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Jeff Gross: Interview with the PokerStars Ambassador and Twitch celebrity

Jeff Gross, the PokerStars’ ambassador, forged his competitive spirit on the soccer field. But his true love has always been poker – a game he discovered in university when he was sharing his room with Michael Phelps.

Since then, he has dedicated himself fully to this passion, having earned more than $3M on the live poker circuit according to Hendon Mob. Not only that, the American is also known for his activeness on Twitch and YouTube, tools he mastered expertly as explained in this new interview by Gaëlle Jaudon.

Jeff Gross – Photo PokerStars

Somuchpoker: You recently played the WCOOP in the Bahamas. How was the series?

Jeff Gross: I was staying at the Baha Mar, a new hotel; the PokerStars tournaments are usually in the Atlantis. I really enjoyed it; it was a very nice venue.

Somuchpoker: You organized a vlog contest with Andrey Nemee with the hashtag #Vloggerinparadise. Can you tell us more about that?

JG: Bill Perkins is going to be a judge as well. It’s a lot of content and a lot of videos, and it’s really going well. It’s really been a full-time job with so many people and videos to watch. I go through it the best I can. We have a team who help us to get down to a winner and choose the finalists, but it’s unbelievable how many people have submitted videos. I think it’s great because some people will keep doing it even after the competition. It’s really about getting people to experience it, to try it and appreciate the process. It’s also giving them a fancy journal for themselves about poker and no matter what, it will be fun for them, and hopefully, they will keep doing it in the future.

SMP: On what do you judge the best videos?

JG: There are five official criteria. We are looking at creativity; we want you to stand out from the rest; we want you to use landscape format to make sure you’re filming in the correct format. We want you to use music graphics and not just talk into the camera for five minutes, which can be boring. It’s cool to see how much better the videos have been getting from vlog one to now (week five). There are hundreds and hundreds of videos, and I can’t say that I’ve watched them all yet, but I’m doing my best. It’s been overwhelming and exciting, but I also realize that we want to give everyone a fair shake and give everyone a good look at in the competition.

NB:  The winner has been just announced

SMP: You are always trying new things, blog, Twitch, vlog, etc. You are always trying to find the next big trend in poker, so what will it be in your opinion? What does the future of poker look like?

JG: They are doing some virtual reality stuff now. PokerStars is testing that, and I think it’s pretty incredible. But I think in the immediate/ near future, I would say IRL – in real life – which is something Twitch already experiments with, is the next phase for poker. I’m trying to understand the rules with casino and privacy and how it works but also not distracting from the game. Trying to find an IRL at the table with a twitch sort of format would be great. You see Andrew Neeme and others who do live contests with hand analysis from tournaments or cash games, but you really can’t film at the table, that’s across the board. So, I think that’s the next way, not people just streaming online poker and twitching, but a way where people can get the live view; where IRL will be simpler to turn on and off. Maybe with someone helping you and filming from the rail and the audience coming back and forth. We have to find a way where it’s not distracting for the table and the rules. I think that’s in the near future, getting content very fast and short, instead of long hours of videos or 30-minute vlogs. I think of 3, 5 or 10-minute clips, that type of fast interactive content is the future. That’s sort of being perfected as we go and being experimented and for that, Twitch is the king, but even the few minutes delay on Twitch is difficult; that’s something I heard a lot. Gamers don’t really understand how you can stream poker with a five-minute delay with your audience. You’re asking me a question right now; I answer; I play, and there is a follow-up. You can’t really have a back and forth with your audience; there is still a disconnect there, so I think that IRL, live streaming, is the next step.

SMP: Why did you start vlogging and what are you trying to build with that?

Jeff Gross: Last summer, I started my first vlog ever was June 2017. I think the biggest thing I’m trying to do is about the experience. It’s personal; writing your journal or having Instagram is cool, but vlogging is really about having a video diary about your poker experience. I don’t know how long and intensively I’ll play poker, but I can look back in 5 or 20 years, and I have documented videos about what I was doing and how I was doing, so that’s the most important reason for me. But other than that, I would say that it’s also a way where I can really experience with people and engage because of the interactions and the comments. So, one reason is selfishly to have a diary journal and two, it’s about interacting with others and improving my game, being able to share with them. And the third reason is, I really enjoy it. I think it’s fun, and it’s very memorable. I love the process, the filming, the editing, the title, the whole platform that YouTube represents. I really try to push people to be positive because YouTube also has a lot of nasty comments and negative reactions from people, but I try to create a fun area and stop criticism in a positive manner. I would really like to have a very positive community where we try to help each other to get better, not just about poker, but vlogging and other experiences we can do in a constructive way. That’s something that my community, both on Twitch and YouTube does, constantly trying to improve on everything we’re doing.

SMP: What is the most difficult part of vlogging? What are the mistakes you made at first and that people usually do?

JG: I think the biggest mistake is to take unnecessary footage. It’s better to keep it clean and easy. I have an editor, so it’s easier but some people don’t. Making the process from filming to editing in the easiest way possible. First, it’s important to have good footage that you know you want to use in your vlog, having good lighting and good steadiness to the camera. The right lighting and the right sound is essential. I use a very good camera, a Canon power G7 mark 2; it’s really convenient, but the microphone on it is not like the huge professional microphones, so sometimes, the sound could be hard to hear when interviewing someone in a hallway or a poker room. You always have to think what’s important from a viewer perspective: steadiness of the camera, good sound, keeping the vlog lazer. It can be really easy to get a 30-40-minute vlog, but you have to realize that people’s time is valuable, and you should try for only a 15-minute vlog range. I think it’s key because you have to be time-sensitive and realize the attention spent on you. Even with ads and video, you see a lot of mainstream companies and media with 3 to 5 minute clips, so keep it lazer and keep it to the point and make it fun with good music and graphics. It’s a growing learning curve and constantly evolving with what the viewer is looking for.

SMP: In one of your vlogs in EPT Barcelona, you talked about Elliot Roe, who is mentally coaching several players now, and you seemed quite impressed by the advice he gave you. Why are you doing this today and what are you learning?

JG: I think Elliott Roe is great; his results speak for himself with all the testimony he has gotten from players. On a personal level, I’ve noticed big differences with him. Some things are pretty obvious, but he makes it very clear and makes you focus on what you’re doing, what is working and not working. For example, I’ve realized that my business model for a poker player is a little different from other people. It’s not solely poker; I have YouTube, Twitch, sponsorship and many other things, and for me, it’s not purely about playing poker but to be honest about what I’m doing. When I’m playing a tournament, it’s time to put the phone away and be really present; it’s not time to do email, look at Skype or WhatsApp, etc. With YouTube, Twitch, etc., there are a lot of responsibilities. I have a lot of messages and feedback, and it’s important to be aware of that and realize that there are a lot of distractions when I’m playing. So, today, if I’m playing a tournament, am I able to play my best, get off my phone and be there from the start? In the last two years, I’ve noticed in the WSOP that a big part of that was because I was doing the videos. I was starting late because it’s a lot of work, and I had a lot of things to do. So, I missed 4 levels on a $1500 buy in and start with 30/40 big blinds to be all in with queens against ace-king; then I end up with 15 blinds, and I’m out. So, I realize I have to be there from the start where my strengths and advantages are and be realistic, not doing too much. Or, if you are doing too much, be realistic with your expectations and realize that the game is harder. The little edge is being off your phone, starting on time, not missing hands, being alert to the table. I would say the biggest thing with him is that he understands what’s going on and is tuned to that. Be realistic with yourself: are you 100% or are you not? If you’re not, what does that mean to you? I think you must be present, understand how it all fits together and staying alert to that. If you’re not being present, at least understand why. It can be ok, but at least you need to realize that you are not at your 100%.

SMP: You’ve been a pro player for more than 10 years now. How did you build your mental strength?

JG: I think it’s really trying not to be too high, not being too low and realizing that the game has ups and downs. I’ve always had good bankroll management and good risk aversion. I understand that poker is a hard way to make a living; there are a lot of benefits and beautiful things about the game; friendships, travel, but also I realize that there is some instability. So, I’m trying to keep my stability very high which is something that I always focused on. If I really want to make a living with poker, I try to minimize the risks. That’s something inside my myself that I always handled well, from being single to being engaged, and now married. I realize poker is a complex thing; you need to stay organized and disciplined and keep yourself mentally strong because you can go through adversity, and it’s hard. You get knocked out of tournaments or lose in a cash game and, at the end of the day, your bottom line comes down with results. So you need to understand how to keep that inside and don’t talk about bad beats because people don’t care about how you won or lost; they just care about how you did. You have to be able to deal with that and build some mental toughness. People are going to give you a hard time, and there will be a lot of times where you don’t win or cash, so you have to be at peace with that. You can set up others around you to understand that because that’s something that can be difficult to deal with, especially in tournament poker. It’s a very interesting mindset because I think it does translate well with the finance world, the business world, the risks. You need a lot of mental toughness in the game to make a living.

SMP: What makes you the proudest or happiest in your career?

JG: What makes me most proud is sort of the test over time, being in the game for 17 years now. Growing a successful Twitch channel, having a fan base and a great community of people that supports, and generally being viewed as a positive person. Being able to handle the beat and the adversity well. I don’t want to falsify a dream; I play poker for a living, and I’m involved in many projects. Many supplement their income and poker is a great thing to supplement your income. You can work and get better at it and earn money from it, but I don’t want to be out there promoting people to quit their jobs and saying that becoming a pro is easy and look how great everything is, etc. I really want to be honest with people. I know it’s difficult; it takes time, and you really have to be careful how you do it and have other incomes. It needs to be fun and not stressful. It’s beautiful when you can make great relationships and learn a lot of life skills to apply to other things, but be realistic with people and let them know that poker is not something that I would recommend doing for a living. You want to have other backups and income. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud about, really building a brand and a portfolio where there are many things coming into one; coming from Twitch to YouTube from scratch because it’s something that I was passionate about and believed in it, not with the intention of making money out of it. I love it and I’m proud about building that community.

SMP: That was my next question. Is it correct to say that you built a brand around yourself and that you always had this idea when you started poker?

JG: Luckily, I have good friends in poker, and I watched what they did and learned from them. I saw what it takes when you watch guys like Negreanu, Esfandiari, Hellmuth, etc. I grew up seeing them, and they have businesses and things on the side, and it’s kind of watching how it all works. You need to have other stuff than just playing poker. So, I think in the back of my mind, I always understood what it takes and how it’s done. I looked at some people and how they conduct themselves off the table as well, and I think it’s good to have some role models and mentors. Now, it’s a new deal; when you look at 10 years ago, it’s very different now. Back then, poker was on TV with Poker After Dark and shows where we were seeing people play, and now it’s kids that are in their twenties on Twitch. We have personalities like Jason Somerville, Doug Polk, Kevin Martin, Jaime Staples, Lex Veldhius, and the list goes on…

These are the guys with constant content, deep runs, highlight videos, clips, etc. During the WSOPE, for example, a lot of people were coming to talk to me, and they were seeing YouTube videos of Jaime Staples or Doug Polk, saying that’s the reason they came into poker. The funny thing with Doug is that he’s really polarizing; either people don’t like how he does his content or people love him and come into poker because of him. I think it’s very important to realize that this type of content, Twitch or YouTube is what poker is about. It gets people engaged; it gets new people to come in the ecosystem. It can be recreational players, people who like poker. It’s kind of weird in the US with poker not being legalized and now it’s coming back; there is kind of a taboo, but it’s like anything when you do it with moderation. I’m not saying quit your job, but if you want to get better, you have a lot of material, just like anything. There is a lot of stuff that you can do to work and improve your game. It’s a fun game where you can get to compete with Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps, all kind of lives and incomes can meet and play a strategic game. I think it’s a beautiful game, and there are so many positives into it, even if it’s just for a hobby.

SMP: People always ask you questions about that, but you were the roommate of Michael Phelps for a long time, and you are still very good friends. What did you learn by living with the most decorated Olympian athlete? Did it change something for you?

JG: It’s always an interesting question because it is unique when you have the chance to know someone who is the best at something; it is always very interesting. I think the biggest thing that I learned by living with him was his goal setting; the fact that you can’t really care about what people do. His set his times, for example, this is the time I want to do in the 100-meter butterfly for the next Olympics; this is what I know I’m at right now, and with the right work ethic, this is what I believe is enough to win. It’s the same thing with poker; it’s very competitive. Also with Twitch, you’re looking at other people, how many viewers they have, how they’re doing in tournaments, how much money they win, etc., and you can’t really control all that stuff. So, I think it would be personally better to apply that rule: this is what I have in mind; I’m starting my twitch, and I don’t know what this other guy is doing or how many hours they spend. You can stay observant and look at it sometimes, but at the end of the day, you set your own goals. I’m going to do this; this is what I know is possible’ if I do this much work, this is what can happen, and that’s the only thing I can really control. I’m not competing against others, but I’m competing against myself, and I have specific goals and stand to that. That’s the most powerful thing I learned from him. When he was telling me about his way of thinking, it struck me, and I think a lot of people don’t think like that. It’s so easy to get distracted by looking at others with Instagram, Twitter, Twitch, etc. To stay focused on your task and what you need to do is the big deal.

SMP: You were already well-known in the poker community before joining the PokerStars team last year. What do you both bring to each other?

JG: I think lining up with PokerStars is a blessing as it’s the industry leader, the best tournaments, the best software and that’s where I have already played the majority online. I think they had a couple of years with some uncertainty where they made some changes, some cuts, they had new people, and I think that now it’s very powerful because they are listening to what the ambassadors say, and they love to have feedback to make quick changes. I think what I do for them as an ambassador is to give them that feedback from players and what is going on and for them to listen. It’s great exposure; they have huge social followings, and to be able to give a $30,000 Platinum Pass to my community is incredible. Those types of promotions are great for poker, and being able to team up and leverage that by having this engagement with people, I think is a win-win for everyone. We’re helping them as ambassadors, and they’re helping us at getting exposure for our channels and brand, partnering with Jason Somerville on Twitch. They do a lot of work to promote our brands and channels, and it’s a very beneficial relationship for everyone.

SMP: We can say that you became a specialist at communication in general, so, in your opinion, what can be improved or changed in the way traditional poker media are promoting the game today?

JG: That’s a tough question… I think maybe having more media coverage of the side events as people really like updates, and even on smaller events, more frequent updates of the teams, prize pool and other stuff. I think it’s getting better, and now many casinos are covering even their side events, and people really enjoy having the whole coverage of events. I think poker places will invest in their own media team to have more content about their events and updates. It will be fun, and people really like to see that.

SMP: I interviewed Barry Greenstein recently and concerning GTO solvers, he was saying that most people are using it wrong. They’re missing the point of what poker really is by putting aside all the psychological aspects of the game. Using GTO was helpful but will never bring you to the perfect level of poker. What is your opinion about that?

JG: GTO versus exploitative is always a very interesting thing. It’s a bit complex, but I think it’s important to understand that GTO is obviously good to know, but it’s getting a little bit overdone. I think in the live sector as well people get a little bit confused, and unless you really dive in and understand how to apply it, people misuse it. Such a large part of the game is exploitative. When you’re at a table versus a certain person and in a certain spot, the GTO play is not necessarily always the best play. It’s good to know what the books say to do but against a particular person, there can be a better play, so people can get confused.

First, GTO is a very complex, so it’s not like you’re going to study a couple of hours, and you will be then play a perfect GTO. I think it’s like a mole; the best players in the world and the people with the best results really understand both and when to apply it. So, you have to be careful about playing and talking about GTO all the time. Knowing what GTO is and understanding it is important because it’s good as a base. However, being able to exploit spots and people are always going to be how you make the best decisions and get the best results. People often end up being lost at GTO, and it’s a tricky thing. People who worry about the game being solved shouldn’t worry about that because it’s a long way away, especially in live. I think that’s what Barry was saying too; this is not the best option at all times, and people make a lot of mistakes with it; it’s very overrated.

SMP: Last question, what are your present goals and plans?

JG: Really, it’s about studying. I’ve been working a lot on my … edge and right now, it’s a bit of a detox after the intense WSOP, SCOOP, WCOOP, and I have a lot of stuff coming with the $30,000 Platinum pass contest. I want to give it the proper attention, and I’m also working on my game. My present goal is to win the 25K event in the Bahamas, January 6 to 10. I really study hard for that and spend some time with my family and relax. I take this time to be in my best form for the coming new year and this big event. Right now, it’s really about studying, decompressing, catching up with all the YouTube content going on and evaluating my game. This 25K event is a one in a lifetime opportunity. There will be more than 300 players, some of them who have probably never played a 5K and more tournament. It’s going to be an unbelievable opportunity, so I want to make sure that I’ll be ready and rested. I really have my eyes on this event; it’s like a Superbowl special event or the Olympics, and I will be fully ready.

Interview by Gaelle Jaudon


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