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Julian Gardner: Modest, Unsung Tournament Star

by Jesse May |  Published: Apr 06, 2005


It was late during day two of the 2004 World Series of Poker and I was standing in a corner behind a table in the back watching Julian Gardner, who might be the most talented poker player in the world, when all of the sudden a hoard of ESPN cameras appeared like a swarm of locusts. I figured they must be there for Julian, the 2002 WSOP runner-up who at that time became the youngest millionaire in the history of poker, but when a Hawaiian shirt in seat No. 9 busted out with a king high, the cameras followed the guy all the way out the door, returning only to interview the Welshman who knocked him out. "Who was that?" I asked an ESPN crew member. The producer looked at me aghast. "That's Sal's cousin, man!" I was blank. "From the Jimmy Kimmel Live show!" And then as an afterthought, the producer asked, "Why? Anyone else famous at this table?"

In today's world of self-promotion, with poker having an "I'm the best, so look at me" mentality, it's almost an afterthought that the soft-spoken but hard-playing Julian Gardner even exists. Plenty of poker players have done very little and never stopped talking, but there are few, if any, who have won so much and are still content to let it roll off their backs, relaxed like the seaside. At 26 years of age, Gardner has already done more than most poker players could ever hope to achieve. But in a phone conversation during which I did my best to stoke Julian's ego and find his fire inside, there was only one thing on which the British player refused to waver-his modesty. You could say that Julian Gardner was born with cards in his hands. Julian's father, Dave, is a longtime and well-respected UK professional player, and Julian was raised amidst the busy Manchester poker scene. It was no big deal, then, when Julian won a 200 guilder no-limit hold'em tournament in Amsterdam shortly after turning 18. "I was getting a lot of experience in the casinos in Manchester from when I was 15," Julian recalled, "and Amsterdam was the first tournament I went to abroad. It wasn't such a big touch then, anyway," he said of the 36,000 guilders first prize, about $22,000 by today's rates. It was not too much if you were, like Julian, already traveling around and playing in the biggest tournaments and cash games that Europe had to offer. Julian proceeded to set European poker afire, with 25 final tables in major European events, according to one poker database, before turning 21. Still, Julian tries to downplay his early successes. "I did win 10 tournaments before I was 20," he admitted, "but mind you, the fields weren't as big or tough in those days."

It was in March of 2000 when Julian won the European Omaha Championships, a title that netted him nearly 500,000 French francs. He sealed that event by wiping the floor with a fast-playing Omaha specialist from Texas in a head-up battle that began with the Texan full of boast. The American confidently folded a full house on the turn, only to have Julian show him a monstrous bluff, and the Texan crumbled soon thereafter. Europeans had been talking about Julian as a World Series of Poker winner for years, and now with money in his pocket and of legal age to play in Las Vegas for the first time, a parlay seemed to be in order. Excitement went haywire early on in the main event as the first Internet reports claimed Julian as the WSOP chip leader! But it was a little premature, as Julian didn't even survive the first day. Laughing, Julian says of his first shot in the Big Dance, "I did get up to about $30,000 in the first couple of hours, but then I slaughtered [my chips]." The following year, Gardner skipped the main event entirely. "I didn't even go over [to Las Vegas] in 2001 because we had just bought a house and we had a lot on our plate at the time." 2002, however, was a different story, as Julian made his mark at the biggest poker tournament in the world by outlasting more than 800 runners to finish second to Robert Varkonyi and taking down $1.1 million in the process. Gardner remembers his most important hand from that WSOP: "On the first day, I called off a big bluff for all of my chips. Basically, after the last card, I just had a pair of tens with a queen kicker, and there was a flush on the board. [A player] set me in and I called him, and then I had $28,000." Julian finished that first day with more than $68,000 in chips. "It was much easier to get the next $40,000!" he laughed. "The rest of the tournament just seemed so intense, really, because from the second half of day one, I was always up there in the firing line with the chips."

Gardner is not one for regrets, although he admits now to wishing he'd approached the head up with Robert Varkonyi a little more seriously. "But," he pointed out, "the first tournament I played after coming second in the World Series was when I went back to Vegas in 2002 for The Hall of Fame [at the Four Queens]. And I won the $2,500 event, which was my first-ever win in America!"

Now, it's three years later and Julian has quietly made the WSOP main event his own. No one-hit wonder, Julian followed up his 2002 performance by finishing in the money in both the 2003 and 2004 events, coming in 54th and 32nd out of fields that have tripled in size. Much is made of Dan Harrington's feat of making back-to-back final tables at the WSOP over the past two years, but few have pointed to the fact that 26-year-old Julian Gardner is the only player in the world to have made the money in the WSOP main event for the last three years running. Asked to put this incredible bit of history into perspective, Julian only smiled and offered, "I guess it means I've come pretty close the last three years, and therefore I want to keep trying hard. There's so much to that tournament, down to the luck of the table draw." While most players of Julian's stature spend their days traveling on the worldwide poker tour, Julian is largely content to stay at home with his family and travel only when conditions suit him. "I was always delighted to have a local cash game to play in," he explained. "But now I'm a bit sick. I don't know how people can travel around to play; for me, the money is on the Internet." When Julian does pick up and travel to a tournament, it's usually because he's won his seat plus expenses on the Internet. "What used to send most of the pros skint in the long run was the expenses," he said, "but now [by winning satellites], I get all of my expenses thrown in, as well. I mean, in the past year, I've won into the World Series of Poker, Monte Carlo, and the Poker Million. It's the greatest thing in the world, really." Julian has made some concessions to his status as a poker celebrity. "The last two years, people have started asking for autographs," he admitted, and he's considering some requests he's received for private poker tuition. Julian also recently co-authored The Secrets of Online Power Poker, a manual for winning tournament play on the Internet. "The manual is for players new to the game or for people who have just watched it on TV," he explained. "It'll hopefully turn you from dead money into someone who's got a live chance."

Julian is one of only a few top pros not committed to a sponsorship deal as of yet. And although he's not saying never, it's certainly not his top priority. "There's a lot of sponsorship deals out there that don't seem like great deals at all," Julian maintains. "A deal that would be perfect for me would be to pick six or seven big events a year and that would be it." And for a man who values his freedom and who has learned how to earn based on his poker play alone, you'd be hard-pressed to tell Julian Gardner to accept anything less.