Justin Bonomo

Interview (by phone): November 21, 2018

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Credit: Neil Stoddart/Rational Intellectual Holdings Ltd.

How do you explain what happened to you this year?
It was a combination of factors. I’ve been working incredibly hard on my poker game, I’ve been studying with some of the best players in the world, and at the end of the day it was a lot of luck as well.

How do you go about studying?
Over my poker career, I’ve studied every single way that I could. First I read books, I found poker strategy forums, I met friends to talk strategy with, and also different pieces of software have come up over the years, and every single time a new one is released I study it as much as I can. There have been training sites too. I just have a crazy thirst for knowledge and a crazy curiosity and I always have a burning desire to know what the best strategy is in any situation.

Is the software a massive part of this?
Absolutely. There’s been poker solvers since the beginning of internet poker, but it used to be very basic. Stuff like Poker Stove could just tell you what percent certain hands are versus other hands. Now these solvers have completely revolutionised how the top players study the game. There were all these questions we had about poker strategy that we never had a way of quantifying before and these solvers run millions of simulations and it allows us to have an idea what perfect strategy looks like in situations where we were never able to know that before. You can also study pre-flop situations, so you exactly what the right hand ranges to play are, what hands you should call a raise, etc.

Is everybody using it?
I would say more than 90 percent of the top players in the world are using it, yes.

When you say “top players” do you mean about 20–30 players?
If you’re looking at no limit tournaments, it’s that small. Of course, there are plenty of other forms of poker. Whatever form of poker anyone is at the top of, they’re pretty much always using the same kind of study methods and using software and what not.

How long has this been a thing?
PioSolver was the first one and it came out about three or four years ago.

Does that coincide with the emergence of the super high roller scene?
A little bit. The super high roller scene came about first. I will say that solvers definitely made the super high roller scene a lot tougher, a lot more competitive.

You were already playing to a pretty high level, right?
Relative to other players, yes, but as a whole, I would say that the poker community advanced ten years worth of strategy in one year when these solvers came out. It massively raised the level of play across the board.

Did a lot of players get left behind?
Yeah, absolutely. In poker there have always been people who…they enjoy the game, they have fun playing, but they don’t work that hard. They don’t really study away from the table. And inevitably many of them have fallen by the wayside. We’re absolutely at a point in poker now where if you want to compete with the top players, you have to work hard. It’s no longer at the point where you can just have good enough instincts and feel to just kind of throw yourself in there without working hard and succeeding.

What is a regular day like for you?
First of all I have to distinguish between the two halves of my life. There’s my home time and my travel to play tournaments time. When I’m at home, I do a lot more broad studying, so that’s when I’m actually running these in depth simulations, kind of building my collection so to speak of things to study. That’s where the more broad analysis comes in, looking at pre-flop play. When I’m travelling playing tournaments, I am just…first of all I’m playing poker 10 or 12 hours a day, so I have much less time on my hands. But despite that, whenever I play a tournament, I will write hands down, whether it be a specific hand, where I’m not sure what my range is supposed to look like on the turn, or just a very general spot, where I’m like: “Am I supposed to bet big here? Or bet small. I’m not sure.” And I’ll keep a notepad, write those hands down on my phone. And if I have time, when I get back to my hotel room at the end of the day of play, I’ll look up as many of those hands as I can. Usually I’m able to go through all the hands before I go home from a tournament series. Though of course, I do the same thing when I play online poker. Whatever hand I’m not sure what I should have done, I’ll save the hand and I’ll go through it later.

Is it a small percentage of hands that need looking at?
It depends how specific you want to be. Poker is a game of mixed strategy, so it’s never just as simple as “If you have top pair or better you bet, and with everything else you check.” Instead it’s your best top pairs you bet about 90 percent of the time, your medium top pairs bet about 50 percent of the time. Then you have to know if you have big cards with a backdoor flush draw, those are hands you’re most likely to raise. What I’m getting at is the specifics are really complicated. You never know exactly what you’re supposed to do, how much you’re supposed to bet, with your entire range. So it’s not really a question of ‘Do you know exactly how a situation plays out’, because you’re never 100 percent going to know. It’s more of a spectrum of how confident are you and what the general strategy looks like and how specific can you get with it.

Are the top players becoming more computerised? Could a computer play in a super high roller tournament?
The technology exists, but that’s just not how the software works. The computers are better than humans at any individual situation, but right now there is no full collection of all the situations that could possibly come up. If somehow someone created that huge database it would absolutely be better than the best human players in the world, but the number of situations that can come up is just so vastly huge that no computer could possibly get them all down.

Are there any parallels with chess/Go AIs?
They’re incredibly similar. The big limiting factor in chess is that…it’s not like poker where the hands exist in isolation. If you want to solve chess, you have to solve all of it and the game is so incredibly massive that we’re not even close to fully solving it. Poker on the other hand, you can look at just one situation, say certain short-stacks in a tournament…At the end of the day, they are very similar. They run millions of simulations to figure out the entire tree of combinations of everything that can happen. It’s really just a question of the depth that you can look into after you look at the starting point of a situation.

What other things have got you into this position?
It’s a combination of everything. If you compared my 2017 to my 2018, by far the biggest difference is luck. I absolutely think I was one of the top players in the world in 2017 and I wasn’t having the same success I was in 2018. The absolute number one reason for that was just luck.

But you were also super good?
Relative to other players, yes, but relative to absolute poker knowledge, no. I’ve been playing high level poker for 17 years and I think at various different points in my career I’ve been a top 10 player in the world, long before solvers came out.

Prior to solvers, how did you get so good?
It goes back to what I was saying earlier, about how whenever a new way of studying poker came out, I always jumped on it. I always took advantage of it. And of course, the methods were much more crude back in the day. A lot of it was spit-balling hands with other top players and figuring things out as you go. I’m really proud over my career that I’ve been able to think for myself and adjust to new situations, and new games and new opponents. There are a lot of different forms of poker that I’ve played over the years where I think I’ve been able to figure out strategies that are on the cutting edge, implementing strategies before my opponents are, and just being able to be one step ahead is incredibly valuable in poker.

Do you credit your friendship group with helping you as well?
Absolutely. The make-up of the group of players that I’ve studied with has changed over the years. I will say that for at least the past 10 years, Isaac Haxton has been one constant and I’ve absolutely learnt more from him than anyone else. It’s not even close. I used to take the approach of I used to jump around from social group to social group in poker, learning everything I could from all these different people. Then when I found Isaac, it was OK this is what I’ve been looking for, this is a guy who thinks absolutely clearly about every poker situation. I kind of don’t need anyone else anymore. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration. Of course I do talk strategy with other players. But by far and away I’ve learnt most from Isaac.

How does what you and Isaac do compare with the other crews?
It’s hard to go too much into the specifics, people aren’t very open about the specifics about how they study. When I study with Isaac, I think we are looking at some innovative things that I think other people aren’t looking at. Again it’s that always staying one step ahead type of thing. I think we’re able to do that better than the other players are.

How do you explain how poker buy-ins got so big?
It largely was the thing that people weren’t even trying. And then, once these tournaments started trying these ridiculous buy-in super high rollers, they had success and players were showing up. At the end of the day, if you put a bunch of businessmen in a tournament, it doesn’t matter what the buy-in is, the professional players are going to find a way to get in there. And of course, that’s where all the swapping, the selling action comes in, because a lot of times the best players in the world aren’t bankrolled to play these million dollar buy-ins. So, yeah, poker players are pooling their resources, sometimes going to outside investors who aren’t even poker players, so we can take advantage of these incredibly profitable high-stakes situations.

How do you explain what you actually won/didn’t win in a given tournament?
Tournament poker is an incredibly volatile profession, especially when you’re playing these ridiculously large buy-ins. It’s very conceivable that one of the best players in the world might have a losing year. And so one way we reduce the variance is we will often swap with each other. If I do a 10 percent swap with my friend, that simply means that whatever I win, I give him 10 percent of my winnings, and whatever he wins, he gives me 10 percent of his winnings. That’s a very good way of, at the end of the year, making sure that if you get really unlucky but your friend gets lucky, you kind of even that out between you.

When you’re introduced as being the guy who won $25m in six months, what do you think?
First of all, it’s fantastic, even if I didn’t get to keep 100% of the money. Obviously I just feel incredibly grateful. If someone wanted to know really what that number meant then I would have to explain to them more about selling action and swaps. I’ll use the $1m tournament as an example. This is a very, very basic rule of thumb (we get more complicated than this, of course.) A very basic rule of thumb a tournament player might use is: you should never put more than 1% of your bankroll on the line for a given tournament. So now let’s look at a million dollar buy-in. That would mean that I would need $100 million to be able to play this tournament with 100 percent of my own action, and I hate to break it to the poker fans out there, but I’m not worth anywhere close to $100m. So what happens is we will sell percentages to investors, we will swap percentages with other players, so at the end of the day, when I won that million dollar tournament, I had far, far less than 100% of it, which means I’m giving a lot of the money that I won in this tournament back to investors and swaps, the vast majority of it.

Are you an employee of these investors?
I don’t feel like an employee because I feel like I’m running the show. The vast majority of the tournaments I play, I’m not taking on investors. It’s only for these really huge ones. And when I’m doing these swaps, I certainly don’t feel like I’m an employee. We approach it like we’re all on equal footing, we’re in it together, there’s no boss and employees.

What does it feel like to be playing in a $1m tournament?
Some players get very nervous and it’s a problem for them. But for me it gets the juices flowing and that’s where I feel I’m in my flow state, where I’m at my best. I’ve been competing for relatively large sums of money since I was 14. When I was 14 that meant $1,000, but that’s a lot of money to a 14-year-old. That was a Magic: The Gathering match, the first time I ever played for $1,000. So it’s been almost 20 years that I’ve been competing for large amounts of money. When I was 19, I made my first big final table. I was actually the first teenager ever to make a final table at that point. It was EPT Deauville, EPT Season 1. Going into the final table, I was incredibly nervous and I just asked one of the other players if he was nervous, and of course he said yes. And from his answer it was just so obvious to me that he was far more nervous than I was. And for whatever reason, that just made me so calm and so confident. And ever since that moment, I’ve never looked back and don’t really get nervous in these situations.

Have there been ups and downs?
Absolutely. Major ups and downs, and it’s kind of hard for that not to be the case with poker.

Do you mean your morale has been up and down, or are you talking about variance?
Everything. Variance is a huge part of it especially for tournament players. It’s very easy to have a cold streak that lasts months or even years. Also the nature of the game has changed so much. I started out as a limit hold’em player, then moved on to sit n goes. I’ve played online, I’ve played live, I’ve played tournaments, I’ve played cash, I’ve played against the best players in the world, I’ve played against amateurs. There’s just been so much change in every single aspect of it.

Did Black Friday change things?
Absolutely. Black Friday instantly changed my life. At the time, I was in a serious relationship with a girl, I was doing very, very well at online poker, and I decided to leave the country to continue my poker career, and that also meant the end of my relationship that I was in.

Might you have stayed?
That was an option that was on the table, though I was never really close to taking it. My partner even said to me, “If you quit poker for me, I will break up with you.” We were both ambitious, career-oriented people. Neither of us wanted to either not have a career ourselves, or be dating someone who doesn’t have a career themselves.

Would the super high roller world have come about even if Black Friday hadn’t happened?
I don’t believe they’re related, to be honest. We’d already seen the rise of 25Ks, and there’d been a 40K tournament, 50K tournaments. I think buy-ins have been progressively getting bigger and bigger for decades and decades. It would have happened with or without Black Friday.

Do you ever think [of the state of the game now]: “This is crazy”? Or was this just where we were always headed?
It’s both. It’s crazy, and it’s always where we were going to go. Oftentimes I’ll play hands in tournaments and calculate how much a pot it worth and it’s just, like, wow, this ace-king versus pocket nines is worth $1.2 million. What an insane amount of money to leave up to the random cards that are about to come out.

How do you cope with that?
Experience is just the best way. You get used to it. Some players use the strategy of just detaching themselves from it, which at the end of the day is not a very healthy thing to do. A lot of poker players have become numb to the insane wins and the insane losses. It’s actually not a very human thing to do if you really think about it. I’ve actually found that I’ve let the numbing from poker transfer into my real life, and that’s actually a huge problem, when you actually just stop getting excited about this, when things in your daily and social life just seem unimportant to your career. That’s a real problem. A lot of poker players have tended to become dead inside. I actually had a big epiphany point, when I was talking to the same partner, we were just having a totally normal conversation, and from my point of view I was being very expressive, I thought I was putting it all out on the table, and she said to me: “Justin, you’re so hard to read. I can never tell what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling.” And that was a real epiphany for me. And I realised that all day every day, I am forced to hide my emotions as deep down as possible, it’s an absolute necessity of playing live poker. You don’t want your opponents to be able to look at your face and tell if you have good cards or bad cards. So every single day, when I play live poker, I am forced to hide my emotions. If you’re doing this 60 hours a week, it becomes second nature. I found I was doing it not just at the poker table, but in my day to day life. I had become numb to things that should have excited me, should have upset me. And that’s actually something over the past decade I’ve had to work really hard to fight against. I now make an effort to show my emotions in daily life and be present with everything that’s really happening, and not be numb to it.

Is it a tough profession?
Absolutely. It’s an incredibly tough profession. There’s a saying that it’s the toughest way to make an easy living, and it’s very apt saying for sure.

Because it’s so mentally draining?
That’s part of it, but that’s not even the biggest part. Sometimes you just do everything right, you play really well, you work really hard, and for three months straight you just lose money every single day. That is a tough reality to be in, especially if you’re a struggling poker player who…maybe you have a year’s worth of bills to pay for, but that’s not even that safe. You can really go on a downswing and next thing you know your ability to live your regular life is in question.

Did you have to explain this to your family?
My dad has had various computer and tech jobs over the years. From the start my dad understood what we were talking about. I used to play Magic before I got into poker, and he saw the parallels. I was good at Magic, I was very competitive, I took it very seriously, and he knew it would be the same with poker. I wasn’t guaranteed to win every single time but he knew I was a sharp, responsible guy and he had a lot of faith in poker as a career from the very beginning. My mum, it took her a little more time to understand that it’s not roulette, you’re not playing against the casino that always has an edge. Once she kind of understood that I was competing against other players and that I was very good at it, she became very supportive of me, and now she’s my biggest fan today. But at the start she didn’t fully understand it.

Was there ever another career path for you?
Not really. I just found poker so early. Before I graduated high school I was already making more money than my parents combined. [Playing online]

What do you think when you see the 19-year-olds, just starting out in a poker career?
They definitely make mistakes that I made at the start of my career. But they also have the advantage…there’s so many better study tools out there than when I first started. These guys who have been playing only two or three years, if you put them against me five years into my career, they would be so much better than me, than I was at that part of my career. The advancements of poker strategies really helps them combat the difference in experience very very quickly.

How much better can people get?
A lot better. I think we’re not even close to seeing how far this can go. First of all, a lot of this is just a matter of human time. We haven’t had enough time to study all of these simulations. I know there are dozens of spots that I literally have written down on a list, “I need to get better at this, I need to get better at this” but also from the computer standpoint, there are so many things that we just can’t do. A lot of ICM math requires you not only to look at this one hand, but also the next 100 hands, and that is just so incredibly complex that they can’t do game trees that big yet. And also if you compare the level that humans are playing on to perfect play, they are still making lots and lots of mistakes. I would say that five years from now, the players at the top will be much, much, much better than players today.

Who will play against those players though? Will the money dry up?
It’s already happening a little bit. One thing you’re seeing is that are lots of private games, where you have these amateur players who want to play for super high stakes, but they don’t want to play against a field of 90 percent professionals. For the top tournament players, that’s actually very unfortunate that it’s happening, because the economy does largely rely on these recreational players.

What can you do about it?
One way that I’ve always approached that problem is I want to be good enough that I’m not only making an edge because the recreational players are showing up, I want to be making an edge from the other professional poker players. And for poker players that aren’t good enough to be the best in the world, that often means game selection. They can’t play in just the toughest tournaments, they also have to spend a lot of time figuring out where the best spots are. At the end of the day, that is a huge skill set in being a professional poker player. You have lots of guys nowadays who aren’t anywhere close to the best players in the world, but they are some of the most successful because they are consistently playing in best games.

It’s important to know which are the good games?
Absolutely. For a while I was focusing on heads up, and that’s where it’s incredibly important to know how good you are. If you’re the tenth best player in the world but you’re only playing against the top five players in the world, you’re going to lose all your money.

How many people could your kind of winning streak have happened to?
There are about ten people who this could have been a realistic outcome for.

Will it happen again?
I think so. We’re just seeing, even still, such a huge increase in these super high roller tournaments. There’s no reason to think that there might not be 10 separate million dollar tournaments five years from now. And once you get that many high stakes tournaments, then the amount of my $25m becomes less impressive, easier to beat.

Is poker still fun?
I still really enjoy it, and the part that I enjoy most is that flow state. When I’m on that final table, the cameras on me, playing for large sums of money, that’s where I really feel alive. I might look super numb and calm and collected, but inside the adrenalin rush is insane. I kind of have this killer competitive instincts when I’m in those situations, kind of ready to pounce.

Is it comparable to anything away from the table?
I think a lot of people are able to achieve flow state in a different way. Even though climbing mountains or giving a concert, these things might seem completely unrelated to poker, but I think as humans we’re programmed to adaptable and shine in these moments where we really can be our best. I think what’s going on at a chemical level is actually very similar, despite these situations being very different.

Do you play your best in those situations?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Sometimes day one of a tournament I’m just bored, on my phone, reading Twitter in between hands, not paying much attention. But that would never happen at a final table. When there’s a lot of money on the line, I’m super focused and paying attention to everything, trying my absolute hardest. And it doesn’t feel like work doing that. I love it when I’m competing at the highest level.

Was this crystallised at the One Drop, maybe in the hand where you knocked out David Einhorn?
It’s rough because I do acknowledge that me winning that hand wasn’t the best result for the world. I will give some of that money to charity, but David would have given all of it to charity. It absolutely was bittersweet. The way I look at it is that I’m going to keep being a positive influence on the world. I’m going to keep giving money to charity. And it’s OK that some people are giving more money to charity than I am. That’s OK.

Are there rivalries among players?
We’re mostly pretty friendly, but there are a few rivalries. And you can often see some callings out on Twitter. It’s mostly over silly nonsense. There aren’t too many feuds in the poker world.

How has it got so friendly?
One thing I really like about playing these high roller tournaments, these 100K buy-ins, is the atmosphere of the players. When you’re playing for these amounts of money, you don’t really see pettiness. People are very friendly and professional and polite, whereas I think sometimes at the smaller stakes, you’ll see a lot more people do inappropriate things at the table. Get emotional, take a bad beat, be a sore loser. But you don’t really do that at the highest level. If you burn all your bridges that will really be a real problem in your high stakes tournament career.

What was it like battling Fedor?
I think the fans definitely got what they wanted with that one. It’s kind of a great story of passing on the torch of the ridiculous run-good. It was the heater-meets-heater battle. Who truly is the better, luckier player? I also do like playing Fedor. He absolutely is a top player, but I feel like I’m one step ahead of him, that I have a little bit of an edge on him. I’ve thought that for a few years now. The One Drop was not our first time playing heads-up and I did get the best of him the last time we played heads up in a tournament as well.

Why do people pull away from poker after going on winning streaks?
It’s a combination of things. Part of it is just money. The more money you have, the less you have to kill yourself to play every single tournament, it’s OK to sit out some of the smaller ones if you’re financially well off. Part of it was just down to things I had to do in my life, regardless of the success. I did take almost two months off after One Drop. I went to a wedding in Toronto, I had to move apartments in Vancouver, I went to Burning Man. I was just really busy with life stuff. And part of the whole reason for working hard at poker is so that I can do these things in my life, so that I can go to Burning Man every year, so I will always try to prioritise the most important things over poker.

Do you envisage a day when you don’t play?
I’m never just going to wake up one day and suddenly be retired. I think it’s going to be a very gradual decline. Maybe I’ll play 15 percent less poker each year.

Will it be harder to win if you scale back?
Yeah, that is a future that I’m prepared for. If I’m not working hard for ten years, then I won’t be the best player in the world for ten years. There’s no two ways about that.

Is motivation an issue?
Right now I’ve still got plenty of motivation. The past few weeks I’ve been working very hard again. As of about a month ago, I was feeling very rusty with my game after my time off. But I think I’ve gotten back to the level that I want to compete at. I feel like I’m one of the best again. Poker has got so competitive that even two months off the game is enough to really fall behind. The top players are just so good and working so hard that you really need to do a lot to stay competitive with them.

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SELECTED OTHER INTERVIEWS: Adrian Mateos, Charlie Carrel, Daniel Negreanu, Dominik Nitsche, Erik Seidel, Fedor Holz, Jason Koon, Stephen Chidwick and Winfred Yu.

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