It’s hard to imagine, but if Faraz Jaka, the reigning World Poker Tour Player of the Year, had lost $20 more in a dorm-room card game some years ago, you never would have heard of him. That’s right, one of the most exciting and talented young players in poker was down to his last Andrew Jackson. But more on that later.
Articulate and fun, Jaka puts on a show every time he plays. But he’s not just about poker. If you had asked him a decade ago what he wanted to be when he got older, his answer then is the same as it is today … an entrepreneur. The 25-year-old phenom started playing cards while attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The San Jose, Calif., native had starred in track at Piedmont Hills High, once running the mile in 4 minutes, 29 seconds. There were scholarship offers, but he chose business school instead. His decision to attend Illinois was a bit “random,” but he wanted to expand beyond what he knew as a child.
“I was beginning to mature into the person I wanted to be and sometimes it is hard to express the new you when you are surrounded by people who knew the old you.”
This is Faraz Jaka, a never weary traveler with a healthy curiosity about positive energy, people, places and business.
He began playing $10 capped no-limit hold’em with 10-cent and 25-cent blinds in the student dorms. “At the time I didn’t even know what Texas Hold’em was. I had never heard of it. After a few weeks I was down $180 and that was a lot of money to me,” he said with a laugh.
One morning, in an elevator on his way to class, Jaka gave himself an ultimatum. If he lost another $20 in the dorm game he was swearing off poker forever.
“I thought poker might not be for me. I remember giving myself that lecture in that elevator. And for whatever reason from that point on, I went on a huge run.”
His competitive side took over and he began playing in bigger games in Champaign. It was during these times he saw an advertisement for Royal Vegas Poker online. Faraz was drawn to a Royal Vegas promotion that offered to pay your college tuition if you won a freeroll tournament.
“I never did play that freeroll. I began to deposit $25 at a time and before you know it I was buying in for $500 deposits.”
Jaka started off at Royal Vegas by taking $500 shots at $25-$50 NLHE cash games. It didn’t work. He switched strategies and began to grind $1-$2 and $2-$5 no-limit games. Within a few months, he built a $15,000 bankroll. He then returned to the $25-$50 one night and doubled his bankroll. He continued like a madman at even higher limits and within a week Jaka would win $175,000.
But this happy story takes a sorted twist.
Jaka lost it all. Looking back he says it was bound to happen at the high-stakes poker he was playing, with the bankroll he had. Going broke was depressing and Jaka took a semester off to regroup. A counselor told him not to play poker, but eventually fell back into the same routine upon returning to school. He gave up on cash games and began to play single-table tournaments. Faraz moved on to multitable tournaments and up the buy-in ladders.
“It was very hard to play $10 SNGs online after playing $100-$200 no-limit cash games,” he said. “Tournaments made it easier for me to avoid tilt and my bankroll management improved.”
By 2007 he had become one of the top-rated tournament players online. Some of his scores that year included winning the Sunday Warm-up and Sunday Mulligan on PokerStars, Full Tilt’s $1K Monday and the Ultimate Bet $200K. Faraz graduated from Illinois with degrees in economics and business. His father, a businessman, became more accepting of his son’s chosen path. Faraz explained terms such as return on investment, bankroll management and variance to his father, who then understood the business side of poker.
During this interview Jaka couldn’t stress enough the importance of an education. He also talked about how he loves traveling the world, saying he was “homeless” for 18 months, traveling Europe and playing EPT events after graduating college.
When did you know for sure you were going to be a professional poker player?
“Poker took over by my junior year in college. It was tough to focus on school, because you are making so much money. I knew for a fact at this point I (would) not be getting a job when I graduated. The thing that keeps you motivated in school is fear. The fear you won’t graduate and end up on the streets. Poker made that fear go away for me and there are a lot of successful poker players out there who didn’t finish college. I am very happy I did. I notice a big maturity difference between people I know who finished college and those who did not. That’s the big part of the whole experience of school. It’s not just education; it’s knowing how to mix and mingle with people, how to deal with their issues and how you learn to effectively interact with others. A lot of poker players who didn’t finish college are lacking these skill sets.”
Describe the year and half playing and traveling Europe.
“I didn’t have a home or apartment during this time. It was this revolving cycle of spending two or three months in Europe, home to Chicago for a week, on to San Jose for a week and back to Europe for an event. I like to live like a baller during tournaments, staying at nice hotels to be comfortable for the poker, but between events I live like a pauper. I crashed at friends, family and friends of friends. After the EPT event in Prague, I stayed with a family in the Czech Republic introduced to me by a friend of a friend of a friend, who just happened to study at the University of Illinois. I had never met this exchange student or the family previously and really enjoyed the whole experience.”
He went to the World Series of Poker in 2009 and finished in the money four times for more than $435K. His best finish came in Event 56, the $5K six-handed event in which he finished third. His biggest breakthrough would come a few weeks later at the WPT’s Bellagio Cup. He finished runner-up to Alexandre Gomes and cashed for more than $700K. That final table included Erik Seidel, Justin Smith and Alec Torelli. Jaka’s presence made for good television and he would go on to make another WPT final table in December. This time it was at the Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Poker Classic. He finished third for nearly $600K.
Tell us about winning WPT Player of the Year and appearing on televised final tables.
“The exposure was huge for me and deep down, I always felt like I would be good on television. I like to keep it interesting at the table and I am really big on etiquette. I am respectful of others and take pride in the fact that I can be goofy, dress up or talk a little smack at the table and still keep it respectful. I was very disappointed not to win the Bellagio Cup. You really should not feel good about anything less than a win, and after the Five Diamond my friends told me I was in first place in the standings for WPT Player of the Year. I had never given player of the year any thought before someone else brought it to my attention and I am very happy, very proud to be the World Poker Tour Player of the Year. It is an honor I will always cherish. I hoped to go back-to-back, but nothing really has happened for me this WPT season. It is just a matter of time before things heat back up for me. It is just variance.”
In April 2010, Jaka was playing in the North American Poker Tour bounty event at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Faraz eliminated Daniel Negreanu and when the event aired, some poker fans felt as though Negreanu was a bad sport toward Jaka. In the elimination hand, Negreanu held A-9 offsuit, went all-in and Jaka called with J-6 suited. Jaka flopped two pair, turned the full house and Negreanu was drawing dead.
Did you feel insulted by Negreanu’s needling?
“This is the most popular question I have been getting. I really want to answer this because there have been some misconceptions. First let me say, we are great friends and I know Daniel meant no harm by any of his comments. Second, the editing was a bit misleading. It appeared Daniel was saying “Jaka Jaka” all the time. It just wasn’t like that. After we finished filming, Daniel told me he kept saying Jaka Jaka because he thought it was catchy. He told me he hoped it caught on and thought it would be good publicity for me. Honestly, I kind of liked it, too. Jaka Jaka has a nice ring to it and with all the attention this has gotten, Daniel was right, but not for the reasons we thought. Later he came to me and tried to apologize. He said people were saying stuff, blah, blah, blah, and I just stopped him mid sentence. He doesn’t owe me an apology. We’re friends playing the game, having fun and talking smack. All the stuff I said to him didn’t make the telecast and it just took on the appearance that Daniel was picking on me in a one-sided way.”
During a different NAPT event in 2010, Jaka made a call on the river with nine-high (no pair) and was right. The call became “The call heard ’round the poker world.”
“My opponent was a complete unknown to me. My read on him was he was not a strong player. This is all I knew about him.”
Jaka had opened for 2,000 under the gun and was called in two places. The flop came --. Jaka led out for 5,200 and was called once. The turn brought the . Jaka again led for 5,200 and was called. The river was the . Jaka checked and his opponent moved all-in. Jaka was a bit apprehensive about sharing what goes on in his mind, but he agreed to share his inner thoughts on this call.
“Faced with a bet on the flop in the recent past, my opponent would simply fold or go all-in. All of a sudden, this time he just called. I felt he did not hold an ace, his stack was too short to just flat. The turn was a trey and I bet the same amount as on the flop. I sized the bet to force him to fold or shove. When he called, I was confident he was on some type of draw.
“On the river, the landed. I read him as on a draw and the flush got there. At this point I thought about representing I had made the flush, but I check and considered the fact that he may be on a busted straight draw. A draw I may beat in a showdown. My opponent went all-in and I was still reading him as weak, but I really couldn’t beat anything either. I began to think about the draws he may have missed. I then put him on the straight draw. There were a couple straight draws and gutshots I could beat. If he had the ace, he would check behind on the river, happy to go to showdown.
His whole vibe was very weak and it was flush or nothing. I was getting about 4 to 1 on my money, on a call of 9,700 and was risking half of my remaining chips. What can I say? I was right. That time.”
What about your style of play? Are you ever sorry about a play gone badly?
“I am very careful about what strategies I reveal in interviews. I would call my style of poker high-risk. The way I play is probably the hardest of all the ways to play this game. If you are good at it, this style can be the most rewarding. I play to win and my table image creates situations where players make plays at me. Sometimes I am forced to make plays back at them. When my style gets me in trouble, I figure it is just the nature of the beast. It almost turns into a different game for me out there, but I continue to go with my instincts and live with the consequences.”
Jaka is passionate at the table, but his newest passion is Axis Casterboarding, a company he co-founded in Whittier, Calif. Casterboarding is like skateboarding but on two wheels. It’s an extreme sport with a fast-growing market in the United States.
What are your plans for this World Series and for Axis Casterboarding?
“I plan to rent a house in Las Vegas for 90 days. The World Series of Poker is my favorite part of the year and I plan to grind my ass off this summer. I have an Excel spreadsheet with my daily schedule and like to envision success months in advance. It is easier to make success become a reality when you plan for it. As far as the future of Axis Casterboarding goes, we plan on making Axis a $100 million company. I am a contributing partner in the company, not just an investor. I have said many times in the past, I am a businessman first and totally committed to making Axis No. 1 in the industry.”
— Scotty Clark is Ante Up’s Ambassador in St. Louis. You can read more on his poker blog at ScottyClarkPoker.com.