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Jason Koon Has Worked His Way To The Top of the Poker World

The 33-Year-Old Poker Pro Has Won Nearly $11.5 Million So Far In 2018

by Erik Fast |  Published: Oct 24, 2018

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Jason Koon has been a successful tournament poker pro for a decade now. Since making his first live tournament score in 2008 he has gone on to accumulate more than $22 million dollars in career live earnings. While the 33-year-old has been a top player for years now, 2018 has been Koon’s best year on the international live circuit by far. He has made 14 final tables and won three titles, accumulating just shy of $11.5 million in cashes along the way. Seven out of the ten largest scores of Koon’s career have come this year, including a win in the $1,000,000 HKD Triton Super High Roller Montenegro short deck event for more than $3.6 million. Card Player recently caught up with Koon at the Poker Masters series in Las Vegas to discuss his incredible year, how he made his way to the top of the game and much more.

Card Player: Recently you released a video for the training site Run it Once, in which you mention visualization as a way to make your goals feel more achievable. You also said your attitude while watching the highest stakes cash games back in the day was like, ‘Will I ever get to meet the guys playing these stakes?’ Now, you have made your way to the top. Is that ever difficult to process, that your dreams became reality?

Jason Koon in the 2018 WSOP main eventJason Koon: Well, the human state is interesting. Things kind of just are the way they are. You wake up and are in the position that you wanted to be in, and things don’t necessarily feel all that different. I think that as you are on your journey in life, by the time you are in the position you hoped to achieve, you’re ready to be there. Looking back on the process can sometimes feel a bit surreal, but it does feel like I belong here. I think the lesson is to not get too far ahead of yourself, just always take the right steps towards whatever you’re working towards and things will fall into place. There is no magic formula.

CP: You have roughly $11.5 million in live earnings so far this year, which is just more than half of the total earnings for your entire career. It seems fair to say you’ve taken the next step in your game. What would you attribute your incredible success to in 2018?

JK: I’d say that it is a combination of things. I am definitely in top form, and that of course is a big factor. I am also in a position in my life to travel and play the right tournaments. It has been the best year of my career for sure, but a lot of that is just running well in big spots toward the end of some key events. Also, it comes down to the fact that I’m even able to click ‘register’ in some of these super high stakes events. If you play enough $300,000 buy-ins, you’re more likely to have big earnings. But yeah, this has been a really profitable year.

CP: The live tournament scene has changed a lot in the last few years, with a split between people who play the main events at tournament series, which are usually $5,000 or less, and those who play the super high roller scene. Can you talk a little bit about what the transition to being a regular on the nosebleed stakes scene is like? How does that step up take place?

Jason Koon at the final table of the 2018 Super High Roller BowlJK: For me it was a really long road. I started playing some high rollers back in 2012, and early on I started with a smaller piece of my action than I have now. At the time I definitely just had to be very selective about which events I played, because my game wasn’t strong enough at the time to compete against the very best regulars at the time. So from there, I surrounded myself with the right people and just worked very hard on improving in every way possible. It took years, but now the high roller circuit is the primary way I make my living, and it has reached the point where financially it doesn’t make much sense to play smaller tournaments.

CP: So you mentioned that part of the process for making the leap to the high rollers was playing some select events and starting out with a smaller share of your own action. How does one even do that? Is it almost like a job interview situation where you have to submit a resume?

JK: I mean, you definitely need to be an established and successful tournament pro before you would even entertain the idea of trying to sell action for a high roller. You also need to have a really good reputation in the community. I think it’s pretty much a requirement that you’ve been a hardworking, high volume player that has put in a ton of reps against top competition online. To me, that is the best bet to making it to the high roller scene: you need to become one of the best online tournament players. If you can achieve that, you will have the fundamental understanding of how to play the game at high level. I believe that the skills for playing live poker can be learned more quickly than the strategic fundamentals can. Right now, I would definitely rather take some 22-year-old online superstar and start grooming him to play these events than to try to take a successful live player whose game is more based on feel. With the second player, you’d have to completely re-wire how they approach playing hands in order to allow them to really compete against the best in the world. In my opinion, that’s just really hard to do.

CP: So you are obviously having success in the largest buy-in tournaments in the world, and you have also been playing in very high stakes cash games as well in recent years. You’ve said in interviews in the past that you grew up in a low-income situation. Does the absurdity of how much money is on the line ever just hit you?

Jason Koon playing the WSOP $100,000 buy-in eventJK: Yeah, I had a moment four or five years ago that stands out. I was playing a no-limit cash game with $200-$400 blinds in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio. Since then I’ve played in even higher stakes games, as much as ten times bigger. But at the time it was one of the biggest games I ever played, and I remember at one point posting the big blind of $400. When I threw out the four black chips for my blind, I had a moment where I thought about my stepfather, who took care of me for a decade when I was a child. He made $400 a week, doing hard, back-breaking contracting work. I teared up a bit in that moment, just processing how much my situation has changed. I think with all highly successful competitors, you always feel like you are chasing something and never quite catch it. You’re never satisfied. To have a moment of reflection like I did that day can be helpful in staying grounded. I have a lot of fulfillment in my life from things outside of poker, but my happiness overall hasn’t changed from when I was a poor kid. I have more comforts and security now, which is great, but having more money doesn’t necessarily do the things for you that society says that it will. If you make your entire life about just accumulating money, you might get there and still be disappointed.

CP: So you have worked very hard to make you’re way to the top of the poker world. How do you approach maintaining balance, given that it takes a lot of work to stay sharp enough to win against the toughest competition?

JK: That calibration is really hard. You have to be reflecting on your situation. My future wife Bianca and I take walks every night and we are always talking about what the next steps are in our lives. She has made a lot of sacrifices by essentially agreeing that for the next two years we are basically going to be jet setting, cashing these big games and tournaments around the world. That of course is not the style of life that we’re going to want to have when we have kids, so let’s do this now because I don’t know if I have the energy to be a top player forever. I really don’t think I could do that, because it requires so much of a commitment. As fulfilling as it is to be at this level, it can also be dreadful in other ways. You are married to the work, and if you spend to much time trying to live a fully balanced life your edge can deteriorate slightly. The bottom line is the most elite players in the world aren’t living balanced lives, and they’ll catch up to you so fast. There is a great feeling of accomplishment to have reached this level, but you also get the sense that something is always chasing right behind you. The competition is right there, wanting to surpass you, and if you take too much time for reflection and vacation ten guys will have used the time and gotten better than you.

CP: Over your career, is there any one tournament that stands out as the one that felt the best to win?

JK: The main event at the 2016 Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open stands out, the $5,250 main event with over 800 entrants. It was my first million-dollar cash ever, it is also just so hard to navigate those large field events. That was a special moment for me, but I would also say that winning the Triton Super High Roller Montenegro $1,000,000 HKD short deck event was incredible. There were only 130 players but the buy-in was huge. I didn’t get the feeling of everything coming together like I had played above the rim to win, but it was a huge relief to come out on top. I was fatigued after the win, because I had been playing non-stop all week. It felt like a testament to me keeping the promise I’ve made to myself to be in top physical shape, which I believed was important in order for me to be able to go to events like this and be able to play until the wheels come off. At the end of that tournament, I could barely stand, it had just been five days of non-stop crazy poker. It felt so good to know that this is what I had wanted to be ready to do, and I was able to perform in the moment and come away with the largest cash of my career.

CP: In 2016 you finished 17th in the Card Player Player of the Year race, 2017 it was 8th, now you’re currently sitting fifth as we enter the final quarter of 2018. Are things like POY awards something you want to chase?

JK: Player of the Year is not something I particularly chase, no. I think when I was younger it would have. At that time I didn’t really have confidence in myself and I didn’t really know what I wanted out of poker, I just knew that I like to play. So back then I had a lot of ego-driven motivations that were centered on proving myself to other people. I think that winning Player of the Year would be cool, and if I did I would be honored to receive the award. When people are primarily are motivated by being able to say they held up a trophy, that doesn’t align with what most people think being a poker career should be about. As a poker pro you should be examining the utility of your time and asking yourself what that time you spend playing will do for you now and in the future. Winning a Player of the Year award isn’t going to help put my kids through college, and I’m just more focused on the things that I believe will do more for my future.

CP: Is there another accomplishment of yours in poker that stands out as particularly meaningful for you? Also, outside of poker, what would you say your biggest accomplishment has been?

Jason Koon on the WSOP main event featured tableJK: I think that my biggest accomplishment in poker has to do with achieving what I have despite being, in my own assessment, only slightly better than middle of the road when it comes to natural ability for the game. I’m not one of the savants, like some of the guys you see at the top of the game. My work ethic and my ability to execute and perform under pressure are elite, but my raw talent isn’t. I feel very proud to play on the level that I do with the tools that I was given. I believe that I am currently one of the best tournament players in the world, and to have become one of even the top 20 in world with an ability level that is only just inside the top 10,000 lets say, that is quite an accomplishment.

When it comes to my greatest life accomplishment, I’d say it has to do with where I came from. I was raised in a very violent atmosphere and that changed the wiring in my brain. It made me very reactive, and there was a point in my life where I was defensive and somewhat dangerous, with a bad temper. Being around the right people I’ve been learning to tame my temper. It has required almost completely re-wiring the way I developed. It’s been grueling and challenging, and is something I still struggle with. But to know how I can handle tough situations now compared with ten years ago, it is like I’m an entirely different person and I’m extremely proud of that.

CP: So another point you made in a recent video you posted on the training site you work with, Run It Once, you say that anyone who plays poker for a living is an ambassador when there are recreational players at the table. You personally have even an extra level of responsibility on top of that as someone who represents online site partypoker. What are your thoughts on representing the game to amateurs and fans?

JK: I’m happy to be a representative for poker. I care deeply about the poker ecosystem, and want to protect the game and want for people to respect the game and the people who make a living by playing it. I think there are a lot of people in a similar situation to me, and we all share in the responsibility. Every single person who plays for a living should want to provide a good experience for players who aren’t pros, but should also do their best to keep poker worthy of being respected as a game of skill. The game gets lumped in by people who don’t know much about it with blackjack and other gambling games, and it’s easier for those who don’t know much about it to lump poker is with all of that degenerate stuff if we are screaming at each other or otherwise acting unprofessionally. In order to succeed at this game you have to work hard and have a lot of discipline, and to stick around you have to have high levels of integrity. We should strive to show the rest of the world these positive characteristics that are needed to succeed in poker.Spade Suit