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A Poker Life -- Justin 'BoostedJ' Smith

The Most Accomplished All-Around 21-Year-Old Poker Player

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Justin SmithIf the world were separated into two types of people between those who let life happen to them, listlessly watching time pass them by, and those who make life happen for them, refusing to let one minute go to waste, Justin Smith would be in the latter group.

He’s survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident, gotten married to his high school sweetheart, and run his bankroll into millions starting at 1¢-2¢ limit hold’em. He’s traveled to Europe and the Caribbean chasing million-dollar purses, made two World Series of Poker final tables, and one World Poker Tour final table. He plays in the highest cash games in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio and on Full Tilt — where he recently became a red pro — and chums it up with friends like fellow pro Mike Matusow.

… And he’s 21-years-old.

A Youth Not Too Long Ago

Smith was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on Jan. 8, 1988, but grew up in Kissimmee, Florida. With an excitement for life from birth, Smith admits that he was a rambunctious and often devious toddler.

Justin Smith
“My parents knew that if it was quiet for too long, I was probably up to no good,” says Smith with laugh.

The youngest of three, Smith grew out of his trouble-making behavior and did well school. In high school, Smith joined the tennis team, and during his junior year in November 2003, Smith met the woman of his life — Anita. After getting acquainted at a party, they became friends and remained so for more than a year, but eventually, their relationship grew into one of true commitment, and love.

“When I first met him, I just thought he was so cute and nice. He was really funny, too,” said Anita with a big smile. A few months after the two became an official couple, Anita’s father made the decision to move back to China. Because of a strained relationship with her mother, Anita and Smith thought it best that she move in with Smith’s family.

Senior year, life was in order for Smith. He had a loving girlfriend, plans to go to the University of Central Florida in the fall, and one last season of tennis. Smith was going to be captain of the team, but unfortunately, he wouldn’t get the chance.

On Feb. 6, 2005, Super Bowl Sunday, Smith was returning home on his motorcycle to host a small get-together with his friends to watch the game. In just a few seconds of what Smith refers to as being “young and dumb,” he hit a car.

“I don’t really remember a lot of it. I was flown in a helicopter to the hospital, where I stayed for three nights. Some of my friends actually saw it happen. I hit the car with my head, bounced off the car into the air, and landed on my head on the pavement,” said Smith. “I tore my right ACL, and I partially tore my left ACL. I broke my ankle, which had already been broken before, so now I have a bunch of plates and screws in it. The doctor said I was lucky to keep my foot. I still have a scar on my forehead, too.”

The months following the accident were painful. He was in a wheelchair for three months, and required additional surgery on his knee. A self-reliant person previous to this, Smith found it difficult to rely on Anita and his father for help. Soon, he found another way to keep his mind off the pain.

Healing Power

Without a source of income, and nothing but time on his hands, Smith began playing poker online. Smith deposited $50 on PokerStars and became a student of the game while waiting for his broken body to heal, which could only happen with the passage of time.

Justin SmithSmith began playing 1¢-2¢ limit hold’em by the advice of a friend, and moved up quickly from there. Eventually, Smith returned to class and graduated on time. After high school, the couple moved into their own apartment and attended the University of Central Florida. To pay for his part of the rent, Smith grinded $2-$4 limit hold’em, but found himself stuck in a standstill. Every month, he’d double his $1,000 bankroll, but had to withdrawal his profit to pay the bills. He needed a breakthrough, and he’d find it in no-limit hold’em.

Using a 20-25 buy-in bankroll rule, Smith swiftly moved up in stakes, and by January 2006, he was playing $5-$10, $10-$20, and $10-$25 on UltimateBet and PartyPoker.

In February 2007, Smith placed second in the Full Tilt Online Poker Series $500 buy-in main event for a hit of more than $175,000. After that, he began traveling the European tournament trail, where 19-year-olds were allowed compete. His biggest live cash while under the U.S. legal gambling age came in the World Series of Poker Europe main event. He finished 16th for just over $64,000.

In August of that year, Anita and Smith were married in Orlando. True to the form of a poker player’s wedding, fellow high-stakes pros Tom Dwan, David Benefield, and Alec Torelli were playing Chinese poker at the reception.

Throughout this time, Smith continued upping the stakes, but only when his bankroll allowed him to do so. With a knack for learning new games, Smith expanded his repertoire, and began playing mixed games. Though he admits he made the mistake of jumping into games too high at first, he studied and adapted quickly enough that the transition wasn’t devastating to his bankroll.

“I jumped into $100-$200 and $200-$400 Omaha high-low. I ended up losing quite a bit. It cost me $200,000 or $300,000,” said Smith. “I lost a lot, but it was worth learning. I should have started lower, though, and would suggest doing that to others who are learning.”

The 2009 WSOP would be his first, and Smith was supremely confident in his game. He made numerous expensive bracelet bets and team bets, with Matusow as his partner. Despite taking the losing end on most of the bets without a bracelet on his wrist at the end of the summer, Smith had quite a successful first series. He cashed five times total and made two final tables. He finished ninth in the $10,000 no-limit deuce-to-seven draw lowball event and eighth in the $10,000 seven-card stud eight-or better event.

“I didn’t win one this year, but I made two final tables. I think next year will be the year.”

Just after the month and a half grind of the WSOP, being the die-hard poker player that he is, Smith entered the $15,000 WPT Bellagio Cup V.

Sports Injury

Smith made it the televised final table of six from the 268 who started. Though the lights and cameras were a novel experience for Smith, playing for seven figures was not.

“For some reason, my body was nervous but my mind wasn’t. I’ve been in more stressful poker situations than that before. It was a really weird feeling,” said Smith.

The final table included well-known pros Erik Seidel, Alexandre Gomes, and Torelli. Smith entered second in chips, but took a huge hit early.

“I made a big move at Faraz Jaka, and I got kind of unlucky against his range.” Smith battled back, and doubled up against Faraz. It was hours before the first causality was claimed. Seidel bluffed all in into Smith when he held an overpair, putting him back in the hunt.

“Catching Seidel bluffing is not an easy thing to do,” said Smith, laughing.

Because of the slow progress of the final table, fans became restless, including Matusow. At one point he yelled, “I want to see blood. I don’t care whose blood, just bring me the blood.” It was an eerie foreshadowing for what was to come.

During three-handed play with Smith, Jaka, and Gomes, Smith found himself short-stacked. He doubled up all in preflop with A-3 against Gomes’s pocket threes, and the very next hand, Smith was all in preflop again against Gomes with K-J. He was coin-flipping against pocket eights. The board ran out A-7-3-Q. Smith needed a king, jack, or 10 on the river. Smith was standing to watch his fate, when the 10 hit the board. The crowd erupted, and suddenly, Smith was on the ground.

“I was standing halfway between the table and the crowd. When the river card hit, we went nuts. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I think I jumped and tripped stepping off or on the stage. My knee just gave out and popped out of place. It was really bad.”

Somewhat in shock, Smith was bent over his shaking knee that was noticeably bent to the side. The WPT crew rushed to his aide and a representative suggested he go to the hospital. Smith refused. Instead, he calmly asked for ice and an extra chair to elevate his rapidly swelling leg.

“It never crossed my mind not to play. I would have had to been knocked unconscious.”

The final table continued, and Smith played through the pain. Instead of his leg being a distraction, Smith said it actually helped him focus. Leading up to his injury, he said he was so exhausted that he had to jog during breaks to refocus. With the extra adrenaline, he had nothing on his mind but winning.

The three battled, and the blinds continued to increase, seriously crippling the players’ ability to play postflop. Smith played two big all in preflop pots, and he was eliminated in third place. He received $465,000 for his efforts.

More to Come

Justin SmithDays later, Smith confirmed that he did, in fact, tear his left ACL, which was likely a result of the vulnerable tendon being weakened from his motorcycle accident years ago. He plans on having ACL surgery soon in L.A., where he and Anita recently moved.

“We’re kind of like an older couple,” said Anita. “We don’t party that much. Most of the time, we’re going to movies or dinner. We just stay at home, watching Entourage or America’s Best Dance Crew.”

At his young age, Smith emanates years of experience both with his professional manner and with his highly skilled game. He’s already successfully learned to handle life as a high-stakes poker player, taking enormous swings in stride. His résumé sounds like a list of accomplishments in the obituary of an old man, but in the case of 21-year-old Justin Smith, it’s just the beginning.

*For tips on cash games from Smith, check out his interview for Card Player Magazine’s Capture the Flag article.