John Juanda Interview
Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Poker’s unassuming killer steps back into the limelight.
Raise your hands if you thought John Juanda had disappeared from the poker world? We didn’t and that’s why we tracked him down for a chat soon after his latest big money win.
For those in the know, John Juanda has always been something of a prodigious talent at the poker table. Quiet and unassuming yet deadly when the mood takes him, Juanda has always been at the apex of the poker world; even if he’s not always in the public eye. That fact became plain once again in October of this year when Juanda returned from his public hiatus to clinch his first EPT title in Barcelona.
An unflinching performance saw the high stakes pro overcome 1,693 entrants to claim trophy and $1,164,034 after beating England’s Steve Warburton heads-up. With the doubters silenced once again and his place at the top of the poker tree confirmed, we thought it was high time we caught up with Mr. Juanda and asked him a few questions. As ever he was a charming and eloquent, so sit back and find out why John Juanda is still one of the best in the business.
A Helping Hand from a Friend
“I don’t agree that I’m unreadable,” says John Juanda modestly when we put it to him that he is the most unblinking, serene and impenetrable creature ever to grace a poker table. And yet, while most people blink around 26 times per minute, Juanda seems to have narrowed down this particular automatic nerve reaction to about three times an hour, at the poker table at least.
How does he do it, and more importantly how does he stop dust from gathering on the surface of his eyeballs?
A few years ago, a good friend of mine who doesn’t even play poker was watching me play on TV and he told me that I did certain things when I had a big hand and did something else when I was bluffing and he was absolutely right,” he explains. “So now, sometimes I try to toss out a curve ball and do the exact opposite of what he saw.”
Wouldn’t you just love to know what his friend saw? Because as far as we’re concerned, this man could fool lie detectors, bamboozle FBI interrogators and outstare a rattlesnake, probably while taking a high-level Japanese proficiency test and riding a unicycle (see below).
The new super-healthy, bulked-up Juanda has just won the EPT Barcelona Main Event, having not played a single hand of poker in exactly one year. In fact, the last time he played was, fittingly, at the EPT Barcelona of 2014.
At one point, clad in a medical mask – his new thing, apparently – and nursing a short-stack that represented one third of the chips of his closest competitor, he refused to listen to talk of a chop.
“And forfeit the chance for a million?” he declared incredulously.
The King Retakes His Crown
Just hours later he was crowned champion.
“I was offered a chip count deal that supposedly rewarded the short stack,” says Juanda. “I was actually the shortest stack at the time so I probably should’ve taken the deal. But my thinking was that, with the chip situation – I had 4M and the other three players had at least 12M each – I expected they would play on the cautious side and first just try to outlast me.
“I thought that would give me the opportunity to play more aggressively. Also, I felt that if I could get my money in good once and double up, I’d be back in contention for the trophy.”
“Of course, none of those things actually happened, because I ended getting my money in with the worst of it and ended up tripling up,” he laughs.
“I wish I could tell you that the win was a result of my amazing play, but the truth is that I just ran really good the whole tournament.
“On Day 5, I was all in with Q-4 against a bigger stack with A-Q, and at the final table I was all in with KJ against two opponents who held A-K and 4-4. I ended up winning both of those hands.
“Ironically, I played each of those hands the way I should, it just happened that I had the worst hands when the cards were turned up and it also just happened that I won both of them with the worst hands. I also won a huge flip with A-K vs. Q-Q. It just goes to show you how much luck is involved in winning a large-field tournament.”
Modesty Belies a Poker Star
There he goes again, modest to a fault. Even his Twitter handle is the self-deprecating “LuckBoxJuanda.” But here is a man who has been quietly and unflinchingly crushing major poker tournaments since 1997. The win in Barcelona brings his lifetime tournament gross earnings to over $17 million, and puts him tenth on the all-time money list.
But of course, the best players understand the amount of luck in tournament poker perfectly. It gives them a realistic awareness of the dynamics and nuances of the game rather than a dangerously inflated perception of their own abilities. And having played at the highest level for almost two decades, “LuckBox” Juanda still questions himself scrupulously and strives for improvement, hence his year-long sabbatical.
This involved a recent brief flirtation with the Choice Center, the “personal development and leadership” program beloved of Daniel Negreanu and Antonio Esfandiari.
“I was having problem retaining my focus,” he says. “For example, I’d play a 12-hour poker session where there wasn’t one single hand I wasn’t involved in that I could recall the action from post flop to the river.
“So I ask my good friend Daniel Negreanu about Choice Centre and he recommended it. It was supposed to be a two-week program, and ended up doing only the first week. I felt like it wasn’t really for me, but I’d recommend it to a lot of the people I know. I didn’t regret doing it though. You can always learn something even if it’s not exactly what you expect.”
Juanda Gets Ripped
So instead, he concentrated on his fitness, with the help, naturally, of a series of prop bets. “Last year, during Christmas party, my good friend and I, after a few too many drinks, decided to bet good amount of money on pretty much everything that crossed our mind that night,” he says.
“They included running 5km, doing pull ups, hopping on one leg, riding a unicycle, running a marathon and taking the highest level Japanese proficiency test. When I sobered up, I realized that I’d bet so much that I really had to work on them because losing would have been painful.”
“We had many different bets but the three biggest ones were: Me doing 20 US Marine Corps pull ups, running 5km around the Tokyo Imperial Palace, and taking the N-1 Japanese proficiency test. I ended up winning most of the athletic bets but we canceled the Japanese test bet because it was a year of preparation before we could finally take the test in December, but after six months neither one of us felt like going through any more torture.”
His regime for those six months included, six days a week, running for one hour in the morning and then working out for one and a half hours in the gym in the evening. In between that, he also went to Japanese language school three and a half hours a day, five times a week, on top of private lessons of two hours a day.
“It was the most grueling six months of my life, but I am glad I did it,” he says.
A Nod to Japan
Juanda moved to Tokyo five years ago and a year later his son, Kenichi, was born. It’s the greatest city on the planet, he says. The best food, nicest people and the culture is the one he can “best relate to.”
The medical mask he now sports at the tables [you were wondering about that, right?] is a concession to Japanese culture and social consideration.
“In Japan people are very considerate to one another,” he explains. “When the Japanese are sick, they usually wear mask in public places as to not transmit the disease to others. I really like the idea behind that so I started doing the same thing.”
Are you planning on playing the big games in Macau any time soon, we ask.
“I used to play there pretty regularly, but I stopped playing when my son was born four years ago,” he says. “Right now, I like to keep a normal schedule and it’s tough to do that when you play in the big game because the game goes around the clock and the VIPs don’t like it if you can’t play long hours. Also, they are playing much bigger now than they used to. To be honest, I’d feel a little under-bankrolled after being out of the action for so long.”
Facing the Ugly Side of Poker
Just as Juanda was settling in his new homeland, Black Friday and the Full Tilt scandal broke, briefly dragging his name through the mud. Juanda was a former part-owner of the company, albeit it one who had no say in its management and who had been stonewalled when he had criticized members of the board, particularly Ray Bitar. He felt deeply betrayed by the actions of Bitar, Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson and particularly by Lederer’s subsequent attempt to spread the blame across Team Full Tilt.
Juanda is only too aware of what Daniel Colman called the “ugly side of poker,” and retweeted Colman’s notorious twoplustwo post in which he claimed he didn’t “owe poker a single thing” after winning the Big One for One Drop and refusing all requests for interviews.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to benefit financially from this game, but I have played it long enough to see the ugly side of this world,” wrote Colman. “It is not a game where the pros are always happy and living a fulfilling life.”
“I can relate to Dan Colman’s point of view,” says Juanda. “I grew up in a third world country where most people can’t afford to see a doctor when they are sick, so when I was younger I dreamed of being a doctor so I could help these people.
“Somehow, along the way, I ended up being a poker player, which is an occupation that I feel doesn’t have any real positive impact on others’ lives, so I do think about it. Although I have given up on being a doctor, I haven’t given up on finding ways to help others who may be less fortunate than I am.”
Still in Love with Poker
Despite this, he remains as enthused about the game as ever. Back in the early noughties a young Indonesian who had come to America to study business and had found a passion for poker, met Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu and Allen Cunningham, four young players making their way in the pre-boom demimonde that was the poker scene, where age and experience were usually the mark of the best players.
It’s extraordinary that, today, these four players remain at the very pinnacle of poker achievement when so many have fallen by the wayside.
“If you play poker for a living, sooner or later you are likely to have a bad run and having a close knit of poker playing friends, whose poker opinion you respect, can help you get out of the funk much quicker,” says John, of his relationship with “The Crew,” as they were known to some. “They can help you figure out if you have been unlucky for a long period of time or if you are actually playing badly.
“I think you have to be very passionate about the game in order to have a long and successful poker career,” he adds. “I have seen many amazingly talented poker players who enjoyed incredible amount of success for a few years and then decided to move on to other things. It doesn’t mean they are less talented, but they are just less passionate about poker.”