The Koon Effect

The Koon Effect

Friday, 6 September 2013

Eve Goodman profiles one of poker's rising stars, Jason Koon.

For many pros, playing in a major tournament series is a time when any semblance of personal discipline goes straight out of the window. This is particularly so in Vegas, where being a poker player goes hand in hand with tequila-fuelled late nights of partying in bars and strip clubs, all washed down with a haphazard diet of greasy food and shame. As you can imagine, this takes a toll on your physical and mental strength, making it ever harder to stay alert and at your best at the tables.

Not so for Jason Koon, however.

Koon, an American pro known by the online handle of ‘NovaSky’, is a figurehead for the new generation of poker players who harbour an unstoppable determination to be the best they can be, in poker, body and life.

With current live tournament winnings of close to $1.9 million, Koon has proved his talents by consistently cashing in some of the toughest tournament fields out there. However, despite a lucrative stream of deep runs (Jason made four final tables in the 2012 and 2013 WSOP, including a runner-up finish in the 2012 $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em/Pot-Limit Omaha Heads-Up Event for $128,660), he has yet to scoop his first big title.

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The scores of near misses have not dampened his resolve, however – in fact, quite the opposite. Starting off the year with a hefty six-figure payday after final-tabling the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, since then he has only continued to build momentum – this July saw him come second in the No-Limit Hold’em Bellagio Cup for $316,000, which is his biggest live cash to date.

Much of his success in the poker world can be ascribed to his strong sense of self-discipline. His unwavering work ethic, something which continues to help him consistently study and improve his game, is also reflected in his hardcore approach to fitness. As if being renowned for incredible gymnastics involving vertical jumps and flips wasn’t enough, Koon maintains his body like a well-oiled machine.

This kind of strength, of both mind and body, can only be sustained by adherence to a strict personal schedule. “My routine is get up, shower and have a coffee,” said Koon. “Then I do about an hour of work on theory every day, review sessions, get coaching, do coaching myself or make videos for RunItOnce. When I get to Vancouver, my productivity increases by 500 percent – the kid I live with is the only person I’ve ever met that makes me feel like a lazy slob. We go to the gym, run or do yoga every single day, and we eat pretty clean.”

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This super-proactive ”kid” that Koon shares his Canadian residence with is none other than Ben ‘bttech86” Tollerene, a famous online pro with cash game winnings of over $3.3 million. “I was really lucky to meet him,” said Koon. “We had a mutual friend, Hac Dang, who was another high-stakes cash game player. Hac and I worked out a lot together during the 2012 WSOP. I already knew who Ben was and Hac knew we both lived in Vancouver, and he said, ‘You guys should work out together. I think you’d get along.’”

Koon was unsure at first, but this casual introduction ended up going much better than he could have ever expected. “I was living with Steve Gross at the time, and he decided to go back to Vegas,” said Koon. “I was teetering between going home or staying there. Ben’s pretty careful about who he spends time around, but he and I had a beer one night and just hit it off.”

While most serious pros would likely bite your hand off for the chance to live with the man behind the legend of ‘Bttech86’, Koon wanted to be sure it was the right choice. “Since he didn’t know me well,” said Koon, “Ben said we could try a few weeks with me crashing at his place and see what happens. I was cool with that, definitely respected it and it just worked. Since then, Ben’s become one of my best friends in the entire world.”

It would seem that the two make quite a fearsome duo. “I’ve always been a good self-motivator, and good at motivating others,” said Koon. “Ben is like me in the aspect that all he knows is work, so when we live together everything is based off efficiency. I know it sounds boring, but it’s awesome because it feels like your days are never going to waste, and you get to see yourself grow.”

While it would seem that Koon’s game has definitely been improved as a result of his friendship with Tollerene, he is not the only person in Koon’s inner circle. In fact, the pair live as neighbours to one of the most respected players in the game. “Phil Galfond also lives in the building and spends a bunch of time with us,” said Koon. “Living with them, you really get to see what it takes for someone to be a great poker player.” Galfond, the nosebleed connoisseur known as ‘OMGClayAiken’ on Full Tilt Poker, would definitely be rated as one of the top players that are active on the high-stakes tables at the moment. With him as well as Tollerene as close friends, Koon is without a doubt learning from the best.

The three of them kick back together, while at the same time using each other to stay individually sharp. “It’s pretty straightforward,” said Koon. “I play a ton of poker, they play a ton of poker and then we talk about poker when we’re not playing poker. We go to the gym and talk about poker. All of their standards are just higher – what they ask of themselves, their integrity towards one another – it’s really just a remarkable thing. Our extreme personality differences make us a great fit. We make each other better in the areas that the others do poorly.”

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This kind of mutual tutelage would be invaluable for any kind of serious player looking to up his game, and Koon admits that it has increased his already ferocious drive for self-improvement.

“It makes me want to be better,” said Koon. “They never focus on results. Ever. Half of the time, when they are talking through a hand history you don’t even hear what their opponent had. They are just concerned with making the best decisions and leaving the rest out there. It’s a different thing than I’ve ever been used to. I’m around a ton of brilliant people, but when you get around these guys it’s just another level. It really does rub off – once in a while I’ll have a moment where I feel like I’m thinking Ben or Phil-like.”

Koon’s tournament efforts have not all been plain sailing, however. After a great start consisting of three deep runs, his World Series would be cut short when he was struck down with debilitating flu. Sadly, this ended up taking him out of the running for weeks. “I was just so exhausted that my body started to break down,” said Koon. “I was sick, then I got over it, but I was still so tired. I stopped working out and just drank tons of fluids and slept. I skipped a bunch of events and I didn’t even play the $25,000 Six Max, which is my jam.”

Koon just about rallied in time to play the Main Event, but ended up running into a sport of bad luck when he busted in Day 2. Most players, weakened from illness and busto from the biggest event of the year, would have cut their losses there and then. However, Koon was undeterred, and his quick scout out of the Bellagio Cup a few days later ended up scoring him the biggest cash of his career.

It is this resilience – this consistent determination to surpass all challenges – that marks Koon as someone who will almost definitely still be around in five years time. He has a winning sense of strict self-discipline, yet more importantly knows the importance of flexibility. “It could go a couple of ways,” said Koon, “But I’ve learned over the years that I need to listen to myself and do what is most healthy for me. If I’m excited to play live poker and travel I’ll do it, but if I want to stay home and get in shape and work on my game, that’s what I’ll do.”

Koon may not yet have secured a big tournament title just yet, but anyone who knows him would confidently attest that it is simply a matter of time. Possessing the winning combination of exceptional poker aptitude, powerful friends, and a fearless work ethic, Koon is unquestionably a rising star. However, we’d put our money on him not flaring up and burning out – instead, he could well have the potential to shine for the foreseeable future.

Tags: Eve Goodman, Jason Koon