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John Tabatabai's Table Talk

by Nick Ferro |  Published: Mar 01, 2008


John Tabatabai was the runner-up in the first World Series of Poker Europe main event, losing in head-ups play to Norwegian poker sensation Annette Obrestad. Many thought Tabatabai played the best poker of the tournament and was unlucky not to be crowned king of Europe. I caught up with him on a cold January afternoon in London.

Nick Ferro: Hi, John, how are you?

John Tabatabai:
I am very good, Sir.

NF: So, tell me, how does a degree-educated "wannabe" lawyer get into playing poker?

JT: It all started at school with friends, as I am very competitive; I have played chess for Wales at the international level, and this transfers into any sport I compete in. After losing a few pounds, I decided to research the game online and get some books on the topic and learn. I discovered you could practice online for free, so my association with poker began. I "cut my teeth" playing freerolls and progressed through to playing higher levels. At the university, I would play in between lessons; most of my peers paid for my "digs" at Reading University.

NF: Ha-ha. So was it the gambling that attracted you to poker?

JT: No, I don't consider myself a gambler in any sense; you could say I am risk-averse!

NF: So, what's the worst job you have ever had?

JT: Work experience - on a farm!

NF: So you were never a fisherman?

JT: No, that was a practical joke that started on the Bad Beat website. I have never even been fishing, no poker pun intended.

NF: Where does your nickname Kunkuwap come from?

JT: People ask me that all the time, and the story itself is an anticlimax. Kunkuwap is a word an old friend from school came up with. The word was fresh in my mind the following day when I opened up a Ladbrokes account, and there we have it. Although, once, outside a nightclub, a friend was involved in an altercation, so I decided to shout random words in an attempt to lighten the mood and chill things out; Kunkuwap was one of those words.

NF: You've had a lot of success online, haven't you?

JT: Yes, especially in the last year. Before that, I had tremendous swings, due to lack of knowledge and experience in bankroll management. Being with Bad Beat made it near impossible to have those swings.

NF: In a game that values experience so highly, you became pretty damn good pretty quickly.

JT: Without online poker, many of the new top players wouldn't be able to compete with the old-school professionals. With online poker, it is possible to get years of playing experience in a few weeks. You can analyze your play in-depth with the various online poker academies and schools; thank God for multitabling!

NF: What makes a good online player?

JT: Many things. I think one could write a book in response to that question. Everyone has varying styles, and all can be successful. I think the key is table selection. The difference between online and live is that you can view many tables across many sites within a short period of time, and play in the softest games.

NF: How would you describe your style of play?

JT: Sick and aggressive.

NF: Moving on to the World Series of Poker Europe, there were a lot of rumors floating around about how you raised the cash to play. We heard you were playing 40 to 48-hour sessions to boost your bankroll; can you elaborate?

JT: (Laughing out loud) I had not heard that rumour. It's actually not true in the slightest. My online sessions vary a lot; there is no standard. Generally, they are quite reasonable. I have on the odd occasion played a twenty 24-hour session, but that was because the game was good or I was playing extremely well or running hot - not because I was chasing the buy-in for a live tournament. My online play is sponsored by As a thank you, they bought me into the WSOPE.

NF: At the final table, you won a lot of admiration from fellow professionals for your style of play. Why do you think that was?

To be honest, I haven't seen any of the reviews or the commentary on the final table. Marcel Luske and Kirk Morrison did compliment me after the tournament, which felt really good. When I lost with the J J to Annette's Q J, Jamie Gold took me away from the table to offer some words of support. I think about it now and it all seems so surreal. But in the end, even the biggest names are human; they get dealt two random cards just like you and me. Once you eradicate the thoughts of them being superior or superstars, play your own game, and concentrate fully, most of their psychological edge disappears and then it's back to pure skill.

NF: Whom did you most fear at the final table?

JT: I was most wary of Annette, as I had been told that she is more deranged than I am! However, we didn't tangle until we were shorthanded. I think this was smart strategy on both our parts; otherwise, one of us would have been knocked out very early - that I'm sure of. Generally, I think it's pretty stupid to fear one person over another. If you don't respect all of the players, you'll donk off your chips. Anyone who makes the final table has considerable skill, intelligence, and ability to adjust to varying styles. I was constantly watching every player and seeing how they were adjusting and reacting after every hand to each of the players involved.

NF: You had a tough field at the final table; what did you think of the players?

JT: Aggressive! It was tough; most hands were double-raised preflop, meaning your tournament life was constantly under pressure if you made a mistake. Some players were flawless for days on end, but snapped at the final hurdle by making rash calls. It was great to pit my wits against great poker minds.

NF: Any great moments over the tournament that you would like to share with us?

JT: I called Jamie Gold a couple of times with just high cards and won. But the most surprising one was in the heads-up battle against Annette. The board read 8 7 6 3 2, I bet the pot on the river with the K Q, and she made a good read and called with the K J. We both laughed about that hand.

NF: So, were you pleased with your overall performance?

JT: Yes, I am extremely happy with my performance. It was possibly one of the toughest fields ever; how could I not be pleased? However, after I lost the last hand to Annette, I felt devastated. I play a lot of heads-up cash games online and do quite well. Once I was heads up with Annette, I knew it wouldn't be easy, but I was confident. Unfortunately, she played very well and I ended up on the wrong side of a "cooler."

NF: Poker players tend to party hard when they win big. Did you and your friends go out celebrating?

JT: The tournament ended at 3.30 a.m.; there wasn't anywhere to party, even in London! On a positive note, I did manage to buy every bottle of champagne in the casino. The remainder of the week was spent partying with various groups of friends; it was great, but also tiring; you've no sympathy, I know, I know.

NF: So now that you've been paid, what's going to change?

JT: Not much is going to change, to be honest. I will most likely take a break from the game and do a few other things to refocus - like more partying!

NF: Any shoutouts?

JT: Yes, to Bad for the mentoring, and Pokerpimp for the clothing!

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