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Joao Vieira Climbs To The Top Of Online Poker’s All-Time Money List

Former Portuguese Basketball Pro Ready To Dominate The Live Arena

by Steve Schult |  Published: Jul 28, 2021

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From an early age, Joao Vieira seemed destined for success. But those early projections stemmed from his prowess on the basketball court. While his pro basketball career didn’t quite pan out like he wanted, the Madeira, Portugal native has instead become one of the most successful online poker players on the planet.

Over the last several months, nobody has been more successful playing high-stakes online poker tournaments than Vieira. In April, Vieira racked up more than $2.2 million in online cashes. He cashed for more than $600,000 the following month.

It was a heater that most could only dream of, including a handful of days with multiple six-figure scores. As a result, his career online tournament résumé now sits atop the PocketFives.com All-Time Money List, with more than 11,600 cashes totaling over $24.8 million in earnings.

And although he thrives online, he has also carved out time to become Portugal’s all-time live tournament earnings leader as well, with $3.8 million won over the years, including seven titles.

But despite these accolades, you’d be forgiven if this is the first time you’ve heard of the 31-year-old poker pro.

“I’ve been doing this for a while,” said Vieira. “It just hasn’t been noticed.”
Part of Vieira’s ability to fly under the radar comes from the general anonymity surrounding online poker and the tendency of the poker world to fixate on happenings in the live arena.

In 2018, however, popular European online poker site Winamax took notice of Vieira’s game and signed him to a sponsorship deal. Just a year later, the relationship paid off when Vieira took down one of the toughest tournaments on the World Series of Poker schedule. He earned $758,011 in the $5,000 no-limit hold’em six-max event, along with his first career bracelet.

The win gave Vieira a career-best score and put his name on the map in the poker world. For the first time, the North American audience would be forced to take note of his ability. For Vieira, however, the victory was a long time coming.

“I had been a winning player at the highest stakes online since 2013, but I had never really had the big breakthrough live win,” said Vieira. “I never really had live success. That tournament was more like a weight off my shoulders. More like… I finally got it. It was more validation than breakthrough. I felt more relief than anything else.”

Vieira’s English is basically flawless, but the language barrier is one of the reasons he claims many of the European-based online crushers are kept out of the limelight on the world’s stage. It takes live success to bust through that barrier and get some recognition.

“Until you get these Adrian Mateos-like kind of scores, you kind of just fly under the radar,” said Vieira.

Mateos, of course, is a Triple Crown winner from Spain who has cemented himself among the elite with more than $21.3 million in live tournament earnings.

Going undetected in the poker world didn’t necessarily bother Vieira, though. It fit right in with how he was raised. Growing up in Funchal, a city on the Madeira Islands in Portugal, he developed a personality that he felt was common among the rest of the island.

“We kind of have the underdog mindset,” said Vieira about his hometown. “We are known to be gritty, hardworking, and humble. I think all of the islanders have this mindset because we grew up by the ocean. You have to rely on yourself and rely on the people that are close to you. It also brings out the competitiveness in us.”

Before he found poker, those qualities helped him succeed at an unprecedented level on the basketball court. Vieira was essentially a prodigy. At just 15 years old, he was already being approached by professional teams and as a junior played for the Portuguese national team. In fact, he signed a contract before most American teens would be allowed to drive.

Standing just 5’9” tall and still years away from becoming an adult, he needed the determination and toughness to keep up with fully-developed professional athletes, which he once again attributed to the island attitude he developed from his upbringing.

“Imagine you’re up against an MMA fighter from Hawaii,” said Vieira. “You know he’s going to be gritty. You know they’re going to push back. This is kind of like the place I grew up. You may lose, but you’re going to fight back.”

Vieira basically described his basketball career as the Portuguese version of Kwame Brown, the first overall pick of the 2001 NBA draft with lofty expectations that were never filled. Though if it wasn’t for his basketball career, Vieira likely wouldn’t be the poker player he is today.

During his time with CAB Madeira in the Portugal Liga Professional, he was introduced to poker through his teammates. Specifically, his American teammates.

Vieira Credit: WPT“When I was 16 or 17, I used to hang around the American pros,” said Vieira. “We would be allowed to have three or four American players per team. I started playing poker with them. They were 21, 22, or 23 and they were playing a lot of poker. We would play on the plane and bus rides.”

From there, Vieira was hooked. In between his morning and afternoon basketball practices, he would study the game and play online. He eventually transitioned to multi-table tournaments, but given the rigorous training schedule of a professional athlete, he was forced to start with sit-n-go’s.

“I didn’t have time to play anything else,” he explained.

Sure. He could have made the foray into online cash games. But the structure never appealed to him. In basketball, there is a winner and there is a loser. Vieira needed that same incentive when it came to the poker table.

“[Tournaments] appeal more to competitive mindsets,” he said. “Someone is going to win. Someone is going to lose. Someone will get second, third, fourth. There’s going to be something to base your results on. That is something that just doesn’t happen in cash games. Cash games are never ending. It’s just, get in and get out. That’s the main reason I never got into those games. There’s no ranking.”

From what started out as playing small-stakes games with teammates on road trips quickly turned into a viable option for side income away from the basketball court.

Vieira became friendly with a couple of semi-professional poker players and they helped him improve his game even further. His newfound acquaintances gave him access to their accounts on one of the several training sites that were available at the time.

“They gave me access to this video library of 300-400 videos,” said Vieira. “This is when I started to actually get good at this game. I was playing cash games for €10 or €20, and then a year later in 2010, I was the biggest winner at six-max sit-n-go’s.”

Eventually, Vieira’s basketball career came to an end, although he still does commentate on some of the league’s games when he is back in his native city. Once his basketball career was behind him, Vieira developed into the multi-table tournament crusher he is today. Without the grueling training schedule of a professional athlete, he had more time on his hands to play large field tournaments. And more time to study.

He said that once he watched every single video on the training site he was gifted access to, he then signed himself up for another. To get to the top of the game, however, Vieira believes you need to get beyond videos and put in the work yourself.

“You can learn from videos, but once you get to a certain level, you have to study on your own,” he said. “Now, pretty much all the studying I do is done by myself. The main guys won’t give up the things that will make you succeed at the highest stakes. That kind of material just doesn’t exist. You might have a high-stakes winning player putting videos out there, but he’s going to keep some of that to himself.”

When asked to construct a Mount Rushmore of online poker, the ability to play more than one game was a big factor in the peers he selected.

“I really want to go with the guys that can play all the games,” said Vieira. “If you play poker, you play all the forms of poker. Not just no-limit hold’em. There are very few guys that could play a $100,000 no-limit hold’em high roller and also play the $50,000 Poker Players Championship.”

He also said that he valued the “old school” online players that “paved the way” for newer players. Vieira appreciated the ability to construct a strategy that could beat the old guard without any real sophisticated training content on the market.

“You got to go with Shaun Deeb,” said Vieira. “There’s no way around it. Also Calvin Anderson. He plays all the games that there is to play. Jason Mercier, and Stephen Chidwick. Those guys had a ton of success when nobody knew anything, and they had to figure it out for themselves.”

Regardless of the list, he acknowledges not only how tough it is to get to the top of the game, but how small the edges are once you get there.

“The difference between the high-stakes players today is really small,” said Vieira. “There are 30-50 players that are just really, really good at poker. Both live poker and online. It’s really tough to separate them.”

Team WinamaxEven though he’s known for his online play, Vieira has plenty of skills to showcase on the live felt, despite limited experience. There was no progression for him in that arena. There were no small-stakes, single table tournaments where he could get his feet wet, so he dove headfirst into the deep end.

His first cash came in the €5,000 European Poker Tour Barcelona main event in 2012. He finished 41st for €16,800 and followed that up with a final table appearance a few days later in the €10,000 high roller. He picked up €32,630 for his eighth-place finish and never looked back. Incredibly, he says he has never played a live tournament with a buy-in of less than €1,000.

“I’m from this small island, so there’s no real live poker here,” said Vieira. “So I jumped straight into the shark tank. Maybe that wasn’t advisable, but there was no real way for me to ladder. On my local island, maybe I can play a €50 buy-in once or twice a year. There’s a couple tournaments that I could play. And there are tournaments that I could play on the mainland for a couple hundred bucks, but the flight would be more expensive than the tournament is worth. If you’re going to play live poker and get off the island, you’re going to have to play high stakes. I had to do what I had to do.”

You might think that Vieira prefers online play, given his status, but he would rather play live poker if given the chance.

“I know that I cut my teeth online, and I know that I got most of my experience online, but I still prefer live,” said Vieira. “I think I’m better playing live.”

Unlike some other prominent online pros, Vieira believes that there is something to the live element of poker. There is something to seeing the other player and watching his mannerisms while he makes a decision and puts chips in the pot.

“It’s the purest form of poker,” said Vieira about playing live. “Online is more fundamentally sound. It’s more oriented towards game theory optimal play, but I think live is more pure. You can be playing online and you’ll have a certain decision that you have to make based on frequencies or patterns or game theory. In live, you have those too, but you can focus more on your opponent and make a more concrete decision.”

He took words from another dominant European pro, three-time WSOP bracelet winner and fellow Winamax team member Davidi Kitai, to sum up his thoughts on the difference.

“He once told me, ‘It doesn’t really matter what kind of GTO frequencies I’m supposed to use if I can look the guy straight in the eye and know that he doesn’t have it. If he doesn’t have it, he doesn’t have it. It doesn’t matter if it’s supposed to be a 30% mixed strategy in that spot. If I know he doesn’t have it, I’m going to get it right 100% of the time.’”

Vieira left Portugal for other parts of the European Union when PokerStars roped off the player pool in Portugal. His move out of Portugal offered him the chance to play in America and compete against some of the top high roller pros as well. It’s not like he couldn’t physically make the trip from Portugal before, but his government essentially added on rake through taxation, making American tournaments nearly unbeatable.

“Portugal residents pay a really heavy tax on American winnings,” he said. “I started playing the series when I left Portugal and was paying taxes out of the Czech Republic, and later on, out of the U.K.”

He left so that he could continue to compete against the game’s best and stay out of an intra-country pool, but it also gives him some more opportunities to showcase his live skills now that he has easier access to brick-and-mortar cardrooms.

“I think I have a lot of live skills that I just haven’t had the chance to display,” said Vieira. “I was playing on a small island out in the middle of nowhere. I never really had a chance to show how good I am at live poker, just as much as I’ve shown how well I can play online poker.”

With the pandemic slowly fading and live tournaments returning, Vieira is about to get his chance. ♠

Online Poker’s All-Time Tournament Money List, According to PocketFives.com

Rank Player Earnings Country
1 Joao ‘Naza114’ Vieira $24.8 million Portugal
2 Niklas ‘lena900’ Astedt $22.3 million Sweden
3 Sami ‘LarsLuzak’ Kelopuro $21.6 million Finland
4 Jonathan ‘apestyles’ Van Fleet $19.4 million U.S
5 Peter ‘Belabacsi’ Traply $19.1 million Hungary
6 Chris ‘moorman1’ Moorman $18.8 million U.K
7 Simon ‘C Darwin2’ Mattsson $17.6 million Sweden
8 Chris ‘Getting Daize’ Oliver $15.5 million U.S.
9 Andreas ‘r4ndomr4gs’ Berggren $15.4 million Sweden
10 Conor ‘1_conor_b_1’ Beresford $15.3 million U.K.

Top Tournament Scores

Date Event Finish Prize
July 2019 WSOP $5,000 NLH Six-Max 1st $758,011
April 2021 PokerStars SCOOP $25,000 Super High Roller 1st $469,987
April 2021 GGPoker $25,000 Sunday $5 Million GTD 4th $464,392
Sept. 2019 PokerStars WCOOP $10,000 PLO Main Event 1st $384,948
May 2018 EPT Monte Carlo €25,000 NLH High Roller 5th $251,052
Nov. 2018 partypoker Millions Caribbean $25,000 NLH 9th $250,000
Jan. 2020 partypoker Millions UK $10,000 NLH 1st $250,000
April 2021 partypoker Powerfest $10,000 High Roller 1st $249,791
April 2021 GGPoker $10,000 Super Tuesday 2nd $241,721
May 2020 PokerStars SCOOP $25,000 Super High Roller 4th $240,744