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John Juanda Back in the Winner's Circle

Captures World Series of Poker Europe Main-Event Title

by Justin Marchand |  Published: Dec 31, 2008


You might be the most successful poker player among your group of friends. But imagine trying to be the best among Phil Ivey, Allen Cunningham, Daniel Negreanu, and Erik Seidel, longtime friends who, combined, have more than $40 million in tournament earnings and 21 World Series bracelets.

Imagine feeling pressured to keep up with a group of players who have amassed the sickest results in poker history.
Welcome to John Juanda's world.

John made it known that he was thinking of other things besides poker over the course of the last year or so. It wasn't that his resume was deficient. The Full Tilt team member had more than $7 million in lifetime tournament winnings and three World Series of Poker bracelets, but it was a five-year bracelet drought that had him a bit down on himself.

John said that he set a personal goal to win a bracelet every two years. "To be honest, I was a little embarrassed for not winning a bracelet for so many years," he said.

For the 37-year-old veteran, the story had gone like this for the past few years: Another final table, so what? Second place, forget about it.

The last major win for him was back in January 2006, when he won a million Australian dollars in the Australian Poker Championship speed-poker event. Despite netting more than $900,000 in 27 separate cashes since that time, John said his passion for the game subsided. It was to the point that he considered spreading his wings and putting his MBA to work in a business venture or heading back to school.

In September, however, the passion was rekindled after a killer trip to London. Juanda won the £10,000 WSOP Europe main event in what will go down as one of poker's most epic matches. For beating the 361 other players, he took home the largest payday of his career, more than $1.5 million, and his fourth bracelet, the most coveted of his illustrious career. Then, a day later, he finished runner-up in the £20,000 European Poker Tour high-roller event and put another $573,000 in his pocket.
The $2 million weekend moved him into ninth place on poker's all-time money list. It woke up a sleeping dragon, a man who is often lauded as one of the game's most intelligent all-around players, a master money manager, and a great guy.

"I'm really enjoying playing poker right now," John said, excitedly. "It's great to feel that interest and excitement again."


John said that before this summer's WSOP, he and his old friend Daniel Negreanu re-evaluated their preparation and game plan for the Series. "When we were younger, we were so hungry and motivated at the table," Juanda recalled. "The younger players are really tough and just as hungry and motivated as we once were. We both worked on stepping up our game with better preparation and focus. We knew we had to get hungry again."

The pep talk worked. Juanda cashed five times at the 2008 WSOP, for a total of more than $193,000. Negreanu made an even stronger showing, capturing his fourth bracelet and racking up more than $490,000 during a five-cash summer. But with the World Series adding a European leg, Juanda had a chance to one-up his old buddy in London.

Feeding Frenzy

The 2008 World Series of Poker Europe main event will go down in the record books for the quality and quantity of play. The slow structure resulted in a deep-stacked and talented final table (for full details of the event, see the sidebar on Page 68). It took 21 hours at the final table for a victor to emerge, and in the end, Juanda finally found his fortification with the major victory.

"It was both physically and mentally exhausting," Juanda stated. "But at the end it was very satisfying, because as a professional poker player this is what you dream about."

Juanda said he was especially impressed with runner-up Stanislav Alekhin and third-place finisher Ivan Demidov. "They both played really great. When it was down to three-handed, I told myself that I would rather play Stanislav than Ivan," he explained. "Ivan was particularly fearless, and it was apparent that he thinks through hands at a very high level. A player like that forces you to show some hands. I was fortunate to pick up a few hands, including one situation where I had aces in the small blind at the same time that Ivan flopped a flush draw. I waited until the turn to raise him, and at that point he was pretty much priced in. Playing with Ivan, it was easy to see how he was so successful this year at the WSOP. His run this year was no fluke, and I expect to see him at many more final tables."

Down to heads up, an epic eight-hour seesaw match ensued. "He (Alekhin) played me tough and gave me a good run for my money," John recalled. "I found out later that Stanislav is the Russian heads-up champion; so much for my read that he would be an easier heads-up opponent (laughing). But, I think, near the end, fatigue became a huge factor."

One hand where this showed was after Juanda flopped top pair on a K Q 7 board and raised all in after Alekhin's pot-sized lead. Stanislav, who held the 4 3 for just a 4-high flush draw, chose to gamble, and called and missed.

"I think in the end, Stanislav just felt like gambling. We had been playing for 19 hours, heads up for seven at that point, so fatigue can really become a factor, and both of us wanted a result," Juanda explained. "He may not have been getting the right price with the flush draw, but it was a chance to finish this marathon off, and I think that's why he ended up calling."

After this hand, Alekhin's stack was on life-support at 600,000, and Juanda, with 6.6 million, finished him off just five hands later.

In fact, Stanislav was only one card away from winning the event earlier in the match. On the 399th hand of the final table, which went 484 hands, all of the money went in preflop, with Juanda holding the A K against Alekhin's K J. A J 4 4 flop left Juanda with only an 18 percent chance of winning, but he hit a runner-runner straight with the Q on the turn and the 10 on the river. "For my opponent, this was the key hand," Juanda explained. "He was one card away from winning. That hand seemed to take a lot of wind out of his sail, and he was not able to fully recover."

For Juanda, however, he said the most important hand was one that he was able to lay down to Stanislav. John held the K 5 and raised preflop. The 6 5 2 flop brought him middle pair and a flush draw, and he bet the pot. The turn was the K, and again, after his opponent checked, Juanda slid in a large bet, which Alekhin called. The 3 on the river looked like an innocuous card. Stanislav checked, John again made a big bet, and was then raised all in.

"He had me covered, it was a huge pot, and the player who won that pot would be a monster chip leader," John explained. "This was one of those hands where sometimes you can get caught up in chasing the hand you had. I had two pair and a flush draw on the turn, and if you're not careful, that can affect your thinking on the river. The more I thought about it, though, I just felt like he had me beat, and most likely backdoored a flush. Sometimes you can be impulsive at times like that, and folding kept me alive, so that was one bullet dodged." After the match, John was told that Stanislav rivered a flush with the 4 2.

Old School

While John's tournament successes usually steal the headlines, he first cut his teeth as a cash-game player while an MBA student in Seattle. Unfortunately for him, he started in the hole. After completing his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State, he returned to his native Indonesia. John intended to work in the family building-materials business. Instead, an out-of-character bender at a casino racked up $15,000 in credit card charges. John decided that the best way to pay it off was to head back to the United States to get his master's degree. He figured his family would front the tuition money and he could parlay this money. His debt forgiveness plan was playing soft limit-hold'em games in between classes.

It took John only six months to eliminate the debt and build up a comfortable bankroll. He kept playing and kept winning, and after securing his master's degree, he moved to Los Angeles to give poker his full attention. By the end of a two-year stretch in which $10-$20 and $20-$40 hold'em were his main games, he had accumulated a "high five-figure, low six-figure bankroll," and never again found himself in a financial pinch.

John said his poker objective at the time was to build up an adequate bankroll that could withstand the high variance of tournament poker. After that objective was achieved, in late 1997, he began putting up consistent results in a variety of low buy-in events around Southern California. As the buy-ins got bigger, so did his results. In 2000, he won his first six-figure prize (United States Poker Championship, $159,000), and had a breakout year in 2001 when he had nearly 30 major-tournament cashes and earned more than $760,000. He won his first WSOP bracelet in 2002 and added two more in 2003, and soon, Juanda was a name that was synonymous with tournament poker success. At the same time, he enjoyed even bigger success in the cash games, routinely beating the biggest games, with stakes up to $1,500-$3,000, that Southern California had to offer.

John said, in a way, the game was a lot easier when he started playing. "Back then, if you played fundamentally sound, with good starting-hand requirements, were fairly aggressive, and didn't get caught up chasing, you had a big advantage," he recalled. That's not so anymore, he acknowledges. With aggression a steady constant in the game and a wholesale improvement in players' mathematical abilities, today's player, John said, is sharper and much tougher. "Now, you really have to step up your game and think at a higher level to beat the high-limit games," he said. He gives the online generation kudos for their success and approach. "But," he said, "I think poker is a situational game, and, like Doyle Brunson says, is a game of people. I think that even though the newer generation of player might have an edge in regard to math and probability, when it comes to reading players and situations, players like Ivey, Seidel, Negreanu, Cunningham, my generation, still have an edge. If you encounter the same situation so many times, even you cannot explain how to come to a certain conclusion, but there is something in your subconscious mind that points to other situations where a player behaved a similar way - the amount he bet, the way he acted."

John still plays live games today, but plays mainly online at Full Tilt. He can be found in all the big-action games, everything from $2,000-$4,000 H.O.R.S.E. to $500-$1,000 no-limit. "I've been playing online since Planet Poker in 1998, but I still have not quite figured it out," he laughed. "When I'm playing online, unlike in live games, it's much tougher for me to get a read on my opponents. Often, I'm worried that someone is trying to bluff me." Juanda's ability to read live players is legendary. "You often hear poker players saying things like, 'I can see through your soul.' Well, I believe that John Juanda can," Daniel Negreanu said. "He is the scariest player I've ever faced in terms of picking up on weakness and attacking it relentlessly."
John admitted that he was stuck pretty big earlier this year, to the tune of nearly $1.5 million. "But, this is one area of my game that I am really working to improve upon, my online game," he said. "I've made a big comeback and am now about even for the year."

While high-stakes live action keeps the skills sharp, it's the intersection of poker and international travel that has helped to renew John's love of the poker lifestyle. "Having played poker for so long now, about 12 years, I now prefer just tournaments to cash games, because playing tournaments allows me to do the things I most enjoy doing. They enable me to travel to a bunch of beautiful places, meet new people, learn new cultures." So far this year, John has traveled to Japan a half-dozen times. He's been back to Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, and was in Macau for China's first poker tournament.

It doesn't hurt that John does very well at international events. His first time in Australia, he won more than $700,000; at his first Monte Carlo Millions event, $500,000; and his first Aruba event, $130,000. And while it wasn't his first time in London, who is going to complain about how lousy the dollar's exchange rate is compared to the British pound after you win $2 million over a week?

Building a Successful Future

As mentioned, John began his poker pursuits when studying for his MBA. He went to school four nights a week, played poker the other three, and was able to beat the game. He sees education as a necessary foundation for long-term success in poker and any other competitive pursuit.

"When you're young, it's a horrible decision to quit school and focus strictly on poker," he stated. "Poker is always going to be there, and school helps you so much with poker; it helps you become a better decision-maker, and that is what poker is all about."

Everyone is going to run bad, he reminds the younger generation, who thinks poker is an easy paycheck and a constant provider. "That is why I have lots of respect for people like Doyle and Erik (Seidel); they have been in the business for a long time. It's kind of like the stock market. Anyone can pick a couple of stocks when the market is doing great, and many times those people think they are geniuses. But wait until the market turns against them. It's the same with poker. If you go back and look at the Card Player database from two or three years ago. You'll see lots of names of players who used to win, and win a lot. Anyone can run hot for a while; that is just the nature of the business. Getting a good education provides you with insurance, in case things do not work out the way you intended them to."

Juanda credits his good friend Erik Seidel as the person who has helped him not only with his poker game, but also in life. "He's probably taught me the most about how to have a well-balanced life outside of poker," he explained. "Some people just have an intense competitive focus, nerves of steel, and an unbelievable drive to win. For these sorts of players, like Phil Ivey, for example, the thrill of winning is enough. But I think that most people play for a purpose, or an endgame."

So, what is it that drives John these days? He is not enamored with seeing himself on TV. "So many of the poker shows are too concerned with creating characters, and are focused on the guys who are jumping up and down and screaming," John remarked. "What often gets lost is the subtlety, the beauty, and the artfulness of the game. I think they may be underestimating the audience. It's so much more interesting to watch tough decisions being made by great players," he said.

With a steady diet of international events at which he will represent Full Tilt, and the explosion of poker across the world, John plans on ratcheting up his rekindled passion for the game and hitting the road. But at the end of the day, this wise man says the game really is just a means to an end. "Ultimately, you have to realize that there is a much bigger world outside of poker. If you live just in the poker world for the rest of your life, you are going to be missing out on lots of beautiful things out there."

Poker Business Plan

John Juanda is respected by his peers as one of the wisest players in the game, at and away from the tables. He shared a few of the tips that have helped him succeed over the years.

Have great self-control. Avoid going on tilt, never play when tired, and never play when you have a negative frame of mind. I hear that lots of otherwise good players win 10 days in a row, and on the 11th day, something happens and they lose their composure and blow their entire bankroll. Most of the great players have zero tilt factor. Players like Phil Ivey, the late Chip Reese, Allen Cunningham, and Erik Seidel don't, or never did, steam. It doesn't matter how many bad beats they faced.

Pay attention. Poker is such a complex game. There are so many variables and so many things you have to think about. If you're in a tournament, there are so many elements to consider before a hand is even dealt: what the stack sizes are, who you think is desperate and will be moving in with less than premium hands, who will be aggressive, who the suckers are, what your custom strategy is for each and every one of the players at your table. Even when you're not in a hand, you have to pay attention to each player's style, so that you can pick up on anything that might help you in a future situation. It all comes down to taking advantage of the style that a player is playing at that moment. If you preoccupy your mind with bad beats and feel sorry for your bad luck, your judgment will be clouded and your decision-making will be poor.

Money management is very important, but this is a very highly misunderstood concept. A lot of non-winning players conveniently blame their "un-luck" on poor money-management skills. If you are not a winning player, you have nothing to manage. When things are going your way, there is nothing wrong with moving up in limits and taking a shot. But if it doesn't work out or when things begin running against you, there is nothing to be ashamed of by moving down a level or two. You have to throw your ego out the door. It is great to be competitive, but poker is a game of decision-making. You get rewarded for making good decisions. Normally, when you are running badly, you are not playing with confidence, and your decisions reflect this. Move down to a softer game, rebuild your confidence, and when you are making good decisions, move back up again. I've seen so many players do the opposite; they lose a week in a row and want to get their money back as soon as possible, so they jump into a much bigger game and, of course, get slaughtered.

WSOP Europe Main-Event Final Table: One for the Record Books
By Shane Gittes

A total of 362 of the world's finest poker players descended on London for the second World Series of Poker Europe main event. The hefty £10,000 buy-in ensured that the quality of play was outstanding throughout, as everyone aimed for the £868,800 that the latest WSOP bracelet winner would receive. The first few days saw huge names such as Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, and Doyle Brunson all hit the rail, while other stars such as Mike Matusow and Johnny Lodden made the money but fell just short of the final table.

As the final table was set, it appeared to be one of the most exciting in a long time. John Juanda was the chip leader, with the effervescent Daniel Negreanu hot on his heels, while the play of the two Russians, Stanislav Alekhin and Ivan Demidov, had everyone in the Empire Casino talking all week. Clad in an imposing hood and shades, Alekhin had tormented Hellmuth before his elimination, and had gone on to dominate the tournament. His compatriot Demidov already had made poker history by reaching this final table, to go along with his participation in the hallowed "November Nine" WSOP main event.

The final table lived up to all the hype by lasting an incredible 21 hours, eight of those in the heads-up match between Alekhin and eventual victor Juanda. This shattered the record for the longest final table in WSOP history, and ensured that this event will go down as one of the most epic matches in poker history.

As they lined up at the start of play, the chip counts looked like this:

Seat 1: Robin Keston, UK, 849,000
Seat 2: Daniel Negreanu, USA, 1,002,000
Seat 3: Chris Elliott, UK, 281,000
Seat 4: Bengt Sonnert, Sweden, 385,000
Seat 5: John Juanda, USA, 1,349,000
Seat 6: Ivan Demidov, Russia, 1,006,000
Seat 7: Toni Hiltunen, 386,000
Seat 8: Scott Fischman: 732,000
Seat 9: Stanislav Alekhin 1,278,000

Despite the snail's pace at the end, the final table got off to a roaring start with Chris Elliott's elimination in the first 30 minutes of play. Stanislav Alekhin raised to 32,000 and got a call from Elliott on the button. They both saw a flop of 10 9 2, and Alekhin led out for 45,000. Elliott called. The 7 on the turn was the card that prompted the carnage that followed. Alekhin decided to continue his aggression by betting enough to put Elliott to a decision for all of his chips. He couldn't have liked it, though, when Elliott snap-called him with 10 9 for top two pair. The Russian held the A 5 for the nut-flush draw. Elliott had only one card to fade to get right back in the mix. The river K sealed his fate, though, and without making a wrong move, Elliott was out in ninth place for £81,450.

After the first exit, there was a long lull in play, with most pots taken down by a single preflop raise. Alekhin and his countryman Ivan Demidov were starting to create a gap at the top of the leader board, while others such as Toni Hiltunen simply couldn't pick up a hand and get the motors running. He was the next out (£108,600 ) when he got all in on the button with pocket jacks, but was dominated by Alekhin's queens.

Robin Keston was next to go. After Demidov made a standard raise before the flop, Keston pushed with the A 8, and got a swift call from Demidov, holding the 9 9. The K 10 4 flop didn't help Keston. The 9 on the turn opened up a few doors, however, as Demidov spiked a set but Keston found an unlikely flush draw. The river was an anticlimactic 6. Keston fell by the wayside in seventh place for a nice cash of £135,750.

Stanislav Alekhin and Ivan Demidov were running over the table, playing aggressively but also simply having great hands at the important times. The experienced Scott Fischman was the next to feel their wrath, falling in sixth place for £171,950. Demidov made it 39,000 to go before the flop and found two callers, Fischman and Alekhin. An A J 10 flop fell, at which point Demidov checked, Fischman bet 45,000, and Alekhin raised to 135,000. Demidov got out of the way, yet Fischman moved all in, only to run straight into the nuts - Alekhin's K Q, for the flopped Broadway straight. Fischman's A Q was effectively playing for a chop, but the turn 4 and river 4 sealed his demise.

With five players remaining, and both Negreanu and Bengt Sonnert running dangerously low on chips, it was only a matter of time until there would be another collision. It was the fan-favorite Negreanu who eventually succumbed to Alekhin's sword next. Negreanu already had pushed all in numerous times without getting a caller, and when Alekhin put him all in from the small blind, Negreanu must have thought his A-9 would likely be in great shape against the Russian's range. Unfortunately, as was so often the case that day, the Russian had the cards to back up his aggression, as he flipped over the J J. The board was ace-less, and Negreanu left to a standing ovation to cash his £217,200 check and celebrate a brilliant WSOPE of three cashes in four events.

Needless to say, it was Alekhin who dispatched the likeable Sonnert in fourth place (£271,500) soon thereafter. All in preflop, the young Russian star again held the best of it - A-8 to Sonnert's dominated A-5. A K-10-8 flop more or less sealed it before a 3 on the turn meant that the Swedish cash-game pro was drawing dead.

In three-handed play, Full Tilt pro John Juanda was sandwiched in between Demidov and Alekhin. Demidov's dream of capturing WSOP main events in both Europe and across the pond was dashed in a great hand against Juanda. It opened with Juanda raising to 105,000, and Demidov calling. The flop was the 8 5 3, at which point Juanda checked and Demidov bet 170,000. Juanda just called. The turn J saw Juanda check again, and this time Demidov bet a large 450,000, only to see Juanda check-raise him all in. It didn't take Demidov long to realize that he was priced into the call with his Q 10, with plenty of straight and flush outs against Juanda's sneakily played pocket aces. The river bricked out, though, and Demidov was consoled with third place, £344,850, and a place in poker history.

With both Alekhin and Juanda being strong, aggressive, and fearless players, it looked like the heads-up battle would be a quick, merciful finale. Instead, for more than eight hours and 241 hands of poker, they played on without a winner. Alekhin had Juanda in huge trouble for much of the match, outchipping him by 6-1 for long stretches before Juanda got a crucial double-up that decimated the Russian's stack. Juanda raised from the button to 165,000 and Alekhin called. The flop fell K Q 7 and Alekhin led out into the initial raiser for 325,000. Juanda didn't think twice before moving all in. After thinking it over, the visibly exhausted Alekhin eventually made the call with just the 4 3, a flush draw. Juanda was ahead, but in danger, with K-6. The turn 4 was safe, and the 9 on the river saw Juanda take the initiative in the contest for what was surely the final time.

It was simply a formality from that point, with the brave Alekhin down to just 600,000, but after the heroics of the previous hours, nobody could be sure until it was finally over. A few hands of jostling later and the inevitable all-in clash happened. Alekhin pushed his dwindling stack in with A-9, and Juanda decided to try to end it there and then with the K 6. The flop sealed it - 6-6-2 for trips. Fittingly, the case 6 fell on the river for quads, making John Juanda the WSOPE main-event champion after one of the most memorable days of poker in history.