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A Poker Life - Jon Turner

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Nov 28, 2012

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It took a lot of gamble for Jon Turner to enter the world of professional poker. In 2005, the North Carolina native packed up his belongings and took a modest bankroll to Las Vegas to pursue a passion, with hopes of making some good money along the way.

For six years, Turner did just that. He became one of the highest ranked online players in the world and enjoyed plenty of live tournament success, especially at the World Series of Poker. Then, Black Friday stripped away almost everything from him.

Now, it’s taking a lot of gamble for Turner to stick with the profession he loves. Poker was good to him, but these days are a struggle. What used to be as simple as waking up and opening his laptop is now an arduous process that requires meticulous planning, many inconveniences, mounting expenses and days of international travel.
This is his story.

A Leap Of Faith

Jon Turner was born March 19, 1982 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As an only child, Turner had a strong relationship with his parents and grew up with a lot of his extended family nearby to offer their support.

After high school, Turner moved to nearby Raleigh to attend North Carolina State University, where he studied computer science. It was there that he discovered poker.

“I didn’t play a single hand of poker until I was 21 years old,” he confessed. “I just started watching it on television and like most players at the time, I got hooked. I messed around with some play money sites early on, but it wasn’t long before I was playing in regular home games with college buddies, often hosting the games myself. We started with $20 buy-in tournaments and $.25/$.50 no-limit cash games and eventually progressed to a regular $1-$2 cash game.”

Turner wasn’t always the best player around, but he was good enough to beat his buddies out of their beer money.

“The process was very gradual, but I made a lot of great friends in poker in those early days, and we just loved the game and were constantly helping each other improve,” said Turner. “I have very fond memories of those early days in poker and still remain friends with many of those I met and spent so much time with back then. I’m obviously a much better player today than before, but you didn’t have to be that great of a player to win back then, especially with the constant influx of new players in the game.”

Turner discovered he was becoming increasingly disinterested in computer science, but felt he was too invested in his chosen major to back out. Instead, he let his mind focus on poker.

“During my senior year of college, I was making the occasional poker trip with some buddies to both Atlantic City and Las Vegas. I still remember how nervous I was on my first trip, buying in for $60 at a $1-$2 no-limit game, the biggest cash game I’d ever played in! After I got comfortable, I found myself sitting in $2-$5 games regularly and doing really well. I didn’t win every trip, but I won enough to start my bankroll and give me the confidence that I could regularly beat the game and find success.”

Poker consumed Turner, despite it being far from what his parents had ever envisioned for him, and in the spring of 2005, he made up his mind to move to Las Vegas to pursue it full time. Once the spring semester was over, the then 23-year-old decided to take his $20,000 bankroll and make the official move to Las Vegas to turn pro.

“I was extremely confident that I could make it in Las Vegas, grinding out $2-$5 no-limit games, but it wasn’t like I had no back up plan. I just figured that if things went terribly wrong, I could just come back to Raleigh, finish up my degree and at least be satisfied that I took a shot while I could. It was a leap of faith. Fortunately, I had an amazing first month in Vegas, more than doubling my bankroll.”

Living The Good Life

With a successful start to his career, Turner was riding high on confidence and burying his opponents at the tables. He started out at the familiar $2-$5 cash game tables at Bellagio, but soon found himself gravitating towards big payday opportunities in tournaments.

“It wasn’t until I had moved that I discovered just how profitable online poker could be. Until that point, the most I would do online is grind eight-to-ten tables of $.25-$.50 cash games. I was very fortunate to experience immediate success in live tournaments in Las Vegas, even though I’m sure I was making some huge fundamental mistakes at the time. I only played two tourneys at the WSOP that first year, but I got 18th in a $3,000 event. After that, I couldn’t wait to play a live tourney almost every day. This love turned into a full blown obsession when I discovered just how much volume you could put in online. The fields were bigger and the payouts, especially on Sundays, could be life-changing.”

Because he was already situated with a decent bankroll, Turner jumped right into the $100 online tournaments. Before long, he was playing the biggest tournaments that the sites had to offer.

In a span of five years, Turner became one of the highest ranked online players in the world. He consistently finished near the top of Card Player’s Online Player of the Year race and cashed for over $2.5 million in the process. He was making solid scores on the live circuit as well, notching final table appearances at the WSOP, PCA and L.A. Poker Classic.

His online success had even attracted the attention of Full Tilt Poker, who signed him as a site representative in late 2007. Turner, a man who moved to Las Vegas with less than 100 buy-ins in his pocket, had now found sponsorship. In the spring of 2011, however, his world came crashing down around him.

Navigating The Rough Times

When the Department of Justice indicted Full Tilt Poker April 15, 2011, causing the site to shut down shortly thereafter, they also shut down a big chunk of Turner’s income.

“Black Friday nearly destroyed my life and not just because I happen to have six figures stuck on Full Tilt,” Turner said. “Overnight, my livelihood was taken from me. I had guaranteed income coming in with my sponsorship deal and more importantly, I had options when it came to poker. When the big live tournaments weren’t running, there was always action online to supplement my playing schedule. After Black Friday, I was left struggling to put in the same number of hours and as a result, my finances obviously suffered.”

Though he doesn’t sympathize with the mistakes made by Full Tilt management, Turner remains angry at the way the U.S. government decided to handle the situation. He doesn’t understand why the players had to suffer for mistakes made by others.

“It’s ironic that the United States government thinks that their actions were done to help the players,” he said. “All it has done is create a playing environment full of uncertainty. When I tell people who are unfamiliar with the poker world what I do for a living, they are flabbergasted that I have to leave the country to do what I did for many years from the comfort of my own home.”

Turner spent a few months trying to grind away at the live tables in Las Vegas before a new relationship sparked a cross-country move back to Cary, North Carolina. Over the last year, Turner estimates that he’s spent about five months outside of the United States, splitting time between the international tournament circuit and his online poker hub in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. He laments, “I often dream of being able to play a series like Pokerstars’ WCOOP from here in the States, not having to leave my family for a month at a time!”

Moving Forward

Turner has never gone broke in his poker career, but he admits that his bankroll isn’t what it used to be. Added expenses, a lack of profitable games and his current geographic location have all contributed to a down year. Still, Turner is optimistic about the future.

“I have a wonderful fiancé and a future step-daughter. I just released the third and final volume of a series called Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time that I co-wrote with Eric Lynch and Jon Van Fleet. I also just started getting back into making training videos for Poker VT. Thanks largely to the DOJ, my poker career is no longer thriving, and my future in it no longer feels absolutely certain, but I still lead a pretty great life and look forward to making the best of things.”

Though Turner must now travel hours to play live and online or risk playing in North Carolina’s various underground cash games, he remains adamant that he won’t quit playing the game he loves.

“I still love the game,” he said. “But I would be lying if I said I hadn’t ever thought about maybe one day having to find a new career, thanks to Black Friday. It’s never been a strong consideration though. I’m a poker player, and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep going as long as I can. It’s not ideal, but that’s the current state of the poker world.” ♠