like to play when the stakes are high and it means something.

You sound like a natural gambler. If I gave you 10/1 on a coin flip, how much would you bet?

JJ: I would have to bet all my money. Being a great gambler is all about having the best of it. I might have to bet all my money if you gave me 2/1. But 10/1? You got it man! I would bet it, then borrow more money to bet it again if I lost.

We asked Phil Ivey that question and he said he wouldn’t risk everything – he’d keep something back

JJ: Really? I’m surprised by that.

Do you think you and Phil have a different approach to gambling?

JJ: No. I think in reality he would bet all his money [laughs]. You have to at 10/1. Wouldn’t you bet all your money? If you lose it then you can always borrow from somebody and be staked for a while. It’s not that hard to get a backer.

With so much in the bank – and no desire for fame – what still drives you to play poker?

JJ: Other people’s opinions don’t matter to me much, but I do want to prove things to myself. When there is a high-stakes game with a lot of the top players in it, I love to play. I want to prove to myself that I’m better than anyone. It gives me a certain kind of satisfaction.

You have said before you wanted to leave the tables and become a doctor, so are you looking at life outside poker?

JJ: Absolutely. We don’t know what is going to happen after we die. I’m a Buddhist and I believe in reincarnation, but it might be our only time here so I want to make the most out of it. I feel like God gave me this great mind and I don’t want to just use it for poker. I was thinking of becoming a doctor, but now I am thinking more and more about going into research. Finding a cure for a terminal illness would be great and would be a much bigger accomplishment in my life than winning a couple more poker bracelets.

You can more great interviews like this in PokerPlayer magazine every month

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