EPT11 Prague: The return of Jonathan Wong
What were you doing eight years ago? The world was a very different place in 2006. Saddam was still alive; Gnarls Barkley's Crazy was selling like hot cakes and we were flooding to the cinema to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Italy won the World Cup, George Bush was the president of the United States and the Nintendo Wii hit the shelves. The one billionth song was purchased from Apple iTunes (running total now more than 25 billion) and Pluto lost its status as a planet.
But if eight years is a long time in the real world, it is the equivalent of decades in the poker world. In 2006, Jamie Gold won the biggest ever World Series Main Event, defeating a field of 8,773 to win $12,000,000. Other bracelet winners that year included: Rafe Furst, Mark Vos, Max Pescatori, Sam Farha, Allen Cunningham, David Pham, Mats Rahm and, inevitably, Phil Hellmuth. Perhaps the Poker Brat could hold a "Where are they now?" reunion special for the class of 2006.
In Europe, 2006 was straddled by seasons two and three of the EPT. Victoria Coren Mitchell won her first title, Phil Ivey was denied by Bjorn Erik Glenne and Ram Vaswani came close to winning a second title...which brings us nicely to Jonathan Wong.
Wong was 21 years old in 2006 when he finished fourth in the Irish Open. He was a feared cash game player and a rising star. But then he all but disappeared from the poker scene. There were sporadic cashes here and there, but, after a breakout year in 2006, his highest total of cashes for a calendar year since is $22,138 and the ledger is entirely blank for 2011-2013.
But now the 30 year old is back on the tournament scene and deep, very deep, in the EPT Prague Main Event. But where did he go?
"In 2006-07 I was a huge online player, playing as high as $200-$400 mainly heads-up no-limit hold 'em," he said. "I played against Johnny Lodden, Rory Matthews, Prahlad Friedman and Ram Vaswani. My biggest win in a week was around $500,000 and my biggest loss around half that."
The limelight was not for Wong though. "I don't really like a lot of attention and I was 21 at the time," he said. "I got a bit carried away with it all and in 2008 I had a big downswing, mainly due to personal issues and things outside of poker which led to me taking a break from poker for quite a few years."
Wong is now 30 and able to reflect on what went wrong. "I was a bit of a degenerate really," he said. "Players from back in that era will know I had some gambling habits so the break wasn't so much a break from poker but a break from gambling. I tried my hand at other things, I tried trading for a little while, I ran a business but ultimately I've come back to poker especially in the last couple of years."
And Wong's outlook on life has changed a lot since he's been away from the scene. "When I went broke in 2009, I was now a father so I had to get some kind of secure income," he said. "I worked for six months in recruitment and it really helped me realise what hard work was all about and the value of money. In poker terms all my money was won from cash games, I had one big score in a tournament, but I didn't appreciate the value of money because I was gambling cash all the time."
Unfortunately for Wong his return to poker comes tinged with a lot of sadness. "About two years ago, my father became ill with cancer and I spent a lot of time at home looking after him and I took up poker again at that time and began to refocus on it," he said.
On his return to poker Wong took to what he knew best - cash games - and indeed Prague is only the second tournament he's played in the past two years. Given his long absence from the tables he's as well placed as anyone to comment on the changing nature of poker.
"The games changed completely, online especially," he said. "It's a lot harder, so much harder. Not so much in terms of the games being beatable, there's just a lot more levelling involved. There's also a lot of players who spend their time grinding and are happy to win a very small ratio of what they're putting in. Just grinding long hours, playing like robots. Obviously there's a way to play them."
And Wong takes a different approach when he plays online. "I try and play a small number of tables, heads-up or short-handed. I'd still say I'm a heads-up specialist, although I do like short-handed ring games too."
So can we expect to see Wong taking on the best of the best in the nosebleed games again soon? "I have no intention of trying to get back to the highest levels where I once was," he said. "When I was younger I had a huge ego and I wanted to be the best online poker player there was. Now I just realise it doesn't make too much difference to my life, I just want to make a living. It's not about playing Johnny Lodden heads-up at 200/400 like I was doing multiple times a week. I'm far more disciplined than I was."
As he freely admits, he was never really that interested in tournaments. Indeed his reasons for being in Prague, playing only his second tournament since returning to poker, are to do with his father and again marked with sadness.
His first tournament of this year was the Autumn Classic at the Hippodrome Casino in November.
"Basically on the day that I cashed in The Hippodrome, my dad actually passed away," he said. "I found out when I was the chip leader at the final table. I was devastated and obviously left straight away. After the funeral and a few weeks had passed I said to myself that I was going to play the next big poker festival and I didn't care where it was. I saw him suffer for a very long time and I will certainly be donating some of my winnings from this tournament to Cancer Research."
But despite his cash game background Wong says that even when it comes to tournaments he can see how much poker has changed. "Tournament players these days are very different too. On a break yesterday a Hungarian guy who was in the tournament came up to me and he said to me: 'Are you a tournament player?' and I said, 'No not particularly.' And he told me, 'I can tell by your pre-flop bet sizing.' I was opening to 3.5x, sometime 3.2x and that was standard when I was playing tournaments in 2005-2007. Nowadays it's all min-raising, it's not my style. I do understand why it's done - a lot of my friends do it - so I know how they think. It allows me to play back against it. I find it effective in winning bigger pots. The Hungarian guy also said to me that he was finding it quite hard to play against because you rarely see it these days."
And Wong's style has another benefit. "By making it 3x or 4x I think it makes people think I'm a bad player and while I don't want to give away any of my game plan that's what I'd like them to think. Yesterday I had no real hands or spots so I really just picked on min-raises to survive. Especially given my image, I don't open too much, it's really hard for them to play back when I make big three-bets."
In the opening level of today Wong found himself in what you'd think would be quite an awkward spot. He was out of position to Vanessa Selbst, but it was a challenge Wong relished. "I quite liked having Vanessa on my left, she's actually helped me," he said. "We really only played one big pot, I opened K-Qo to 70,000 - which was a big pre-flop raise - she called and the big blind called. The flop was king-ten-three with two spades and I smashed in 130,000 and she made it 290,000. There's very few hands she can have there that are beating me, threes and maybe king-ten. I don't mind if she's got the flush draw so I shoved on her and she folded. She's been playing a lot of pots with David (Davidi Kitai) who I'm told is good."
The fact that Wong has no idea who Kitai is nicely encapsulates the way the poker world has changed in the last eight years. There were no Triple Crown winners in 2006 and indeed we barely knew what a Triple Crown was. "It's a completely different era back then and the thing that cost me was my discipline, I'm older and wiser now," he said.