Redemption begins off-line

On Feb. 24, 2006, a post was made on the TwoPlusTwo.com forums about the suspension of account name "ZeeJustin" on Party Poker. The account belonged to Justin Bonomo, a 20-year-old from California. His account was being suspended due to an investigation that found he had used multiple accounts to enter the same tournament. This action resulted in the immediate closure of his accounts and the forfeiture of all money he had in those accounts, an amount totaling around $100,000.

What followed was one of the most talked-about and heated dialogues to have ever taken place in the online poker community. The initial forum post grew into a gigantic discussion involving thousands of posts from professional players, figureheads in the poker community, and everyone else with a mouse and keyboard, all looking to put in their two cents. Justin replied with a statement of his own, one that appeared arrogant and defensive. The response ignited further controversy: It was inappropriate from a player who had behaved unethically in a game in which ethical conduct is so highly valued.

Bonomo was banned from Party Poker and Poker Stars, the two largest poker sites on the Internet; and in the months to follow he all but disappeared from the online poker community, only occasionally appearing through his blog or from the occasional online conversation with another player, which would undoubtedly surface on an Internet forum somewhere.

Fast forward 10 months.

About 2,000 miles away from Bluff headquarters in Atlanta, Bonomo was sitting at his first final table of the Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. We at Bluff had all been hooked on the scandal that rocked the poker world nearly a year ago, and we couldn't wait to see how Justin would do now that he had turned 21 and could legally enter tournaments. Justin finished eighth in that particular tournament, a $5,000 buy-in preliminary event. But we didn't pay much mind, as everyone knew from his old online successes that Justin was a top player.

Two days later, there was a yell from another office: "Justin is at another final table!" Now, you have to get pretty lucky to make two final tables, so naturally we attributed this to luck; Justin was obviously running very hot. And I mean, it's not like back-to-back final tables are unheard of in poker. But the weird thing was that these were really tough fields he was outlasting. This particular final table featured JC Tran, David "The Dragon" Pham, Men "The Master" Nguyen, Barry Greenstein, Todd Arnold, and Alan Sass. Justin finished a very respectable fourth, and we all figured that would be the pinnacle of his success that week. Then, three days later, I heard the now familiar expression from somewhere in the office … "Check this out! Justin is at another final table!" It was another $5,000 preliminary event, and he ended up finishing fifth. One week, three tournaments played, three final tables, and all this in one of the biggest tournament series of the year against the toughest players in the world.

The main event was approaching, and we were glued to the updates, waiting to see how Justin would do in this one. Sure enough, as the superstars of poker bowed out one by one, Justin's stack steadily increased, and as had been the case all week long, when it got down to three tables, he was one of the chip leaders.

I was closing up my projects at work and preparing to head home for the day when I heard a bark from the boss' office: "Go to Vegas and do this story tonight!" Within three hours I was on a plane sailing through the pitch-black night with a room awaiting me at the Bellagio. I knew I would be pressed for time and had no idea whether Justin had been eliminated, because I had spent the last four hours traveling, without access to tournament updates. After a quick cab ride and a dash across the Bellagio, I found myself entering the Fontana Lounge and pushing through a mob of spectators. You wouldn't usually have such a crowd unless it was for a TV final table, but this last remaining table of 10 players featured two of the world's biggest poker stars: Daniel Negreanu and Joe Hachem. I was probably the only one in the room not captivated by these two -- instead my eyes darted around in search of young Justin Bonomo. I was relieved to see Bonomo in the No. 2 seat -- he had made his fourth straight final table, a feat that created quite a buzz on the circuit. On top of this, he was to the immediate left of Negreanu, which gave him the best position at the table, since Daniel likes to see almost every flop.

There were 10 players remaining, and they would be playing down to the final six. (The WPT is the only televised tournament series that plays down to the final six players for television taping, instead of nine or 10.) While the final six is known officially as the "WPT Final Table," there is also a final table played the night before that, at which four players must be eliminated to make that final six.

It was a very quiet table; Negreanu was making his usual small talk, with young David Redlin the only player who seemed to be chatting back. Justin was about third in chips, but the blinds and antes were getting very large, and one or two unfortunate hands could mean the end of the tournament for anyone at the table. Consequently, there was exceptionally tight, solid play, which I later found would give Justin a very large advantage on this field.

Most of Justin's online notoriety came from his participation in multitable tournaments because that is where he had been found using multiple accounts; but before his fall from grace, Justin had been well-known as one of the top online sit-n-go players. He played the highest buy-in sit-n-gos on the Internet, and was feared and recognized as one of the toughest players in that community. In a sit-n-go, the tournament involves only one table of play, usually beginning with nine or 10 players, and the final three places pay out. A good sit-n-go player learns to manage a short stack skillfully, as he is always playing with a small amount of chips in relation to the blinds and antes. Having this particular skill set is very important in multitable tournaments as well, especially in the WPT, because once you reach the final table, the blinds move up quickly.

This gave Justin a significant advantage because he knew exactly how to play a short stack, and understood the math involved in all kinds of short-stacked situations. A perfect example was in a crucial hand Justin played with eight players remaining. With the blinds at $30,000-$60,000, Hachem raised under the gun to $170,000 and Mads Anderson moved all-in behind him for $670,000. Negreanu deliberated for a long time, and then finally folded. Without hesitation, Justin came over the top of Mads for all his chips. Hachem folded and Anderson turned over Ad-Th. Bonomo tabled Jh-Js, but an ace came with the door card, then another on the river to add insult to injury. Bonomo was left crippled. However, he had read the situation perfectly. Having played very tight prior to this, he had his chips in with the best hand in an attempt to put himself in a position to win the tournament.

I talked to Justin during the break after this hand and he was incredibly composed for a guy who just lost a hand that could end up costing him a seat at the televised final table and a chance at millions of dollars. He spoke calmly about his play, how he was very happy with his read on the table and how well he had been playing all evening. It seems to me that the truly great tournament players are the ones who can remain composed in these situations and don't let bad luck affect their overall game.

This confirmed everything I had noticed in his demeanor during the hours I observed that table. He remained very stoic, rarely making sudden movements or slumping in his chair or giving away any physical or emotional indicators that might betray his holdings or affect his table image. In this way, he reminded me of Chris Ferguson, who is well-known for giving nothing away at the table.

Justin was eventually eliminated in seventh place, or on the "TV bubble," when he got his Ac-Qc in against Anderson's pocket sevens. Fortune favored Mads that day, and the sevens held up. Justin was sent to the rail with $152,000 for his efforts.

I didn't expect to talk to Justin much more that night -- it was nearly 4 a.m., and I thought he would be feeling sick over getting knocked out so close to the final table. But before he left, Justin came over and had a quick word, and he seemed composed. We talked about a time to meet and talk the next day and then I headed back to my room for some much-needed sleep. I was surprised that he had been so pleasant during our brief encounter. I had these preconceived notions that he would be some cocky kid. But he wasn't. He was a lot more mature and self-possessed, at only 21 years of age, than I would have been in his situation.

To put his misdemeanor in some kind of context, Justin was caught multi-accounting at a time when a lot of other high-volume players were also engaging in this activity. Many players did this so that they would remain "incognito" against the players they faced on a regular basis, and this was especially true for high volume sit-n-go players who would see many of the same players every day. Almost all of the activity on his non "ZeeJustin" accounts was involving sit-n-go play, where he never played at the same table with another one of his names. Justin only used multiple accounts when entering multitable tournaments with at least 1,000 players, knowing that the odds of being at the same table with another one of his accounts were very slim.

"I made a huge mistake, and definitely regret my actions," he said. "If anything good came out of this whole debacle, it's that I learned the importance of thinking for myself, and realizing the importance of being completely ethical at all times, even when it's a gray area. Doing something because all your friends are doing it does not make it OK under any circumstances."

Justin made it clear to me that he read every single post, many of which harshly attacked his character. He took it all very seriously at the time, he admits, adding that the chain of events left him quite depressed. He told his parents about what had happened, and they, too, read what was said about him. It led to a very trying and difficult period for Justin and his family. He quit playing poker for a while and decided to use the opportunity to spend more time with his friends and family, those who cared about him before his success and controversy in the poker community.

I believe a large part of what makes someone a thoughtful and mature person is how he reflects on the mistakes he's made, accepts blame, and uses those reflections to change as a person or, in this particular case, as a player.

This was never clearer than when Justin mentioned the charity to which he donates 5 percent of his winnings. Justin is an active member of and contributor to the Methuselah Foundation, specifically donating his time and money toward SENS (strategies for engineered negligible senescence) research. SENS is a detailed plan for reversing the human aging process; something Justin believes is a definite possibility for the future, with proper funding and research.

I was sitting in my office thinking of an appropriate way to finish up this story. Meanwhile, the Poker Stars WPT Caribbean Adventure main event was taking place in the Bahamas. This was Justin's next tournament after his Five Diamond final table and this particular event had attracted a barely believable 937 players, a huge field for a WPT event. I had a lot of friends in the event and was keeping close track with the updates.

One in particular stood out this time …

"Going in to Day 4, with 16 players remaining, Justin Bonomo is in 8th place with over 1 million chips … "

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