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Joseph Cheong -- Calls The Road His Home

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Apr 01, 2013

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For the last three years, Joseph Cheong has called the road his home. The 26-year-old poker pro has lived out of suitcase while traveling the poker circuit, putting his stamp on the world map in the form of over $6.3 million in tournament earnings.

Cheong, who moved to Palos Verdes, California from his native Korea in 1992, originally planned on a career on Wall Street. After getting degrees in mathematics, economics and psychology from the University of California, San Diego, Cheong turned to poker, which is always hiring, even in a sluggish economy.

The gamble paid off and Cheong is now regarded as one of the best young tournament players in the game today. Cheong made a name for himself with his $4.1 million score at the 2010 World Series of Poker main event, but he’s spent his time since proving that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

In 2012 alone, Cheong made eight final tables, cashing for nearly $1.1 million. He narrowly missed picking up his first career bracelet at this summer’s WSOP with a second-place finish in the $5,000 mixed max no-limit hold’em event for $296,956 and he took fourth place in the WSOP Europe main event for $380,571, which was eventually won by Phil Hellmuth. He then went to China, where he added his third six-figure score of the year by taking fourth in the ACOP Macau high roller event for $143,475.

His herculean effort on the tournament circuit this year has all but guaranteed him a top-five finish in the Card Player Player of the Year race.

Card Player caught up with Cheong to discuss his meteoric rise to the top of the poker world and get his thoughts on the future of the game.

Julio Rodriguez: Can you talk a little bit about how you got into poker?

Joseph Cheong: When I graduated, I thought about working on Wall Street and getting in hedge funds, but the recession made it very difficult on new college graduates to find work. Jobs were scarce, so it made sense to take my shot at poker.

JR: Did you struggle at all after turning pro?

JC: I had some good scores right off the bat. In 2009, I won a Mini-FTOPS tournament on Full Tilt Poker for $55,000, which was pretty much life changing money. My bankroll before that was only about $20,000, so that tournament allowed me to move to the next level in my career. After that, I increased my volume and became a regular in the high-stakes online tournaments.

JR: What did your family think of your decision to play poker for a living?

JC: I have pretty traditional Asian parents and they wanted me to have a pretty traditional job. Poker really didn’t fit that description. I’m sure they would have rather seen me become a doctor or a lawyer or something more in line with my education, but it didn’t work out that way. Even now, they still tell me to go get a real job, but at least they can’t argue with my results. As long as I’m out of the house and self-sufficient, they can’t really complain.

JR: After a little more than a year dominating online tournaments, you managed to win a WSOP Circuit ring in 2009, but didn’t do much else in the live arena until you final tabled the 2010 WSOP main event. Then, during the layoff between the summer and November, you finished second in the EPT London high roller event for $253,951 and won a preliminary event at the Festa al Lago Classic for $142,635. Did making the November Nine transform your game in any way?

JC: After I made the main event final table, I was riding high on confidence. I knew that the best way to prepare for the final table was to play as much as possible, so I used the ninth-place money to start traveling the tournament circuit. It worked out really well for me, making those two final tables, and allowed me to get a lot of experience. By the time the main event final table rolled around, I wasn’t as nervous as some of the other players.

JR: You finished third in the main event for $4,129,979, but took some criticism from other players for your aggressive six-bet shove on Jonathan Duhamel when you could have coasted to heads-up play. Did you dwell on what could’ve been, or were you happy with your finish?

JC: I really don’t focus on the past. I’ll try to learn from it, see what worked and what didn’t, but I’m never going to be one of those guys who dwells on the negative. I guess I could’ve stayed up nights wondering if perhaps I had done something differently, maybe I could’ve won, but it’s hard not to be happy about winning $4.1 million.

JR: You’ve since done very well on the tournament circuit, winning an additional $1.1 million this year alone. That being said, you haven’t quite been able to get over the hump and close out a final table appearance with a victory. You finished second in a WSOP event this summer, fourth in the WSOP Europe main event and have six other final table results. Do you think your playing style is the reason for these near misses?

JC: I don’t think it’s a product of my playing style. I’m not one of those guys who makes it to the final table short stacked and has to settle for third or fourth place. I’m the guy who gets there with a lot of chips and has something go wrong to bust in third or fourth place. I can’t really complain, because at least I’m getting there, but the fact that I haven’t been able to close out the win lately has more to do with bad luck or variance than it does with my particular playing style. I’ve had a lot of chances, so I know it will happen sooner or later. As long as I’m making money, I’m not going to worry about it.

JR: Do you think that play you made against Duhamel has warped your opponents’ view of your playing style?

JC: My playing style is extremely flexible and entirely dependent on my opponents. I have a bit of reputation for hyper-aggressive, insane play, and certainly that can be the case from time to time, but I think people tend to exaggerate it because of a few hands they happened to see on TV.

JR: You’ve made over $6.3 million during your career, which only started four years ago. How long do think you’ll play for a living?

JC: I don’t see myself playing poker for the rest of my life. I have no idea what I’m going to do instead, but I know I want to do it while I’m still young. I’ve played my ass off for the last few years, but I can’t do it forever. The goal right now is to put in as much volume as possible while the game is still profitable. Poker will definitely change. It won’t be the same forever, but it will still be there in some form if and when I decide to return.

JR: What do you mean when you say that poker will change?

JC: The poker economy is dying. The number of players leaving the game is more than the number of new players entering, so unless something drastic happens to reverse that trend, it is inevitable that we’ll see the money start to dry up, especially in the higher stakes tournaments.

JR: What do you think would help the poker economy thrive again?

JC: To be honest, other than their financial problems, the Epic Poker League had the right idea about how to promote the game. Look at a game like golf, which has significant barriers to entry. The game is a bit elitist, but it’s also highly successful because it’s exclusive and that makes people curious. I think if people get to know the poker pros, seeing them week in and week out on tour, that will give them something to strive for in their own game. If you legitimize poker as a sport and not some random event with nine, unknown, lucky people sitting around a table, you’ll start to see more new players.

JR: You’ve had an incredible year and will likely finish within the top five of the Card Player Player of the Year race. Is that a title you were actively gunning for or is it merely a byproduct of all the volume you’ve put in.

JC: Any awards or attention I receive from the media is much appreciated. It’s always nice to be seen by your peers as a dangerous or great player. If I happen to get recognized in the street by someone who saw me on TV, then that’s great. That being said, I don’t play poker for those reasons. There are definitely players out there who are more concerned with looking like a great player than playing like a great player and I’m not one of them. This is my profession and I do it for one reason. I do it to make money.

JR: You’ve spent the last three years living on the road, playing tournaments nonstop. What is your overall impression of the poker pro lifestyle?

JC: I’m very fortunate. In my line of work, I get to travel the world and each place I stop, I have the benefit of having dozens of friends to spend time with. It’s like one long party, except I get paid for it. Yes, it gets tiring living out of a suitcase and getting sick all of the time and spending weeks out of the year on airplanes, but the good most definitely outweighs the bad. ♠