Cliff Josephy doesn’t have any early memories of playing poker as a child. The chip leader and oldest player at this year’s World Series of Poker final table didn’t start playing until he was a 37-year old stockbroker -- and it all happened after he watched the 2003 World Series of Poker on an airplane television.
“I didn’t even know the game,” Josephy said. “I had never heard of no-limit hold 'em before. I was on a JetBlue airplane watching it for a few hours on a flight from New York to Florida to visit my parents.”
Later, when Josephy, walked into his dad’s office, his father was on his computer, playing online poker.
“I used to play hearts on the internet just to chill out late at night after a long day of work,” Josephy said. “That was sort of my relaxation to play a couple of nights a week, but when I watched it on television and saw it on the computer; I figured I’d try online poker.”
Josephy had no illusions of becoming a professional poker player at the time. He was just looking for an occasional escape, and something fun to do when he had some down time -- but that would soon change.
“Things weren’t going well at the firm I was at and they closed down, and I figured that was a good time to make a change,” Josephy said. “I was doing really well playing poker online and I had money put away. It wasn’t like I needed to make money every month to live, so I tried playing poker full time -- and it worked out pretty well.”
Josephy has done better than “pretty well” as a professional poker player. At 50, he already has two World Series of Poker bracelets going into this year’s November Nine, with total live earnings that will surpass $4 million this year regardless of where he finishes at this year’s WSOP main event final table.
ESPN.com caught up with Josephy before he headed to Las Vegas for the final table, to talk about his life growing up in New York, transitioning from stock broker to poker player and, of course, Will Kassouf.
ESPN.com: What was life like growing up in New York?
Josephy: I moved from a social neighborhood where there were a lot of kids my age in Huntington when I was in fifth grade and 10 years old, into more of a rural area in Brookville where I didn’t have as many friends. I guess I became more reclusive and shy, and I found myself alone a lot. I wasn’t that strong socially because I was the youngest in my grade. I spent a lot of my time playing video games. There wasn’t a lot to do.
I remember I took up karate for a year. I spent a lot of time alone. People think I’m very talkative and outgoing, and I am now, but I didn’t have a lot of friends through high school. That changed when I got to college at Michigan and sort of broke out of my shell, but I was very quiet growing up.
ESPN.com: You are also a die-hard New York Mets fan. How did that happen?
Josephy: I was home alone one day and I turn on the TV, and we only had six or seven channels to choose from back then, the Mets were on and I became a Mets fan. It wasn’t like my father was a baseball fan. My father hates baseball. I have three boys, who are 18, 15 and 12, and there’s nothing better than having them enjoy what you enjoy and spending time together at a game. There’s nothing better.
ESPN.com: How did you get into poker?
Josephy: It happened really, really quickly. I saw it on TV in December 2003 and I started playing soon afterwards, in early 2004, online. By the end of March or early April 2004 I played my first live tournament, and pretty quickly started playing a lot online and I really enjoyed it. After the firm I was at closed down, I started to play poker more regularly. I did more than just play; I started a training site and backed some players [too]. I created enough to do to keep myself very busy without playing poker.
ESPN.com: How did you excel at online poker at a stage in your life where you’re a husband and a father of three? You basically dominated the scene in an era where young kids with seemingly endless endurance and time to get better were and still are the norm.
Josephy: When I first started playing, I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea who I was playing against. I didn’t know if they were kids or if they were retirees. I didn’t know anything. All I know is I have two aces in front of me; I don’t know who the other eight players are at the table. As you go along you become more social with these people and you realize what everyone’s about. To me it didn’t matter if I was playing a 19-year old college kid or a retiree, I was just figuring out how they play.
ESPN.com: So when you transition into becoming a professional, how much time goes into playing and practicing and really working on your craft?
Josephy: I was playing a lot because I was used to working hard. I used to work really long weeks working on the stock market, so work didn’t bother me. I could play all day in an office, come home, eat dinner, hang out with the family for a few hours and then I would be on again at night. That wasn’t every day, but it was often. At the beginning I didn’t play on the weekends, and then after it became my career I started playing on Sundays after my kids’ games. I would play about four to five days a week. I knew over time I was going to make money playing poker. There are certainly peaks and valleys, but the stock market had its ups and downs too.
ESPN.com: How did you get your nickname, “Johnny Bax”?
Josephy: Every quarter I was on this investor conference call and I used my real name and I beat them up pretty good about some inconsistencies in their filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The next quarter rolled around and they asked my name and I got hung up on. So I talked to my partner and I said I have to get on this call so he said, “OK, who do you want to be?” And I said, “I don’t know, um, Johnny Baxter.” So I was Johnny Baxter and that’s where it came from.
ESPN.com: What was poker’s Black Friday like for you, and did it ever make you reconsider what you were doing with your life and if you should be doing something else?
Josephy: Black Friday certainly changed things for me, and for a lot of people. I just scaled it back and started spending a lot more time with my family. I had already scaled back my traveling at that point, so I spent more time with the family and played some underground games in New York. I don’t remember where I was when Black Friday happened. It really wasn’t that big of a deal to me. Did it come out of left field? Yes. But it wasn’t that big of a deal in my life. It certainly changed things, but I wasn’t devastated. It wasn’t like I had so much money online that I couldn’t live the next day.
ESPN.com: You are the only player in this year’s final table that has a WSOP bracelet. In fact you have two, having won in 2005 and 2013. What was it like to win that first one, basically a year after playing poker regularly?
Josephy: It was unbelievable. It was my first World Series. In 2004 I was just playing a little bit online and played a few tournaments. I started playing in more tournaments and to win in my first trip out there was an awesome feeling. I was really dominating once we got down to 10 or 12 players. I caught a couple of breaks when there were two tables left, amassed a lot of chips and treated it like it was an online sit-and-go. I just really bossed the table around. It was really a lot fun. That’s when someone was interviewing and I gave out my online name and said who I was. I already had a following online, so I gave my name out.
ESPN.com: You have also been a successful backer for final table participants with Ylon Schwartz in 2008 and Joe Cada in 2009. How has observing first-hand the final table helped you in your preparations?
Josephy: I am still a backer, present tense, but successful would be in the past tense. The business has not been successful at all. But back in 2008 and 2009, I thought I was going to have a player in there every year. Sometimes you have to do the work yourself, I guess. But I think being there in the past will help me know. There’s a really cool vibe in there for someone who enjoys poker. My wife, who was with me at the time, couldn’t tolerate it and had to go shopping after a couple of hours, but it’s an amazing experience.
I saw what it was like. I listened to the noise. I felt the lights. I saw the pressure on people’s faces so I know what to expect. It’s not a distant memory. I feel like it was yesterday. I remember who went and grabbed the beers. I remember a lot of weird details and I think that will definitely help me, but you don’t have the amateurs at my table this year that are going to be intimidated by the crowd. This is life-changing money for everybody, so that could be difficult for people but I don’t think I’m going to have that problem.
ESPN.com: What kind of crowd are you going to have in the Penn & Teller Theater for the World Series of Poker?
Josephy: I had 100 people at one point, but a few have dropped out. It should be somewhere around 100 people. My parents and my wife will be there, but my kids aren’t allowed because they’re not 21. As my oldest kid told me, I can go to war for my country but I can’t watch my father work. How crazy is that? My kid can go to war and vote in this election, but he can’t watch his father work.
ESPN.com: What have the last three months been like for you since you qualified for the November Nine and go into this weekend as the chip leader?
Josephy: It’s been tough. I really love talking about it, but everything is magnified. I like to be the one asking the questions. I don’t get to ask questions anymore. It’s hard when all anyone talks about is you. I’ve been missing a lot of my kids’ games because I’ve been in training and working on my game a lot.
I’m really having a hard time sleeping. I have a hard time falling asleep; I have a hard time staying asleep. I just don’t sleep. But, I still wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love having this problem. I would like to have this problem every year.
ESPN.com: Do you think this is one of the toughest final tables in recent World Series of Poker main event history?
Josephy: Not only do I think this is the toughest table but the one or two guys that people aren’t giving credit to and saying you can pick on this guy are really good. I can’t pick on any of these guys. These guys can flat out play poker. I have my work cut out for me. This is no walk in park. There are no easy spots. I have a very difficult seat at the table. I’m going to have to earn it, and I’m going to have to have the cards come my way also. There are no pushovers at this table.
ESPN.com: Have you been watching the WSOP broadcasts, and do you regret any of the things you said to Will Kassouf, or think that it has being presented in a way that’s unfair on the broadcast?
Josephy: I watched with my wife and my kids. I got so many calls from friends after that saying, “If that was me, I would have slapped that guy. Who is that f---ing guy?” From the trolling I got online, I don’t think the people at home really understood what the situation was at the table. I did not gang up with a bunch of other guys with a preconceived notion to do anything. I didn’t talk to anybody at the table or away from the table about what we were going to do. I didn’t call over any tournament directors. I just reacted to his behavior.
He would just go into some soliloquy, and he’s really only preaching to an audience of one -- himself -- because nobody is listening and nobody is talking back. It was very frustrating. I just want to play poker. I don’t care if you talk during the hand. I don’t care at all. I’m all for talking. I’ve been anti-headphones and anti-hoodies and anti-sunglasses, because I want it to be a social game. I play to have fun. But when you’re talking to yourself and you’re doing it solely for the camera, enough is enough. You’re ruining it for everybody else. We’re not attacking him. We’re defending ourselves. It’s enough. It just upsets me, and not too many things upset me.
ESPN.com: When are you getting to Vegas and what is your general plan in the lead-up to the final table?
Josephy: I’m going to my nephew’s wedding on Saturday, so I’m going out to Vegas on Sunday. I would have liked to have gotten there earlier but my nephew is only getting married once, hopefully. I’m going to be practicing. That’s all I’ve been doing. The flight to Vegas is routine for me now. It’s going to feel a little different this time but I’m ready. I’m ready for the moment.