Joe Tehan earned an MBA and then headed into the work force to find his entry into a career. His passion kept pulling him back, playing poker. He stands out in the poker world for his humility and kindness, but beneath the surface rages the heart of a lion. His life changed when he won the WPT Mandalay Bay Poker Championship in June, taking home the $1M first prize and entering the elite group of players who have taken down a major title. He cashed three times this year in the World Series and was good enough to squeeze in time for an interview during the Main Event.
CC: Tell us how you got here.
Joe: I was born and raised in upstate NY. For the last three years, I have been living in Las Vegas. I was a student before and I never had a real job actually. I did my four years in college for economics, followed by a Masters in Business Administration. After completing grad school, I looked for some jobs and decided that I really wanted to move to Vegas and play poker.
CC: What are your interests outside of poker?
Joe: I love playing all sort of games. I am pretty competitive and I really enjoy playing cards, board games, backgammon, etc. I also love to golf and pretty much play any kind of sport I can. I like to spend time with my girlfriend and I fly home at least a few times a year to visit with my family in NY.
CC: What initiated your interest in poker?
Joe: My family has always played cards with each other. It was never really poker, but we'd play games together whenever we had a chance. So I always really loved to play cards. I started playing poker in college. We would stay up all night playing quarter poker and a $20 winner was usually the big winner in the game.
CC: What stakes and where did you play starting out?
Joe: During college, I would occasionally make the 2 hour drive with my friends to the Turning Stone Casino. We would play $3/$6 holdem in the casino. When I went to grad school, I found some nearby home games and did make the occasional trip to the casino. I played mostly $5/$10 limit holdem or sometimes $10/$20. By the time I got out to Vegas, I was playing $15/30. For my first 1.5 to 2 years in Vegas, I played primarily $30/$60 holdem at the Bellagio. I worked my way up to $200/$400 or $400/$800 mixed games over this 2 year period.
CC: I play casually at best (I live in Atlanta and used to get to Bellagio maybe six times a year plus other casinos as I traveled but not as much lately. I win there in the $15/30 game, but I've been reluctant to move up to the $30/60 game. You did this as you had decided to play professionally. What has been your approach to moving up in limits since your days of $5/10 steadily moving your way up?
Joe: As for moving up in limits, all I can say is that poker is poker. The chips are a different color, but the game is pretty much the same at literally every limit. Granted the competition generally gets tougher as you move up in limits, but I would say it's most important to play whatever you feel most comfortable with. If you're winning 3/4 of the time (which is a pretty amazing rate), then you must be doing something right. There is nothing wrong with taking a few shots in the 30/60 game, but you have to be comfortable enough with the stakes, and you have to be willing to gamble.
CC: What do you play now (tourneys vs. cash games, online-where vs. live)?
Joe: For my first 2 years in Las Vegas, I was a cash games player only. I'd play online once in a while, but mostly live. As for tournaments, I never played them until December of 2005. Until that point, I had maybe played a handful of 1K tourneys and that was it. Now that I have had some success, I am concentrating primarily on tournament poker.
CC: You had your first cash at Bellagio in April, 2005 in a $1.5k NLHE event. That must have been exciting, especially with players like Marcel Luske, Darrell Dicken, and Jason Lester were cashing as well as you. Tell us about how you decided to play in the event and what it was like.
Joe: I decided to play because it was the cheapest buy-in tourney that Bellagio had. I was taking a shot. I think I finished 22nd, and it was disappointing to play for 15 hours and make 2x your investment. It was a great learning experience though.
CC: What was the rest of 2005 for you and poker, from April-November?
Joe: Just grinding it out in the cash games.
CC: You then had two great results in December and January for a total of over $280k, taking 2nd in another Bellagio tourney and then 1st in a Commerce LA Poker Classic event. Was this a natural development in your skill and approach, or were you working on certain parts of your game?
Joe: ALL LUCK! Ha-ha. Well, I'd like to think I got better as time progressed. I caught some breaks and did well. I know how streaky tournament poker can be but those 2 tournaments are what really got me interested in tournament poker. After clearing the fields of 450 and 900 people respectively, I felt like I could compete with the best players in the world.
CC: Tell us about your play at the Mandalay Bay Poker Championship prior to the $10k event. How many events did you play, including the one cash you had?
Joe: I think I played 4 or 5 of the preliminary events. I only had one cash during that time.
CC: Did you buy into the $10k event, and what was your mindset as you entered Day 1?
Joe: I bought in, and just like every other tournament I enter, my expectations are zero. I just knew that I was going to play the best I could, and hope I caught some breaks. I think that's all you can do. If you enter these tourneys thinking you're going to win everyone you play, it can be pretty disappointing.
CC: By Day 3, you were at or near the chip lead but the last six tables were loaded with great players. Tell us about the last two days to get down to the final table.
Joe: It was nice because from day 2 on, I had a lot of chips. When you're able to get chips, you don't really have to push the issue. You can just sit there and play your game. Entering day 3 I knew there was still a lot of poker left to be played. Going into day 4 I was a bit nervous because we were down to 18 and I had the chip lead. We were going to play down to 6 that day. However, my dad and sister decided that they were going to fly across the country to come visit and I felt quite a bit of pressure to make it into the final 6. Luckily I did.
CC: The final table was a real bear once you got down to Burt Boutin, Brad Booth, and yourself. Booth must have been fine just watching you and Boutin get after each other. He must be a fierce competitor.
Joe: They both were. They are both extremely tricky, and if they think they have the best hand, they'll really put the pressure on.
CC: You lost the chip lead to a big move by Boutin then won a massive pot when you flopped two pair with A-6o. How do you balance patience with conviction when you face aggression like you saw from Boutin?
Joe: That was quite an interesting hand. Burt and I both had near $3M in chips and Brad was a short stack at the beginning of the hand. I didn't want to go bust on that hand and cost myself a couple of $100K in real money. When Burt made a substantial raise on the turn, I really thought he had made a straight. I was extremely relieved when he just called on the river and showed AQ.
CC: Once you were heads-up, you had two key hands that set up the end game. Take us through those two big pots.
Joe: I was not too fond of the heads up structure. There was less than $7M chips in play and the blinds were $80/$160. There wasn't much play at all. It became more of a crapshoot at that point.
CC: You were re-raised on the final hand when you held 9-8o. Was it a tough call, or by then do you basically have an automatic call? And tell us about the flop.
Joe: I've been asked about this hand quite a few times. It was a questionable call to say the least, but it was my first chance to end the tournament, and due to the fact that there wasn't much play heads up, I just thought it was a good time to gamble. If I lose the hand he would have had a slight chip lead on me, and it's back to square one. When the flop came 9/9/10 I couldn't believe it. The turn was an A and the river was an 8, and it almost looked like it was set up like that. A/10 vs. 8/9.
CC: You were pretty emotional after it was over, with Boutin supporting you as you tried to compose yourself. What does it mean for you to win the WPT Mandalay Poker Championship?
Joe: It's pretty hard to explain. It'll change my life completely. I won it on my mom's birthday and she passed away 5 years ago. That just made it extra special. I'm sure she was watching.
CC: Congratulations on your first WSOP cashes. Is this any different than the other tournaments that you've played?
Joe: They're all the same. They're all tough, and take a lot of energy. I've cashed for 4 out of 13 so far, but nothing big to mention. I have a good feeling about the main event though.
CC: What have been the toughest challenges for you personally since you started playing professionally?
Joe: It really takes its toll mentally. Bad beats are tough to deal with. I have gotten to a point where I look at poker as all one big session. I just play the best I can and I am grateful for what I have been able to accomplish.
CC: Finally, what are your objectives for the rest of this year?
Joe: I'd like to win the Main Event at the WSOP. But then again, who wouldn't. I don't really have any set objectives. I get to go play poker and do what I love to do everyday. I can't really ask for too much more than that.