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A Poker Life: Marco Johnson

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Aug 21, 2013


Marco Johnson was just 14-years-old when he discovered what he wanted to do for a living. Growing up in the shadow of the late, great David “Chip” Reese, Johnson got an up-close look at a poker legend living the high-roller lifestyle and decided that he too wanted in on the action.

Johnson jumped right into the deep end after turning 21, playing high-stakes cash games and competing in big buy-in tournaments all over the world. He immediately found success, moving up in stakes to compete with the best in the game.

This summer, Johnson finally got the monkey off of his back after finishing runner-up at the World Series of Poker on three different occasions. Johnson won the $2,500 limit hold’em event, putting his career tournament earnings, both live and online, at more than $3.5 million.

Poker Beginnings

Johnson grew up the youngest of three children in Walnut Creek, CA, a suburb east of Oakland. His father spent 15 years in Africa building safari camps, so Johnson learned at an early age that he had a passion for extreme sports such as rafting, snowboarding, skydiving and bungee jumping.

“The nervous feeling when you are on a huge cliff and you’re about to jump gives you this natural high,” Johnson explained. “I think that’s what drew me to poker as well. Every time you play a hand, you get another opportunity to feel all of that adrenaline all over again.”

Johnson befriended his neighbor and now poker pro, Zachary Clark, when he was in middle school. The two became best friends and it wasn’t long before Clark was teaching him all about poker and his famous uncle Chip.

“I’d always ask Zach questions about his uncle,” Johnson said. “I would open magazines and read articles about him. I saw that he lived in a nice house and that he was wealthy and successful. Most importantly, I saw that he was happy with what he was doing for a living. So I got it in my head pretty early on that I wanted to be a professional poker player. Normally, this would have been a ridiculous dream, especially before the Moneymaker boom, but with Chip, I had proof that it could be done.”

Johnson and Clark were infatuated with the Las Vegas lifestyle and even opened up a makeshift casino at Clark’s house.

“It was pretty legitimate,” he recalled. “Zach had a whole setup. There were tables with felt and his name on them, chips and even a six-deck automatic shuffler. When we were 16-years-old, we started going to the local card rooms with a fake I.D., playing $3-$6 limit hold’em. Even now, I’ll have people come up to me and address me as Matt, not knowing I was playing for years under a fake name.”

Beginning His Career

Johnson spent a few years at Chico State studying construction management, but always knew he wanted to give poker a shot. He eventually dropped out of school and took his bankroll to Las Vegas, moving in with fellow poker grinder Jared Hamby.

“I had about $50,000 in my bankroll, but then I bought a car, leaving me with $30,000. I started out playing $100 tournaments online everyday. I met Tom Dwan pretty early in my career and we became friends. He agreed to put me into all of the bigger buy-in live tournaments and I was fortunate to do well early. In fact, one of the first live tournaments I ever cashed in was the $15,000 buy-in main event at the Bellagio. There were three tables left and they did a redraw. After moving to my new seat, I looked over and saw that Chip was sitting right next to me. It was so surreal. He told me that he heard I was doing well in Vegas and wished me luck.”

Johnson continued to pile up a series of small-to-mid cashes until 2008, when he took second in a massive WSOP event for a $491,000 score. Despite the money, Johnson was devastated by the fact that he fell short of the bracelet.

“That was probably the worst day of my career,” Johnson recalled. “As I was driving home, I honestly thought about quitting. It was that painful. I had the chip lead heads-up against Alex Gomes. He five-bet all in preflop with A-10 offsuit against my pocket aces. In my head, I had already won and I was already wearing the bracelet. Of course, the board had other ideas and he ended up winning. I didn’t know at the time that I would have other opportunities.”

Expanding His Game

After recovering from the initial shock of his unlikely runner-up finish, Johnson dedicated himself to cash games and, more importantly, games other than no-limit hold’em.

“With hindsight, I now realize that I’m happy that I lost that tournament. Had I won, I may have chased the no-limit hold’em tournament scene for years. Instead, I have become a much more well-rounded player. I had some money saved up, so I jumped into the $400-$800 game, which was the biggest game around at the time, and learned a lot just by playing with the other great players. I managed to not go broke, so I think I held my own.”

Johnson frequented big games in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio and in Los Angeles and later took his seat in Ivey’s Room at Aria. Despite being one of the more accomplished players, he never had trouble finding a seat at the table, a problem that has plagued other notables recently.

“There are definitely some politics involved,” Johnson admitted. “But it’s not just about who you know. You have to give a little action and show your bluffs. Chip was a real master at that. You have to keep everyone happy and you can’t get upset when you lose a big hand. Every player knows that you aren’t supposed to tap the glass, but after taking a bad beat, not every player can help themselves. When you put a group of very intelligent people around the table, some of them are going to want to show everybody just how intelligent they are and those people aren’t good for the game.”

More Close Calls

After numerous final table appearances at various Bellagio and Venetian tournaments and a fourth-place finish in the $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. event at the 2010 WSOP, Johnson still had yet to take down a major tournament title. Then in 2012, he found himself with another opportunity at a bracelet.

“I had been playing in an amazing $600-$1,200 cash game. Despite the great lineup at the table I somehow managed to lose $60,000 in less than three hours. I was extremely tilted and so I quit and decided to register for the $2,500 limit hold’em event at the WSOP. The whole tournament, I had it in my head that I needed to finish third or better to recoup my losses and make some money. I made it to heads-up play to get out of the hole, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to beat Ronnie Bardah and finished runner-up again.”

Johnson started off the 2013 summer hot and quickly found himself with three deep runs, finishing 28th in a $1,500 pot-limit Omaha event, 13th in the $5,000 stud eight-or-better event and eighth in the $2,500 eight-game mix event. Then in another $1,500 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better event, he found himself heads-up for a third time, only to fall short against Jarred Graham.

“A lot of people in my situation would have been crushed to finish second for a third time, but I was actually okay with the outcome in that tournament. I was the shortest stack three-handed, but Graham knocked out Barry Greenstein in third, which meant I got a nice pay jump.”

Getting His Gold

Johnson wouldn’t have to wait long for another shot at WSOP glory. Playing in the $2,500 limit hold’em event he finished second in the year before, Johnson arrived at a final table that included the likes of Juha Helppi and limit hold’em specialist Maria Ho. Sitting with the chip lead heads-up, a familiar feeling of panic started to creep in as Johnson realized he would be getting his fourth opportunity at a bracelet.

“I was so scared that I was going to mess it all up again,” he admitted. “The floor man actually forgot to bring out the bracelet before heads-up play began, but I didn’t remind him. I didn’t want to have to stare at it while we were playing and let any doubt come into my mind. He eventually remembered and brought it out, but by then, I had built up a solid lead and taken control of the tournament. About 30 minutes later, I had won.”
Johnson finished the summer with seven WSOP cashes, $440,000 in winnings and his first gold bracelet.

“The pleasure to pain ratio is weird,” he said. “The pleasure of winning is never as much as the pain of losing. I hate it when people tell me that ‘it’s about time’ I won a bracelet. These things are really hard to get. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, not to mention three straight days of playing at your absolute best. Nobody deserves a bracelet. When you win one, you should be grateful and happy to have it.”

A Life Dedicated To Poker

At just 27-years-old, Johnson has already risen to the top of the poker world, having excelled in both online and live tournaments, as well as high-stakes cash games. He hopes to model his career after players such as Daniel Alaei and Nick Schulman, guys who he says do it the right way in all facets of their life.

It’s been more than 13 years since he decided to take up poker and despite the ups and downs, he is still in love with the game.

“Now that I won a bracelet, people ask me if I ever look back at myself at 14-years-old and wonder if I ever thought all of this was possible. To be honest, I had that moment when I was 24, playing in Bobby’s Room. I looked around at the legends sitting beside me and the legends displayed in photographs on the wall. I saw Chip and my arms went numb. Everyone around me had a scowl on their face, but not Chip. He was the only one smiling. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all the reminder I need to know that I’m living my dream and doing what I love to do.” ♠