Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.
When you have written nearly 150 “Where Are They Now” profiles, expectedly some of them can start to run together. Don’t get me wrong, I still continue to enjoy writing about all the players that make up poker, and each individual still gives me a sense of wonderment about how their particular path took them to the top of the poker world. With Jon Finkel though, I can safely say that no profile that I have written before, nor do I believe one I will write in the future, will match the uniqueness of his story. For starters, not many people associate Jon Finkel with poker royalty. After all, if you scroll down to the results section of this story you’ll see he has only ever placed in two poker tournaments, and that it was coming up on five years ago. Regardless of his own personal results, Finkel is largely responsible for bringing an entire group of card players to the game of poker, many of who helped change the way the game of poker is played forever. Throughout the history of poker there are a few instances of people who changed things forever whose names may largely go unnoticed by poker fans, however when poker historians dig deeper when determining major events in the course of poker, Jon Finkel’s name is impossible to ignore.
Jon Finkel was born May 18, 1978 in Brockport, New York. His father, a computer software programmer, and his mother, a teacher, believed in a solid education for their children. His younger sister and he were both gifted students. Unfortunately, starting at an early age, his peers started to make fun of him not only about how smart he was (or “nerdy,” as they would say) but because he was also very tall and overweight, making him stand out even more.
Finkel decided that if everyone was going to make fun of him for being smart and different looking, then instead of trying to change his appearance to be more “normal” he would embrace his “weirdness” and really give his mocking peers something to talk about. He began dressing in all dark clothes, rarely bathing. His hair, which he affectionately called a “Jewfro”, was unkempt, and he usually left it however it was when he woke up. Finkel also started making fun of those not as smart as him, which was nearly everyone. After completing a test, on his way up to the teacher’s desk to turn it in, he would laugh at everyone who had the wrong answers. This didn’t mean Finkel wasn’t hurting inside, and when his dad announced to the family he was taking a job in England, Finkel was ecstatic to have a fresh start.
Finkel, now 15, had a great start to his new school in Woking, England. Attending a private school, everyone wore a uniform, which kept everyone looking relatively the same. However, as time passed, the same taunts started to resurface, and Finkel again was subject to constant insults and bullying, showing a move even across an ocean wouldn’t give Finkel solace from the taunting. One day after another school day of constant taunts, Finkel decided to go for a long bike ride through the city, where he began contemplating life. Sadly, he even began thinking about suicide, feeling that because he was smart, fat, and tall, he would never fit in. On this same bike ride he noticed a store he had only noticed in passing. For some reason he felt compelled to go into the store. It was a game and hobby store, and that decision would change his life forever.
It was at this store that he was introduced to a relatively new card game called “Magic: The Gathering.” The owner of the store explained the game to him, and Finkel was intrigued. Finkel learned that the inventor of MTG had hoped that one day people with a high level of intelligence would be looked at the same way those who can swing a bat or throw a ball. Finkel liked the strategic parts of the game, especially the parts where you had to get information out of only knowing a little bit of the situation (sound like any other game?). I will admit that everything I know about MTG could fit on a very small post-it note, but I do know this game is largely responsible for not only changing Finkel’s life, but many other kids who were traveling down a similar path.
The Finkel family returned to New York when Jon was now 17, and the game of Magic had continued to grow. Over the next few years Finkel went from a player making modest scores on the MTG tournament circuit, to becoming perhaps the greatest player the game had ever known. Also, an interesting thing happened to Finkel because of the game. As he continued to improve at the game he gained confidence. He also began to work out regularly and lost a lot of weight. By the year 2000 he was considered the best player in the game, and had won close to $400,000 in prize money, not including sponsorships. For the most part, Finkel has stayed away from the game since his 2005 induction to the MTG Hall of Fame. However, he shocked the MTG world when he came out of retirement last year to win a tournament, losing only one game in the process. This set off speculation that he would be making a full-time comeback, but as of yet those rumors have held untrue.
Being interested in more money and maybe getting a burnt out on “MTG,” Finkel decided to pursue other money making opportunities. For a while he pursued a career as a card counter, as part of a very large team that ran out of the New York area. Finkel would routinely earn more money in one trip of counting cards than he did in five years of playing Magic. However, the casinos started to catch on, as they inevitably do, and before long Finkel had nowhere to apply his craft.
There is a way to play MTG that resembles a cash game in poker. You play on teams of three, and each team puts in money. The winning team gets all the money. Finkel saw this as just one of the many similarities the two games had when he began playing poker in Atlantic City, not too far from his house. Finkel began playing poker all the time in both A.C. and the underground poker rooms in New York City. Finkel himself had mixed results, but at the same time his brain was turning, thinking of how many of the gifted MTG players could make a killing at the game.
One of the Magic players he had in mind was David Williams. Williams was a few years younger than Finkel, and they had both helped each other out. Finkel helped Williams adjust to the Magic tournament circuit, while Williams helped Finkel adjust to the real world. Williams, being a well dressed, confident guy gave Finkel help, especially when it came to members of the fairer sex. Introducing Williams to poker turned out to be something for which Williams would always be thankful. In 2004 Williams finished second in the World Series of Poker Main Event to Greg Raymer for $3,500,000. Despite finishing second, it turned out Raymer had a backing arrangement for 50 percent of his profits, meaning Williams won the most money (for himself) in the WSOP. A new era had arrived in the world of poker.
One of the believed reasons for the success of MTG players turned poker players is their experience in a tournament format. For most poker players the first time they will ever sit under the bright lights in a nerve racking situation won’t be until they are at least 18, and for most, 21 years old. For Magic players, they are already veterans of this situation - as young as six years. Sure, the cards are different, and the crowds and money are both bigger, but the overall stage is the same.
Magic: The Gathering players continue to make an impression on the poker world. Brock Parker, known on the online world as “t_soprano,” won two WSOP bracelets this year.
Jon Finkel’s complete story can be read in David Kusner’s Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids: How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas, published in 2005.