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MJ Gonzales: Daniel Negreanu’s Poker Coach Seeks Out Heads-Up Action Of His Own

High-Stakes Pro Talks Upcoming $3 Million Freezeout, Private Games, And New Coaching Platform

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MJ Gonzales might just be the best poker player you’ve never heard of. No, you’re not living under a rock. As it turns out, the anonymity was intentional.

Throughout his career, Gonzales has mostly kept to himself. Although the other high rollers in his game are certainly aware of his skills, the rest of the poker world is only now discovering the 34-year-old high-stakes crusher.

While tournament winners generally get most of the attention with big payouts and photos holding a trophy, cash game grinders are often overlooked, simply because their results are not made public. But that anonymity was just fine for Gonzales.

He didn’t come to the cardroom for the fame. He didn’t want the spotlight. All he wanted was the money, and more often than not, that’s what he left with.

Over the last few years, however, the Northern California native has come out of the shadows, made himself more public on social media, and even created an instructional platform, Hybrid Poker, which is scheduled to be released to the public this fall. It’s a product that for many years was only available to a handful of select pros and high net worth individuals that paid Gonzales for his service.

“It was a choice to stay private up until the 2019 World Series of Poker,” said Gonzales, who was picked by Daniel Negreanu for his $25,000 fantasy poker team that year. He went on to cash nine times, including two final tables and a third-place showing in the $25,000 pot-limit Omaha championship for $700,000.

It was a strong coming out party for Gonzales, but tournaments, and the pomp and circumstance that comes with them, have never been his favorite.

“All we wanted to do was print as much money as we could and coach the elite. That’s why not many people know who I am. It was by design.”

Those in-the-know, including some of the top players in the world, were turning to Gonzales to plug the leaks in their game. But just who has he been coaching?

Well, he signed non-disclosure agreements with most of his high-profile clients, so most have kept their anonymity. But recently it was revealed that Gonzales and his partner were the team that has coached Negreanu for the last few years.

The duo were instrumental in the improvement the six-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner showed in his $200-$400 no-limit hold’em heads-up match against Doug Polk. Although he ended up losing the match, Polk himself said that the 46-year-old Negreanu made massive strides in his no-limit hold’em game. Polk even went as far as saying that in any future match, he would bet on Negreanu against anyone that wasn’t an elite heads-up player.

Not to mention that skill aside, anything can happen in a 25,000-hand sample size.

“You and I play 10 million hands and we are both breakeven. We are both the same skill level for this hypothetical. I can go on an 80-to-100 buy-in downswing and it’s totally normal,” explained Gonzales. “And if the public saw me lose 100 buy-ins, they would think that you are 500 times better than I am. They would think that I am dust and that I should hit the showers. But that’s not the way that variance actually works.”

“So when people see the Negreanu-Polk heads-up match, [they need to realize] that it is a sample size of nothing. Yes, Doug is a better heads-up player. There’s no arguing that. He deserved the win. Absolutely. But when Daniel would lose three buy-ins in a session, they just looked at the number. They would think ‘Oh my God. It’s $120,000.’ That’s stone f***ing nothing for a heads-up match. It’s just not. So, for Daniel to lose $1 million playing $200-$400 over 25,000 hands, that’s not crazy at all.”

With Negreanu’s match officially in the books, Gonzales is now booking high-stakes matches of his own. Most notably, he agreed to a match against Wiktor “Limitless” Malinowski, a Polish high-stakes phenom that is a regular in the biggest online cash games. The brash 26-year-old went on a podcast and offered an open challenge for anyone to play him heads-up. In fact, since he said he was having trouble getting people to gamble with him, Malinowski offered to play drunk.

Initially, there wasn’t anybody going out of their way to accept the challenge. So, Gonzales took it upon himself to battle the former professional handball player, albeit with one caveat. Instead of playing online, like Malinowski wanted, the two professional gamblers would play a $3 million freezeout with $1,000-$2,000 blinds, live in Las Vegas.

Gonzales didn’t stop there. He decided to take on more challenges from other high-stakes pros. After issuing the challenge, he is now slated to play live heads-up matches against Isaac Haxton and Dan Smith, two of the greatest poker minds of all time. The details of those two matches, however, are still being finalized.

“I view Wiktor as the people’s champion, right?” said Gonzales. “So, he made this challenge to everyone in the world and no American stepped up. Not one. And I said ‘You know what? F*** it. Let’s roll. Let’s gamble. Let’s have some fun.”

Of course, live poker is more fun, and Gonzales was adamant about a face-to-face match on the felt.

It may seem a bit counterintuitive to play live given the variance concerns Gonzales already cited with small sample sizes. Those problems could be alleviated in an online setting, but Gonzales said on Twitter that “it takes a special soul” to play live poker at the highest stakes. And that’s an edge that he feels he has over nearly anyone.

“You have to take the gamification out that you experience online,” he said about why he wants to play live. “The money is not in front of you. It’s just a click of a button. Live, you don’t have RNG’s, you don’t have charts, you don’t have frequency maps. You don’t have exploitative notes. All this stuff. Everything is me versus you. It’s what I can retain and regurgitate versus what you can retain and regurgitate. And let the best man win.”

Aside from the perceived edge in the live arena, Gonzales believes that heads-up no-limit hold’em isn’t Malinowski’s best format.

“I don’t have a huge sample with Wiktor. My read on him is that he is a much better six-max player than he is a heads-up player,” said Gonzales. “Not to take away from his heads-up game. I still think he’s great, but I think he would even say that six-max is by far his strongest variant.”

When Gonzales was tweeting about his desire to play heads-up no-limit hold’em matches, he said there were a few players that he was hoping to play, and only a couple of players that he wouldn’t.

The players he won’t accept a match from are simply players in his general circle of friends that have access to the same information he does. But there is one particular legend of the game that he is hoping takes his offer.

“I would drop everyone and everything right now to play live heads-up against Phil Ivey,” said Gonzales. “I would quit. I would stop everything that I’m doing. I would pitch a tent and I would play Phil Ivey heads-up. For as big as he wants.”

There doesn’t appear to be an avenue for a match with Ivey to happen any time soon, but as Gonzales’ profile grows, there’s always a possibility it could happen in the future.

“I’m a small fry in the poker world right now,” he said. “And I’m planning on changing that. But there was a small piece of me that hopes Phil sees this and says, ‘You know what, kid? I’ll do it. Let’s go.’ That’s what I want.”

MJ Gonzales at the WSOP Credit: PokerGOAlthough he might not be on Ivey’s radar yet, he’s certainly close. Gonzales has done his best to remain unknown for several years, but word spreads, and reputations are a hard thing to hide from. Some of the game’s best have already declined offers to play him, despite the fallacy among online players that live players are weaker.

“I think the live reputation is that we suck,” he said. “And I think, unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to that. Live players don’t get a big enough hand sample. They don’t see enough spots. I think there’s a decent amount of truth to the idea that they’re not studying appropriately compared to the online guys. The way we study poker today is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If you don’t have a full understanding of CFR data sets, then you’re drawing dead in this game. You don’t have a chance.”

What the online players do lack, in general, are certain skills to make a living in the live arena as their edge decreases over time.

Despite his immense talent, Gonzales still finds a way to get a seat in nosebleed-stakes private games with A-list celebrities. It’s an opportunity that many professionals would kill for, yet most are shut out. In his opinion, it’s because some pros are too focused on maximizing the expected value of every decision and fail to see the social aspect that live poker has.

“You don’t need social skills to publicly be considered one of the best players in the world, but you do need those skills to make the most money,” he said. “For example, look at Ike Haxton. Nobody thinks he’s the most suave guy in the world. But he’s revered as one of the best poker players in the world. He can’t get into the games that I play. They’d be like ‘Why would we ever f***ing play with him?’ He’s not friends with the right people and that’s the path he chose.”

That’s no slight on the players like Haxton and other high-profile pros. It’s just a difference in how the two players approach the game from a business perspective.

“Good for you, bro. I celebrate you,” said Gonzales. “You are one of the best in the world and you will continue to be. But you won’t be in the best game. And it all goes back to the questions of, ‘Do you want fame? Or do you want money? Why are you doing this?’ I made a decision that I want to make the most money. I don’t want to be poor. I don’t want my daughter to experience what I experienced when I was younger.”

Once Gonzales got a seat in those games, he realized that he needed to take the worst of it in the short-term to ensure that he continues to be invited back. He’s not dishonest about his skill or hiding his talent, but he makes sure that people enjoy the experience of gambling with him, win or lose.

“You absolutely tell people in the private scene that you’re a professional, but you should give action. You should straddle, you should flip, you should be able to give rebates,” explained Gonzales.

“There are all these social protocols that poker players don’t seem to get these days, and this is why you see poker moving towards private games. Nobody wants to sit next to the grinder that’s berating the fish. Nobody wants to sit next to the guy with headphones and an iPad watching a movie. No one wants to sit there and wait for 30 seconds while a guy tank-checks. That shit is in the past. That’s over. The whales and the recreational players have had enough of that.”

That’s not to say that pros aren’t allowed to make money in those games. It’s just about utilizing a different skill set. It’s about identifying the type of experience the whale is looking for and delivering that to him.

“There are types of whales that want to be preflop warriors and just want to get all the money in as soon as possible,” said Gonzales. “And there’s types of whales that love to see flops, and they just want to try to draw. And there’s some types of whales that love to see all the way down to the river. You have to kind of navigate those waters and understand which type you’re up against.”

In these situations, Gonzales says it’s all about being aware. Aware of not only how your opponents react to certain bets, but also how they react socially.

“What jokes did they laugh at? What jokes did they not laugh at? Are they even a type to joke? Or do they just want to sit there and gamble? Do they want to see more flops? Does he huff and puff when he has to fold preflop? Is he hesitant to straddle? Is he the one driving the straddles? There’s all these different personality types and you just have to be observant.”

When Gonzales is in a game with celebrities, it even goes a step further than that. It’s about having those players respect you as a peer. It’s yet another art form to making a living in the high-stakes private games.

“A buddy of mine, also a professional poker player, was playing with one of the comedians,” Gonzales recalled. “He told the guy, ‘If I win this pot, you have to take a picture with me.’ The comedian says okay, they play the hand and my buddy wins the pot. So they take a picture. It was one of those Polaroid cameras, so he grabbed the photo and started shaking it out. Then he looked at the picture and looked back at the comedian and said, ‘Man, you look like shit. I wouldn’t show this to anyone.’ And then he lit the picture on fire. That’s a genius move. You needle him and you show him you don’t care [about his celebrity status]. Now you’re on his level.”

Gonzales doesn’t have the stereotypical poker resume to brag about. He doesn’t have millions in tournament earnings or a bracelet, but he’s carved out a lifestyle for himself that most aspiring poker pros don’t even know exists.

And he’s not done yet. He doesn’t plan on being in poker forever, but there are a few things he wants to accomplish before he goes back into the proverbial shadows and into our periphery. After he launches Hybrid Poker, he wants to play the biggest stakes ever played. And after he beats those games, the plan is to quietly retire from poker and get more serious with his investments.

But just how big are the biggest games? As it turns out… massive.

“In Macau or Malaysia, they are playing $10,000-$25,000 no-limit hold’em and upwards of $25,000-$50,000 no-limit,” said Gonzales. “I’m not sure how often those games are spread, but they’re swinging $75 million to $100 million per session.”

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