Jason Koon Interview
Monday, 22 June 2015
Pushing the envelope for a new poker generation.
It’s 11pm on a Thursday evening, and my housemate has just burst into my room to find out exactly why the there is an “earthquake” above her ceiling.
Now she’s recently found me in some compromising positions. But even she is knocked back when she discovers the cause of the noise. “Is that?..What the?..Are you actually? Why are you skipping?!”
The answer is simple. Jason Koon told me to.
A few days prior, Bluff Europe grabbed Koon when he had just landed in New York after getting in from California. While his body clock might not exactly be sure what time it is, he is fully aware of what day it is. “Oh man, they're all outside drinking green beers - I need to get outside and get me one of those.
It’s St Patrick's Day and not long since Koon took down The PokerStars “Super Tuesday” and the $50k High Roller at the LAPC within a matter of days for a combined payday of well over half a million dollars. In fact, by the time you read this piece you’ll know that he also chopped an Aria $25k at the end of the month for an extra $235,000. Yeah, he’s done ok.
It was what the kids who now control the game would call a “sick” month. So aside from the money aspect, which did Koon feel was a better achievement?
“The Super Tuesday has a much larger field (Koon, or “Jakoon85” as he goes by on PokerStars beat a field of 591 players to win $111,000) but the competition in those high rollers is insane. You of course get your fish; but hardly any fish showed up to that and those who did weren’t even “super-fish” - they were just tight.
"Super high rollers are just super polarised. You have the elite of the elite players and then some guys who barely even know the rules to poker. So you end up with this weird dynamic, often you’re levelling yourself when you have a weaker, businessman type of player in the middle - you get in these crazy guessing games against the other really good players - it makes for a lot of fun. It seems like every single time I get to a final table, I look across and Scott Seiver is there, or maybe two of the Germans and someone like Ike Haxton. It’s usually the same guys”.
Over the past few years, it’s fair to say that some of the businessmen who “barely know the rules” might have been getting better, but one thing is for certain, the elite players like Ike Haxton haven’t gotten any worse. The fields are tougher than ever and over the past few years a new breed of young wizard has been regularly ponying up hundreds of thousands of American dollars to sit at the table. Jason Koon is one of that new breed, and he’s more than ready to take the baton from the old guard.
Last summer Koon got into the final 20 in a couple of bracelet events, just missing out on a final table and a shot at the gold, but he also became one of the biggest bubble boys in history after missing out on a spot into the $1 million buyin Big One for One Drop. He came fourth in a $25k satellite, with the top two finishers earning themselves a seat and the third-place finisher earning themselves a $250,000 consolation prize.
However, after seeing what became of eventual satellite winner Connor Drinan, he might consider that he got off pretty lightly. (Drinan would be eventually be eliminated from the One Drop, losing with Aces against Aces). If anyone thought that was the only shot Koon would get at the big time, they would be proved wrong soon enough.
Koon wants to lead the charge of the next poker generation, and that's just one reason we've decided to sit down with him, but at this point you may still be asking yourself “who is jakoon1985?” This is a question that was asked in 2011, when Koon first came to the attention of many via a TwoPlusTwo thread where MTT reg “derek8” decided to go all “internet tough guy” and get into online chatbox verbals with a man he’d later find, much to his worry, was built like a tank. The thread remains on the front page of the MTT Community sub-forum and is now a piece of online poker folklore, with people posting helpful, reassuring advice such as “Seriously jakoon is not only 99% muscle, he also has that crazy look in his eye like he is capable of doing something he will later regret”.
Despite this “look in his eye”, Koon in real life is the polar opposite of how he is affectionately parodied in the thread. The past few years have seen him become one of the most popular players on the circuit, not just to the TwoPlusTwo crowd, but also to the mainstream poker audience and perhaps most importantly, to his peers. He can now count these people as his biggest competitors, and in some cases his greatest friends.
As we continue to chat, lots of names are dropped - the usual answers to these names would be, “yeah, he’s ok” or “he’s terrible”. Koon is just all about love. “I love that guy!” is pretty much is standard answer to anyone. But being part of the high stakes clique is something which is extremely important to Jason. Not because of the ego side, either: He clearly feels a kinship with everyone in the sense that all of this is building towards a different, if not necessarily financially higher purpose.
“The biggest thing is that no one who crushes high stakes plays just to make money. Everyone playing is here for a bigger purpose. No member of “Team Germany” is going to be defined as a poker player when they die. They’re all good guys, they’ll all want to do something big in the world. They just want more knowledge of who they are and what their purpose is. You can see the people who don’t get it, because they are very short-sighted. They think ‘it must be so awesome to have all that money’ - none of that matters to us, we just think ‘hey, let’s be good to one another, let’s work hard and good stuff will happen”.
We recently saw the passing of a UK legend, Dave Ulliott. The Devilfish was as old school as they come. He was everything your mother warned you about and more. The same can be said of many of the players in Vegas who have been idolised over the past three decades or so. But in the very recent history of our incredibly young game, the tide has turned.
“We don’t have the colourful characters wearing cowboy hats and screaming across the table. but we have these incredible talents who are all about life balance and making rational decisions, managing their money well - it really isn’t a gamblers world anymore - it’s a smart competitor's world.” Koon is not only smart, but just one look at it will prove that he’s about as competitive as they come.
Growing up in humble beginnings in West Virginia, Koon was a track star from the get-go and competed at college whilst obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in finance and an M.B.A.. But in a fate similar to many poker stars, it was a little time off the grid and nothing to do but sit on a computer that led the normally ever active Koon to online poker. “I hurt my hip at college, so I would just fire up the Red Hot Chili Peppers on repeat and play the $10 Midnight Madness on Full Tilt. I would get so into it and my heart would beat so fast, I was literally loving it. It still gives me goosebumps to think about. I ran into something I loved to do”.
Koon’s rise since shouldn’t be described as meteoric; he has been playing for a few years, but his rise has been progressively steady. Still, although he is now at almost at the ceiling of what any poker player wants to achieve in the game, he still remembers the original buzz of pwning noobs in $10 freezouts, “It’s the exact same feeling, maybe even better, than what I feel now playing these huge tournaments”.
Koon is quick to point out that it’s not all victory. His last trip to Asia’s high stakes capital, Macau, led to Koon getting “annihilated”. Scratch it up kid, take a few days off, do something which stimulates you. Hit the books and in Koon’s case, hit the gym.
Koon's love of fitness is well known, in part through his calls for people to join him for workouts, where he’ll offer help and advice. This isn’t one of those calls where Jason Mercier tweets looking for basketball players in Monaco – those tweets aren’t for you dear reader, they’re for people who can beat PLO $400. Koon’s offers to help people in the gym, however, are for everyone. He knows why we dodge the gym, he knows most of us don’t know what we’re doing. But he also knows it just takes someone like him to make us feel comfortable in that environment.
“It is nice because it's something people are interested in so that they can better themselves. Most people know the gym isn’t a quick fix. I’d usually sit down and talk about that a lot longer than I would about learning how to play poker. You see a lot of the same traits in people who are successful and getting in shape and those who do well in poker - it’s a lot about taking responsibility for yourself. If people just make excuses from the start, well then it’s that their mindset is bad. You need to realise the gym is really good for you, not just for your physical health and fitness. There are a lot of secondary things that come with it. You start with baby steps, learn the basics and then do get in above your head”.
It was this attitude that has helped Koon climb the social ladder within poker. This kid is practically friends with everyone on the circuit these days, and when you're battling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s probably a decent idea. Koon has remained pretty level-headed since gaining success in poker, something he likely developed from the experience of being a gifted athlete for many years prior, and he’s learned to manage confidence and not let it turn to much into arrogance.
If he closes people out, he’ll lose the very thing that people find amazingly appealing about him.
But aside from people like Bluff Europe telling him he’s amazing, how does he feel about all of the success and how has it changed his outlook on life? “I know it sounds like ‘oh yeah, the guy with money is telling me money isn’t important’ But you can’t cling to tightly to all this, because none of it really matters.
“It’s nice to have confidence in what you do and realise that you'll continue to do well if you keep working hard. It’s mostly about having that cushion, which I didn't always have growing up. Having financial security is a big deal - it’s just not everything. When I was poor I thought ‘if I can make money, I’ll show these guys’. But I went a got an MBA and then started to make a lot of money playing poker and I still didn't feel what I thought I would feel. It’s about a balance. Money will never be an issue for anyone as long as they take it for what it is and understand why they have to make it. If other areas of your life give you fulfilment too, money will never be an issue. You don’t have to be Ike to win at poker. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to make money within science. It’s all about persistence; if you want to make money, you will make money in my opinion, you’ll find a way”.
For Koon and many others in the higher reaches of the poker world, it truly isn’t about the money. Hanging out with such diverse, gifted characters gives people a lot and if like Koon you possess the willingness and humility to learn from others, you’ll greatly benefit from hanging around others. And this is something we can all do too if we just look at the qualities of those people we spend our lives around. “I hit it off with one or two of them and I started rooming with Ben (Tollerene) and met some people through him. My best friends in poker are Ben, Phil (Galfond) and David Benefield. Those are the guys who are my top boys. Away from there, it’s a large circle of friends and they’re the kind of people you wanna hang around. I’m good at things they aren’t like socialising, working out and cooking, and then we help each other out with stuff that we’re not as good at”.
“Even to this day I see qualities in people, maybe down to never having a dad. Whenever I see awesome qualities in people, I try to emulate them and take different pieces from them. I have a deep appreciation for almost every single person. I generally am fascinated by people and how they can be very bad at one thing but great at other things.
"That’s why I began to hit it off with everyone, because I’m genuinely interested in all the little things that combines to make people. What makes me happiest is helping people in the areas that they lack in, to give them a little bit more self-awareness. So I’m just doing this anyway and I start to meet these guys who are doing amazing things and playing high stakes. We all hit it off because all of those guys have extreme amounts of integrity, because you can’t play those stakes and be a scumbag - you’ll just get weeded out. It really is less of a thing of circumstance and more about their qualities. They are just exceptional people. When I started playing those stakes, I networked with those guys and they were as fascinated by me, as I was of them, because I feel them. I understand what their insecurities are and I’m not calling them out or anything, but when I see good in people, I like to give them a little more confidence and make them a little more aware.”
The market for high stakes heroes is going rapidly into decline. The games are continually getting tougher online. The kids who are crushing online either don’t want the limelight or don’t speak English well enough to bask in it. Even as someone with the whole package, Koon realises he’s in the wrong era.
“It’s a sign that the ceiling is hard to break through at this point. Back in the day, there was always a new young face coming up, whereas now - it’s still the guys in their mid-twenties who are coming up. There are obviously exceptions with like likes of Ole Schemion, but for the most part the barrier to entry to getting elite and poker is so hard now because it’s pretty difficult to grind out three million hands and have such a low win rate.
"The game just keeps getting tougher and tougher and tougher and I know at lot of us started a little late, but still early enough to play a lot of soft games which gave people like me a good cushion for our bankrolls. Now, all you have online are turbos or ZOOM where $2/$5 is harder than $200/$400 used to be.
"It’s scary, it really comes down to whether these the politicians in Washington decide to do what’s right. If that happens and poker comes back to the US, it won’t be like the ‘Moneymaker Effect’ but it will inject a lot more money back into the games. For now there is only so much money that can trickle up from the guys playing mid-stakes. Nowadays, most of these guys know their role, There used to be a lot of battling, a lot of climbing up the limits. It used to be that the worst case scenario was moving up and getting beat up and having to drop down and build it all up again beating the fish, but there aren’t many fish anymore - so you can’t have these battles, because you won’t recover.”
For now, Koon is happy to just keep plugging away at it, trying to get the odd six figure score online under the radar while forever chasing the seven figure wins in the live setting.
Back to that skipping rope. I know you're still wondering about it. It turns out when you want to act cool and start boxing you need to also be able to skip. When you’re in a boxing gym. In front of lots of scary boxers with rap sheets longer than Allen Kessler’s Hendon Mob mincashes, you don’t want to be the kid who can’t skip. It’s literally bad enough to warrant sacking off the project totally, but Jason Koon sees it completely differently.
“Those should be the things that persuade you. You should go out and buy yourself some rope, practise during the week and then when you turn up you can show everyone how well you're doing”.
So there you have it folks, get down the gym. Do work. Show everyone how it’s done.
Jason Koon is an elite pro instructor at RunItOnce.com. Subscriptions start from just $10 per month.