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Online Player of the Year

Jon ‘apestyles’ Van Fleet

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jan 07, 2011


Jon “apestyles” Van Fleet has been one of the game’s most respected online professionals for the past five years. The New York-born and Texas-raised pro, fondly known as “ape,” took a $50 deposit in college and ran it up to a substantial bankroll. To date, the 29-year-old has amassed nearly $2.2 million in tournament earnings.

Despite his success, Van Fleet nearly lost it all, thanks to too much partying, bad bankroll management, and a big ego. Now living in Austin, Texas, Van Fleet has separated himself from the distractions and gotten his life in order, and now sits in the top five of the OPOY standings with just a few weeks remaining in the race at the time of this writing.

In this interview, Van Fleet discusses his start in poker, his downfall, and how he picked himself back up, and even offers up some advice for beginning players.
Julio Rodriguez: At 29 years old, you are a bit older than the typical online pro. How did it all begin?

Jon Van Fleet: The first time I played for money was in college in a simple $5 game with some friends. I was pretty terrible, and had no idea what was going on. I think I ended up losing around $20 to $25 in that game, which to a college student was a decent chunk of change.

At the time, I was into chess and very competitive, so it bothered me that my friends could beat me so easily at something. I started reading some poker books in my spare time, and before long I was beating that game. I put $50 online a couple of times, and that was pretty much it.

JR: You mentioned chess. How did you get involved with that game?

JVF: That was a similar situation. This guy I considered to be “not the sharpest knife in the drawer” beat me in chess. I ended up betting him $50 that I could beat him if he gave me three months to study. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the game and got pretty good. I played for only a few years because I realized that I started learning the game a little too late in life, and that it would be almost impossible for me to become a grandmaster. I still get steamed whenever I lose at anything, but at least now I’ve learned that I don’t need to go out and study something for months just to be able to beat my friends.

JR: You got your degree in psychology from Texas Tech University. How has it helped you in your poker game?

JVF: I think it helps in understanding the motivations of people, in trying to understand what makes people tick; it can definitely help at the poker table. My goal when I sit down to play is to discover how each individual approaches the game, and even make a few inferences about what the game means to the various players. Once you can step into somebody else’s shoes, it becomes much easier to make the right decisions against him.

This is something that you don’t need a psychology degree to do. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started playing was that I generally assumed that everyone played like me. I’d make huge hero calls just because I’d be able to convince myself that if it were me making the bet, I could conceivably have any two cards. Well, it took a while, but after being shown the nuts over and over again, I got the message.

Each hand that I observe contributes to an overall profile that I have for each player. Don’t get me wrong, people are complex. I don’t claim to be able to size up an individual just from a session of poker. Lately I’ve found that I’ve been able to visualize the game from all kinds of different perspectives, and that has ultimately brought me some success.

JR: By assuming that everyone else played your game, what kinds of mistakes were you making during your sessions?

JVF: I did my own study on how often the average player folds to reraises preflop. You would think that looser players would fold more often to reraises, simply because they generally have weaker hands. But I found that the two aren’t correlated. It turns out that even though tighter players are opening with stronger hands, they also are folding more often to three-bets.

Like me when I first started, other players are simply assuming that their opponents play like they do. The tight players raise and assume that when they are reraised, they are trailing a better hand. The loose players raise and assume that when they are reraised, their opponent is just as full of it as they are. Now, this isn’t concrete for each and every player, but it’s something to think about.

JR: You’ve always been one of the more consistent players in the online community. In 2007, you had a solid year, finishing in 35th place in the OPOY standings. In 2009, you finished 12th, and are looking at a top-10 finish in 2010. What happened in 2008?

JVF: I wasn’t running very well. Now, I’m not going to blame it all on bad luck. I’m a firm believer that when you run bad, you also start to play bad, and sometimes you don’t even realize it. The fact is that I was arrogant. I had a great year in 2007, and thought that I had the game solved. I told myself that I didn’t have anything else to learn, and spent my time drinking and partying at every opportunity. I had no work ethic whatsoever.

After the World Series of Poker in 2009, it had gotten to the point where I was nearly broke. Even worse, my health had taken a nosedive, and I was pushing 300 pounds. At that point, I told myself that I could be fat or broke, but not both. Since poker wasn’t going very well, I decided to focus on what I could change, which was my lifestyle. I started eating right and going to the gym, and coincidentally, poker started to go well, too. It’s amazing how the two go hand in hand. Within six months, I had lost 80 pounds and gone on a $300,000 upswing. Since August of 2009, it feels like I’ve done nothing but win. Poker is fun again, and now I have that drive to compete.

JR: If you could go back and offer some advice to “young ape,” what would you say?

JVF: I would tell him — and everyone else, for that matter — not to underestimate game selection. The second-best player in the world might as well be the worst player if he keeps playing against the best player. For the longest time, I let my ego get in the way, and it cost me. That’s not the way to make money in poker. Stay within yourself and be honest about your abilities. As long as you can take your time, pick your spots, and always find ways to improve, you can find a way to make money in this game.