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Online Player of the Year Spotlight -- Jon 'apestyles' Van Fleet

Van Fleet Explains His Comeback to the Top of the Rankings

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Jon Van FleetThe Card Player Online Player of the Year (OPOY) award honors the best tournament player across the major online sites in a given calendar year. Previous winners have included greats such as Isaac “westmenloAA” Baron, Alexander “AJKHoosier1” Kamberis and Steve “gboro780” Gross. Here, we take a look at one of the current top contenders.

Jon “apestyles’ Van Fleet has been one of the game’s most respected online professionals for the past five years. The New York born and Texas raised pro fondly known as “ape” took a $50 deposit in college and ran it up into a substantial bankroll. To date, the 29-year-old has amassed nearly $2.2 million in tournament earnings.

Despite his success, Van Fleet nearly lost it all thanks to too much partying, bad bankroll management and a big ego. Now living in the city of Austin, Van Fleet has separated himself from the distractions, gotten his life in order and now sits in the top five of the OPOY rankings with just a few days remaining in the race.

In this interview, Van Fleet discusses his start in poker, his downfall and how he picked himself back up and even offers up some advice for beginning players.

Julio Rodriguez: At 29-years-old, you are a bit older than the typical online pro. How did it all begin?

Jon Van Fleet: The first time I played for money was in college in a simple $5 game with some friends. I was pretty terrible and had no idea what was going on and I think I ended up losing around $20 to $25 in that game, which, to a college student, was a decent chunk of change.

At the time, I pretty big into chess and very competitive, so it bothered me that my friends could beat me so easily at something. I started reading some poker books in my spare time and before long, I was beating that game. I put $50 online a couple times and that was pretty much it.

JR: You mentioned chess, how did you get involved with that game?

JVF: That was a similar situation. This guy who I considered to be “not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” beat me in chess. I ended up betting him $50 that I could beat him if he gave me three months to study. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the game and got pretty good. I only played for a few years because I realized that I started learning the game a little too late in life and that it would be almost impossible for me to become a grand master. I still get steamed whenever I lose at anything, but at least now I’ve learned that I don’t need to go out and study something for months just to be able to beat my friends.

JR: You got your degree in Psychology from Texas Tech University. How has it helped you in your poker game?

Jon Van Fleet at the 2007 WSOPJVF: I think that an interest in the motivations of people, trying to understand what makes people tick; it can definitely help you when you are at the poker table. My goal when I sit down to play is to discover how each individual approaches the game and even make a few inferences about what the game means to them. Once you can step into somebody else’s shoes, it becomes much easier to make the right decisions against them.

This is something that you don’t need a psychology degree to do. One of the biggest mistakes that I made when I first started playing, was that I generally assumed that everyone played like me. I’d make these huge hero calls just because I’d be able to convince myself that if it were me making the bet, I could conceivably have any two cards. Well, it took awhile, but after being shown the nuts over and over again, I got the message.

Each hand that I observe contributes to an overall profile I have for each player. Don’t get me wrong, people are complex. I don’t claim to be able to size up an individual just from a session of poker. But lately I’ve found that I’ve been able to visualize the game from all kinds of different perspectives and that has ultimately brought me some success.

JR: By assuming that everyone else played your game, what kinds of mistakes were you making during your sessions?

JVF: I did my own study on how often the average player folds to reraises preflop. You would think that looser players would fold more often to reraises, simply because they generally have worse hands. But I found out that the two aren’t correlated. It turns out that even though the tighter players are opening with stronger hands, they are also folding more often to three-bets.

Like me when I first started, other players are simply assuming that their opponents play like they do. The tight players raise and assume that when they are reraised, they are beaten by a better hand. The loose players raise and assume that when they are reraised, their opponent is just as full of it as they are. Now, this isn’t concrete for each and every player, but it’s something to think about.

JR: You’ve always been one of the more consistent players in the online community. In 2007 you had a solid year, finishing in 35th place in the OPOY rankings. In 2009, you came back to finish 12th and you are looking at a top 10 finish in 2010. What happened in 2008?

Jon Van Fleet at the 2008 WSOPJVF: I wasn’t running very well. Now, I’m not going to blame it all on bad luck. I’m a firm believer that when you run bad, you also start to play bad and sometimes you don’t even realize it. The fact is that I was arrogant. I had a great year in 2007 and thought that I had the game solved. I told myself that I didn’t have anything else to learn and spent my time drinking and partying at every opportunity. I had no work ethic whatsoever.

After the WSOP in 2009, it had gotten to the point where I was nearly broke. Even worse, my health had taken a nosedive and I was pushing 300 pounds. At that point, I told myself that I could be fat or broke, but not both. Since poker wasn’t going very well, I decided to focus on what I could change, which was my lifestyle. I started eating right and going to the gym and coincidentally, poker started to go well too. It’s amazing how the two go hand in hand. Within six months, I had lost 80 pounds and gone on a $300,000 upswing. Since August of 2009, it feels like I’ve done nothing but win. Poker is fun again and now I have that drive to compete.

Jon Van Fleet is the co-author of Winning Poker Tournaments One Hand at a Time, available at amazon.com.