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A Poker Life -- J.P. Kelly

The Team PokerStars pro UK Member Lives a Life that is Up in the Air

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J.P. KellyJ.P. Kelly is a 24-year-old professional poker player from Aylesbury, just outside of London in the United Kingdom. As you might guess, Kelly’s life is up in the air as a U.K member of Team PokerStars pro who travels the world in search of the largest buy-in poker tournaments.

“It maybe isn’t ideal, but that’s kind of what my life is like, jumping around from place to place. I never really settle. I’m currently crashing with a few guys in a flat for a few days. I didn’t have anywhere to go a couple of days ago so I decided to stay there. We have quite a bit of laughs so it is quite good,” said Kelly of his current situation when Card Player caught up with him London.

Up in the Air

He has found a community of friends to travel the globe with and as Kelly becomes more comfortable with the lifestyle the titles have begin to pile up. His first big victory on the world stage came at the World Series of Poker in 2009. Kelly won a $1,500 pot-limit hold’em event and he took home $194,434 in prize money along with his first gold bracelet.

He established himself as the top young talent from the U.K by winning his second bracelet in the U.K. just a few months later in September at the World Series of Poker Europe. He won the £1,000 no-limit hold’em event at the WSOP Europe to add $225,535 in prize money to his career total and he became the only British player to hold two bracelets in the process. That was when the poker fame started to roll in. “More people started to recognize me when I played. More people in America found out who I was. It was good for recognition of the achievement,” said Kelly.

With success came increased media attention and then PokerStars approached him to become a member of Team PokerStars pro. He admits that the Team pro patch is a bit of a target on his back, but the sponsorship has become liberating for a player who likes to play, and win, live tournaments on either side of the Atlantic.

“I do find that people play differently around me. It seems like sometimes they’re scared of me or they try to do something a little bit different because they think that I’m going to do something a little bit different. So sometimes it means I have to pull off or sometimes I have to play really aggressive because they are going to give me so much credit. It can be tricky to work out which level they are one,” said Kelly of his opponents these days.

Since London has established itself as the Las Vegas of Europe each fall Kelly does get to enjoy a short interlude at home when the poker world comes to him. He does admit that he enjoys a bit of a home-court advantage. “The surroundings are familiar for me, and other players have to get used to the time zone,” said Kelly.

It would appear that even when the poker world is in London, Kelly never stays in the same place too long. When we caught up with him at the Empire Casino just off Leicester Square in central London, Kelly was crashing with friends close by to avoid the London traffic, which rivals some of the worst in the world.

“I’ve got loads more good friends now, because it is more of the younger lot coming up now in the U.K. You’re hearing about Jake Cody and Toby Lewis who are winning EPT and WPT events. I think you will see more of that group coming through,” said Kelly.

Kelly said that his group of friends on the road has helped keep him grounded and close to home no matter where the tournament trail might take him from month to month and week to week. Even though he came into the poker world a few years ahead of some of his current friends he admitted that he might learn more from them than the other way around.

“A lot of them have their heads screwed on. I have made a few mistakes lifestyle-wise with overspending. They are all very mature so I have learned some stuff from them, I don’t think they need a mentor,” said Kelly.

Learning the Game in an Unconventional Way

The U.K. television program Late Night Poker has started many poker careers in Europe, the same way that the movie Rounders has in the United States. It’s also responsible for Kelly’s start in the game. He’d already been playing home games with friends and family, but the show’s top-level poker caught his attention and he set about learning the game hoping to earn a living at the felt.

“I learned hold’em online and then we used to play at school as well around the time I was 16. I started playing more and reading books. I went down to the casino and started winning local tournaments there,” said Kelly.

The live circuit in the U.K. was where he first made his mark, and the results have kept coming ever since. His first blip on the live tournament radar came in 2005, when he won a tournament in Walsall. He soon found success at other U.K. events, and began to branch out in Europe. His first cash at a major live tournament came during season three of the European Poker Tour in 2006, where he cashed in 24th place at the Barcelona main event, good for $14,571.

He played in his first WSOP in 2007, and he cashed in a $3,000 no-limit hold’em event. He returned the following year and final tabled a $2,500 mixed hold’em/Omaha event, cashing in ninth place, which was good for $22,598. Momentum was definitely building for Kelly, and in 2009 he put all of his experience and potential together and turned it into a first bracelet win. The second bracelet win came a few months later and he now holds $1,116,285 in life-time earnings.

J.P. KellyDespite what the natural progression of his success might suggest, it hasn’t always been easy for Kelly, and he still struggles to find balance between live and online play. “My game was pretty bad online because I had been playing live too much. So the initial struggle was finding a balance between the two. I took some time off from live and then tried to work on my online game during my learning stretch. I may need to do that again with all of the recent travel for live events,” said Kelly.

Kelly also pursued a less-than-normal path to poker success. He jumped across limits as erratically as he has from live to online play. “When I first started I was jumping all over the place, so I’m not the classic go-up-through-the-stakes example. I’ve always been aggressive with my bankroll I guess. It accelerated my learning curve, but you can also get into trouble so you have to find a balance,” said Kelly.

Kelly advises that his winding path through the limits to poker success isn’t for everybody, but if you do chose that approach it can lead to an advanced education in how to handle your emotions on the felt. “I can handle the swings quite well; it’s more a matter of deciding if you want to. I’m quite happy playing mid-stakes online because it cuts down on the variance, but I know I’m more than capable to play for big stakes,” said Kelly.

He also had a unique first view of the game coming from the U.K. The increased popularity of pot-limit Omaha gave him a tremendous resource to learn that form of poker well, even if it wasn’t the first form of the game that he learned. “I’m sure most people learn hold’em first because they get introduced to it on TV, and they see what their friends play. Some people might learn Omaha first, but I think more people make the transition from Omaha to hold’em,” said Kelly when asked about the popularity of Omaha in Europe. He continued, “In Europe, in the casinos, they spread Omaha more than they do in America, so you can learn it from other Europeans that play it.”

A later stage of his poker education came as he began to play increasingly in the United States. “Europeans play a bit more aggressive preflop and Americans like to see flops more. Europeans like to pop the pot early in the hand and win it right there,” said Kelly. “I think my post-play has improved as a byproduct of that.”

A Poker Life Heads into the Future

The fact that Kelly is the only UK player to win two bracelets at such a young age speaks volumes for his talent, and he is set for a long and prosperous career at the tables. If Kelly continues to win bracelets with any kind of consistency in the near future he will one day approach such big names as Hellmuth and Ivey on the all-time bracelet lists. The magnifying glass wasn’t focused on the game of poker when those two got their start as it is now, so tracking Kelly’s career from such an early stage could be a unique experience when examined 20 years down the line. In any case, it would appear that this poker life is positioned to live up to its promise and title.

His future plans definitely include further travel on the tournament trail, with the WSOP and WSOP Europe as yearly fixture on his calendar. As a member of Team PokerStars pro he will also aggressively attack the EPT schedule throughout the year, but he also wants to turn his attention to the online arena, where he plays under the screen name “jp Kelly”. “I have played a lot of tournaments this year, but I have been proving myself more and more at them so I want to keep playing them,” said Kelly. “I also want to play cash online. I had a good run at pot-limit Omaha at the start of the year and I want to get back to that stage again. I feel like I’m not at that level right now, but I know I can get back to it.”

He knows that whatever he decides to do that balance between the two poker mediums will continue to be a key to his success. “I get bored doing the same thing all the time. Some people like to play the same thing over and over every day, and that may work for them. You have to find what works for you and follow your own path,” said Kelly.

J.P. KellyAs far as goals are concerned he isn’t thinking too far down the line just yet. He takes it one tournament at a time and performs to the best of his ability in each event. “I’m just trying to do well in every tournament I play; when an EPT or WSOP comes around I’m focused on it. Obviously that is a big step up from the 1K, so I have to adjust and realize I’m playing world-class players, and know how to play them,” said Kelly.

He will also try to find the same balance between life and poker that he is searching for between live and online play. Off the felt interests include golf and tennis, and as always those two pursuits are shared with friends for Kelly. Sharing time with friends is another big interest for Kelly. He also wants to become healthier despite the on-the-road lifestyle.

“I have already decided that after EPT London that I’m going to start working out more, running, swimming. Right now there is something going on every day and there is sort of no point to just going to the gym for one day and then never going again. A couple of my friends have weight-loss bets, and body-fat percentage bets, so I might investigate and see if I want to take up one of those bets,” said Kelly.

Whatever the future may hold, and whatever balance he strikes between poker, life, and healthy living, or online and live play, tomorrow’s prospects are bright for this young star from the U.K. It could be that when his poker life is complete he will be remembered as one of the greatest players in European history.