Photo provided by FullTilt Poker
Childhood and early years in Indonesia
John comments on this saying:
“That was the Asian culture back then. You lived with your parents until you got married, then you moved out when you had kids. So when my parents got married in 1970, a year later they had me, then moved out. But because they were so busy all the time, my grandparents took care of me. In retrospect, living with my grandparents was probably one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had or could ask for. My brothers and sisters knew my parents were trying to make a better life for us, so we understood. Plus, I learned a lot of valuable things that can’t ever be taught.”
Yet it was exactly his parents’ business – which John must have despised as a kid – that enabled him to lead a comfortable life later on. Especially in comparison to most people in Indonesia, John’s parents were fairly wealthy, so they could afford sending him to a private school and pay for his excellent post-secondary education as well as his diverse travels.
In high school, John proved to be very intelligent and also excelled as an athlete, especially in track and field athletics.
“I was a very good athlete,” he recalls. “I was probably the best athlete in junior high school. I was on the track team and I was the fastest at all the distances from 200 meters up through 5,000 meters”.
His time as a long and short distance runner explains his competitive spirit, a trait which has also done him good service in his career as a professional poker player.
Although John was an excellent student, he was a very rebellious child. Sometimes he was even referred to as a young “Asian James Dean”. With a hint of pride in his voice he explains today,
“I was always in trouble and pretty rebellious…I have this great picture of me when I was like four or five, and there I am with sunglasses on, sitting with my legs crossed and I’ve got this cigarette in my mouth, smiling at the camera. I just thought I was cool.”
Yet there was also a negative side to his overly “cool” attitude seeing as John was expelled from two schools. Naturally, John’s mother was not particularly happy about the way her son’s character developed. She felt that John was throwing all of his potential down the drain. So she made plans for her son to emigrate to America, where he would be living in a different environment and better surroundings. His father had not been a very good role model for John, either: it was him, who introduced John to gambling, another anathema to John’s mother. But John was able to keep his gambling habit under control, whereas his father Hadi kept sliding deeper and deeper into the depths of his addiction.
John explains, “He lost all the time. He’d bet on sports, play Baccarat or Chinese poker, and he was always losing, most of the time because he loved drinking when he would play. Plus, he usually played for really big money, and in Indonesia (where gambling is illegal), the places and people you bet with also cheated you all the time.“
So while John’s mother had to work extremely hard, John’s father spent most of his time gambling. This was probably the deciding factor that strengthened her decision to send John to the USA where he could go to college and train to be a doctor, lawyer or businessman – “Anything, but a gambler like my father,” reveals John.
Poker lessons high up in the sky
In 1990, John left his home country to go study in the USA. It was on the airplane from Indonesia to the United States where his two best friends, who he was sitting with, first introduced him to the fascinating world of poker. One of his friends explained the rules and the basics of each of the different poker variations to John. Furthermore he discovered – many miles above the Pacific Ocean – the importance of being able to read other people in poker.
When the plane landed in Oklahoma, John had already found a new hobby: playing poker. To his own amazement, the first hand he had been dealt was a Royal Flush. This is an exceptional poker hand anyway, and even more so as it was John’s very first hand ever. John did not believe he was that lucky, because he knew what a rare card combination a Royal Flush was. Just as he suspected, something was foul: his friend had cheated to make John believe lady luck was on his side so that he would continue playing poker. From this experience, John Juanda learned that it is better to believe in chance than luck, a conviction which eventually became a fundamental building block of his career.
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College in the USA
John quickly realized that life in the USA was not as easy as he had expected. Barely speaking a word of English, he found it difficult to integrate and settle in. This is why he developed a habit of closely observing people and attentively listening to what others were saying. Because he did not understand the language, he had to rely on his intuition to understand what other people were saying.
In 1994 he received a bachelor of Marketing and Management from the Oklahoma State University. During his time at college, he had continually been tempted to play poker and enjoyed playing against his roommates. After returning to Indonesia with a university degree, he noticed that he missed the thrill of playing poker with his friends:
“Once I got home, I had this credit card with a pretty big limit on it, and I don’t know whether it was because I was back around old or I was drinking a little too much, but before I knew it, I’d run up more than $ 15,000 of debt at one of the casinos in Indonesia. Here I was, just graduated from college with my degree, yet I felt so stupid.”
John knew that the only way he could make enough money to pay back his debts was to make it clear to his mother that he wanted to go back to the States to do a PhD. He knew that she would give him $ 40,000 so he could continue his education and this was how he was going to pay back his debts. Even to this day, John has not told his mother the true story.
So in 1994, John Juanda made his way back to the USA. He enrolled at Seattle University in Washington, where he received a Master’s degree in Business Administration. The whole time though, he was still working on a plan to pay back his debts. To finance his studies and in order to get rid of his debts, he worked as a door-to-door salesman; he sold bibles and worked as a stock broker. During this time, he was even voted “Best Salesman”. After taking his degrees, John moved to Los Angeles and worked as manager of a marketing company.
From quiet observer to poker pro
In 1996, John Juana entered an American casino for the first time and discovered the exhilarating challenge of playing Texas Hold’em. Interestingly enough, he spent the first couple of days just watching other players and observing how they played. John had always been a good Black Jack player and his newly found interest inspired him to buy several books on poker at the nearest book store. It was only several weeks later that he felt he had finally learned enough about the basics of the game for him to give it a go himself. That same year, John took part in his first tournament where he placed in the top ten. He also finished in the top ten at a second tournament he participated in that year. He continued to work hard and concentrated on getting better at analyzing his opponents. Of course John also worked on increasing his bankroll (the amount of money to one’s disposal for poker) and continued to grace various casinos and card rooms with his presence.
In 1997, he took part in a total of 13 tournaments, all of which were held in his home town Los Angeles. He made it to the final table in all the tournaments; he placed second in five and won two of them. Feeling more confident, he took part in more and more tournaments. Over the next couple of years he made it to the money ranks of the tournaments he played in more than twenty times, and even won two of them. Slowly, John Juanda became one of the most feared and respected players of the world of poker.
In 1999, John participated in the World Series of Poker for the first time, and made it to the final table of both the events he had taken part in.
In 2001 he won the “Jack Binion World Poker Open Championship”. John also was the runner- up to the “Card Player Magazine Player of the Year” in 2001 and 2002.
In 2002 John earned his first Golden Bracelet at the WSOP for winning the “Triple Draw Lowball Ace to Five” event. He also won the first “Professional Poker Player’s Tour” in 2002 after a long heads- up match with Chris Bigler.
In 2003 John won two more Gold Bracelets in pot-limit Omaha and Seven-Card Stud Hi Lo Split. During the first three series of the World Poker Tour John made it to five final tables.
John Juanda is a great fan of the World Series of Poker and believes that the WSOP will soon overtake the World Poker Tour as the most popular televised poker show. In his opinion, the WSOP is already bigger, better, and more important than the WPT, and predicts that soon there will be more projects just as big. He says,
“There’s a big new professional poker league in the offing where the top players will get paid for playing. If that happens none of the top players will want to play WPT anymore.”
In 2004, John won the ” Professional Poker Tour” for the first time and – on top of that – made it to an outstanding fourteen final tables that same year.
In 2005, he continued his winning streak: he was placed fifth at both the “Five-Star Poker Classic” and the “National Heads-Up Poker Championship”.
In 2006 he made it to the final table at the “World Poker Tour North American Championship” and finished fifth, winning $ 217,320 in prize money. John also won the “Crown Australian Poker Championship AUD 100,000 Speed Poker” event in 2006, where he won $ 732,901 and beat poker celebrities such as Mike Sexton, Tony G, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, and Phil Bloom. Yet this was not the only event he was successful in: for his sixth place finish at the Main Event of the “Monte Carlo Millions” he received $ 500,000. He also placed second at the “FullTiltPoker.Net Invitational Live in Monte Carlo” and won the “Monte Carlo Millions Consolation” tournament.
Aggressive playing style and an amazing knowledge of human nature
In less than ten years, John has become a poker star recognized world-wide, and today he is regarded as one of the world’s best tournament players. “JJ” prefers tournament poker over cash-games, preferably playing no-limit Texas Hold’em and pot-limit Texas Hold’em. He is very careful about choosing which tournaments he participates in and only plays in tournaments with high buy ins and at renowned major events.
Along with Phil Ivey, John is probably one of the most respected and feared professional poker players. He is famous around the world for his aggressive playing style and people like to call him “the luckiest player”. John responds to this by saying,
“I don’t mind that image because it helps me win a lot…Some people are afraid to play pots against me when they should, because they ‘know’ I will get lucky against them. There are lots of other variations of that, ways that the image causes them to play badly.”
The most important thing in poker, in John’s eyes, is to observe other players:
“That’s what makes the great players like Phil Ivey and Chris Ferguson so good. A lot of people will bet quickly when bluffing and when they’ve got a good hand take a long time to think, look away, or start shuffling their chips. If you pay attention you’ll realize that, uh oh, this guy’s got the nuts.”
John developed his outstanding ability of analyzing other people after coming to America, where he had to try to understand what other people wanted to communicate to him even though he did not understand their language. He says:
“When I first came to this country, I didn’t speak much English, so when I hung out with my friends, I mostly listened and observed, and spoke very little. I believe you learn so much more by listening than you ever will by speaking. When I started playing poker in 1996, I learned a lot about people just by watching them. Through years of listening and observing, I have developed the ability to read people quite well, not just in poker but also in life. If you put me in a game with players I’ve never seen before, I will quickly get an idea of what each person is made of. It’s like going to a movie, watching the characters, and knowing the good guy from the bad.”
Pokerstar and gentleman - John is a role model in every way
Not only is John a great poker player, he also has an easy-going and carefree attitude, which is a refreshing change from the many arrogant poker players on today’s scene. He is always friendly and polite and never reproachful. John tries not to be prejudiced, which he believes is part of the reason for his success. It is easier to interpret the mannerisms of the players at the table, if one shows genuine interest. Another example of John’s amazing personality is the fact that he uses the money he wins playing poker to fund his littler sister’s college education, among other things.
Even his fellow poker professionals, admire John for his calm demeanour at the poker table, which is why he is also known as “Mr. Nice Guy”. The fact that he is always willing to do his fans a favour is another reason for his good reputation. He admits that it drives him crazy when poker players treat their fans as if they did not even exist.
Although John is one of the most gentlemanly and loved poker professionals, you better not underestimate him at the poker table. His amazing personality in no way affects his ability to play, and play well. He plays a cold, analytical, and ruthless poker game. John’s strategy is to treat professional poker as business, which has little or nothing at all to do with his personality or his personal life. The game only gets interesting if competition is especially tough. He often says that money comes and goes but that it is competition that brings him back to the table.
When John feels confident enough he sometimes plays $ 2,000- $ 4,000 cash-games, although he says,
“A lot of players will lose at $ 400- $ 800, go on Full Tilt Poker and play $ 1,000- $ 2,000 to try and get their money back. That’s an absolute no-no if you want to be successful.”
When John feels he is experiencing a losing streak, he goes on to play in a softer game. He does not think it is a smart idea to stick to the big games, even though they might be cash-games where many of the best players in the world play. It is much more sensible to stick to softer games to build up the bankroll as well as one’s confidence until you can say to yourself, “Wow, I’ve won two nights in row”. Then you can get back on a roll.
John is friends with several other poker professionals and a member of the “Crew”, a very small, tight-knit poker community. Apart from John, Daniel Negreanu, Allen Cunningham and Phil Ivey also are members of the “Crew”, all of whom John calls his best friends.
“We all grow up sometimes, and it’s only natural to move on to other things. But for some people, it’s like high school, where you say you’ll talk to them soon, but you never really do. That will never happen to us, even if we all might be going in different directions now than when we started years ago. But the friendships we all had, and still have, I think will always be some of the most unique ones in all of poker.”
John also considers Mike Matusow a close friend, who – like Daniel Negreanu – is an excellent player. Despite being outstanding players, both of them have gone bankrupt at one point in time. John Juanda himself has been playing professional poker for several years now, but has never really experienced a long dry spell:
“I moved to the US by myself so if I went broke it would have been the end of me.”
This is what John’s friend Daniel Negreanu has to say on this topic:
“His ability to manage money is just nauseating sometimes. There were times when I would go broke, and I’d come to him and ask to borrow some obscene amount of money to get back on my feet; and before he’d even discuss it with me, he’d always ask me what happened, then lecture me about what I did wrong or how bad I was playing. And all the while, I’m just standing there, listening to him try to nurture me and tell me how I needed to start doing this or that better, when inside I’m just screaming, ‘Dammit, John…just give me the $ 30,000 and shut up already!”
Away from the poker tables
At present, John is single and does not have any children. He admits that he has neglected his personal life over his poker career:
“I wish I’d focused more on my personal life though. That’s my only regret, but maybe if I’d been less successful I’d be wising I’d played more”.
He still dreams of being a family man and father one day. His hobbies are, among other things, reading, watching movies and travelling to new, exotic places - although his favourite spot in the world still is Lake Toba in his home country Indonesia. His favourite artists are Elton John and John Lennon.
John has already fulfilled one of his aspirations: he is the proud owner of his own Indonesian restaurant named “Java Spice”. It lies in Rowland Heights, one of the most fashionable areas in Los Angeles. Sometimes you can even meet the boss himself.
“I’m only here once a month, but my manager says people call here every day asking, ‘Is John coming in today?’ or ‘When’s the next time John will be in town?’ And to be honest, that is one of the things I most look forward to these days: coming back to L.A. where it all started (for me), and just meeting and talking to people.”
If John could change anything in the world he would ban all use of weapons in warfare. Instead, he would have the leaders or representatives of each country fight in a ring.
The fans love him
Poker fans highly value John’s genius; they show their appreciation and comment in online forums. One fan jokingly asks,
“John I was wondering since you are a professional player do you ever feel guilty taking people’s money and feeding off people’s misery like a vampire sucking people’s blood because it’s likely most people you beat have a gambling problem. Naaaa I’m just kidding, that’s how I feel sometimes when I’m winning.”
Another fan says, “Juanda is definitely my favorite player. He’s really skilled, classy, and likeable. This guy is awesome!”
Yet another user comments, “I finally have seen the best rounded player to date. Just pure class. He plays to win and looks even better when he loses. Nice to see players like him around.”
It is possible that we might not be able to witness John Juanda at the poker table for much longer: John’s plan is to take his PhD at the Faculty of Medicine in order to be able to help those who are less fortunate than himself. Ultimately, he wants to make sure that the poorer classes in his homeland Indonesia have access to medical care.
Giving up his career as a professional poker player would definitely bring about a great change in John Juanda’s life, but – after all – John is known for stepping up to any challenge that comes his way. He already supports a Californian physician who opened the “Aurora Breast MRI of Orange County” clinic, the main purpose of which is an early diagnosis of breast cancer.
John Juanda is and remains an enigma to all his opponents and fans. Erik Seidel, who has already won seven Golden Bracelets at the WSOP, confirms this fact, stating that it was impossible to read John Juanda, but if it were possible then he would definitely want to be able to.
Ever since he became a professional poker player, John Juanda has continued to prove he is one of the most original characters of the world of poker. His style is unique, his talent incredible, and his continued success almost unsurpassable.
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