Tomorrow marks a historic moment in the wealthy world of high stakes poker. It sees the start of the Triton Million Helping Hand for Charity poker tournament in the Grand Ballroom of the London Hilton on Park Lane. This latest stop on the Triton Poker Super High Roller Series is special for two reasons.
Firstly the three-day event is set to produce the biggest first prize of any poker event anywhere in the world ever. It also features a £1,000,000 buy-in – the highest buy-in ever in the history of poker. Put simply this is the richest tournament ever held and whoever emerges as the champion will earn more in a single tournament than ever before.
The best poker players in the world will be here, after being invited by the world’s richest businessmen who are permitted to register a guest to play in the tournament too, with these official ‘plus-ones’ 0generally going to poker’s top stars.
To get the lowdown on this gigantic poker showdown we sat down for a chat with Jason Koon, one of the finest poker players out there.
He told us about his route from a poker novice to someone who’s won close to $29,000,000 playing on tour, the extreme pressure faced in these high-stakes games and why this particular record-breaking Triton Million tournament could be his James Bond moment.
The MALESTROM: Tell us how you first got into the game?
Jason Koon: So, I wasn’t one of those guys who used to play cards with their family. I didn’t pick it up until quite late when I was at University. I was a collegiate sprinter, I ran track and I got hurt. And whenever I got hurt, my roommate, who was into poker, told me I should start playing to fill some time.
So I started playing against him and some friends in my college town. And I became really fascinated with the fact that I could make money doing that. I ended up going to a bookstore, read a bunch of books and started playing on the internet.
Within a year I was quite good, even though I wasn’t a professional or anything. I was actually in grad school getting a finance MBA, and I finished school, but by the time I finished school, I was really on the fence as to if I wanted to work or not.
I was going through a bunch of job interviews. But now I was playing poker like 40/50 hours a week. I ended up getting hired for a sales job and I took the job.
Within a few weeks of working there, I realised that it wasn’t for me and by then I really knew my passion was poker. So I just quit my job after five and a half years of school and took a shot at playing poker full time. That was in 2008.
TM: Did it come naturally to you do you think?
JK: No, not necessarily. I really liked the competitive element and the fact it took courageous plays and a lot of grit and grinding to make it in poker tournaments. Being an athlete I was into that stuff. But the other analytical stuff took years and years of hard work.
It wasn’t one of those things where it just clicked with me. The game clicked with me and my personality type, but really getting those solid fundamentals took years and years and a lot of grinding at things I wasn’t so good at.
TM: You must have to be quite disciplined. The average game day is very long…
JK: Yeah, it’s extremely long. The thing I always pride myself in is I make sure the things I can control I’m prepared for. So, I get to places early, I bring all my own food, I make sure to exercise and get good sleep. All these things combined, when I do show up to play I feel pretty great.
TM: Without a good diet and looking after yourself, those long hours at the table must get seriously exhausting, especially with the concentration factor?
JK: And especially because all day you’re not in a normal physical state, you’re kind of in a fight or flight state because you have to be so aware of everything that’s going on around you. You really burn through energy quicker than say I would when just sitting at a desk.
TM: Obviously, the higher the stakes the higher the pressure. How do you handle that? Do you have a technique?
JK: I think it’s only something that experience can do for you. I’ve been playing high stakes for quite a long time now. Whenever I first started playing the pressure certainly did get to me at times.
I remember just kind of being in my own head a lot early and I don’t have those kinds of dialogues with myself anymore that I used to have. I think that just came from experience and having success.
TM: Is it easy to keep level headed and not lose your temper when things aren’t going your way?
JK: It just depends. Sometimes if you’re on road stretches that last for months it can be pretty tough and you have to work harder at it. If things have been going your way for the past few months or the year it’s a little easier, you can lay back and take things in stride.
So, it takes a lot of self-awareness and a bunch of work on just appreciating things. This is the kind of game that in the long run, you’re going to win if you’re a winning player, but in the short term, everything’s out of your hands basically.
So take this Triton Million tournament, for instance, I’m one of the best players in the field, there’s no doubt about that. And I’m the most prepared I could be to play the tournament. But that still doesn’t mean I’m gonna make the money half the time or something. I’m actually gonna bust a lot more than I will land the money.
Poker’s weird in that way, especially in tournaments, knowing you’re going to lose say four out of five times you play, but when you get cash you make so much more money.
It’s tough to accept that mindset because as human beings we don’t really like to lose, so it’s pretty difficult to focus on what’s in your control and sort of let go of the result. And that’s magnified the bigger you play, the larger stakes games certainly do have more of an effect on you.
TM: What’s the biggest loss you can see in one day? It must be a fortune in high stakes poker?
JK: For sure. It can be well into the seven figures.
TM: That’s huge! What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made at a poker table that’s left you kicking yourself?
JK: I mean there’s times where you’re weak and exhausted and if things are going rough you can let the pressure keep you from making the right play. If you’re really not in the zone and you find yourself in a spot where you didn’t think things through for long enough and make the right call, that’s a big one.
It’s also like, just not being a good representative for the game. If you’re a professional poker player you should be held to a higher standard. Recreational players are our customers. So it’s on us. It’s not like you have to be a phoney baloney out there. But it is on us to make sure people have a good experience.
So anytime I’ve been an asshole because I was just tired or pissed off or whatever then I always regret that of course.
TM: You must have seen some fairly bad behaviour round poker tables?
JK: In the higher stakes people are very nice for the most part. It’s a very small player pool and almost everybody knows everybody, plus everybody has felt that kind of pressure.
Generally, where you see people acting the most out of line are with the lower stakes where people are playing with money they don’t have. Or they’re delusional, they kind of they just have their own mindset. So you see a lot of big egos and people power-tripping out there.
So at the lower stakes, you definitely see a lot more misbehaviour, but that stuff just doesn’t fly in the higher stakes, you just won’t be invited back.
TM: Looking at the way you play your own game, do you look for tells, or just play the cards you’re dealt?
JK: Tells are a very, very real thing. Even though I pride myself on doing a lot of the analytical work, trying to play
as close to optimal as I can, I’m always looking for tells. I think it’s one of my greatest strengths, picking up a live tell at the table. They’re a very real thing.
The best poker players in the world are pretty good at masking their live tells, but sometimes you can be careless, or once again, if you’re tired and not thinking things completely through, sometimes you can let something go.
I know that I’ve given off tells before that the best poker players in the world have figured out and probably made a big play against me that they wouldn’t have made without the tell. So they’re not magic or anything. Tells are real for sure.
TM: After winning upwards of 28 million dollars, do you still get a thrill winning money? What keeps you motivated?
JK: That’s a good question. In the beginning, before I had success, I remember just from like my teenage years, the thrill for me… a lot of it was just the recognition in the beginning and that’s just such a horrible motivator. I was really more motivated for being known to be good at poker, than actually just being good at poker.
And as I started to be around people that were successful and had had their shit together, and I could tell that they just weren’t motivated by that at all, they were just in love with the grind of the game, and they really enjoyed playing and making good money. I started to try to emulate guys like that.
If you look at a player like Isaac Haxton, he won’t be playing in this tournament, but he’ll be at the Tritons. He’s a guy that just has no ego whatsoever, he’s never talking about how good he is, he’s never posting when he wins a tournament. He just shows up and he’s such a professional, such a good poker player, he’s a legend.
You see guys like that and if you’re really going to be around the game for 20 years, and on top of the game, not just one of these charlatans that promotes themselves as a top poker player. You see a lot of these guys, take someone like Phil Hellmuth or Mike Matusow, who think they’re relevant poker players, but they’re not. They’re more of a circus show, they go to tournament stops and yell, “I’m here, I’m the best”.
But there’s a reason those guys never play the high rollers because they would get eaten alive. But a guy like Haxton doesn’t say a word, does all the work and he shows up and plays world-class poker.
For me, it happened around 2015 or so, it was enough of this ego bullshit, I just want to make the money, have a good life with my family, try to secure my family if I can do this. I came from a pretty poor family, so I had a lot of big goals financially, just to secure something that we’d never had.
Once that came for me I was intrinsically motivated because I really liked to play the game, I really liked to learn about the game and I had sustainable goals. That’s when you don’t suffer burnout, you don’t feel bad for making common, human mistakes, you just show up and play your game and you’re motivated because you love the game.
TM: Has the money changed you do you feel?
JK: I don’t think so no. I think that age and just life experience has changed me. I’m engaged and getting married in the fall, my relationship has helped me stay grounded and focused on the right things. Financial freedom helps you build a good structure, it helps you relax and be able to take a week out and not worry.
Having time to think about other things than just paying the bills will change you as a person as it makes you less stressed out over things like that. But really what’s changed me is living and making mistakes and trying to do better every day. I don’t think there’s any formula to be a quick fix for that, I think you just have to mess a bunch of stuff up before you figure it out.
TM: What is the secret to your success? Is it just plain hard work?
JK: Yeah, there’s absolutely no replacing the work. A lot of people come up to me and say, “would you teach me poker? I’d love to play”. And I’ll say, “ok, well I’ve been doing this for fourteen years, sixty hours a week every week and I still don’t know what I’m doing at times”.
There is no quick answer to poker, it’s the most intricate, deep game that I’ve ever been a part of. The only way to really find it is to just immerse yourself in it and frankly be completely unbalanced. You have to only be into one thing for a decade and then you’ll get pretty good at it.
It’s not something I’d recommend for anyone to try and do as a living. Especially in this day and age, the AI stuff’s out and people play so well, unless you have your own little private game you can beat, it’s really, really hard to make a living.
When I started playing there could be 50 – 60 players on the internet who won a million dollars a year. That’s just not applicable now. The best players in the world there might be a couple of them that won a million dollars a year. But almost nobody does anymore, it’s way too tough.
TM: So one of the big factors is that players have got much better because of the AI?
JK: I think the most important part for the game being so difficult is it’s similar to chess now. A lot of the common forms of poker, even though a human being won’t be capable of playing a perfect strategy as a bot would be, they’re playing much, much closer to how that bot plays than ten years ago.
On top of that, there just isn’t that same influx of money pouring into the internet. The internet was kind of where the economy was born, you had a lot of guys like me sitting in their college dorm rooms and they’ll play a $5 buy-in till they have a big enough bankroll to go up. There was so much money flying in from the American market in general that just doesn’t really exist anymore after 2001.
Unless you’re living in China that is, they have a ridiculously booming app market for poker and I’m sure you can still make a great living from Chinese apps. But other than that the same amount of money at the low stakes where people were hopelessly bad doesn’t seem to be floating around like it used to be.
TM: Tell us about the high roller series. Why is this particular Triton Million tournament in London so special?
JK: Not only is it the biggest buy-in in the history of poker ever at a million pounds, but it’s also going to have the biggest prize pool of any tournament ever! There’s been a lot of big buy-in tournaments where people have turned up and there have been 20 people, but the Triton Million is probably going to have almost 60 players, every single one of them putting up 1.35 million US dollars. It’s absolutely insane!
And not only that, but it’s just such a unique format with the businessmen being able to invite a professional. A lot of these guys are being invited because, for instance, say Paul Phua, the guy putting on the tournament was one of the godfathers of poker.
He’s inviting Tom Dwan, who’s a legendary poker player and he invited him because he’s his closest poker friend. There are some personal relationships coming into this.
The same thing with Rob Yong and Sam Trickett the legendary British poker player, Rob just invited Sam because they’ve been buddies since Sam was working in his casino before Sam was a crusher. There are a lot of cool personal dialogues like that, but just the scale and the size of this thing. Somebody’s going to win like 16 million pounds or something, it’s absolutely gigantic.
So it’ll be the biggest first-place prize ever paid and it’s the biggest buy-in ever paid. On top of that, it’s in London. I mean it’s just such a magical place to be. I have to say the majority of my work has been in Vegas, now Vegas is cool.
It’s fun to show up and play in Vegas, but there’s something just completely out of this world about rolling into a 2000-year-old city that has beautiful architecture everywhere. And we’ve all watched the James Bond movies and it’s starting to feel like one of those moments.
TM: So it this your Casino Royale moment?
JK: Maybe, hopefully. We’ll see.
TM: Who’s looking like the stiffest competition at the Triton Milion? Obviously, they’re all great players…
JK: The best players in the world are here. There’s no joke. Just look at their earnings. You’ve got the guy who won a million-dollar buy-in last year, Justin Bonomo, who’s here, he’s a legendary tournament player.
You’ve got the Belarusian superstar Nikita Bodyakovskiy, a couple of the Germans and there are the businessmen coming too. You’ve got Bobby Baldwin. The most famous high stakes poker room in the world, Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio in Las Vegas is named after him! He won the World Series of Poker in the 70s.
So you’ve got a slew of all these legends, it’s really going to be a sight. I can’t believe I get to play and I’ll be happy spectating as well, it’s just going to be a really cool event.
TM: We like to finish by asking for a piece of wisdom you’ve gleaned from your career if anything comes to mind?
JK: Well, I think the main reason I’ve has success is because 11 years ago without that much money without that much hope, and a bunch of college debt, I just felt something in my gut, telling me every day, hey, you could be doing this thing, even though it was kind of uncertain.
And I didn’t even know if I had a gambling problem. I was like shit, maybe I have a gambling problem! But I’d never had a calling like that before ever. And never felt an urge to really just do something kind of irrational and take a big step. But I did.
So I think if you really, truly feel a passion for something, you got to find a way to be involved in it. And the other thing that is a major piece of advice and a major reason for my success, because I’m always around people that are equally as motivated as me and more talented than I’m.
I’m always around somebody who is just better at whatever it is that I’m into. And I keep trying to learn and be a value to them.
I think if you hang around with people that are constantly making you feel smart and you feel like the most successful one of the bunch, you might be happy and your ego might be boosted up.
But, you’re probably not moving forward. You don’t have anyone motivating you. So be around people who push you to be better.
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