John Juanda - Interview with the Champion

John Juanda Interview

04 November 2008

The day after surviving a crucible of pain and the most brutal World Series final table in poker history, we find John Juanda relaxing in the tearoom of the Soho Hotel, sipping a restorative cocktail and looking his usual dapper, unflappable self.

We, however, feel like we’ve been dragged through a rainforest backwards just because we watched the event from start to finish. The new WSOPE champion chats to us about the horrors of that final table and, in the course of events, admits to being almost human.

Congratulations, John. Have you…

Spent the money? No, not yet…

Ha! We were going to say, have you recovered from your ordeal? We watched the whole thing from the rail and we’re still wrecked so we can’t imagine how you must feel…

(Laughs) It was very, very exhausting, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion. It’s very satisfying.

Which is worse – the mental or physical exhaustion?

The physical aspect is worse, but if I had to play for another ten hours or so I think I could have done it because I really, really wanted to win. I don’t care if it took another five or ten hours. But when we finished there was no time to celebrate. I had some breakfast and went straight to bed.

Were you able to sleep much?

No, I slept for, like, two hours and then went to have dinner and had an early night that night. Today I still feel really tired, but like I say, I feel tired and happy.

That was a pretty sick final table, wasn’t it John?

It was a very tough final table to start with, but as it progressed it got even tougher. When it got down to six players, it was Daniel Negreanu, Bengt Sonnert, Scott Fischman, Ivan Demidov, Stanislav and me. It was really, really hard and as players got knocked out it got harder and harder. Someone told me later that Bengt was actually really ill, but you couldn’t tell from the way he played. He really impressed me and he deserves a lot of credit for being able to play his A-game under the circumstances. I was very happy to be seated to left of Daniel and Bengt. But then I had Demidov to my left, which I really hated. He’s already a great player and he’s going to get even better. He took away a lot of my moves by being on my left – plays I normally like to make but I just couldn’t because he was totally taking advantage of the situation.

How about the earlier stages in the tournament? How did you come to be at this final table?

Well, things really went my way. On my first table I had Gus Hansen, John Phan and a few other tough players, but I was fortunate to end the day with almost 50,000 in chips, from the 20,000 starting stack. Once I got hold of some chips I was able to just keep building on my stack. Every time I bluffed, no one called and every time I had the nuts somebody would call me down. The timing was just perfect and when you’re running well like that, you know – it just makes things easier.

Tell us about the way the heads up game played out. You seemed to play quite passively. What was going on there?

My strategy was just to play small ball poker – to play a lot of small pots, rather than get it in there in one hand. Every one of those players at the final table was a great player, and obviously Stanislav was a great player too, but when it got down to heads up I felt I was the more experienced player, so I was trying to take advantage of that by seeing a lot of flops and keeping the pot small so that I wouldn’t get committed to a hand. At the beginning that strategy worked really well – I got him down to about 1.2M from the 2.7M that he started with. But then I kind of forgot to follow my strategy. I saw him with 1.2M when I had 6M and I got a little impatient. Somehow we got it in when I had ace-high and he had a better ace-high and I doubled him up. Then we played another big pot when he had jacks and I had Q-10 and I managed to double him up again. I thought, “My God, I need to stop doing this!” So I went back to my original strategy.

Because the amount of play in the chips, you get so much time to figure your opponent out, which you seemed to be doing as in the later stages…

Yes, that’s the thing about heads up play. In order to win you need to figure out your opponent’s tendencies – does he tend to check to you when he has the nuts? Is he capable of checking and calling all the way to the river and then putting in a big check-raise? Or is he the type of player to play fast of the flop and check-raise you all in? These are the kind of things you really need to consider, and when you start to figure these things out you can base your decisions on your observations. But as I said, he’s a great player and he was able to figure things out about the way I played, so I constantly had to change my style and adjust to his observations of me in order to throw him off a little bit.

We noticed something a little fishy about the way he threw his chips in when he was weak…

Wow! You noticed that too? You’re very observant. I spoke with Daniel during one of the breaks and we discussed that. The thing was, though, I had to be careful. He would do that a lot of the time, but not all the time. So I couldn’t base the whole game on that one thing. I factored that in into my decisions but I tried not to give it 100% credit. It was a clue, but I tried to base my decisions on other stuff too.

There were several times he checked the river and shoved all in when you made a value bet, forcing you to fold. The last time, when you called, we’ve never seen you quite so animated. You stood up, you seemed… angry. It was as though you called on pure emotion…

Sure, but let’s go back to earlier in the match. There was one hand where I raised with Ks-5s and the flop came 5h-6s-2s with two spades, so I had a pair and a king-high flush draw. He checked to me, I bet 100k – a big bet – and he called. The turn card came the Kh, so now I had two-pair with my flush draw. He checked to me again, I bet and again he called. The river came an ugly looking 3h. So now any four would make a straight and any two hearts would make a flush. He checked to me again. At that point I had lost about two or three hands in a row and it looked like I could be steaming – of course, you must always be aware of your table image. In fact, I felt that he perceived me to be steaming and that I could very well be bluffing. So I tried to value bet the river with 340k and he check-raised me all-in. That was a really tough decision. The pot was so huge and the winner would be a monster chip leader. But in the end I decided to fold because I just couldn’t see any way that he could be bluffing. Later I was told he had 2h-4h, so he’d flopped a pair with a straight draw and he’d made a back door flush.

Another hand, I laid down pocket aces a board of K-J-9-9-4 when he check-raised me all-in again. I felt there was a very good chance I didn’t have the best hand, so I folded.

But then in that last hand when I had A-6 for two pair and he did it again – like you say, I stood up, and I was frustrated, but I was trying to get a read on him at the same time. I just felt that he didn’t look the same as he had done on those two previous occasions, and also – the way the hand played out – it just didn’t seem like he could have me beat. So that time I decided to call him down, even though if I had been wrong it would have cost me the tournament.

You’re officially the World Champion of Europe, if that makes sense. Is there a certain responsibility that comes with being the World Champion of Europe?

I don’t know, but it’s definitely sweeter to come over to Europe and win the tournament here, instead of a comparable tournament in the US. It’s nice to be able to go to another country and come out on top at the end. This is one of the tournaments that I really wanted to win. Besides the Main Event of the WSOP in Vegas, and the $50,000 HORSE event, this is it. These are the three most important tournaments in poker. Winning this has been overwhelming.

What’s next?

Well, like you, I’m going to get some rest and hopefully I’ll be more energetic tomorrow. I’m playing the EPT High Rollers event.

(John did indeed play the High Rollers event, finishing second for £327,000. All we can say is, John Juanda – HE EARNS!