Tony G is as well known for his trash talk as his quality poker player: “Sometimes I think, “I wish I hadn’t done that”, but on reflection I think, “It’s fine, that’s what happened, it’s no big deal”

A monster at the table and a stand-up guy away from the baize, Tony G is the Jekyll and Hyde of the poker world

Growing up in Kaunas, Lithuania, in the 1970s, a young boy called Antanas Guoga was learning the intricacies of chess. And learning fast. While most kids were trying to come to terms with basic reading and writing, Guoga was wiping the board with kids twice his age. At the age of seven he enrolled in a special chess school where he discovered his passion for something that was going to form the cornerstone of his life: competition. He loved winning. And he loved playing. Especially when the game, and the competition, was tough.

But life in communist Lithuania was also tough and so, when Antanas was just 13, the Guoga family decided to move to Melbourne, Australia. Life was much better and easier, but the cultural change meant Antanas never fitted. He was gifted academically but rather than keeping his head down and studying – ‘I didn’t think my mother wanted me to be a lawyer’ – he started looking around for ways of making money. He soon tired of washing cars and mowing lawns for change, and before long he spotted a gap in the market he thought he could fill. Guoga started taking sports bets and, in a country where betting on racing is as common as the sun, his illegal sideline prospered.

‘I started running a school book,’ he says. ‘Before long I had a few schools involved, not just mine, and I had other kids running books for me. It was a fairly big operation but eventually word got out and everyone turned on me to save themselves. I got kicked out of school in ninth grade, but I didn’t care. I loved it. Why go to school? There were lots of people betting on dogs and there was racing all the time in Australia, day and night.’

The graduate

He also discovered poker in Australia, and although he started playing Draw and Seven-Card Stud with his mates, it wasn’t until later that he found it was the game that was to provide his chosen path through life.

‘The Crown Casino opened in 1997 and I started playing there all the time, even though everyone said I was a really bad player,’ he remembers. ‘I also travelled over to Vegas a few times and went broke – mainly because I was too young to know what was what. It took a while to work out stuff – how much you need for a bankroll, how much to play with, and how much you need to have to deal with the fluctuations of gambling. This was my education. This was my university.’

And towards the tail end of the 1990s, after travelling through Austria and Hong Kong, Tony G – as he was now known from the name scrawled on the waiting boards in the poker rooms – graduated. He became a fearsome cash player and, despite the big tournament wins on his record, it’s ring games that he still sees as the meat and bones of poker. ‘Tournaments are a hobby to me. If there was a national competition I’d play if there was no money.’

But whether he’s playing cash or tournament poker, Tony G has a weapon that is feared more than his chips. He’s the first to admit that he’s always had a big mouth – it’s his deep desire to win, to triumph against the opposition, that brings it out. But he considers it a more valuable tool than mere venting. It enables him to be the table captain, to boss the game, and to crush his victims if he senses even the faintest whiff of weakness.

But his vocal performances haven’t always won him plaudits and some of his more extreme table antics have alienated him from a large number of people who see his behaviour as, at best, unsporting. After one infamous outburst against Surinder Sunar in the WPT Grand Prix de Paris, the normally unflappable Howard Lederer refused to shake his hand when he was knocked out.

It’s a side of him that’s completely at odds with the calm, softly-spoken man sitting in front of me at the moment. Talk to him about it though and he’s extremely comfortable with his behaviour. He sees the talk as part and parcel of the game, and he’s quick to point out that he never crosses the line. ‘You don’t want to get into people’s personal lives, their families,’ he says. ‘And I don’t abuse dealers. But in terms of the player, if I poke one needle and it starts working, then I’m in there. If I can see Surinder twitching I know it’s working and then more starts coming out of me and I can’t stop it. I don’t want to upset people or do bad things in life, but on the table it’s a sport, and I really want to win.’

I point out to him that talking to get an advantage in the game is one thing: if you’re at war with someone and you want their chips, then why shouldn’t you get in their face and start mouthing off at them? But what about when you’ve already beaten them? What about when someone’s busted out of a tournament and feeling like they’ve just been kicked in the stomach? I’m talking about the Ralph Perry incident in the Intercontinental Poker Championship and Tony G knows it. His tone instantly softens. ‘Ralph Perry – that’s not okay. It’s not really okay to rub it in when you knock ’em out,’ he says almost wistfully. And then he’s back to his normal ebullient self. ‘But I’m a really sweet winner,’ he grins. ‘And a really sweet loser. I like to enjoy the moment of winning and sometimes it can come out really bad.

‘Sometimes I think, “I wish I hadn’t done that”, but on reflection I think, “It’s fine, that’s what happened, it’s no big deal.” And I’ve got the game that’s good enough to get away with the sort of stuff that other players can’t. You can’t just walk in off the street and start giving it. I didn’t start behaving like that until I could walk the walk as well as do the talking.’

Mr. Nice Guy

But there was a markedly different Tony G at the Betfair Asian Poker Tour in Singapore. Sure, if you got near his table you could hear the familiar sprawling accent instructing people what to do, what not to do, reminding them who the table captain was and that they were at his university. But it never turned nasty. He never got upset, and never lost his temper. And from the penultimate day, he never looked like he was going to do anything but win.

The final table was a poker masterclass and, as soon as Lee Nelson was knocked out, there was only one ever going to be one outcome. It was a stunning showcase of his poker skills, but also how his mouth – when it’s running under control – can crush opponents and force them to make huge, elementary mistakes.

The first to feel his tongue was the chip leader, young Swede Samuel Lehtonen, who, after a dominating start and when holding a massive chip lead, starting cracking under the pressure. ‘I just let him know what he was doing,’ says Guoga. ‘As soon as he started making mistakes I let him know about it, and it got to the stage where he was asking me what he should be raising with. There were a few times he didn’t raise in position because I told him he needs to have at least Ace-high and he’d fold his hand. He was a massive chip leader and I was in real trouble. I had to do a bit of talking to try to get him off his chips. There was one point where I told him, “The wheels are off. The wheels have fallen off and you’re at the top of the mountain flying downhill. All you can do is hold on.” And that’s exactly what happened.’ And when it was heads-up, it was only a matter of time until Guoga bested his opponent. As is poker, it came down to one hand, when the local Singaporean player Joshua Ang had him beaten when he paired his Ace on the turn. Tony G knew he could still play him off the hand despite holding 8-2 on the 10-10-3-A-4 board. He put a massive bet of 500,000 in on the river (around a sixth of the entire chips in play) and then sat back and started eyeballing his opponent.

‘I managed to get to him that time,’ he remembers. ‘I said all he needed to do was put the money in and he’d win the hand. I made it very simple for him, but psychologically he couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. Psychologically he couldn’t break the fact that I was saying this and his subconscious mind was saying, “This can’t be true, he’s going to make you look very bad in front of all the people, he’s going to laugh at you as soon as you put your money in the pot.” And he managed to make one of the worst laydowns in the tournament. That’s poker, great poker in that hand, and I got away with it. After that he was crushed.’

Giving back

But he saved his best to last. Because after the trophy was handed over and he’d posed for photographs, signed autographs and shared a word with anyone that wanted to shake his hand, Tony G declared that he was giving half of his winnings to charity, and the impressive trophy to runner-up Joshua Ang, ‘so it can stay in Singapore’. As a gesture it was generous, but it was much more than that. This was Asia’s first major poker tournament and for Tony G it was imperative that poker was seen in a good light.

‘It’s a big amount. It definitely hurts me, but I think it’s important,’ he says. ‘I wanted the money to say that poker’s good for Singapore and good for Asia. Poker’s a sport, a game of skill, and very different to a game of roulette where everyone has to lose at some point. And society can win with poker and that’s what I wanted to show. I’d have been happy with second place, so why not take the second place money and have the victory as well? And that’s what I did.

‘I really hope it’s an example to other poker players. Barry Greenstein does it and although I’m not in a position to give all my winnings away now I might be in 12 months. I’d love to do that, to win a tournament and give it all away to needy causes, as it’s a great way of showing that the world can be more peaceful and more positive.’ And with that, Tony G shakes my hand, and leaves me with not only an impression of having been in the presence of a poker great, but with someone who genuinely wants to do the right thing. This might not come across on the table, but where would poker be without the characters – the Tony Gs, the Matusows and Hellmuths? And the moral of this story is that it pays to hold fire before passing judgement. First impressions can be misleading, especially when taken out of context. If you took what you found on the internet as gospel you’d have Tony G down as a loudmouth and a bully – someone that’s as unpleasant off the table as he is when he’s trying to win your chips. And you really couldn’t be any further from the mark.

The player

Name: Tony Guoga
Resides: Melbourne, Australia
Nickname: The Australian Airbag
Style of play:
Tournament winnings: $2,059,149
WPT titles: 1 (Bad Boys of Poker II)
Biggest win: 2005 European Poker Championships, London – £5,000 No-limit Hold’em; 1st, £260,000

Tony G is just one of the many great poker pro’s we interview in PokerPlayer magazine HERE

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