Runner-up of the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown last month, Faraz Jaka shared his thoughts on his new poker site and his career.
A long format interview by Gaelle Jaudon
Somuchpoker: You recently finished second in the WPT at the Hard Rock Casino in Florida. How is 2018 going for you so far?
Faraz Jaka: Yeah, that second place finish was pretty amazing. I think finishing second is always amazing at a WPT event, but it’s even more so considering I’m not playing full time anymore, so these opportunities are a lot more rare for me. I’m very happy about it. I’m usually pretty upset when I get anything but first, but it was kind of the first time I felt really satisfied. I think maybe that’s because I came in the final table in 6th place and had a huge chipped up to and managed to come up to second. I’m happy about how I played. I did everything I could, and I’m happy about the result.
SMP: You just said you’re not playing full time anymore, so why this decision? What are you working on now?
Faraz Jaka: I launched a poker site in Brazil, Checkraise.com.br. It’s a real money gaming site, only for Brazilians. I’m working full time on that; my co-founders are very talented Silicon Valley technology guys, and I’ve basically had a full-time job position for over a year now. I don’t sleep much. I’m working about 50 hours a week. I just have enough time to shower and eat! Once every two months I can get sneak out and play a little bit of poker!
SMP: That was one of my questions, because we noticed you travelling a lot to Brazil, where poker is really booming. How did this adventure with Brazil start?
Faraz Jaka: We were looking at where we wanted to launch the site. Brazil is good for a lot of different reasons, but as you said, poker is booming there. It is viewed as a real mental game there. There are poker games at the mall, at the poker stadium, etc. Everyone is really passionate, so it’s a great place for a poker site. I have a lot of fans there. I had heard I had a lot of fans there, but I didn’t really quite understand until I got there. I think there is something about the way Brazilians play that really resonates with my style of play. They love the big hero calls, they love the big bluffs, that kind of play. I’ve been having a lot of fun out there. I’ve been crashing a lot of home games and really get into it with the locals there.
SMP: What would you say about the mentality there? What is different from the poker mentality in the US?
Faraz Jaka: There are two things. First, they truly see it as a sport. It’s not even a question; it is a sport there. I go to all these home games, and everybody has jerseys, everybody has team names, and this is normal. So it has that mindset. I think it would be really great if poker was like that in every other country; it would be very good for the game. I think because they view it like that, it doesn’t have any negative stigma. You have games everywhere like I said. That’s the reason why poker is so huge there; that’s the mentality there.
SMP: I saw a recent interview with you, where it seemed that you learned bankroll management the hard way. What happened?
Faraz Jaka: Yeah, basically when I was 19 years old, I learned what Texas Hold’em was. I started playing in dorm games, and eventually I started playing online. I think I built up about $10,000 the first six months, and then I had one week when I won $127K. I was a 19-year-old kid in my dorm, playing the biggest stakes there were at this time. I was like on top of the world, already counting the number of millions I was going to make. Over the next year, I ended up losing all of it, even going into debt; it was a really tough period for me. I got really depressed and had to take a semester out of school. But it was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me, because I learned so much from that experience. I strongly believe that the tough times you go though in life are going to break you or make you stronger; they are opportunities. That’s kind of happened to me several times in my life; when I went through something difficult, it made me a lot wiser and a lot smarter. Now I kind of view it as an opportunity any time I have to face a tough situation. I think some people try to avoid some risky situations that might lead to a downfall, but because they’re avoiding it, they also aren’t giving themselves the opportunity to grow.
SMP: Apparently you didn’t play online very long; you quickly moved to live games?
Faraw Jaka: Yeah, I started playing live in dorm games. I played a little bit online, but while I was in college I was flying to the Bellagio on the weekend or sometimes to Barcelona. The reason I started playing more online is because my grades were suffering. I was like, ok, I have to slow down a little bit and pay more attention to my studies so I played more online poker. Once I graduated at 21, going back to live was a very natural transition because I already considered myself more like a live guy who had to transition online. I’m a mix of both.
SMP: As you said, even if you have had an impressive career, you have also had very tough moments. Did you ever want to quit poker?
Faraz Jaka: No, I never really wanted to quit poker, but I have always been interested in business and entrepreneur stuff. Before starting poker professionally, I really thought about starting my own business; poker really came up out of nowhere. Then, while I was playing, I was still trying to figure how to pursue that passion for entrepreneurship, so I would invest in startups and try to do to things passively. I started realizing that when you try to do two things half-half, you just do them both poorly. Then I kind of decided to cut off this business to focus fully on poker, but I always knew that as soon as the right opportunity came, I did want to pursue the startup world. That opportunity came just over a year ago with CheckRaise, and that’s why I’m here now!
SMP: On the other side, what is the proudest moment in your career?
Faraz Jaka: Probably the year I won the WPT Player of the Year. I just had so many big back-to-back runs that year. I came in third at a WSOP final table, and I wasn’t happy of that. And I just remember the moment that I saw that I won the award. I was literally landing on a plane to Monaco after I had just busted the $25K at the Bellagio, and I beat Shawn Buchanan and another guy who could overtake me was still in. I’m on the plane and can’t see the updates. I remember landing, and the first thing I saw was a text from my dad and then a bunch of other people saying congratulations for winning player of the year. That was a very special moment.
SMP: You were known as a funny player with an eccentric personality, very different from the players who don’t speak and show no emotion at the table. You also had a funny nickname, “the homeless millionaire”, because you were always travelling and living with two suitcases. What about now? How would you describe yourself today?
Faraz Jaka: In terms of personality, I think I’m still that same person! In terms of the travelling, I’m basically transitioning out of that. I’ve lived out of a suitcase for about 9 years straight. I love vagabonding. I go to a tournament, fly to Prague or another amazing place, but I’m really busy and working all the time. It’s the same thing for someone on a business trip, and then I fly back home, and it keeps going like that. I started realizing I’m not experiencing the places, so I decided to get rid of my home, and between the tournaments I’m just going to travel. I met some new people who allowed me to stay on their couch in Sweden and things like that. I absolutely love doing that, but I basically feel that I learned what the experience has to teach me, and it started getting to a point where even if I was discovering new places, I started to experience kind of the same feeling and emotions and lessons that I’ve already learned over and over again. So I kind of realized that I’ve already learned what the road had to teach me, and it’s time for me to enter that next phase in life.
SMP: It seems like traveling was something really important in your life. You even had a blog a few years ago about that. What trips struck you or changed you the most?
Faraz Jaka: It was probably the random places I went to. One time I stayed with a random family in a small town in the Czech Republic, called Ostrava. I was at EPT Prague, and a friend from college told me I should go visit a friend of his in the Czech Republic, and I just said, ok I’ll go! So I took a 3-hour train to get there, and I met him. He knew I was a poker player and thought that was cool. I stayed with his family, and they were so nice, so caring. I learned a lot about the Czech culture. The town had a hundred places you could go drink or dance; it’s really popular, and I never heard about that place before, apparently nobody does if you’re not from the Czech Republic. It kind of made me realize that there are so many beautiful gems around the world, more than you know when you just stay in your bubble. It also made me realize that when you just travel from Prague to London to Paris, etc., you’re still just in a bubble. All of these major cities are kind of the same, and you don’t experience the real culture until you really get into the country.
There was another place in Ukraine. I went to Ivan-Frankivsk in Ukraine to visit a friend from college. I was in a place again where no one was going for tourism, and I just had one of the best times of my life. People always ask me, “where should I go travel? I want to live the awesome experience that you had,” and I say just don’t worry about where is the coolest place, go where you have a connection, where you have someone who can show you their hometown and show you something that you otherwise can not see. That’s way more important than going to the “best place”.
SMP: From all those years of traveling the world, what is the best lesson you learned personally?
Faraz Jaka: It wasn’t really an immediate lesson, but more something that happened over time. I started to realize that a lot of the things that you think are important aren’t that important. For example, at first I had so much luggage, like I needed to have these shoes for this occasion, these pants, and all these things. Then, I made an Excel worksheet, and I wrote down all the things that I was bringing, and I put a tick mark every time I wore something. At the end of the year, I saw that I was wearing the same 10/15% of the things over and over again. It made me realize that what I thought was important wasn’t in fact important at all and that I needed to let go of my attachment to all these things. It made things easier, and it made me happier. I go back sometimes to communities I used to hang out in, and I see how much time they spend talking about other people or what someone did—typical gossip in friend circles—and I’ve just kind of lost all interest in that. That was another thing that I realized: people pay attention to things that are not important. I also say sports. I definitely follow sports way less. It’s not that I think following sports is bad, but I start to see that some people let it take them over. Because their sport’s team lost, it literally ruins their day, and they’re unhappy or they’re getting in fights over it, and I think that’s a little too much. These are just some little examples of things that you can care about and not realize aren’t that important.
SMP: About poker, how has being a player and playing for a living for about 10 years changed you?
Faraz Jaka: It definitely changed the way I think through logic and reason. In poker, every decision you’re making has to have logic and reason. You think about the expected value and how to measure risks; you start to be very ok with things not working out but knowing that it doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision. You become very results-oriented. These are concepts that you use every day in life, like whether I should take this trip or not, whether I should go out tonight or not, whether I should buy something or not etc. I use kind of the same skill set everywhere, and it’s the same thing with business as well.
SMP: What do you think made you better than the average MTT player?
Faraz Jaka: I’m a very fast learner. I ask very good questions. I think that’s one of my strongest points. I was never a strong reader, which I would like to be, but for some reason I would read 3 or 4 pages and realize I couldn’t pay attention. So the way I would learn a lot of poker was my friends would read books, and I would talk to them about it, and I feel that I would retain some lessons from the book. I just ask a lot of questions, and I learn that way. I also have a very strong work ethic. I take what I do very seriously and try to separate poker from pleasure. Partying or waking up late can get mixed in with your poker routine, and I tried very hard to separate that. I think being more organized also is something that successful people in poker or in every industry have in common. It’s very important to be organized with yourself, with your numbers, what games you’re going to play, booking your flights early, etc. You don’t think how booking your flights early can make you a better player, but people who are scrambling booking their flights at the last minute have a lot more on their mind to figure out. They’re wasting more money, and it doesn’t help with the downswing, etc. A lot of these things you don’t think actually impact your game as well.
SMP: Are there some mistakes that you would have liked to avoid if you could go back?
Faraz Jaka: Definitely in terms of bankroll management, yes, whether it comes with investing or startups or poker tournaments or event private cash games. I always had this feeling like “oh, this is this one time opportunity; I need to risk a lot and take advantage of this,” and over time you start to realize that there are always more opportunities, and you don’t need to rush and overexpose yourself to this one investment. For business opportunities, I think I could have invested less and earned the same amount. Same rule for big opportunities in poker.
SMP: On the other side, what are the best career decisions you made?
Faraz Jaka: Really to leave my home town. I never had any interest in leaving southern California, never crossed my mind. I just kind of left by chance due to being frustrated and not really happy with my situation there anymore. Once I got to Illinois, where I went to school, I saw how different it was. The culture was not the same; everybody was listening to country music and playing baseball, when at home, we were listening to hip hop, going to the beach, playing basketball, etc. It just got me more curious, and then I started traveling to other countries. The first 6 months away from home I felt pretty home sick. Everything was different, and I didn’t have any friends. But once I got over that feeling, I realized it was the best thing I ever did. I guess what happens is that throughout life you change, you grow constantly, but you are still surrounded by the same people who know you a certain way, so you kind of feel that you still have to be this same old Faraz, even if you’re actually someone new now. But, when you go to these new places where nobody knows you, it’s actually a lot easier to be the new you. I think that part is very important. I think everybody should do it because at some point in your life it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.
SMP: What do you want to accomplish in the coming years?
Faraz Jaka: Right now I’m 100% fully focused on CheckRaise. I’ve put all my heart and soul into this. I really want to see this website be successful in Brazil. I want to see us expand to other countries too in the future. We feel that the experience other websites are offering to players is not the best experience, and we think we can offer a better option, and that’s what we’re doing.
SMP: As you just said, you’re working a lot on this site, so are we going to see you at the WSOP?
Faraw Jaka: Every year I’m working half time during the WSOP so that I can still have a solid schedule during the series. So you’ll see me out there grinding; that’s my poker time!
SMP: To you, who are the best players to follow today?
Faraz Jaka: To be honest, I don’t really follow poker action that much. I’m either playing or doing something else; that’s just how I am. I’m less a fan of poker than just a player of poker. If I’m following poker, I just sit there and really wish I was playing! It’s the same with me and other sports. I was a basketball player when I was younger, and I never cared to watch it on tv, and when the games were on, I was really sad that no one was at the park to play because they were all watching!
SMP: Last question: What would you say to players who would like to have the same career path as you?
Faraz Jaka: I would say it takes a lot of hard work; you really have to dedicate yourself. You need to study, you need to be very organized, and you need to know that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But that’s a good thing; you should embrace those opportunities and make sure to learn from them as much as you can. You should talk to your peers and make sure you have a good circle of friends who you can run everything by from your poker hands to traveling to what tournaments to play, etc. That’s also a very important part of becoming very good at your craft.
Interview by Gaelle Jaudon