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To Hell and Back: Justin Bonomo’s Rise, Fall, and Redemption

Two-Year Hot Streak Puts Online Poker Legend Back in Spotlight

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jan 22, 2014

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Justin Bonomo’s last two years on the live poker circuit have been nothing short of heaven-sent. Bonomo’s hot run includes tournament cashes exceeding $4.4 million, not counting the spoils of high-stakes cash games. That’s not to imply lady luck was mostly responsible, as Bonomo’s work ethic and fierce competitive fire have long been known by his peers.

It was a clear case of real world results (he now has more than $7.1 million in lifetime tournament winnings and sits inside the top ten in the Card Player Player of the Year race standings) catching up with the star potential that Bonomo displayed shortly after bursting onto the online tournament scene ten years ago.

Yet eight years prior, it was a different story all together. Bonomo’s reputation and online poker’s legitimacy faced a trial by fire, compounded by Internet poker’s gray areas at the time. Bonomo had been branded a cheater. A heartbreaking stigma for a player that relished the respect and notoriety that came with poker success, as both his personal and professional life plummeted into a tailspin.

When the river was dealt on the scandal, an easily abused online tournament loophole was uncovered, online security was tightened, and Bonomo was banished. Overnight he was cut off from the cash in his accounts (reported to be over $200,000), and expelled from playing online at PokerStars and Party Poker. Bonomo’s livelihood was torn away and depression began to seep in. The odds were not in his favor for a full recovery from the self-inflicted hell he had descended into.

Past Sins

It was February of 2006 when online phenom Bonomo (aka Zee Justin), then 20 years old, was revealed to have entered as many as six separate accounts in a single tournament online. The word was out. Bonomo had multi-accounted, which gave him many more chances at a big win or deep cash.

Bonomo had fallen from a lofty pedestal. As one of online poker’s young guns, he had dominated high-stakes online sit-n-gos and multi-table tournaments. On the European Poker Tour in 2005, he’d set a milestone as the first teenager to make a TV final table.

“At the beginning of February 2006 things were going great for me,” said Bonomo. “I had two $100,000 tournament scores in the previous six months, a good reputation, and people liked my strategy posts. When this happened, everything that I’d accomplished in the previous few years felt like it was all for nothing. All of a sudden thousands of people just hated me. I became extremely depressed.”

Bonomo vanished. Online forums speculated that he would instantly return online under another alias. Why not? “Once a cheater, always a cheater,” they proclaimed. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In actuality, he retreated into a self-imposed period of penance, reflection, and recovery. “I didn’t play a single hand of poker for six months,” said Bonomo. “This would have been unthinkable to me before the incident. But everything about poker and to be honest, myself playing poker, just disgusted me.”

Quick Success Online

Craig Tapscott: How were you first introduced to poker?

Justin Bonomo: Before poker I played a card game called Magic the Gathering. I played with players like Eric Froehlich, David Williams, and Noah Boeken.

CT: What stakes and games did you first dive into?

JB: The low-stakes limit games. I was able to work my way up to a $20,000 bankroll. After that I started to mess around with no-limit. I worked my way up to $1-$2 cash games, and then figured I would try the $200 sit-n’-gos. Right off the bat, I started doing very well in those and over the next two years that’s where I made a very large sum of money.

CT: To what do you attribute your sit-n’-go success?

JB: I’ve always been a very mathematical player. I was playing before the Independent Chip Model (ICM) stuff was even out there. I did all the calculations myself. As a player, most of my learning has been away from the table and from the poker forums. This helped me learn the proper way to analyze poker hands. Now most of it is subconscious and happens automatically.

CT: You were so successful online that you dropped out of the University of Maryland to play poker. What were your parents’ reactions to this life-changing choice?

JB: I think my parents knew it was coming. My mom thought it was a mistake for me to drop out, but she still supported my decision. Now, they’re extremely proud of me.
CT: Let’s talk about your decision back in 2006 to enter multiple accounts to play in a single online tournament.

JB: My first reaction to it all was I didn’t understand why what I was doing was so wrong and why players especially would think it was such a terrible thing. In fact I was pretty stupid. I just didn’t realize the severity of what I was doing at the time, which is why I initially tried to defend myself.

CT: You must have had some inkling that it was unethical?

JB: The way I viewed it at the time was that it would be unethical if I was intending to get to the same table as myself, use the extra hole card information and do some sort of chip dumping. I figured since I never did anything close to that, that it wasn’t unethical at all. With reflection I quickly realized that the primary reason that it’s unethical is because I’m giving myself an extra shot to win a tournament that I’m not entitled to.

CT: How did you deal with the venom directed your way?

JB: I had friends who were extremely supportive. God knows, maybe I would have done something terrible if it wasn’t for them. But even with their support I had decided that I didn’t want anything to do with poker. I think time was the best cure. For six months I enjoyed life in Los Angeles and tried to forget about things. I played computer games at home and went out at night.

CT: Did you miss poker?

JB: Eventually I did. What finally drew me back into the poker world was when I went to the WSOP that year to visit my friends. I was too young to play, but watched several friends win bracelets and make final tables. Part of me was jealous and another part of me knew that I was capable of winning just as much as they were. I had been missing out by living a normal life for the previous six months. And I knew that a normal life is not what I wanted. I needed to get back into poker and that was the perfect motivation for me.

Rising From the Ashes

By December of 2006 Bonomo was itching to end a self-imposed exile from all that was poker. At the WPT Bellagio Five Diamond World Poker Classic, Bonomo, now 21, put on a dazzling display of poker prowess. Within a fourteen-day stretch he would amass $264,000 in winnings, land at four final tables, and finish seventh in the $15,000 main event. Bonomo was back in his element. But his reputation within the poker community would still face a steep climb to redemption.

By April of 2009, Bonomo’s online ban at PokerStars had been lifted. This was partially due to the fact that a few respected superstars of the game testified to his character and the poise with which he handled himself after playing side by side with Bonomo for three years on the live circuit.

“Regardless of where Justin started in his career, today he is a man of integrity and values his reputation immensely,” says Daniel Negreanu. “From my experience, Justin always wants to do the right thing. As a player, he is extremely tough to play against and is a thorn in your side. Justin is, and will be even more so with time, a positive addition to the poker community.”

Even the online community doled out some morsels of forgiveness as Bonomo expressed remorse for his mistakes. “Being welcomed back on PokerStars was definitely a defining moment,” says Bonomo. “At last I could feel like my past was in my past. On paper I had multi-accounted, but some of the biggest names in poker trusted me unconditionally. I’m not the kind of person to ever expect trust or even respect, especially with such a blemish on my resume. So having that kind of trust and respect from the very people I looked up to was priceless to me. A number of big names in poker stood up for me. To this day I am extremely indebted to everyone that stood by me through my low point.”

CT: You were very successful from the get go on the live circuit. What were your adjustments from online tournament strategy?

JB: The big difference for me is that you can sit down and take one look around the table, maybe see how players handle their chips, and you can tell with 90 percent accuracy how everyone at the table plays. Starting with that much information changes the game completely. And most of it is stereotyping.

CT: How would you define your style of play?

JB: As an Internet player I’ve played no-limit, limit, shorthanded and full tables, cash games and tournaments. I’ve learned so many different styles of playing. A lot of the live tournament pros have loose aggressive styles; other players are tight and straightforward. I think one reason for my success in live events is I know how to play each of those styles. I take a look at a table and decide which style will be the most profitable. That also makes me a lot harder to player against.

CT: From watching you over the last few years it comes across very clearly that you’re an extremely methodical player.

JB: Yes. I believe the strongest part of my game is my ability to see things clearly. I’m very intelligent, but quite frankly not intelligent enough to be any kind of ultra-rare outlier. And I don’t have the raw intelligence to be someone that would be guaranteed success in poker. I do, on the other hand, think I have a mind that is exceptionally rational. In poker this most directly translates to assessing factors. For example, I might be having a conversation with someone about a poker hand and hear something that sounds just slightly off. I can instantly say, “You’re focusing on factor ‘A’ way too much when factor ‘B’ definitely outweighs it in this hand.”

CT: When did you start looking at the game from that perspective?

JB: I think I got to that point very early in my career. In poker you start off doing a lot of memorization and guess work, but your end goal should be being able to think through every situation logically and with its own unique merits. My whole life I’ve always been constantly analyzing everything, weighing the pros and cons of the most trivial decisions. That kind of approach really pays off in poker.

Bonomo Dives into High-Stakes Cash Games

In 2008 Bonomo decided to move into the luxurious Panorama Towers in Las Vegas, home to many successful poker players. Within a few short months he had befriended two of the most successful online high-stakes cash game players, Scott Seiver and Isaac Haxton.

“We instantly became the best of friends,” says Bonomo. “Those were probably the best years of my life. It was so great to have close friends living just an elevator ride away. We hung out all the time, discussing poker, eating at top restaurants in Vegas, and just having a blast. Sadly, Black Friday killed that dream in 2011.”

It wasn’t long before Bonomo got the bug to put his cash game skills to the test by transitioning over to higher stakes. In Haxton, he had found a great player to model and build his own cash game approach. “Justin blends strong technical play and experience at live poker better than almost anyone else in the game,” says Isaac Haxton. “He plays equally well against other top players and against amateurs, a talent few players have. He has a true passion for the game and shows up ready to play his hardest every day.”

Bonomo’s confidence in his game and competiveness to be one of the best in the world would eventually lead to a challenge versus bankroll wrecker Viktor “Isildur1” Blom at $200-$400 no-limit hold’em across multiple tables.

CT: What was the main reason for your foray into high stakes?

JB: My transition to high-stakes cash games was largely the result of becoming friends with Isaac Haxton. He’s absolutely brilliant, and approaches the game in a similar way to myself. He was a heads-up specialist when I met him, and that was a form of poker I had never spent much time learning. Isaac’s approach to the game just clicked so much for me that it didn’t take me long at all to learn from him. It was only a few months before I was playing the highest stakes games against some of the toughest players in the world.

CT: And then you challenged the infamous Viktor “Isildur1” Blom?

JB: Yes. My favorite moment about that match happened while I was out eating at a pub in Las Vegas with my friends. A waitress who I had never met before came up to me and said, “Good luck versus Isildur!” It was so random and unexpected that it stuck with me.

CT: But the match did not go as planned.

JB: No. Unfortunately the match didn’t go well. He ran almost a million dollars above all-in expected value against me. It accounted for about half of what is to this day, by far, the biggest downswing of my career. I suppose the biggest change I made to my game after that was simply being a lot more conservative with my bankroll. I definitely was playing for a lot more money than I should have been, even after giving pieces to my friends.

Redemption Road

Over the last six years, the major scores have come fast and furious for Bonomo. He got the seven-figure monkey off his back in 2012 with a first-place title worth $2.1 million at the EPT Grand Final Monte Carlo no-limit hold’em Super High Roller. A little over a year later he would take home $1,163,500 for second place at the 2013 Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open, with multiple deep cashes and WSOP final tables scattered along the way.
The monetary success would cement Bonomo’s status as one of tournament poker’s fiercest competitors, make him a contender for the Card Player Player of the Year, and certainly ease some lingering pain from the past.

CT: So what does the future hold for Justin Bonomo?

JB: For the foreseeable future, I’m very happy to continue playing poker. I love the game, and it’s given me such a great life and wonderful friends. I still really enjoy playing in the highest stakes cash games and tournaments, and I don’t expect that trend to stop any time soon. I’m not so sure I’ll be able to maintain the same income ten years from now, so I’m keeping my eyes open for an eventual exit strategy. I have an entrepreneurial spirit, so hopefully I’ll always be involved in something just as exciting as poker.

CT: I’ve followed your career for many years. Congratulations on all the success and the way you have carried yourself through the tough times. Life seems good for you.

JB: It is. Back in 2011 Black Friday pretty much ruined my life, at least temporarily. I talked earlier about how awesome Panorama Towers was living with all my friends, but I also had a wonderful girlfriend, Rebecca, at the time. We both decided that I needed to move out of the country to pursue my passion, and I ended up in a country that I hated. My girlfriend was unable to leave her career behind, so we were essentially forced to split up. Fortunately, there’s a silver lining to all this, and it’s that we are now back together and living with each other in Denver, Colorado.

CT: That’s wonderful. What are you the most thankful for that came out of the multi-accounting debacle?

JB: My friends and family’s support. In regards to my game, I would be nowhere today if it wasn’t for all the friends I have met over the years. I’m so lucky to have them around. Poker is simply way too complicated for anyone to play at the highest level by themselves.

CT: Do you think most people are willing to forgive and forget?

JB: I don’t think it’s something that people should forget about, because it was clearly something I did that was wrong. Although I hope that as time passes they will realize that it doesn’t characterize who I am as a person. I’m not a cheater. I made a stupid mistake that I deeply regret. I’d like to think that overall I’m a good and kind-hearted person and over time people will come to realize that is true. ♠