Last October, Jason Koon became the latest high-profile poker player to join Partypoker’s team pro. Koon, who has won over $12,000,000 on the live poker circuit is one of the world’s most accomplished No Limit Hold’em player.
Gaelle Jaudon is bringing us this exclusive long format interview.
Somuchpoker: You said you first started playing poker because of an injury. Was poker really something you didn’t expect in your life?
Jason Koon: Yes, it was. I never gambled before. I wasn’t a card player. My family never really played card games. In high school my friends played cards, but I wasn’t really even interested. In university, I got hurt, and my roommate was quite good at cards, and he asked me if I wanted to play Texas Hold’em with him and other guys on the college campus, and that’s how I started playing. I realized pretty quickly that it was a game of skills, and if I worked hard, I could make a lot of money. At that time, I was broke, so it was a great way to put some money in my pocket.
SMP: One of your particularities is that you had a really fast progression in the poker world, more specifically in high roller tournaments. How did you work for it?
Jason Koon: In fact, I didn’t consider my rise quite fast. In the beginning of my career, it was very much a grind. I played low- to medium-stake online tournaments and Head’s Up Sit-n-goes for about 4 years before I started playing bigger buy-ins. In about 2011, I met Ben Tollerene, who’s known as Ben86 online, and we ended up moving in together, and he kind of showed me the way. Not only did he teach me how to play the game, but he also showed me the right way to study and the right way to approach poker, and that was a revolutionary moment in my poker career. For the first time, I started looking at poker from more of a theoretical sense and not just as a game of tricks where I constantly try to outguess my opponents. I started playing a more mathematical game. I quickly started to play from middle to higher stakes and winning.
SMP: Has playing these kinds of tournaments always been your goal?
Jason Koon: Yeah it was. I was looking at a vision board that I wrote in an early part of my poker career, and it said: be able to beat the best cash games and the best tournaments in the world at some point. I wasn’t sure if it was possible. I thought it was more of a pipe dream than something that could actually become true, and one day it just happened. It was a long road; it took a long time, a lot of work, and a lot of help from very talented people, but eventually I got there!
SMP: About two years ago your career really went to a new level. Did you have a click in your game? Would you say something changed in your way of playing?
Jason Koon: It wasn’t really a click; it was more like a lot of work. I really don’t think there is a magical formula for getting better, at least at poker. It’s really a game that rewards hard work and dedication. In fact, I’ve had hundreds of moments that clicked for me and were influential, but it didn’t happen to me overnight, that’s for sure.
SMP: You’re now part of the new partypoker pro team. They’re doing a huge come back on the circuit this year. What does it mean to you to be part of the renewal of this historic brand?
Jason Koon: It’s really great to be part of a group that is thinking about the long-term good of the players. I think that it’s been “take, take, take” in the poker world for the last five years, and a lot of these poker sites were thinking they were the only option and could treat the players the way they wanted to. For years, PokerStars and Full Tilt poker were my only sources of income, and Full Tilt robbed everyone. PokerStars was our saving grace when they paid everyone back. The previous owners of the company were really good for poker and made sure that we were treated well. When Amaya bought the company, it just became a complete abuse. Now they’re starting to make some effort, but I don’t think it’s an act of good faith. I think it’s because they know that partypoker is coming to take the market share, and they know that they’re serious. partypoker is putting a lot of money here and is taking quite a huge loss on a lot of these steps, at least at the beginning, and people understand that they are really serious. I think in the long run it really will pay off, and without question partypoker will be the site that people really want to play on.
SMP: You’re also a popular coach on RunItOnce. What do you get out of coaching people?
Jason Koon: That’s a great story, because one of my beginning most crucial moment was signing up for Blue Fire poker and watching Phil Galfond videos. I remember I would fall asleep every night listening to his videos, and I know many other players that have kind of the same story to tell. I just remember being so excited the day I got to meet him, and now we’re really good friends, but when I met him I was so nervous. It was probably the equivalent of meeting a movie star for a lot of people. When he asked me to do some videos for the website, at the time I was kind of an unknown player, and it was extremely flattering that he was even considering me. Since then things have gone well, and people enjoy the videos!
SMP: What is your biggest pride as a coach?
Jason Koon: I like to give back. I’m really not sure if coaching is a net positive or a net negative in the community, but individually, at least for me, it was a very big deal and something that inspired me continue playing. If I can do that for a few players, then that would be wonderful.
SMP: You became quickly popular on 2+2; there was a big thread about you. What do you think of these types of forums and the popularity that comes with them?
Jason Koon: Yeah, it’s weird. I think at the beginning of my poker career, when I wasn’t really as sure about myself and as sure about what I wanted for my career, I was seeking some public approval, and it made me feel good, but nowadays I try to not concern myself with what the masses think about me. I just try to live my life in a way that I think would make me proud, and I think people appreciate that in the long run. It just makes life a way easier for me, and I think if you walk around always seeking the world’s approval, there will always be someone who will make you feel quite bad, but if you just live your life based on what you think is the best for you, you’ll have a more fulfilling life. With my career as a poker player, I’m really just focused now on trying to make the most for me and my family and enjoying it the best I can until I don’t want to play poker anymore.
SMP: Concerning your healthy lifestyle, you’re very known for this and your good physical condition. You always seem ready to train other people and talk about fitness and healthy food. Are you trying to bring a new lifestyle to poker?
Jason Koon: I think that would be impossible! But, I’ve definitely tried to show a couple of guys a few things that would add quality to their lives and their career. I think any form of gambling is surrounded by some form of degeneracy, and I won’t change that, but the pros nowadays are not like the old school pros. We’re just here to make the most money that we can and enjoy our career the best that we can, and I think that I can kind of lead a few down the right path. I’ve done that, and it really brought quality to my life, and if I can bring that to other people, it would be great .I recommend it to anybody playing poker. I think it added a ton of earnings to my past years thanks to how fit I am.
SMP: Concerning your game, does someone coach you, and on what do you work the most to still improve it?
Jason Koon: I don’t have a specific coach like I had for so many years. I would have to credit a lot of the North American guys for helping me, like Isaac Haxton and Been Tollerene, or people like Steve Gross were really influential in my development. Now it’s more a close group of friends where we all try to figure things out together and do a lot of studying, for example Seth Davies who I really like to work with. I’m focusing on all forms of No Limit. I’m not really learning about Pot Limit Omaha right now. I really want to be a specialist in playing tournaments and ring or HU No Limit events. That brings me a lot of joy, and I’m still fortunate enough to have a lot of opportunities and play a lot of good No Limit games, so that’s really what I’m studying.
SMP: You said during an interview that you did huge work on your mindset, especially with David Benefield, who helped you a lot. Can you explain what your process was to find more balance and happiness in your life?
Jason Koon: Yeah, David was a big part of that, and I also think the biggest influence in my mindset was my girlfriend, Bianca. She’s always been a focused person. She did martial art as a child, and our families are very well-rounded, solid families, so she kind of showed me how important it is to be less reactive and more in control of your emotions all the time and what freedom comes along with that. Since then I’ve really become self-aware that it’s my weakest area, and I need to work harder on that. I did a lot of meditation, and I do a lot of things to try to remind myself to have gratitude and be less attached to outcomes, not only in poker but also in life in general. It’s a work in progress; it’s still by far the thing that I need to work on, but I’m aware of it, and it has done so much for the quality of my life by kind of getting a better grip on my mindset.
SMP: That was actually my next question. You travel a lot with your girlfriend to tournaments and talk a lot about her, when some other players, in contrast, think it’s better for their game to stay by themselves. For you, it seems it helps you a lot. How did it change something in your career to have a partner in your life?
Jason Koon: Oh, it brought me a lot. Not only her being with me added so much quality in my life; she also works very hard at making sure that I’m taking care to be rested, or whenever we show up to a poker stop, she’s out making sure that I’m gonna have healthy food and finding the best stuff and optimizing the trips. Not only just with travel; she also does a lot of my accounting work and basically everything that I was very sloppy at. On a deeper note, my poker career is a means to an end for me. I love playing poker, and it’s something that I’ll always do, but really the next step of my life is that I want to have kids, be a good dad, take care of my mother and my family, and set up a great life for her and I as well. I think it’s important to have goals and have things that are more important than you and your career, and that’s what she’s giving to me. There is no greater motivator to be good at something than to think you want to give the best life you can to your future kids and your future wife and your family. I highly recommend finding somebody, but it’s not easy; it took me a long time and a lot of persistence to make that happen. The advice I would give to people is to make sure that your personally ready for it, because you can’t just go out and find somebody unless you are in the right state of mind and unless you offer something valuable to somebody else. You can expect to find the perfect person for you and have a great life, but it’s unrealistic if you’re not offering the same amount of value to them that they’re offering to you.
SMP: What advice would you give to yourself eight or ten years ago?
Jason Koon: There are a lot of things. The first thing I would say is stop trying to impress people; I think that’s a really lonely road, and it’s one that this poker world facilitates. It makes people kind of hungry in a way to prove that they belong to this world and are valuable. At least for me, the superficial things didn’t add any value to my life, and I thought that they attracted the wrong type of people. Material things will never bring you happiness. I would just say spend less money, put that into your bankroll, work harder, and take bigger shots down the line. I think that’s what I would have told myself.
SMP: Did becoming a successful player and having financial security, when you’ve said on many interviews that you come from a very simple family, change something in your vision of life?
Jason Koon: Yeah, it definitely did. To be able to know that my nephew will be taken care of and know that the quality of my mother’s life has increased dramatically really was important to me, and these things had caused me a lot of stress in the past. It was nice to be able to take care of those things. I know it’s not a cure to everything in life; money won’t just make things easier for people, but it was certainly great to know that we have a little bit of caution and nobody will be out on the streets. Also, the way that I see it is my dad was a total fuck up, and I want to be the first person in my immediate family who brings people into the world and they don’t have to start from zero and build it up. I wanted to do the legwork and build the nice foundations, and my kids won’t have to grind as hard as I have. I have one thing that you can ask anybody who knows me and that is that I might not be the smartest poker player in the world—I’m a bright guy and have some skills—but one thing that I probably can do better than anybody is I’ve committed myself fully to become the best player that I can be for about at least 6 years. I’ve worked as may hours as you possibly could work and still maintain a healthy life, and it’s been really hard. Things happen when you work hard, and it’s a fulfilling life, but at the same time, I don’t want my kids to have to work 60/70 hours a week unless they want to.
SMP: The poker world can be a little bit overwhelming, especially when you’re new in it. Did your background help you a lot to keep your feet on the ground?
Jason Koon: Yeah, absolutely. All the glitz and the glam that you see, I think everybody wants a taste of that, and when you get a taste of it, you realize that there is not much to it, and that’s fine. Just move on in your life, stay focused on what actually means something to you and not what will have the most likes on Twitter or whatever.
SMP: What do you think are the main mistakes people make when they start playing live tournaments?
Jason Koon: I think the main thing is maybe that a lot of younger payers, even the very talented ones, get wrapped up in partying at the lives stops because a lot of stops are very fun to be at. You see great players, but they’re playing their C game because they are hung over all the time. It’s always fun to hang out with your friends, but I would take it very seriously, if you’re going to those very cool destinations, to realize you’re going there for work, not vacation. If you want to take vacation do it before or after, but being hung over on day 3 of a main event, which I’ve seen so many times with these guys, is a really bad mistake; you’re giving up a ton of value to do that. I think also a lot of guys aren’t necessarily comfortable in a live setting; they’re a little too rigid and make the experience for recreational players not fun. I think it’s important to try your best and try to outperform everybody, but at the same time make sure that you are cooperative with norms. Don’t be afraid to talk to an amateur, and make sure to never say anything negative about their play; just have fun and be social.
SMP: Do you have any new projects you can talk about?
Jason Koon: I’m going to make a lot of new videos for RunItOnce this year. I promised 12; two already came out, so I have lot more on the way. partypoker has some very exciting things coming out that I’ll be part of. I guess you’ll just have to wait and see! I’ll be playing a bunch of Super High Roller Bowls and Poker After Dark, many things like that.
SMP: WSOP is coming soon. If you had to pick a team for this summer, who would you choose?
I definitely wouldn’t choose me! I won’t play many events at all. I’m going to play the million-dollar One Drop and the Main Event, and those might be the only tournaments I play because I plan on playing all the cash games. I’ll play some of the 25K or 50K events, but to be honest, even if I love to play a 1500$ or a 5000$ tournament at the World Series, at this stage of my career it’s more important that I preserve my energy and stay focused on being able to play the high stakes cash games. As much as I love to play and I would love to win a bracelet, it just doesn’t make a lot of financial sense for me anymore to play low stakes tournaments.
My team would be…I think Daniel Negreanu is always a great pick; he seems to play every event, and it’s very important to him to establish that legacy. He works very hard at the World Series. I think Mike Leah is always there too, playing like 40/50 tournaments during the series; he would be a great pick too—basically anybody who signs up to go kill it at the WSOP. I’m not sure who the main players are, but they have to play mixed games and be ready to play a gigantic schedule. The most important thing is volume. If you work hard and play all the games, like back in the days when Jason Mercier played, I would have picked him over anybody because he’s great at all and was sitting there everyday day.
SMP: Concerning the new partypoker circuit, are we going to see you at almost every event? What did you plan?
Jason Koon: Yeah, I’m going to be at as many events as I can be. That being said, too much travel just kind of deteriorates the quality of my life. I’ll be chilling in Vancouver, where I live, and in Vegas, and I’ll be travelling on some tournaments. A lot of the stops are in great locations, so right now I’m in Barcelona, and it’s a beautiful city with a great buzz. Montreal is a wonderful stop too, and now they also have those crazy tournaments in the Bahamas. There are a lot of poker stops I’ll go to, but if I feel down a little and feel that I’m travelling too much, I’ll just stay home and rest.
SMP: Last question. If you could improve something in the poker community, what would it be?
Jason Koon: I think the poker community thrives on negativity, and I wish that people would just work together. People, nowadays, I feel are such attention-based people; they just want to go on Twitter wars with each other and put each other down. I don’t think that does a good job of representing our community and the game. If we’re trying to show the US government that online poker is a net positive for the world and we want it back, then we should probably start acting like professionals, and a lot of these guys on Twitter are 45 years old and are still arguing as if they were in high school. I would say, let’s chill out with the gossip a little bit and start to focus on what improves the community and our case.