The most powerful man in poker or yesterday’s news? Tony G talks about revolutions, losing millions and why he’s still a big nerd
Tony G stops mid-sentence to take a long, deep drag on his cigar. Staring at his phone he exhales, thick, milky-white smoke engulfing the table. It’s the fifth time he’s picked up the phone in an interview that has been plagued by distractions. A minute passes. Then another…
We’re sat outside the prestigious Kempinsky Palace Hotel in Portorož, Slovenia, a town awash with gaudy casinos, expensive boutiques and upmarket hotels. Of all the places to lay your head the Kempinsky is king. But even here, nestled among the Flash Harrys that surround us, Antanas ‘Tony G’ Guoga stands out. Sporting a Lacoste polo-shirt and Armani shades, the PokerNews owner and high-stakes pro exudes wealth and the hotel staff buzz around him like pin-striped mosquitoes.
I’ve travelled to Slovenia to discover what he’s been up to in recent years and luckily for me he’s still in a good mood from our photo shoot earlier. But that’s about to change. Leaning forward as if to shield our conversation from prying ears, his voice drops to whisper. ‘I lost about $10 million because of Black Friday.’ he says, slowly easing back into his chair.
During the photo shoot Guoga jumped into a mixture of Technicolor outfits – orange polo shirts, black bomber jackets and purple silks. He was the jester, acting on cue between each flash of the camera. But that energy has gone. Raking over the issues of Black Friday has killed his spark. Guoga is clearly incensed by a number of personal assurances and guarantees that have, he insists, been reneged upon by Full Tilt bosses. ‘Where’s the money?’ he says, twirling the cigar between his fingers. ‘Who’s taken it? There are a lot of questions that need to be considered.’
There’s anger written across his face, but it doesn’t come from a moralistic standpoint. Unlike many players who have had their fingers burned by Black Friday, Guoga understands what Lederer and the others are going through. In 2008, he signed a one year contract with online poker site T6 before it was shut down for being a ‘Ponzi scheme’ where investors are paid not from profits, but from subsequent investors’ money. It cost him millions in player refunds and the parallels between then and now are obvious.
But Guoga was quick to hold his hands up. He paid back 50 cents for every dollar lost and moved on. Sitting here in the baking 30 degree heat, he remembers it like it was yesterday. ‘It’s painful. You have a nice life, you have a big mansion, but you’ve got to look at the players who are suffering,’ he says.
‘My responsibility was 50% and I paid back everything I could afford. Pros that endorse poker rooms have responsibility, at least partially. Even people like Annie Duke and Phil Hellmuth, who had a large vested interest in UB, they should dig in now and pay. Even if it’s only 10 or 20 cents to the dollar, they have to cough up. Go and sell your house, go and sell what you’ve got, and put the money back in.’
In reality, though, he knows that’s unlikely. He snarls that players want to stay rich, they want to stay ‘greedy’. He believes there are high profile pros who should be digging deep to help pay players out, yet there’s no sign of them reaching into their pockets. According to Guoga, they’re dragging their feet, hoping that players will forget.
‘I’ve just had enough,’ he continues, thrusting the cigar into my face. ‘The people with a vested interest should be rounded up. That’s the only way they’re gonna pay.’
Dancing to a different beat
Twelve hours earlier I met Guoga a few miles from Portorož in the idyllic seaside town of Piran. Known to locals as Little Venice, Piran is famous for its main square, lined with bustling restaurants and bars. As my taxi pulls up, the place is alive with activity. Tourists and locals stagger about, expensive sports cars weave past pedestrians and everyone seems to have had one too many sangrias. Everyone except Guoga.
I find him sitting outside overlooking the Adriatic Coast talking business with friends. As I approach the table he stands. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he says in an accent that’s part Bond villain, part Ramsay Street. Unlike the others he’s drinking mint tea, part of a new healthy drive that’s seen him shed the pounds over recent months.
Pleasantries over, he returns to his seat, draping his arm around his new girlfriend Karina, a world champion dancer. The pair met during filming for Dancing with the Stars in Lithuania. ‘Tony’s a very talented man,’ she says without a hint of sarcasm. ‘If I can dance better than a moose I’ll be happy,’ he adds.
In a sneak preview the couple stand as the house band breaks into a chorus the 80s classic ‘Just the Two of Us’. As I watch them dance by the water’s edge it becomes apparent that the fire-breathing Tony G I expected to meet in Slovenia, the man best known for his sharp tongue and acerbic put downs, has changed.
The next day in Portorož I ask him whether he’s really moved on from the loudmouth image he cultivated over the years. ‘I’m still a piece of shit on the tables,’ he tells me. ‘I want to be part of a circus. I can be the clown, if that’s what everyone wants. That’s what I live for. I live for those moments, I live for the TV.’
But throughout my two days in his company I only catch a brief glimpse of the clown. Away from the cameras he is quiet – almost shy – and for such a TV lover, his recent absence from the game seems all the more peculiar. In three years Guoga’s only made one major final table at 2010’s WPT London High Roller, and aside from The Big Game, his TV appearances have been sporadic. So as the dust settles on another busy summer for poker, I’m interested to know why a man who lives for the big moments decided to give the biggest WSOP in history ‘a miss’. ‘The weather there’s so bad and you’re stuck, you become kind of a mule, there’s nothing else except poker,’ he says after a slight hesitation.
‘I love Vegas. It’s fun. But the World Series, it’s a grind. I don’t want to be a grinder anymore.’ Those days may be behind him, and maybe also are his days as one of poker’s elite players. There is no consistency. Few six-figure scores. No bracelets. To those on the outside he seems
to have lost his love for the game. But before I can question his desire he explains himself. To put it simply, he’s just not as good as everyone else. ‘I have a huge mouth and very little ability in the game,’ he adds. ‘I’m probably a bubble player, someone that’s rated much higher than he should be. But I have a lot of passion and a big heart. I love the game when I play. I encourage anyone else to achieve what I’ve achieved.
‘I got all my money from grinding in poker. That was all my capital. That’s how PokerNews was built. Through hard work. I put the money in that I earned.’
After buying PokerNews for $6,000 a decade ago, Guoga watched it grow into the market leader in up-to-theminute poker news, tracking over 100,000 unique hits a day. But that wasn’t enough. On top of a controlling interest in PokerNews, he is now head of delegation for Lithuanian Basketball, attaché for the Lithuanian Olympic Committee, involved with life and income protection insurance and has prominent roles in government and charities. There’s even a Tony G holiday resort in his home country, complete with eco-friendly cabins, open-air amphitheatre and assault courses (www.anupriskes.lt).
Seemingly, there isn’t a pie out there without his fingers in. But this is an uncertain world. One day you can be top of the pile, the next the Department of Justice can be banging at your door. And the recently crowned 2011 World Lithuanian of the Year knows there’s no time for complacency.
‘I have no right to be healthy, rich or successful in the future,’ he says between drags on his cigar. ‘You have to be aware that you might have to ride the buses again and I’m ready for that. Life is good, but you have to be successful at something all the time.’
For now, poker’s premier philanthropist is enjoying the moment. But while the business commitments keep adding up, his poker game is suffering. Unlike earlier in his career, poker is no longer everything. It’s a hobby, an outlet to release his stress. As he mentioned, the days of trying to make a living from the game are behind him. He doesn’t want to be that person anymore. All this leaves one question eating away at
me. Who does Tony G want to be?
Hotelier? Check. Delegate? Check. Media mogul? Check. His interests are so diverse that it’s hard to understand how he can lend himself fully to any one venture. I dig a little deeper and ask how much power he holds in each business, particularly PokerNews. ‘You have a chief editor and he runs it all,’ he tells me. ‘Sometimes I do a bit of screaming of what I want. But they don’t really listen to me all that much.’
The truth is, his a day-to-day role at PokerNews is minimal – there’s a CEO , CFO and Board of Directors to pull the main strings. Guoga’s got the controlling interest and that’s about it. But that’s not to say he isn’t proud of what he’s achieved. ‘We love our whole community in poker, and we love the game. We’re passionate and want the game to be healthy,’ he tells me, laughing off my suggestions that he’s the Rupert Murdoch of poker.
‘We want responsibility from the operators and we want accountability.’ And there lies the crux of Tony G’s current role in poker. He can be a clown one minute, full blown businessman the next, but to him his main role is to make sure that the game has a lot of integrity, that ‘it’s not corrupt’. ‘I’m not someone who is a ‘Yes Man’. I want to be honest, talk to players, find out what their problems are and improve on them.’
Vive la Revolution
Like Daniel Negreanu, Guoga’s known for his controversial blog posts and before making my way to Slovenia I spent time reading through his recent entries. Beneath all the bravado and playful xenophobia lies a glimpse of this integrity. ‘I need everyone to join me in the new revolution of poker,’ he says in one. When I ask him about the idea of
a revolution in poker he catches me by surprise. After all the talk of taking responsibility and broken promises, his call to arms isn’t in retaliation to Black Friday.
Apparently poker has much bigger problems. Issues like rakeback and a lack of invention are taking their toll. Ultimately, he says, poker is getting ‘boring’. ‘We need new concepts, things we’re not even thinking of yet,’ he tells me. ‘We have to get ahead of the curve. Whether it’s Google or Facebook, Full Tilt or PokerStars, no one can dominate forever. I think that something new will happen and there’ll be some evolution in how the game is played. Look at Rakeback, it’s such a stupid thing when you think about it. You could just charge less rake to start with.’
However, by that logic it seems strange then to find out that Guoga has a 100% rakeback deal with PartyPoker. ‘I never worry about that figure,’ he says, hesitantly. It’s not the last time he contradicts himself during our interview.
This concept of rake-free tournaments was put forward by Guoga to PartyPoker recently. And at the time of our meeting the online site is offering rake-free MTTs for all players. But he believes that’s just the start, that all poker should be rake free. That way you can attract
new sign ups and keep ‘the worst type of players’ from poker rooms.
Revenge of the nerd
Unlike most players whose results haven’t been up to scratch in recent years, Guoga’s honest about his limited ability. There’s no grandstanding. No hyperbole. But for some reason he can’t empathise with similar ‘bubble players’. I turn his attention to the recent SuperStar Showdown match with Victor ‘Isildur1’ Blom, arguably the game’s
biggest ‘bubble player’.
On that occasion, Blom finished $50k richer. But as Guoga is quick to tell me, that doesn’t make him the Swede a ‘special’ player. ‘I don’t think that he’s shown anyone that he’s a superstar,’ G baulks when I mention the defeat. ‘There’s been a lot of hype, but I don’t see any results. I don’t see any results in tournaments, I don’t see any consistent results as a winning player. He’s gotta get his finger out his arse and show us some class!’
Either Guoga can’t spot the similarities between him and Blom, or he chooses to ignore them. ‘I’m the only one who doesn’t have to win,’ he continues, chest puffed out and smiling. ‘I can just talk about it and that’s enough. Bring me more of those sorts of players that I can have fun with. I will just kill them all.’
He’s beginning to get defensive and I push things further by highlighting another recent contradiction. Last year, G attracted a wave of criticism for referring to all forum users as ‘nerds’. But by his own admission he’s a recuperated nerd. The only difference is that he’s been lucky enough to get out of the nerd closet and become a personality.
A keen chess player growing up, he could finish a Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds, loved computers and had very few friends. It wasn’t until he made a fortune playing poker in underground games throughout Russia that he shed this unfashionable image. ‘I might still be a nerd in a way but in life you do all you can, be as healthy as you can and do things that are good for you,’ he says. ‘That’s all you can control.’
Just as Guoga begins to address his past the interview pulls to another sudden stop. Karina has joined us at the table and where before Guoga was open, indulging me with long-winded answers, now he’s almost monosyllabic. The remaining time together feels like pulling teeth. Clearly he has other things on his mind.
Struggling to pull him back I turn once again to his favourite topic – business. Over the past two days he’s been most animated when discussing life outside of the game. But with so many interests and responsibilities, is he ever worried one day the money will dry up? Pushing my luck, I ask one final question. If everything fails tomorrow, how deep in the hole would Tony G be?
‘80-90% of my assets are probably exposed all the time’ he says candidly. ‘I’m not the sort of person that just wants to sit on money. You have to always be aware and ready for things to be not as good in the future. And if everything goes pear-shaped,
well, I’ll just play poker again.’
Interview over, the pair stand to say their goodbyes. As I walk away from the pool I turn to give them one last wave. Too late. They’re nowhere to be seen. All that remains is the smoking embers of a half-chewed cigar and an empty tea pot. The past two days have opened my eyes to the new world of Tony G. The outbursts are still there and so too is the
ego of old, but he seems much more concerned with the future than the past, of making a Tony G legacy that extends beyond the game. He’s a busy man, but ultimately he’s a happy man. And as I make my way through the hotel, somewhere in the distance I swear I can hear a phone ringing…
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