Poker pro Faraz Jaka reveals how he learned to humanize the poker greats
When I started playing poker at 19-years-old, I was a sophomore in college and ignorance was bliss. It was pure chance that I discovered Texas hold’em.
A couple of kids who occasionally ran a game in my dorm invited me to come play a few times. I didn’t watch poker on TV, I didn’t read online forums and I certainly didn’t know the names of any poker pros, aside from maybe Doyle Brunson.
Yet only a few months later I was playing online heads-up matches for $10,000 buy-ins.
Over a six month period I played for hours each day, often until 5 a.m., battling players I didn’t know, my bank roll fluctuating between $30,000 and $175,000. Admittedly, I was young and dumb. I was playing out of my bank roll and probably out of my league. But I did have one advantage. My fearless ignorance.
Sometime later, as I began to hang with more poker players, I remember talking to one of my friends. He was going on and on about the top online players. Two of the names he mentioned sounded familiar:” Zweig” and “Crazy Horse”.
“I used to play against those guys” I said.
“What?!?” he exclaimed. “Do you know who those people are?”
A couple of Google searches revealed that I had been playing against Prahlad Friedman and Ram Vaswani, unbeknownst to me, two of the most feared and dominant online players out there. At that time, Friedman had already won a WSOP bracelet and Vaswani was coming off a World Series with three final table appearances.
“Holy shit,” I remember thinking. Those guys weren’t that special. Yeah, they were good, but I felt like I was on their level. There were definitely times when I felt I had an edge and was able to figure them out. Of course, because they’re good players, they were able to adjust, but the bottom line is I was able to hang in with them.
Eventually the high-stakes games caught up to me and I went bust. Thinking back, I can say, while what I was doing may have not been profitable in the short run, playing against those players, winning all that money and then losing it all was worth it in hindsight. In the long term it gave me an asset: a giant pair of balls.
More importantly it taught me the lifelong lesson that everybody, including poker greats and celebrities, are still human. When people are human to you, you don’t fear them, whereas when you view them as superhuman, legends or poker gods, you’re letting your imagination get the best of you.
I remember being in college and flying out to Vegas to play at the Bellagio with my friend Ben Lefew, plopping down at a $25/$50 game, and sitting across the table from Sammy Farha. People at the table knew who he was and he was definitely taking advantage of that. I saw him talk some guys into making bad moves, people who were scared of him, fearful that they couldn’t compete simply because Farha was a big name.
As for me, I used that to my advantage, pretending I was the young, dumb, star-struck kid at the table who allows himself to be intimidated and gets frustrated when he realizes he’s in over his head. I would pretend to get angry, pretend to play scared, and all the while patiently wait for my spot. Being unknown can be a huge advantage if you have the nerve and the wherewithal to stick to your guns and play ligne gratuitement smart.
Nowadays, the shoe is on the other foot. Often, I’m the known one at the table getting gunned at by people who remember my name or face. I’ve played in games with everyone, from Daniel Negreanu to Nelly. I’ve grabbed lunch with Phil Hellmuth and chopped it up with Don Cheadle. And the more I get to know these people, the more they become my peers and the more human they become to me. I revere them less and respect them more.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m the best. All I’m saying is that no matter who you are, there are going to be players who you can’t figure out. Just because someone has more bracelets than you, more titles than you, and more fame and money than you, it doesn’t mean you don’t have certain edges on them at the poker table.
Everybody has weaknesses and I’m open to the idea that I could be anyone’s kryptonite. That’s why I’m never intimidated during a poker game.
As for young players, my advice is to take everything you read online or see on TV with a grain of salt. Whatever it is, it cannot be the tell all. Don’t give too much credence to the forums and the blogs and everything that surrounds the game. Just go out there and play. After you’ve experienced a little success, then come back and learn a little more. Then again, maybe I’m just biased, because that’s how it worked out for me.
Be a fan, but don’t be too big a fan. You might be gunning for those same people someday soon. I truly believe that the best style of poker is the style the rest of the world isn’t playing, because that’s what is going to differentiate you and make you harder to play against. So don’t show too much reverence and do what you need to come and battle. I’ll be waiting.