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Faraz Jaka — Poker Anarchist

World Poker Tour Player of the Year Revels in the Art of Rebellion

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Oct 01, 2010

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Faraz JakaSometimes a player seemingly comes out of nowhere to win millions of dollars in the crazy world of poker. It’s often attributed to pure luck or a white-hot streak of running well. Uneducated observers may view it simply as a fickle lottery of fate that they could never win. But rarely do we see the years of hard work that it took for a player to come to a deeper understanding of a complex game of imperfect information. Faraz Jaka is such a player. He struggled through self-doubt, losing a huge bankroll, and heavy criticism for playing the game his way — an unorthodox approach with an illusion of pedal-to-the-metal blind aggression. Yet, he knew what he was doing every step of the way. He’s garnered lifetime tournament winnings of more than $3.5 million and come painstakingly close to winning a number of major events. And it doesn’t look like the spotlight will turn away from him anytime in the near future. It’s worth viewing his journey from despair to self-assurance, if only to know that any one of us can achieve our poker dreams if we believe in them enough.

The Black Summer of 2005

With the click of a mouse, Faraz Jaka’s world came to a jolting halt. He pointed the cursor to his online-poker account-status page, and clicked. The cursor blinked frenetically in unison with Jaka’s racing heartbeat. And then he saw them, the two little words that would make him gasp: Zero Balance. He stared ahead with monitor-scorched eyeballs. Disbelief. Shock. How did this happen?

The summer of “Gamble Till You Drop, 2005,” had ended. In a few short weeks, Jaka would start his junior year at the University of Illinois. And he was broke. The irony of his situation wasn’t lost on the economics major. But then again, anyone’s judgment could be skewed by a massive overnight poker-bankroll infusion. The adrenaline-fueled greenback rush was intoxicating, if not addictive.

A six-figure windfall had grown from a $10,000 bankroll during a spring break week of banging heads with some of the game’s elite online players, including Internet legend Prahlad “Spirit Rock” Friedman and high-stakes specialist Ram Vaswani. At the time, Jaka was clueless regarding the caliber of players he’d chosen to go to war with; they were simply colorful names on a screen, just as he was. And for a while, blissful ignorance proved to be profitable. For seven straight days — with bloodshot eyes, gobbling tuna sandwiches, and with visions of banking $1 million a year — Jaka bounced between the $25-$50 and $100-$200 no-limit hold’em games. By the end of that week, he had amassed $175,000. A poker legend was born in the dorm, and shout-outs and high-fives greeted Jaka on campus as word of his online conquests spread.

Spring semester ended, and it was time for Jaka to conquer the poker world full time. The summer months were packed with extended excursions to Las Vegas to do battle in the Bellagio’s cash games, as well as 14-hour online sessions while at home in San Jose, California. The profits and losses swung like a razor-sharp pendulum on crack, ranging from $30,000 to $80,000 a day. Ultimately, the inescapable bad beats overtook him. Zero balance.

Jaka stumbled away from the computer monitor and collapsed on the bed as the room spiraled like a bad dream’s unending plummet. For once in his life, he didn’t have a plan up his sleeve. He took a few deep breaths to calm his heartbeat — and sighed. All of that money was gone, baby — gone.

A Seed is Planted

Jaka’s life in poker began as a curiosity during his freshman year in college, and he soon discovered that he was a natural hustler. The game was a battle for pots; to the victor went the spoils, and a little extra spending money for movies, hookah bars, and sharp designer clothes. But the $10 dorm games proved to be brutal to his limited cash flow. At one point, when he was down $180, he promised himself that he’d quit the game forever if he lost another $20. That never happened.

Faraz JakaOver the next three weeks, Jaka ran better than expectation and upped his bankroll to what felt like a life-changing $1,000. During the late-night games, friends quickly realized that Jaka’s fingers were like the jaws of a pit bull when it came to any two suited cards before the flop. He eventually earned the nickname “The Toilet,” for raking in monster pots with trashy flushes at showdown. When he ventured online to try his luck in low-stakes cash games, The Toilet took his name with him.

Next up on the poker-education agenda would be a foray into the campus fraternity tournament scene. The competition crumbled against Jaka’s come-and-get-me aggression, and he won the first three events that he entered, for a combined total of $700. At these games, he met Ben “chong94” Lefew, a player who would convince Jaka to rein in his crazy nature and use mathematics to support his natural poker instincts. Together, they played daily, and by pooling their bankrolls, they could take shots at bigger games and tougher opponents. Before long, the cash began to climb Jack-and-the-Beanstalk high. And the fairy tale would continue each weekend, as they left their classes in the rearview mirror on Thursday afternoons to fly to Vegas with a wad of cash stuffed in their pockets.

Overzealous Ambition Trumps Common Sense

Craig Tapscott: What concepts were you grasping early on that took your game to such a high level of success?

Faraz Jaka: I learned various concepts about the game from my friends. I never really read any poker books. My friends would read the strategy forums online, and then I would briefly talk to them. I picked things up pretty fast that way. Then, I started to experiment with the concepts — like three-betting, reshove zones, and so on — on my own. So, the way that I learned was just from playing a lot. But I still had no real understanding of bankroll management or what stakes I should be playing.

CT: So, what happened on your first trip to Las Vegas from school?

FJ: We landed and went straight to play at Bellagio. We took $5,000 apiece. I played the $10-$20 no-limit games, and together we made about $16,000 during our first trip. We went back to school on Monday, and did it all over again the next weekend.

CT: Most people perceive you as an online player who jumped into live play. But you actually built your game at the live tables, both at school and in Vegas.

FJ: That’s true. I feel like I’m kind of a hybrid of the old school and the new school. During the summer that I lost my bankroll, I went to Vegas and stayed at Bellagio for three weeks. I played live every single day. I went there with about $10,000, and had about $20,000 of my bankroll back home. That $30,000 was all that I had left from the $175,000 I had made online. At the end of three weeks, I had built that initial $10,000 up to about $80,000. I put in 12- to 30-hour sessions at Bellagio. Those three weeks in Vegas made me feel like I could really play the game. And, of course, I ran well. That gave me the confidence that I could do this for a living. But then I went home, and lost it all online.

Back to the Drawing Board

As the 2005 fall semester began, Jaka didn’t tell a soul about losing his entire $175,000 bankroll. Instead of focusing on classes, he borrowed a few hundred dollars from friends and jumped into the biggest online games that were available. Yet, the cycle repeated itself over and over again. “Now I’m going busto every other week,” said Jaka. “I didn’t know any better. I mean, that’s how I had made money the first time, right? At the same time, I had messed up my schoolwork and had nothing to show for it. This led me into a period of depression.”

Eventually, Jaka sought help from a trusted school counselor. The counselor thought it best that Jaka take a semester off from school to regain his mental, emotional, and physical health. The time that Jaka set aside for deep personal assessment away from school and poker brought a renewed perspective to his life, and eventually to his poker game.

CT: What advice did your counselor give you to help you rebuild your life?

FJ: When you’re depressed like that, you can’t think rationally at all, and you tend to feel trapped. You feel like you’re never going to be happy again. The most important thing I realized was that my feeling of despair was like a sickness; something was not wired correctly in my brain. My counselor advised me to get back to doing activities that I was good at, mainly to build my confidence back up. In high school, I was really good at basketball and track, and I used to enjoy writing poetry and rap lyrics. So, I started doing those things again. While doing them, it reminded me of those gratifying feelings back in high school when I was a track star. This whole process started to make me feel positive about my life again.

CT: What else did you learn during this challenging period?

FJ: I learned that doing well in poker will not make you happy. You need to have a good social life, a good love life, and a good relationship with your family. I also focused on my physical health, by working out and adjusting my diet. I needed to make sure that those things were balanced. Then, the other things didn’t affect me, because I had everything else going for me in my life.

CT: Did you start to play poker again as you began to feel better?

FJ: I started playing poker again from a different perspective. At around this time, I met Andy “BKiCe” Seth, who was having some success with online tournaments. He thought that maybe I should try them out. I started in the low buy-in events and $10 sit-and-goes. In these games, I found it easier to stay within my bankroll. In cash games, you fight the urge to jump into bigger and bigger games, but it’s hard to blow your money in tournament buy-ins. I had success right away. So, studying tournament play took over my life. I became much more familiar with the online world and started to work on the basics.

CT: As you patched some of the fundamental leaks in your game, did you begin to figure out what your natural talent for the game was that initially contributed to your success?

FJ: Game flow. I had a feel approach to the game from playing so much live. I would focus on how other people were playing. It’s important to know that. I mean, sometimes I would play any two cards, because I would feel that it was about time for an opponent to make a move or it was time for him to think that I was going to play a certain way. I relied on game flow because I didn’t know a lot of other fundamentals. Then, I started to learn basic tournament strategy from Andy Seth. Being able to put those two together made me a stronger player.

CT: What were you paying the closest attention to at the tables?

FJ: When it comes to game flow, I’m always thinking about the dynamics of the table. For example, this guy just lost a hand to that guy. How is that going to affect him? Sometimes my image is really bad with everyone at the table. So, when a new guy sits down, I know that he doesn’t know what’s going on at the table. So, I try to get into a silly pot with him, to make my image look even worse with everyone else. The whole table will think that I’m still playing crazily, but I’m not. I’m doing it against only that one guy.

The Art of Rebellion

The calculated devil-may-care style that Jaka brought to the tables confused and frustrated opponents. By the spring of 2007, he was coming into his own and climbing the ranks to challenge the best online players in the world. In one six-week period online, he cashed for more than $140,000, and a total of more than $500,000 by year’s end. Then, the following spring brought the biggest live win up to that point for Jaka, $104,900 at the L.A. Poker Classic.

That sweet taste of victory made him hungry for bigger paydays in live events. So, it was time to pull up stakes in Illinois and see the world. For the next two years, Jaka played in as many European Poker Tour events as possible, while still remaining one of online poker’s top-ranked players. And as he began to get more live events under his belt, he would become just as well-known for his style of dress as for his unrelenting pressure on an opponent’s chip stack.

CT: What’s with the wild, colorful shirts and array of fedora hats?

FJ: (Laughing) The way I play is actually very similar to the way I dress, if you really think about it. Sometimes I’m dressed colorfully and professionally in a suit, and sometimes I can be a bum in shorts and a jersey. Sometimes I’ll be really conservative and standard at the table, and other times I will be crazy and talking a lot. You don’t know what you’re going to get on any given day.

CT: Sounds like you’re a born entertainer.

FJ: I love to make people laugh or smile. I’m a big believer in positive energy. When you say negative things, negative things happen. Say and do positive things, and positive things will happen to you. And I’m really kind of goofy and playful at the table, and it confuses people. They’re not expecting that.

CT: It appears that you’re purposely painting a wacky image to perplex opponents.

FJ: True. To me, poker is an art form. And an artist never clearly defines what his picture is about; it’s left open for others to decide. I want to paint an unpredictable and ambiguous picture of my game. I don’t want people to be able to tell whether it’s logic or erratic behavior coming out of me. Sometimes I will do something at the table that is not profitable, just to toy with opponents or beat them out of a hand. I think this makes it close to impossible to put me on a specific range of hands. Also, I have a really good feel for my own image and what people think of me. It helps me to predict how my opponents are going to react to my play.

CT: Well, you seem to know what you’re doing … I think.

FJ: (Laughing) It’s really hard to say why I’m good at poker, because the things that I do are really hard to quantify. The stuff I’m talking about is so opinion-based that you can’t really say if it’s good or bad; it’s such a judgment call. And again, I think that’s for the best. It’s better to be a curious, controversial player, as that way, some people won’t respect you. That image can then pay off at the tables.

Faraz Jaka Wins World Poker Tour Season VIII Player of the Year

The Pièce de Résistance — World Poker Tour Player of the Year

As the 2009 World Series of Poker rolled around, Jaka continued to topple online tournaments. Then, a third-place finish in the WSOP $5,000 six-handed no-limit hold’em event, for $400,526, began a run of live final tables that brought recognition to him as one of the best in the world. At the same time, he began to garner respect from his peers for his unorthodox style of play and happy-go-lucky temperament at the table.

“Faraz’s style is very unique and hard to emulate profitably, much like Tom Dwan’s,” said successful pro Vivek Rajkumar. “Don’t be fooled, though. Faraz works hard and puts a lot of effort into his game, as his results over the past year show. There’s not much bad to be said about him; he’s classy and entertaining, and conducts himself well at the tables; he’s truly one of the good guys in the poker world.”

Riding high with confidence from the deep WSOP finish, Jaka marched through the field in the World Poker Tour Bellagio Cup V championship a week later, eventually finishing second for $774,000. In December’s WPT Doyle Brunson Classic, he came close to winning a major title once again, finishing third for $571,000. Then, as the 2010 WPT Championship approached in April, he found himself the front-runner in one of the most contested Player of the Year races in WPT history. By this time, playing at Bellagio felt like a home-court advantage, and he was determined to lock up the title. Despite the pressure, Jaka played his A-game and was among the chip leaders going into the day before the final table. He would dramatically bust out in 14th place when his flopped set of aces fell to eventual champion David Williams’ turned straight.

Jaka still had a sweat. There were four contenders for the Player of the Year title remaining in the field who could pass him in points. Impatient and still frustrated over his bust-out, Jaka grabbed a last-minute flight to Monte Carlo to compete in the EPT Grand Final. When the plane touched down, he immediately turned on his phone to the sound of dozens of text messages trumpeting congratulations. When Williams knocked out Shawn Buchanan in third place, Jaka became the first to win the coveted Player of the Year title without a victory in a single WPT event. 

CT: What’s next on the horizon for Faraz Jaka?

FJ: Well, I’ve always considered myself a businessman first and a poker player second. Since graduation from college, I’ve made sure that I’ve gotten myself to a solid place financially. I know the risks if I hit a downswing for six months, and now it won’t make a difference in how it affects my finances or how I feel about myself. That confidence carries forward for me at the poker table. I’ve started to put more time into my businesses, like the Axis Casterboarding Company and my real-estate investments. That’s the cycle I want to keep going back and forth with, business and poker. I’m passionate about both.

CT: Congratulations on all of your success. You never gave up on the belief that you could succeed in poker.

FJ: Thanks. Looking back now, I realize that losing that $175,000 was the best thing that ever happened to me. I took a long, hard look at what I’d done wrong, and learned from my mistakes. I realized that my happiness in life is not dependent on my results in poker. I’m happy with how far I’ve come, but I’m definitely still hungry. I won’t be satisfied until I get my big win in poker and own a multimillion-dollar business. And if it turns out that my view on that changes, it’ll be only because I want a little bit more. Spade Suit