The Bulletproof Life of Jean-Robert Bellande
Sunday, 12 July 2015
Just keep smiling...
From hero to zero and back again – you can’t keep a good man down. The trick, says Jean-Robert Bellande, is to just keep smiling through the pain.
“It was the biggest game I’d ever played in my life,” confides Jean-Robert Bellande. “I was around even, and then I just ran up and ran up and ran up, and I ran up to a $1.6 million stack in a no limit game. I had no business in the game, and ran up this enormous stack and just played amazing.”
We’re sitting in the Aria Resort and Casino poker room in Las Vegas, where most of Bellande’s high stakes adventures occur. Bellande is an affable 44-year-old giant of a man with a twinkle in his eye and a talent for hospitality, no doubt perfected during his years as a nightclub promoter, then owner. He’s the poker ambassador here, the host, and he knows everybody.
Anyway, Jean-Robert, carry on with the story…
“And then just I blundered again. I lost a $3.2 million pot. I was devastated because I played the hand so poorly. It was just tragic. I can’t even repeat the hand to you it was so embarrassing.”
But he does anyway, because Jean-Robert Bellande can’t resist a good story, especially when it’s at his own expense. He really can’t help himself.
“Basically I just lit the money on fire,” he continues. “I put in that much money with top pair, up against a set. It was just ridiculous!”
And then, just case he hasn’t revealed enough:
“You don’t wanna put all that money in with K-Q in any hand!”
Most poker players are extremely cagey about numbers, and they’re certainly not going to tell how much they won or lost in a session to a journalist, of all people. But Bellande has no such qualms; his honesty is disarming, almost compulsive. It’s this frankness that allows him to peddle the slightly tongue-in-cheek “Broke Living” lifestyle to his thousands of Twitter followers. His Twitter account is a magnet for trolls and haters, who pillory his poker skills and money management as he documents the ups and downs of high stakes poker: lounging on a private jet one month, stone-broke the next. Mainly, of course, they’re jealous because they can’t figure out how the hell he does it.
But Bellande is not stupid; he’s a natural promoter with a marketing degree, who understood the promotional powers social media very quickly, and those talents are keenly recognized by the management at Aria. When the poker room opened here, it was the plushest in Vegas, but it takes time to build a base of core players to attract the players who are tourists. Nowadays, thanks to efforts of Bellande, and others, it’s pumping. Broke Living, meanwhile, is based in reality, but it’s also a version of Bellande’s life that he has neatly packaged up and sold to the masses.
“The whole broke living thing is a little bit tongue in cheek,” he agrees, “but it’s also a reality, and the people who have followed me on Twitter have seen me have real life struggles. I can’t tell you how many potentially life-changing pots I’ve been in and all I needed was for it to go this way and a miracle that way happened, and there you are down and out again.
“But I’m one of those guys that, no matter what, I’m going to find the best of the situation. I learned that from my mom. Growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, and she just did what she could to make ends meet, but she was always positive.”
Learning Poker the Wrong Way
Jean-Robert Bellande was born in New York to Haitian parents. When he was five years old, his mother, a Christian missionary, relocated to Taiwan, where he spent the next 13 years growing up in an ex-pat community. His first languages were French and English and he soon became proficient in Mandarin, which, he says, has made him a natural communicator and host.
He was extremely competitive growing up and became the captain of the soccer team and co-captain of the basketball team, despite, he says, not being very good at either of those games.
“I went to smaller school,” he says. “When you’re in a school of 150 people, you can be a star at anything. Especially when you're 6’6" growing up in Taiwan.”
He returned to the United States to study, obtaining his marketing degree from Azusa Pacific University in California, and then headed to LA to become a nightclub promotor. As a 21-year-old, earning good money, he became fascinated by pool, and it was in the pool halls of Los Angeles that he developed a taste for gambling.
“I started playing sets for $10. This was at a place called Hollywood Athletic Club, in LA, off Sunset, and I would just find myself down there four or five times a week, and I’d get my ass kicked,” he remembers. “I was making anywhere from $3k to $5k a week from my job, and I’d go and blow $1k or $2k a week with guys who were world beaters. I probably never had a chance in any of the spots. I wasn’t a very good gambler, per se. I just loved the action.
“One day, I had a big score – a $5k win – which is massive in the pool world. So I had all this money burning a hole in my pocket – and I was a sick kid – and I passed by the Bicycle Casino and saw this ‘California Blackjack’. I’m like, ‘What is that?!’
“But I played it, went on a super-heater, and won $20k the first time I ever played blackjack.”
Now with $20k burning a hole in his pocket, Bellande decided to try his luck at the poker tables, and the floor person, realizing he didn’t have a clue what he was doing, seated him in an $8-$16 limit mixed game. It was the beginning of a love affair with mixed games that continues to this day. In fact, for the first five years of his poker career, he says, he didn’t play a single hand of NLH.
But for a crazy young gambler who had just won $20k, the $8-$16 action was a little slow.
"Is there a bigger game?” he asked.
“So they put me in the $60-$120 game,” he recalls, “and as soon as the guys really saw how clueless I was they bumped it up to $80-$160. So I was playing $80-$160 for the very first day I ever played poker. I managed to lose $13k, playing $80-$160, the first night I ever played poker, and I just fell in love with it!
“The more I thought I’d figured it out the more I wanted to go play. I was still terrible. I hadn’t figured it out. First year I played cards I probably had to lose $100k, but I was just loving it. I was making good money in the nightclub business, and just blowing it playing cards. And loving it.
“Thing is, when you’re playing cards at those kind of stakes, really educate yourself. At the time, there were no real training sites online, but man – when people today ask me what they should do to learn about poker, I say just go and sign on with any one of these training sites, they’re unbelievable! The biggest step to learning about poker is seeing top notch players fine-tune their game and talk about it.
“But that year turned out to be a very expensive lesson for me. The few hundred thousand dollars I blew at poker could have gone towards building a better lifestyle for myself. I would not advise other poker players to follow in my footsteps.”
2003 was a bad year for Bellande. The nightclub, of which he was part owner, closed down. Meanwhile, his father died and he broke up with the girl he thought he was going to marry. Then Jeff Lisandro invited him to Prague to help him run a poker room. It was in Prague that he really learned NLH, which was the only game going, and between his poker winnings and share of the rake, life was good.
“I thought I was never coming back to the States,” he says, “But then I got a little cold in November and was like, ‘Oh my God, I gotta get the heck outta here!’
“I moved back to LA and I really, really struggled. That was true broke living, I was in and out of broke constantly.” Busted with a Bentley
Fast forward to 2014, and Bellande is living the high life. He’s being staked by Andrew Robl and he’s just bought a Bentley. But, suddenly, last summer, things began to turn sour.
“We were making some decent money, and then everything that could have possibly gone wrong went wrong,” he says. “Every time I got aces, they would get cracked by kings. Every time I had the nut straight, it would go runner-runner flush. All these thing happen to everyone, but when you’re playing for these huge pots, it’s brutal.
“To be honest with you, I went on such a bad run and lost so much money last summer, Robl had a talk with me and told me he just couldn’t fade it anymore and he dropped me on the stake. So I was staked by him up until November. And I really liked him. He was a good guy, a man of his word, and I learned a lot from him. He came through for me when I was really, really down and out and I’m still grateful for him to this day for that.
“But when Andrew dropped me, I was completely devastated. Here I am rolling around, and then boom! I probably lost 32 out of 40 cash plays. And the games we’re playing are so enormous, it’s just too brutal to fade.
“So there I was, completely busted again. Busted, but with a Bentley.”Bouncing Back
In December, Bellande managed to turn things around. He’s being staked again, is back on his feet and is doing well, he says. How well? When pushed, he admits he’s just bought a penthouse unit at the Mandarin Oriental. He says it almost sheepishly, like he’s far more comfortable talking about failure than success.
So let’s put that famous Bellande honesty to the test.
Without getting into numbers, are you positive, lifetime?
“Yes, yes,” he says quickly.
Do you think that would surprise most of your 60,000 Twitter followers?
“It would probably surprise all but the couple of people who know me very well, but I’m very, very positive lifetime.”
Do you get staked so you can play in the games or to fade the variance?
“To fade the variance. After good scores, I promise you that several people would have thought, hey, Robert is on his own for sure now. But there’s no need for it. I’ve done well so far, my backer’s done and well, and I’ve seen the kind of variance that can happen. It doesn’t matter how big the game is, if you’re losing 15 out of 18 plays, your bankroll’s in jeopardy.
“There are guys that I think are the best players in the world, they’ve all gone through phases where it seems like the losing is never going to end. Right now, I’d just like to get through this summer. Even if I break even, that would be an accomplishment after what happened to me last summer.”Summer Aria
As well as nervously trying to break even this summer, Bellande will be, as usual, hosting the poker room at the Aria. It’s a job he loves, and he promises the atmosphere will be special this year, with an extra 25 tables being drafted in to accommodate the excited masses.
There will be a wealth of special events, too, such as a $500k buy-in high stakes tournament, where no juice whatsoever will be taken by the poker room, an unheard-of 100 percent going into the prize pool. For those of more slender means, there will be daily $100 buy-in tournaments, as well as a $500 buy-in WPT event with a $2 million guaranteed prize pool.
And of course, there’s the Ivey Room where the big games go down.
“The Ivey Room is for the biggest game that’s going at Aria and normally I’m playing that,” says Bellande. “The mixed games here are my true passion – anywhere from $150 -$300 to $1,000-$2,000.
“Doyle Brunson, David Openheim and Nick Schulman like to play $8,000-$16,000 or $10,000-$20,000 and I won’t always play that. Generally, if I play they tend to fill up. Billy Baxter calls me “the Bell Cow.” I said ‘What’s the Bell Cow, Billy?’
“He says, ‘That’s the cow that goes to the top of the hill with the bell around his neck and all the other cows follow.’
“Thing is, someone said about Isildur1 [Viktor Blom], he’s probably the 16th best PLO player in the world, but he just loves playing with the top 15 players. I’m probably not in the top 1,000 NLH players in the world, but the guys I try to play with are certainly not in the top 10,000 in the world.
“Poker’s not just about being the genius at the table, it’s about good game selection, and having fun. It’s about being pleasant. You can be the best player in the world, but if nobody wants to play poker with you, what good’s that going to do you?
“People come in from all over the world and I’m the first guy they call and say ‘Robert, you got a game going?’
“That’s a good spot to be in. It really is.”