Daniel 'Jungleman12' Cates

April Cover

01 April 2011

We’re not sure whether Cates is a nonchalant genius who is baffled as to why things that come so easy to him should flummox the rest of us, or whether it’s merely the blasé monosyllabism of his generation.

There are dozens of now-millionaire twenty-something online poker players who built up their seven-figure bankrolls from freerolls or micro-deposits – Taylor Caby, Prahlad Friedman, Tom “durrrr” Dwan and Annette Obrestad deposited less than $200 between them. One thing they all have in common, though, is that they did this years ago when online poker was as close to printing money as you could get.

Daniel Cates is a little different. He began building up his bankroll three years ago when people were already bemoaning how tough the games were: “the tables are full of regs”, “the fish have gone”, and most of all, “no money in heads-up; everyone’s solid”. Well, if there’s no money in heads-up NLH anymore, it’s because Cates has won it all.

Best known as jungleman12 on Full Tilt Poker, Cates was playing $0.25/$0.50 when he began to grind out the one-on-one games in 2008 and two years later was a regular at the $25/$50 stakes. In late 2009 he lost over $500,000 to Isildur1 during Viktor Blom’s first meteoric rise and fall, before coming back the next year to take the top spot in online cash game winnings for 2010.

With over $5m to his name for 2010 – and $800,000 of that coming from the Durrrr Challenge, of which he is the second competitor after Patrik Antonius – Cates has made “jungleman12” as much a part of the poker lexicon as “durrrr” or “Isildur1”.

Despite this near-unparalleled success at heads-up online poker, Cates is pretty modest about his three-year run to the millionaires’ club: “I put a lot of effort into it,” he tells us when asked the secret of his success. “I put in a ton of hands and volume is the biggest thing.”

We’re not sure whether Cates is modest because he’s a nonchalant genius who is baffled as to why that which comes so easy to him should flummox the rest of us, or whether it’s merely the blasé monosyllabism of his generation.

“I watched videos, read some books, but mostly watched videos,” he adds when we press him. “I played a variety of opponents and took notes on all the different details. I played probably three or four hours a day on average.”

We suggest that perhaps a natural talent for the game helped – after all, if you can go from $0.25/$0.50 NL to $300/$600 NL in a few years, then it isn’t just three or four hours of poker a day that got you there. Cates disagrees, to an extent: “I think natural talent is some part of it, but even with talent you still have to work really hard to achieve much of anything. It’s probably [talent and hard work] but work is the thing that’s really necessary no matter what.”

In school, Cates was a bright student who tended to excel at whatever he turned his attention to with relative ease. When he found poker, though, it didn’t start off as instantaneous success – he began to lose a lot online and in his local live games before finally getting his act together and focusing on the game. He even took a job at McDonalds to support his poker.

“I was still losing lots of money and didn’t really have a bankroll,” Cates says of his burger-flipping days. Actually, he was the guy in the drive-thru window bagging up the food, but still. “Honestly, at the point that I worked in McDonalds, I wasn’t very motivated and I just wanted to play low stakes and try to win there.

“What really motivated me was seeing that I could win at lower stakes,” he says. “When I won my first few hundred dollars I was like, ‘Oh shit, I can actually win at poker,’ so that really inspired me to improve so I could keep winning.”

Even though Cates faced many of the challenges that every player faces moving up in levels – badly-timed downswings, sick breakeven stretches, cooler after cooler – he rose through the ranks faster than anyone would have thought possible.

Employing a kind of “reverse game selection”, he took on every regular at each limit until he could beat them, studying their play for countless hours to both improve his own game and find edges to exploit his opponents. It was at this point he realised that he had something special.

“I always thought from the beginning that if I applied myself I could do really well. When I started making money from the mid-stakes, I began to realise I was pretty good and that I could maybe go even further.”

At the beginning of 2009, jungleman12 was just not a screen name that you knew unless you were a regular in the $25/$50 and $50/$100 heads-up games or posted on Two Plus Two in the HUNL forums.

However, that all changed in November when a young Swedish player called Viktor Blom registered the account Isildur1 with Full Tilt Poker and began beating down the high stakes heads-up players one by one. Cates was just one of his victims, losing over $500,000 to the Swede which at the time, he admits, represented about half of his bankroll.

“Viktor is really, really good,” Cates admits readily. “He’s a really challenging opponent. I haven’t played him in a while [their last match was the PokerStars SuperStar Showdown in which Cates lost $45,000] but he is one of the best heads-up NL players in general.”

After Cates was decimated by Isildur1, the Swede had his infamous matches with Tom “durrrr” Dwan and took over $5m from the King of Online Poker. In the meantime, Cates was rebuilding with frightening speed and regularly engaging the top players at limits of $100/$200 or even higher. It was in 2010 that he began to take on – and beat – Tom Dwan at what was thought to be durrrr’s specialty, NL heads-up. He became the second player to take the Durrrr Challenge in 2010.

“I had had several matches with Tom before he offered me the challenge,” says Cates. “I had come out on top a lot of the time and I thought I was a favourite versus him heads-up. He was laying 3-1 as well, which seems like a pretty good deal.

“There was one day where I played him at $100/$200 and did pretty well and he said ‘since you never lose to me, why don’t you take the challenge?’ I can’t back down from that kind of offer.”

Since taking the challenge the pair have got through 17,456 of the 50,000 hands, playing four to six tables of $200/$400 NL, and Cates is up $941,263. However, taking Han Solo’s advice, the kid isn’t getting cocky and knows from the big million-dollar swings in the durrrr versus Antonius challenge that it’s still all to play for.

“It’s obviously going well and I’ve run good,” Cates says. “Tom is obviously having the worst time of the cards but I think things are looking really good. That’s not to say he can’t come back, though,” he adds quickly. “The match is far from over. I don’t know how much variance is involved so far but I’m up a decent amount.”

That “decent amount” is almost a million dollars and Cates stands to win an additional $1.5m should he hold his own against durrrr for the full 50,000 hands. Online railbirds, disillusioned with the super-snail pace of the Antonius challenge (still incomplete after almost three years) are now similarly disappointed with the jungleman12 challenge.

The two got off to a roaring start with 9,000 hands locked up in the first week but, surprisingly for two of the most prolific online grinders in poker, have slowed down to an almost Antonius pace recently.

“Sometimes I’m playing not much at all, sometimes constantly,” Cates explains. “Recently [durrrr and I] have hardly played at all but I think things will start to pick up. I’m pretty sure he wants to play but things are kind of sporadic between us.”

Taking on and beating Tom Dwan is quite an achievement in poker – Isildur1 can tell you that much. Cates is unafraid to back down from big names as he proved on his way up the rankings with an unconventional style of simply playing better players until he could beat them. It gave his bankroll a hammering but his poker skills blossomed and now he is one of the best. But is there anyone he won’t play?

He has to think about it. “There are a few really good NL players I find tough to play against,” he finally concedes. “There are certainly players in other games that I won’t play and guys at NL I won’t play at stakes I’m not comfortable with. I think that Isildur1 and Scott [Palmer, aka URnotINdanger2] are the two best players in general right now.”

No love for Ivey? “I haven’t played him much, he doesn’t play much NL. But we played CAP PLO the other day and he crushed me for... for a large amount of money. He’s a really good player and can pressure you a lot. If he spots any kind of weakness he’ll instantly attack.”

Dwan? Dispatched. Isildur1? Unstoppable force; immovable object. With heads-up NL practically conquered, Cates is beginning to move into other areas. Appearances at the Aussie Millions and the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure went fairly well, with a foray into nosebleed TV cash games at the former and a cash-less final table in the $100,000 Super High Roller at the latter. With 21-year-old Cates having turned WSOP-legal a few months ago, we should be seeing him on our screens a lot more in future.

“I plan to play a lot of live events, including the WSOP,” he says. “I’m playing a lot of PLO at the moment, as well as some six-max, and I’m trying to learn the mixed games. I’m playing 2-7 Triple Draw quite a bit, albeit at lower stakes. I’m playing more and more live tournaments.”

With such a mature attitude to poker, both technically and philosophically, it’s easy to forget that Cates (who looks older than his years) is only just into his twenties. Do his parents object to their son’s choice of occupation? Or at least, did they object before his $5.2m 2010?

“Yeah, my parents have been aware of and OK with everything,” he says, giving Mr and Mrs Cates the World’s Coolest Parents Award. “They didn’t like it very much when I was losing tons of money. Once I started winning they warmed to it,” he laughs. He says that he tries not to let the fortune and niche fame change him, though, and tries to act like any other young man of 21.

“In general I’m not the kind of guy who will throw money around. I do spend it on whatever I want at that point, and certain luxuries, but I’m definitely not a big spender,” says the 21-year-old multi-millionaire. “I spent a few thousand dollars on a party bus. That was my biggest expenditure for something that’s not really necessary. I bought a pretty decent car but that’s not spending for the sake of it, it’s practical.
“When I’m not playing poker I still like to hang out with friends, travel places, go out to eat. I like video games and music to relax alone. One of the luxuries I do spend lots of money on, actually, is eating out at places. I don’t go too crazy, though.

“Other than that, I just do... whatever,” he adds, shrugging, and sounding remarkably like an average, monosyllabic American kid again. An average, millionaire, genius American kid. With mind-bending superhuman powers.