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Fearless Finn -- Jani Vilmunen

by Sami Hernesaho |  Published: Aug 01, 2010

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Jani VilmunenFinnish player Jani Vilmunen is best known for his alias “KObyTAPOUT” on the high stakes tables at Full Tilt Poker. Late 2009, Vilmunen entered into a sponsorship deal with Full Tilt and now plays alongside his long-time friend Patrik Antonius, with great expectations for the rest of 2010.

Like Patrik Antonius and Ilari Sahamies, Vilmunen began his career in the old casino in Helsinki, Finland in the last millennium. The games were relatively easy back then and there were no players at the tables that took poker as a serious way to earn money.

“In those days playing poker was kind of a privilege for the wealthy businessmen,” said the fearless Finn. “They had made their fortunes in the stock market and played poker just for entertainment. I was among the first players who began considering playing poker as a profession. Then along came Ilari and Patrik and slowly the whole thing started to became more and more professional.

“When I go to the casino nowadays and sit at a table, the opposition is on a whole different level than it was 10 years ago. Then we used to clean out millionaires, now one must play against other professionals,” surmised Vilmunen.

He sees many similarities in the development of Finnish poker culture and the poker culture in Las Vegas. “Things used to be quite similar in Vegas a long time ago. There were rich businessmen and a few tough players like Doyle Brunson, who played to make money. Then the number of professional players began to grow and the nature of the game changed because of that. Naturally there are still some fish at the high stakes tables, but a lot fewer than before,” he said.

At the beginning of his career, Vilmunen lived for poker 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year round. “During the first year, when I went to bed, I thought about poker and poker was the first thing in my mind when I woke up in the morning,” he reminisced.

A Very Rough Year

The year 2009 ended in conflicting emotions for Vilmunen. On one hand, cash games, both online and live, ended in heavy losses, but in live poker he had won two big tournaments — the £5,000 buy-in World Series of Poker Europe pot-limit Omaha championship event played in London, as well as the $2,100 buy-in PokerStars World Cup of Online Poker pot-limit Omaha tournament.

But before Vilmunen won the championship event he had a really bad run when he lived in Las Vegas for a month. He played with Doyle Brunson, Ilari Sahamies, and other top names in high stakes poker with huge blinds for enormous pots in the legendary Bobby’s Room in Bellagio.

“I was constantly losing in Vegas,” said Vilmunen. “I started games every night with a $100,000 or $200,000 stack, which I usually managed to increase up to half a million or even a full million bucks. Then there was always that one hand, in which I lost it all.

“One day I grew my stack to $2.5 million and was temporarily making profit. Soon after the usual pattern continued. In the end I was down by a few million. Later on when the downswing continued online, for the first time in my life, I had to resort to an EV-counter found online to verify for myself if I indeed was as fucked up as the results would have me believe.

“I wasn’t,” he concluded.

The return to Finland wasn’t very happy. In addition to live games, a million had been lost online. A good friend of Vilmunen’s, Patrik Antonius, had loaned money to him and staked his games in Bellagio.

“In August and September I was really down. I had had huge losses and things were going straight to hell. I couldn’t sleep and to tell you the truth, I was fucking pissed off,” he recalled.

Something had to be done about the stress and the reasons behind it. A solution was found in a surprising direction. Vilmunen, who had fought with difficulties in concentrating for all of his life, took part in a meditation class.

“I knew right away, that this was the right thing for me,” he said. “I had lived my life thus far in a constant hectic state, never really focusing on anything. And when I am stressed focusing is even harder. With the help of my private tutor I started by just learning how to breathe, and how I could be more present in the situation. It is not just about meditation, for me it’s simultaneously a kind of way to learn to control my life.“

Jani Vilmunen

Life Changes

A lot of players, when in downswing, focus on looking for the reasons for it in things done at the table. Vilmunen knows the affects his game and results are on things away from the table.

“The end of summer and fall was a hard time for me, and I didn’t feel comfortable,” he admits. “I’ve always required a lot of space around me and my apartment those days didn’t offer enough of it. In addition to that, I spent most of my time at my girlfriend’s place, and running between two homes isn’t a good thing for a restless soul like mine.

“After serious planning and searching we found a new apartment in September. It had enough space to live and for me to be as I wanted to be. Thanks to finding a new apartment and moving in together with my girlfriend, I started to sleep well again and my game started to flow once more. Basically all my stress was gone in one night.”

And his game flowed better than good. A few days after signing the lease for the apartment, Vilmunen won the PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker Omaha championship and just a week after that he won the second ever WSOP bracelet for Finland. Online, he played consecutively for 16 hours, and at the WSOPE in London over three consecutive days he beat 152 opponents and bested Full Tilt Poker’s figurehead Howard Lederer heads-up.

“In the month following the move, I lost online only on one day, and that was the session I played extremely tired during WSOP Europe,” he stated.

“Once again I saw how little things affect my whole life in such drastic ways. Before moving, I hadn’t realised that in my big heap of trouble there was this comfort factor. On the other hand, I’ve always lived through both winning and losing streaks with full force. Success and failure both feed themselves.”

Surprisingly he confessed that before the big downswing last summer, he hadn’t really considered all the money he won or lost during his career to be that important. For Vilmunen the way and style he played and won was more important than all the euros and dollars. Usually it lead to playing unnecessarily complicated, when playing more straight forward would have made his statistics look something different than millions on the negative side.

“The money obtained by winning two world championships wasn’t a lot compared to the pots I lost in Vegas during summer,” he said. “But at the time those winnings were more important than ever before. Still, the most important thing was that I was able to prove that I could handle tough situations and in a type of game that’s not my strongest — tournament poker.

“It is a bit uncomfortable that the only aspect people talk when discussing poker is money. Poker is most of all a game where you try to play better than your opponents and crush them. Poker could, instead of money, be played for ranking points, in which case the game would be in it’s own way a whole lot cleaner.”

According to the Finn even now in poker one can make it to a certain level just by learning specific techniques from books. To him playing like a robot and making money does not represent true poker — a game in which everyone creates their own style using the weaknesses and flaws of their opponent.

“A lot of successful players might play the game completely without passion,” he declared. “One of the Dang brothers said in an interview that he plays just for the money. Because of statements like that, the game will never receive recognition like chess for example. Compared to chess, poker is a mix of skill, strategy, and psychology and in that sense I consider poker q more demanding multi-dimensional game.”

Pro Deal

Late last year Vilmunen signed with Full Tilt Poker. With this deal, his old online username “KobyTAPOUT” became history and he began playing under his own name in the cash games. By the end of 2009 he was in profit with the games played under his own name — about $150,000 dollars — while KobyTAPOUT had seen staggering losses of $1.3 million.

“The sponsorship deal doesn’t affect my cash games virtually at all,” he claimed. “The only difference is that now I strive to not embarrass my name as I have done to the aliases used previously.

“I used to feel bad just by looking at my alias after I had played a very bad session. Recently it hasn’t happened and I’ve had a good drive going on.”

He has already earned a couple of hundred thousand in dollars this year.

A part of why Full Tilt Poker offered him the deal might have been that Vilmunen beat Howard Lederer heads up in London. A bigger factor is that Patrik Antonius is deeply involved in the workings of Full Tilt, famous for its high stakes games.

“There are a lot of good but also a lot of bad players at Full Tilt Poker,” he posited. “I definitely believe I am among the better players on the team. I’m glad that I was offered a contract specifically as an Omaha player. Omaha is not the game that is the most played around the world. I believe and hope that I will be a profitable investment for Full Tilt Poker.”

The strong belief in himself and his own skills that Vilmunen has is proven by his trust that he will be able to return to the biggest tables on the site. If not in a year, then in two.

“I don’t consider it likely that I’ll be playing $500-$1,000 pot-limit Omaha tables in the beginning of the year, but that time will come eventually,” he admitted.

“This year my main goal is to focus on my profession as a poker player. Along that road I will find out where I come face-to-face with my capacity. I know that I can’t make changes and results in a single night, but I can measure myself and see if I have what it takes to reach my goals. If I return to play in the bigger games, it mustn’t be just for a while. I must be able to play profitably from that point onwards.”

The goals the Finn has set for himself are part of the full rearrangement of his life he has been undertaking for the past year.

“My eyes are finally open to what I’ve always been doing,” he declared. “If I feel that I have been given a gift of playing poker on a professional level, then it is a waste if I don’t use that gift and study the game even more. Everyone knows that to succeed you have to push yourself constantly.

“At the beginning of my playing career I had a dream to make poker something bigger for myself than it really is. But that dream has been buried many times along the years. Now I have a feeling, that I might still be able to do something. Not necessarily anything new, but something different nonetheless. The game cannot be taken forward unless you really think things through.”

Great Expectations

When Vilmunen recalls the indifference and irresponsibility that plagued his career, he is assured that from last autumn onwards he began to see, not only his game, but also his whole life in a different light.

“It wasn’t my time to make smart moves in poker for the first 11 years,” he admitted. “My strong faith is that after a really gloomy year my way of thinking has changed. Now I have a family and although I do this primarily for myself as a profession, I have to be responsible for a somewhat larger group than just myself. I know that I’ll always manage, but if I go broke once more, I couldn’t handle the idea of living at someone else’s expense.”

Vilmunen has great expectations for the rest of 2010. He believes this year will be the best one of his life, both at the tables as well as away from them.

“Young players are improving at tremendous rates, but I believe that I will also improve a whole lot because I’ve changed the way I think about the game,” he claimed.

“Thirty-seven years is quite a lot of years in the sense that you see if the wheel has turned back to square one once more. And that is being broke once more. I haven’t been broke once in five or six years. If I go broke in say, five years from now, it will be more and more difficult to get back on my feet again. The defiance of youth, but also the kind of creative madness required from a poker player is slowly drained away when you become older,” he says.

Vilmunen considers the current year as a stepping-stone for himself in the sense that he will see if he can still tackle the bigger games or is somewhere else entirely.

“If I don’t manage to reach my goal, I know that I’ve failed badly and that I have not followed the principles I have given myself,” he confided. “However, I don’t believe in the possibility that I would play poker for the next five years completely without passion. The hunger has returned and now I believe I am able to give much more than before as a tournament player.

“Playing poker goes hand-in-hand with my other life. I haven’t always done everything correctly outside the tables and I’ve caused myself situations where I haven’t always had a chance to do things the easy way.”

One telling thing about his new approach to life is that Vilmunen has begun, for the first time ever, to keep a record of his games.

“I want to document these first few months and follow the records to see if I’ve gone forward. When the year goes forward, I can see if I’m heading in the right direction.”

Self-confidence. Precisely the quality that makes Jani Vilmunen so fearless and dangerous. Spade Suit