JT Nguyen's poker experience has run the gamut in the last two years. He went from playing small weekly tournaments at Hawaiian Gardens Casino to winning two seats to the 2005 WSOP, including a Main Event seat. He transitioned from tourneys to cash games and is now moving his way up the NLHE stakes. He's endured his months playing tens of thousands of hands and only breaking even and has made it through these periods. He's always looking forward to A Better Tomorrow, which is also the title of the breakout movie from the 1986 from his favorite director, John Woo. With his steady, methodical progress, JT's best days are indeed ahead of him on the felt.
CC: Tell us a little about yourself.
JT: I was born in Redlands, California and currently I reside in the city of Garden Grove in Orange County. My parents emigrated from Vietnam to Redlands California with my siblings before I was born. I have two sisters and one older brother.
CC: How did you start playing poker?
JT: As a kid, I've always had some kind of hobby going on in my life. I played Magic: The Gathering and eventually got myself into computer gaming like Starcraft. Don't get me wrong, I also played a lot of outdoor sports too. After high school, I eventually grew out of all those things. I knew that I wanted to get into some kind of hobby seriously but I just didn't know what it would be. Prior to the poker boom, I met some friends that were playing No Limit Hold em home game, and they introduced me to the basic rules. Although unfamiliar with the game, I knew that my older brother was a decent tournament poker player. We never talked about poker before, but that home game got me to ask him questions about poker.
CC: David Williams (2004 WSOP Main Event Runner Up) was a big Magic player. Are there any similarities between Magic and poker?
JT: I've heard of David William's involvement in Magic the Gathering a couple of years ago. However, when I was playing magic at the young age, I was not aware of his successes at the time. Magic the Gathering in my opinion is more closely related to poker than any other game because it does have a certain degree of luck involved. To be a great magic player, you have to have a great understanding of optimal play in a situation. Given the cards, and given the situation, a professional MTG player should be able to come up with the best move like a poker game. But more importantly, the best MTG player in my opinion has to have the ability to be creative and to be able come up with new ideas since rules and newer styles of game play are changed every so often (when new MTG sets comes out). Talent as such is very rare.
CC: What drew you to poker?
JT: Competition has always been a part of my life. After talking to my brother about poker, I started playing small poker tournaments at local casinos. The more I talked to him about poker, the closer I got to the money in tournaments. I was yearning for it and I wanted to win it badly. I think that's when I started to read poker books.
CC: Where did you work when you started playing poker?
JT: I've worked several jobs, from a server at a restaurant and to a videographer. However during my poker chase, I was working at the IT department for a mortgage company.
CC: What stakes and where did you play starting out?
JT: I was a student and I was poor. I only played casino tournaments that I could afford weekly. It was the usual Friday night 25+5 limit holdem tournaments at Hawaiian Gardens Casino.
CC: You spent much of 2005 focusing on tournaments. That always sounds glamorous, but it must have been a very challenging time for you.
JT: When the FullTilt Poker software was released, I decided to dedicate my time to playing tournaments online because it was much more convenient than casinos. It was only glamorous when I took down a tournament. However, it was very difficult to make consistent money while playing tournaments and that was the reason why I also had an office job. You can literally go through months without making a single dime in poker tournaments.
CC: You won seats into the 2005 WSOP. First, tell us about playing in your $2k NLHE event.
JT: Poker at the time was just a hobby so it was really exciting to win a seat to the preliminary WSOP event even though it was just a weekend. The 2K NLHE event had about 1500 players I think, so it was absolutely a luck fest. I came in with a pro's mentality, you either gather up a lot of chips and excel far in the tournament or you get knocked out early. I ended up getting knocked out early by Clonie Gowan.
CC: What did you learn from that event?
JT: I've always had the mentality of trying to snatch a lot of chips early in the tournaments. This tournament was difficult because the blinds started at 25/50, so it was crucial to get an early stack. You're literally risking a tenth of your stack trying to steal blinds. Also you're dealing with a lot of amateurs who are calling you with hands like A-10, Q-10, K-9. After the experience, I realized I should've just played tighter in the early rounds.
CC: You then won a seat into the 2005 WSOP Main Event. Tell us how your Main Event went.
JT: Winning this event made my thinking that I was going to become a professional poker player *lol*. I think I was way too nervous and unprepared for the game. Again, I got knocked out of this one early as well.
CC: After playing in the World Series, what did you learn?
JT: As excited as I was for the biggest tournament in the world, I later realized I was not ready for this game. After losing so early in both events, I started to take a step back and think about the game a little more. I had a taste for the excitement when I won my seat, but all of that ended pretty early. I also ended up spending a lot of money in Las Vegas. In the end, I basically came out with nothing but just memories. Afterwards, I went through a sort of depression phase.
CC: You decided to transition from playing tournaments to playing cash games online. What games and stakes did you start at, and how difficult was the transition for you?
JT: This was when things started to look up. At this point, I never understood how poker players made money for living, poker was just too inconsistent. One day, a friend of mine came up to me and proposed an idea on how we can make money playing cash games -consistently. So that's when I started reading more about cash games and how it can be very profitable. The transition was pretty smooth to me because I told myself to abolish everything that I had learned in tournaments. I told myself to just start over and relearn the game. I had a roll from my tournament winnings so I decided to play NL50 and NL100 games to be safe. Every time I went on a tough run, I'd hit the forums or books for more information.
CC: How did you decide to focus on poker fulltime?
JT: I eventually found myself moving up to NL200 and making 3-4k a month playing part time after my 8-5 office job. After a few months of consistent income coming from NL200, it dawned on me that I should quit my job and play poker full time. Especially since my full time job paid me half of the amount I made in poker part time. I calculated that I could make at around 6-8k a month playing 8-12 tables of NL200 full time.
CC: What do you play currently (games, stakes, where, how many tables)?
JT: Currently I am a middle stakes player at FullTilt NL400. I did some 12 tabling at this level but I decided to cut down because there are better regulars in this game. I play about 6-8 tables depending if there's a lot of action going on.
CC: What are the challenges of grinding away at online poker?
JT: Enduring long stretches of breaking even! Telling my buddies that I can't party today and that I have to play poker. I think the toughest thing about playing poker for living is being disciplined enough to play 40 hours a week. I found myself slacking off late in the month when I did well early in the month. I also took way too long of a break whenever I go through tough streaks.
CC: You've had some difficult runs during the last six months. How bad did it get for you?
JT: I'd say the difficult run has been the past two months. Now that I think back, I realized it wasn't as bad as I thought. But of course I did play 65 thousand hands and not make any money. That's about one month's worth of work and no pay.
CC: How did you work through this period?
JT: I took a lot of breaks which resulted in delays. I'd take a day off and get back to playing and still lose. I repeated the step for about a month and a half. During the experience, I honestly thought I could not win anymore. You get to the point where you just don't know if you're playing correctly anymore. You lose confidence and become insecure about your game. Basically, I ended up doing a lot of poker reading and research again. And in the end, I learned that it was just a tough streak - nothing more.
CC: Has bankroll management been a challenge for you? What would you tell others about bankroll management?
JT: I'm a very safe player; I honestly do not want to go broke at all. Therefore, I have never had a problem with bankroll management. Poker books say that you need about 20 buy-ins; so I'd tell myself that I need 60 buy-ins. People have asked me for advice on bankroll and this is what I usually say, "A professional poker player who's had an experience of consistent wins would need 20 buy-ins, so how much do YOU think you need?
CC: Your other passion in life is films and filmmaking. How did you become interested in this?
JT: Prior to poker I have always had a passion of becoming a filmmaker. It still and will always be my long term goal. My family and I have always enjoyed movies; in fact movies brought us to spend time with each other on weekends when I was a kid. It was what we all shared the most in common.
CC: Who is your favorite director and why?
JT: John Woo is and will always be my favorite director. His movies touched me when I was a little boy. Although his movies are known for action and bloody gun battles, there was always something deep about his characters and storyline.
CC: When I've interviewed other players, they talk about having a small group of other poker players that they can use as a support network. Do you have this, or has this been a challenge for you?
JT: I think this is going to be my toughest challenge in poker today - moving up to high stakes. With my brother struggling in cash games and my friends stopped playing poker, I am pretty much alone. My improvements have been through forums, books and poker player blogs. I think I am running out of materials to read, I think that in order for me to get to the next step I have to get involved with professionals that have succeed in high stakes. And obviously, that is quite a challenge. I still believe that there is more information out there, but there is a lot to surf through to find those answers. In fact, I may use some poker money to invest on getting a high stakes coach in the near future.
CC: Many top online players talk about their struggle with life balance. Is this difficult for you, and how do you address it?
JT: I think I am a very different person when I sit at the tables. I pretty much have to turn off my personal life when I play poker to become more careless. Which is a good thing of course, but in many ways it can be detrimental to your emotional health. I didn't realize it before, but now I'm starting to feel it. But it's definitely important to relax and take a break from poker and go out with friends and family. That way you'll remember why you're doing this in the first place.
CC: You've talked about seeing friends who have struggled with compulsive gambling, as well as observing some great players who also struggle with this. What have you seen, and how have you maintained discipline in this area?
JT: I have many compulsive gamblers as friends. Their objective is to make quick money at the casino and run, but if they lose, they try to win it back, which eventually leads to addiction. I've seen friends that are in credit card debt for 20K+ in sports betting. In the end, I realized that you can never help them unless they help themselves first. This is also why I disagree with the Government wanting to ban poker for reasons of people being addicted to gambling. They're going to do what ever it takes to fulfill their urges - even if it is illegal. There are friends of mine who struggle with discipline in poker. My brother, who has great potential to succeed in cash games, also struggles because his poker winnings tend to go elsewhere. I maintain disciplined because honestly I never liked gambling. Gambling has done so much damage to my friends and family that it makes me somewhat fearful. However, I found something different in poker compared to blackjack and sports betting.
CC: Since then, the poker world has been turned on its head with the new Internet Gambling legislation including PartyPoker pulling out of the US and NETeller's recent announcement. What happens next for you?
JT: I recently signed up for ePassporte and I hope they'll be good to us poker players for transferring money. Online poker is shaky as of right now but I believe that it'll eventually be back to normal. Otherwise, I'd have to cut my losses and drive to a casino everyday.