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A Poker Life: J.P. Kelly Already the Leading Bracelet Winner in the UK at Just 24 Years Old

by Ryan Lucchesi |  Published: Nov 12, 2010

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Up in the Air

J.P. Kelly is a 24-year-old professional poker player from Aylesbury, just outside of London in the United Kingdom. He is a UK member of Team PokerStars who travels the world playing in the largest buy-in poker tournaments.

He has found a community of friends to travel the globe with, and as he has become more comfortable with the lifestyle, the titles have begun to pile up. His first big victory on the world stage came at the World Series of Poker in 2009. He won a $1,500 pot-limit hold’em event and took home $194,434 and his first gold bracelet.

He established himself as the top young talent from the UK by winning his second bracelet just a few months later at the World Series of Poker Europe; he won the £1,000 no-limit hold’em event to add $225,535 to his career winnings, and became the only British player to hold two bracelets. That was when the poker fame started to roll in. “More people started to recognize me when I played. More people in America found out who I was. It was good for recognition of the achievement,” said Kelly.

With success came increased media attention, and then PokerStars approached him to become a member of Team PokerStars. He admits that the Team PokerStars patch is a bit of a target on his back, but the sponsorship has become liberating for a player who likes to play, and win, live tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic. “I do find that people play differently around me. It seems like sometimes they’re afraid of me or try to do something a little bit different because they think that I’m going to do something a little bit different. So, it means that sometimes I have to pull back, and sometimes I have to play really aggressively, because they give me so much credit. It can be tricky to work out which level they are on,” said Kelly of his opponents these days.

It would appear that even when the poker world is in London, Kelly never stays in the same place too long. When we caught up with him at the Empire Casino just off Leicester Square in central London, he was crashing with friends nearby to avoid the London traffic, which rivals some of the worst in the world. “I’ve got loads more good friends now, because it is more of the younger lot coming up now in the UK.

You’re hearing about Jake Cody and Toby Lewis, who are winning EPT and WPT events. I think you will see more of that group coming through,” said Kelly.

Kelly said that his group of friends on the road has helped keep him grounded and close to home, no matter where the tournament trail might take him from month to month and week to week. Even though he came into the poker world a few years ahead of some of his current friends, he admitted that he might learn more from them than the other way around. “A lot of them have their heads screwed on. I have made a few mistakes in my lifestyle with overspending. They are all very mature, so I have learned some stuff from them. I don’t think they need a mentor,” said Kelly.

Learning the Game in an Unconventional Way

The UK television program Late Night Poker has started many poker careers in Europe, the same way that the movie Rounders has in the United States. It’s also responsible for Kelly’s start in the game. He’d already been playing home games with friends and family, but the show’s top-level poker caught his attention, and he set about learning the game, hoping to earn a living on the felt. “I learned hold’em online, and then we used to play at school, as well, around the time I was 16. I started playing more and reading books. I went down to the casino and started winning local tournaments there,” said Kelly.

The live circuit in the UK is where he first made his mark, and the results have kept coming ever since. His first blip on the live-tournament radar came in 2005, when he won a tournament in Walsall. He soon found success at other UK events, and began to branch out in Europe. His first cash at a major live tournament came during season three of the European Poker Tour in 2006, when he finished 24th in the Barcelona main event, for $14,571.

He played in his first WSOP in 2007, and cashed in a $3,000 no-limit hold’em event. He returned the following year and made the final table of a $2,500 mixed hold’em/Omaha event, cashing in ninth place, for $22,598. Momentum was definitely building for Kelly, and in 2009, he put all of his experience and potential together to win his first and second bracelets. He now has more than $1.1 million in lifetime tournament earnings.

Despite what the natural progression of his success might suggest, it hasn’t always been easy for Kelly, and he still struggles to find balance between live and online play. “My game was pretty bad online, because I had been playing live too much. So, the initial struggle was finding a balance between the two. I took some time off from live and tried to work on my online game during my learning stretch. I may need to do that again, with all of my recent travel for live events,” said Kelly.

Kelly also took an abnormal path to poker success. He jumped over limits as erratically as he had jumped from live to online play. “I’m not the classic go-up-through-the-stakes example. I’ve always been aggressive with my bankroll, I guess. It accelerated my learning curve, but you can also get into trouble, so you have to find a balance,” said Kelly.

He advises that his winding path through the limits isn’t for everybody, but if you do choose that approach, it can lead to an advanced education on how to handle your emotions on the felt. “I can handle the swings quite well; it’s more a matter of deciding if you want to. I’m quite happy with playing medium stakes online, because it cuts down on the variance, but I know that I’m more than capable of playing for big stakes,” he said.

He also had a unique first view of the game, coming from the UK. The increased popularity of pot-limit Omaha, which is spread more frequently in Europe, gave him a tremendous resource for learning that form of poker well, even if it wasn’t the first form of poker that he learned. “I’m sure that most people learn hold’em first, because they’re introduced to it on TV. But some people might learn Omaha first. I think more people make the transition from Omaha to hold’em,” said Kelly when asked about the popularity of Omaha in Europe.

A later stage of his poker education came as he began to play more in the United States. “Europeans play a bit more aggressively preflop, and Americans like to see flops more. Europeans like to pop the pot early in the hand and win it right there,” said Kelly. “I think my post-flop play has improved as a result of that.”

A Poker Life Heads Into the Future

The fact that Kelly is the only UK player to win two bracelets at such a young age speaks volumes for his talent, and he is set for a long and prosperous career at the tables. If he continues to win bracelets with any kind of consistency in the near future, he will one day approach such big names as Hellmuth and Ivey on the all-time bracelet lists. The magnifying glass wasn’t focused on the game of poker when those two got their starts, the way that it is now, so tracking Kelly’s career from such an early stage could be a unique experience when examined 20 years down the line.

His future plans definitely include more travel on the tournament trail, with the WSOP and WSOP Europe as yearly fixtures on his calendar. As a member of Team PokerStars, he also will aggressively attack the EPT schedule throughout the year, but he also wants to turn his attention to the online arena, where he plays under the screen name of “jp Kelly.” “I have played a lot of tournaments this year, but I have been proving myself more and more in them, so I want to keep playing them,” said Kelly. “I also want to play cash games online. I had a good run in pot-limit Omaha at the start of the year, and I want to get back to that stage again. I feel like I’m not at that level right now, but I know that I can get back to it.”

He knows that whatever he decides to do, maintaining balance between the two poker mediums will continue to be a key to his success. “I get bored doing the same thing all the time. Some people like to play the same thing over and over every day, and that may work for them. You have to find what works for you and follow your own path,” he said.

As far as goals are concerned, he isn’t thinking too far down the line just yet. He takes it one tournament at a time and performs to the best of his ability in each event.

He also will try to find the same balance between life and poker that he is searching for between live and online play. Away from the felt, his interests include golf and tennis, and as always, he shares those two pursuits with friends. Sharing time with friends is important to Kelly. He also wants to become healthier, despite his on-the-road lifestyle. “I have already decided that after the EPT London, I’m going to start working out more. Right now, there is something going on every day, and there is no point in going to the gym for just one day and then never going again. A couple of my friends have weight-loss bets and body-fat-percentage bets, so I might investigate and see if I want to take on one of those bets,” said Kelly.

Whatever the future may hold, and whatever balance he strikes between poker and life or online play and live play, tomorrow’s prospects are bright for this young star from the UK. In years to come, he could be considered one of the greatest players in European history. ♠