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John Juanda: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First

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When young John Juanda came to the United States from Indonesia in 1990, he spoke little English. So, he observed and listened intently. Since he didn’t understand the spoken word, he had to rely upon his intuitive skills to comprehend what people were saying. This year alone, John’s ability to “read” people has earned him about $1.2 million in tournament prize money.


John explained the phenomenon: “When I first came to this country, I didn’t speak much English, so when I hung out with my friends, I mostly listened and observed, and spoke very little. I believe you learn so much more by listening than you ever will by speaking. When I started playing poker in 1996, I learned a lot about people just by watching them. Through years of listening and observing, I have developed the ability to read people quite well, not just in poker but also in life. If you put me in a game with players I’ve never seen before, I will quickly get an idea of what each person is made of. It’s like going to a movie, watching the characters, and knowing the good guy from the bad guy.”



Psychological Warfare


Who could guess that this sweet, modest, and mild-mannered young man would describe the game of poker as “psychological warfare”? John is obviously a very happy person, content to be wherever he finds himself. He is known to be polite, classy, and humble. He smiles easily. But, it would be a huge mistake to be fooled by his gentle demeanor. Make no mistake about it, folks, it’s psychological warfare at the poker table!


John explained what he means: “When you play poker at the highest level, it doesn’t matter what the specific game is. If you have your opponents beaten psychologically, they cannot win.”


John is one of the most consistent tournament players today, and he does it with a winning smile and an easy demeanor. He grins and jokes quietly; the next thing you know, all of your chips are neatly piled up in his stack. He’s sitting there smiling, and you still love the guy!


Maid of Honor


In both 2001 and 2002, John was the runner-up for Card Player’s Player of the Year award. Even though he makes millions, I asked him if he feels bad to be the “maid of honor” year after year. He laughed with that familiar twinkle in his eyes: “I usually don’t play many tournaments in the first nine months of the year, but around September, I’d usually find myself in contention to win Card Player’s Player of the Year award. Then, I’d try harder from there on. So, was I disappointed at not winning it? Not really, because I hadn’t tried very hard to start out with, but of course it would have been nicer if I had.”


Player of the Year


When I asked John who he thought would win Player of the Year, he said it was anyone’s guess. “Daniel Negreanu is playing some of his best poker, but so am I. So, I figure it’s a coin toss.” He added, “Daniel and I have been great friends for many years, and I will be almost as happy if he wins.”


When I asked Daniel’s opinion of John, he said that John has been a great friend throughout the years. “John was pretty tough on me when I was screwing up; although he was doing what was best for me, I was pretty mad at him at the time. But I realize his honesty helped me, and made us fabulous situs poker friends. John has been the most successful player for the last five years. His consistency is unparalleled. Our friendship was rocky when he was telling the truth. But now, we have bonded, and I love him like a brother. And if he wins Player of the Year … I will be absolutely ticked off. It looked like I couldn’t possibly lose, and now here comes my friend John, breathing down my neck. Tell John I’ll be happy to make a pact that we play no more tournaments this year!”


It’s great to see two fierce competitors who are also fiercely loyal friends. I told John that for the Player of the Year cover, Card Player was thinking of having a photo of Daniel and him wearing boxing gloves. The winner would be standing over the loser and the loser would be out cold on the ground. John thought that was funny and said he loved the idea, on one small condition: that he wins!




Acclaimed poker luminary Barry Greenstein describes John as one of the top tournament players in the world. “In no-limit tournament play, John is one of the top players in the world. His recent run against huge fields is pretty spectacular. He is in tune with the people he is playing against, and he always seems to extract the maximum.”


Who does Barry predict will win Player of the Year? “I take my hat off to Daniel and John. They’re both world-class players. Although Daniel has played fewer events and is slightly ahead in the standings, I think John is a better player. John is on more of a roll, but Daniel has more points. So, it’s pretty much a toss-up as to who will win.”


With Friends Like This …


John has many good friends in the poker industry. Probably because he is so easygoing, his friends love to tease him. For example, Daniel says he will be absolutely ticked off if John wins Player of the Year, which is a statement that couldn’t be further from the truth.


When John recently found himself at another final table, he received a friendly call from his pal Daniel, who said: “You won’t do better than seventh.” John went on to win the event. In the same vein, another friend decided to play a joke on John by signing up at a popular online poker site using the name “John Juanda.” By the time John got there to sign up, his name was already taken! He was pretty hot about having to sign up as JohnJuanda2!


His favorite place to play is at fulltiltpoker.com, where he regularly plays in small games with other world-class poker friends such as Phil Ivey, Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer, and Chris Ferguson.


Are You the Best?



It is not easy to get a modest, humble guy to speak about himself. I asked John if he thinks he’s the best. “I don’t know how to answer that. If you ask every poker player, most of them will say they are the best; but you and I know that they all can’t be right. I think I am a lot more objective than most players when it comes to evaluating my own game. For example, I know Phil Ivey is probably a better seven-card stud player than I am; Daniel Negreanu is probably better at Omaha high-low; Erik Seidel is better at pot-limit Omaha.”


I asked who was better at no-limit hold’em, and he couldn’t think of a name. “If you put me at a table with eight or nine of the best players in the world, I am sure that I will find a way to win. Do I think I am the best? Probably not; but if you put me at a table with the best, over time I will find a way to win.”


Growing Up


John was born in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, on July 8, 1971. He explained that this is where that great Sumatra coffee comes from. All of his childhood memories there are favorable.


“I remember having the greatest childhood imaginable. When I was very young, I lived with my grandparents because my parents had just started a business. People just loved me! My late father was the eldest of 12 kids; he was the first son and I was the first grandson. In our culture, it is very special to be the firstborn, and everyone gave me special treatment. I wasn’t spoiled, but I was loved and given lots of attention. It gives you a lot of confidence to be a child who is so loved by so many people.


“When I was in the fifth grade, I began to live with my parents. My dad loved to gamble, but he was a bad gambler. He drank, gambled, and was probably cheated. He told me that when I grew up, I shouldn’t gamble. I learned one important lesson: As a parent, you have to set an example by the way you live. What you do is more important than what you say. Anyway, that’s how I got involved in gambling, because I saw my dad do it. I started out shooting marbles for money in elementary school.


“My mom is the greatest mother in the whole wide world. She took care of business; she worked seven days a week from 8 in the morning until 6 at night. Yet, she always seemed to have time for us kids. There were four of us: myself, my brother Rudy, my late brother David, and the youngest is my sister, Sally. Mom showered us with love and always reminded us to be loving toward others and to treat people the way we wanted to be treated. Everything I have today, I owe it to my mom, and I love her more than anything!”


John’s First Royal Flush


John played his first game of cards while flying with a friend from Indonesia to the United States to attend college in 1990. His friend pulled out a deck of cards and began to teach John how to play poker.


John said, “I was a total novice and had never played poker before. My friend explained the rankings and strategies; then, he dealt us both royal flushes. At first, I was so excited. Looking at my hand, I couldn’t believe my luck, and thought, ‘Wow, this can’t be possible!’ My friend then revealed that he was holding a royal flush, too. Common sense told me that there had to be something wrong. He laughingly admitted that he had stacked the deck.


“It was actually a very good lesson for me, because it made me start using common sense and figuring out the odds of certain card combinations. I became an active thinker from the very beginning. For the rest of the plane trip, we played and bet. By the time we landed, I knew how to play poker, and was winning more from my friend than I was losing.”


Always a Winner


John is a winner at life. Whatever he does, he succeeds. When he was in high school, he was a track star at distances ranging from 200-meter sprints to 5,000-meter races. In three years, he never lost!


When John arrived in the United States, he enrolled at Oklahoma State University, where he did well, earning a double bachelor’s degree in marketing and management. Thereafter, he went on to earn his MBA at Seattle University. When he was in the work field, he was successful at whatever he did. Whether it was trading stock, sales, or being a marketing executive or a bible salesman, he was always successful. And then, there was poker.


In the Money


Since 1996, John has amassed an impressive array of poker hardware. He has three World Series of Poker gold bracelets, one in triple-draw lowball, one in pot-limit Omaha, and one in seven-card stud eight-or-better. He has placed in the money at the WSOP more than 25 times.


Besides the WSOP, he has reached championship status in some of the industry’s finest tournaments, including the Jack Binion World Poker Open, the Hall of Fame Classic, the Four Queens Poker Classic, the World Poker Finals, the Legends of Poker, the California State Poker Championship, and the L.A. Poker Classic. He also won the Phil Hellmuth Champion of the Year award in 2002.


As for the World Poker Tour, he has made five final tables. As this story goes to press, John sits at the final table of the first Professional Poker Tour event, a WPT invitational tournament. He is the chip leader, holding about a third of the chips.




Because John is soft-spoken and reserved, some people are not aware that every time you turn around, he is in the money again. In 2004 alone, John has already won $1,198,336 and made an appearance at 14 final tables. His performance this year is truly remarkable, by anyone’s standards. Let’s take a look, as follows:


Who’s More Famous?


John has a keen sense of humor. He described a moment at this year’s WSOP that made him laugh. “It was at the World Series this year during the break. I was going to walk to Starbucks at the Golden Nugget. Phil Hellmuth asked me, ‘Can I walk with you?’ He started talking nonstop about how famous he is and how many autographs he has signed. He even told me that someone was trying to sell his autograph on eBay. As we arrived at Starbucks, someone approached and asked, ‘John Juanda, can I have your autograph?’ Phil immediately went from talking nonstop to complete silence for the next five minutes. I think he was in disbelief that someone would recognize me and not him.”


Doctor Juanda


When asked about his hopes and dreams, John revealed that he always wanted to be a doctor to help people.



“I’d like to someday be a doctor in a third-world country. I know I’ll never be able to make the money I make now, but it’s a childhood dream. In many of the less developed countries, such as Indonesia, there’s no health care system. If you ever get ill, you’d better have money, unless you have access to a doctor who’s willing to provide care for little or no payment. Actually, there are more of these types of doctors than you might think, and hopefully someday I will become one of them. If I don’t become a doctor, I am going to do the next best thing. My little sister, Sally, has come to live with me, and I am putting her through school, and she wants to go to medical school.


“I was going to quit poker this year and go to medical school. But the way poker is now, it’s hard to walk away. I was ready, but now it is so exciting with the huge prize pools. I just love the competition. The money comes and goes, but the competition is what keeps bringing me back. So, I am going to give myself just a few more years of playing poker.”


Perhaps someday, the young Indonesian boy who mumbled English will have to listen and observe for another reason; after all, doctors cannot cure without listening and observing, which are two of John’s greatest skills.