Reading John Juanda

It's 3 p.m. on February 4 in Los Angeles -- Super Bowl Sunday -- and while the entire gambling world's attention was fixed on the Colts and the Bears in Miami, one of the biggest gamblers of them all was busy hunched over a cash register at his quaint L.A. restaurant, taking orders, answering the phone, and occasionally popping into the kitchen to help prepare the dishes he holds extremely close to his heart.

"I hope you enjoy. Come back and see us again," says smiling poker icon John Juanda in his blended Asian-American accent to a couple who just ordered takeout from Juanda's newly-opened Indonesian-themed restaurant, Java Spice, in a part of L.A. known as Rowland Heights.

It takes the three-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner a minute to see me standing there, grinning as I carefully watch Juanda think of his customers first, instead of his afternoon interview with Bluff. After all, Juanda had given his restaurant manager the weekend off to go to Las Vegas to watch the big game, and, at the moment, he had a business to run.

"It probably won't be very busy when you come," Juanda had told me days earlier by phone, "so I'll have plenty of time to talk."

But apparently word leaked out that Juanda would be in town this particular weekend, and customer after customer filed in, some just wanting food, others using the opportunity as an excuse to glimpse and greet one of the poker world's biggest stars -- a star who despite being a huge fan of Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, spent his Super Bowl Sunday humbly preparing many of the same authentic dishes he grew up watching his parents slave over for him and his brothers and sister in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Moments earlier, when I had first pulled up to the restaurant, I spied Juanda standing out front of Java Spice talking to a crowd of people, like a pastor speaking to a congregation of pious followers who were hanging on his every word. The young women in the group batted their eyelashes at his boyish good looks, the men rubbed their chins and listened intently as he spoke, and one old woman even clutched his arm as if he were her long-lost son.

Not inconceivable at all, I thought, for this to be an average day for Juanda.

After all, here was a guy who at 35 years young had won more than $7 million in poker tournaments in a short 10-year career. He held the No. 1 ESPN/Bluff power ranking since the day it debuted four years ago, made nearly 200 final tables and won prestigious titles along the way, all without ever once going broke (it's a fact).

"Sorry about that," Juanda says as he slides from behind the counter. "It's really crazy sometimes when people find out I'm going to be at the restaurant."

And once he realizes Bluff is in the building, Juanda flashes his own smile, extends a welcoming hand, then motions to a corner booth, where he flips through a menu and excitedly begins explaining the dishes I must try.

"I think the food here is really great... but maybe that's because I own it," Juanda grins as he calls out to a waitress, ordering skewers of shrimp, marinated, grilled Indonesian-seasoned chicken, a bowl of the house's specialty soup, and heaps of steaming white rice. "I'm only here probably once a month, but my manager says people call here every day asking, 'Is John coming in today?' or 'When's the next time John will be in town?' And to be honest, that is one of the things I most look forward to these days: coming back to L.A. where it all started (for me), and just meeting and talking to people."

Juanda then paused, before adding, "You can never forget where you came from, you know?"

Which was exactly what I was there to find out.

Soon, one of the poker community's most overlooked -- and notoriously private -- stars began chatting away, giving the public an unprecedented look into a life that even to this day those closest to him don't know all the details of.

Things like why the seemingly mild-mannered Juanda we all know from TV was actually quite the troublemaker growing up, or how he once lost nearly half of his college tuition money playing blackjack in an illegal Indonesian casino. Even the story of how the path of his entire life was altered after accidentally stumbling onto a poker game just a few months before he was set to finish his master's degree and enter the everyday, working world.

So in a broad scope of how life turns out, before delving into anything else, I had to ask Juanda: "When you look around you at everything you have, is it mind-blowing that it's all because of poker?"

To which Juanda replied, "You know, some people are uncomfortable when they become successful, but me, I'm uncomfortable when I'm not. I've just had this drive ever since I was young. I didn't just want to succeed at whatever I did in life; it was more that I just didn't want to fail at whatever I decided to do."

Juanda suddenly noticed the digital recorder I'd placed on the table, becoming quiet for a moment. He then asked in a calm, polite voice, "Do you mind if this is more like a conversation than an interview?"

And it wasn't until I put away my notepad of questions that he began to shed a bright light on why it had taken so long to get a star like Juanda to agree to do a piece like this.

"You know... this is kinda weird for me. Because growing up," he looks at me and says, "I never once thought about being famous."

Well, I thought -- so much for that.

"The Lucky Child"

It's not really wrong to call yourself "The Lucky Child" if, in fact, you are.

After all, a short time after Juanda was born on July, 8, 1971 -- the day he says "The Lucky Child" was welcomed into the world -- his young parents' fledgling new business took off and, to this day, has never slowed down. In a way, had his family not achieved such a financial status as they did in a predominantly-poor third-world country, enabling them to afford John the opportunities he had before poker -- private schools, traveling the world and a college education to nearly the highest degree -- the Juanda we know today would never have been a reality.

So again, it's not wrong to call yourself "The Lucky Child" if, in fact, you are.

While I already knew a certain amount about Juanda (he prefers John, although his real name is Johnson), what I did not know was that he is the son of once-struggling Chinese-Indonesian immigrants. Growing up, he didn't live with his parents, despite being in the same town and seeing them several times a week for family dinners; he grew up under a roof with both sets of grandparents until he was -- get this -- in the fifth grade.

"That was the Asian culture back then. You lived with your parents until you got married, then you moved out when you had kids. So when my parents got married in 1970, a year later they had me, then moved out. But because they were so busy all the time, my grandparents took care of me," said Juanda, adding he actually never had days when he just needed to talk guy-stuff with his dad or have a hug from his mom. "In retrospect, living with my grandparents was probably one of the greatest experiences I've ever had or could ask for. My brothers and sisters knew my parents were trying to make a better life for us, so we understood. Plus, I learned a lot of valuable things that can't ever be taught."

By the time Juanda was ready to enter junior high, those valuable lessons weren't exactly rubbing off. While Juanda was an "A" student, his persona as a kid, up to his teenage years, was drastically different from how the grown-up Juanda acts today.

In short, young Juanda was a rebel -- an Asian James Dean.

"I was always in trouble and pretty rebellious," Juanda says almost proudly. "I have this great picture of me when I was like four or five, and there I am with sunglasses on, sitting with my legs crossed and I've got this cigarette in my mouth, smiling at the camera. I just thought I was cool."
And while he didn't actually start smoking until much later, Juanda did get thrown out of a school or two before finally finding one he could finish.

"I can remember this one time that my friend and I were outside at gym class, and we saw this coach we didn't like, so I said, 'Lets throw some rocks at him. So… we did,'" Juanda says, only this time slightly embarrassed. "Well, then the dean of the school kicked my friend out, but he told me because I was such a good student, I could stay. But I said, 'If my friend can't stay, then I don't want to stay,' and so I went to another school."

Juanda's mother Kurniaty, meanwhile, wasn't exactly happy with what she saw as wasted potential that was going out the window with every throw of a stone. So while Kurniaty started planning for a life outside of Indonesia -- and away from trouble -- for John, Juanda's father Hadi wasn't exactly setting the best example for his son. It was Hadi who brought the gambling mindset into the Juanda household, a mindset John has been able to control immaculately over the years, while his father was simply a "big loser," at any game he played.

"He lost all the time," Juanda said of his father's gambling habits. "He'd bet on sports, play baccarat or Chinese poker, and he was always losing, most of the time because he loved drinking when he would play. Plus, he usually played for really big money, and in Indonesia (where gambling is illegal), the places and people you bet with also cheated you all the time."

According to Juanda, while his mother worked hard, his father played even harder. And it was this type of occasional unstable atmosphere that eventually helped lead to a decision to send John -- who, at the time, was a budding 17-year-old track star at a public school he'd managed to not get booted from -- to the United States. Once there, his mother wanted him to go to college and become a doctor, a lawyer or a businessman.

Anything, Juanda said, but a gambler like his father.

"Somewhat ironic, isn't it?" I asked Juanda about this revelation. But just as he was about to answer, we suddenly were interrupted by an elderly couple who walked over and struck up a conversation with John.

"Hey John, we just wanted to come over and say 'Hi,'" the man said excitedly, shaking John's hand as his smiling little wife stood close behind. "We actually saw you on TV last night, winning that first-ever Professional Poker Tour event. I told my wife while we were watching it that you were gonna win."

Juanda just smiled, replying: "See… I won it because you guys were pulling for me."

Always willing to oblige a fan -- as he would later tell me is the one thing that drives him crazy about certain poker players these days who treat their fans as if they don't exist -- John stopped our interview for just a moment so he could add two more admirers to his long, long list.
My read was getting better on Juanda by the second, and I was pretty sure that by the end of our interview, I might be able to do what thousands of other people -- poker players or otherwise -- haven't been able to do: figure this guy out. It took until nearly a week later to realize how wrong I was.

"You can never have John figured out," seven-time World Series of Poker bracelet-winner Erik Seidel would tell me days after my meeting with Juanda., when I asked him if John had any tells or weaknesses that he knew of.

"But how about this… if you do find out, please let me know."

Twists of fate

Go to any poker website, and you'll find a few mundane paragraphs about how Juanda got his gambling itch by betting marbles as a kid, that he learned poker on his first-ever airplane ride to the United States and then worked as a door-to-door bible salesman to support himself through college before he became rich and famous.

Blah, blah, blah… In reality, while those tidbits are interesting but largely exaggerated, they had little to do with sculpting the poker megastar Juanda has become since wandering into a poker room for the first time in 1996 and discovering Texas hold 'em. Funny thing is, after watching others for hours that day, Juanda didn't take a crack until weeks later --− once he'd checked out, bought, and read every poker book he could.

"I should've framed that $100 bill I used to buy in to my first poker game," Juanda said of the Ben Franklin invested in a lucrative poker career spanning more than a decade. "I just kept winning, so I just kept playing. The $100 bill was the only money, to this day, I ever invested for poker out of my pocket that wasn't a direct result of money won playing poker."

For everyone who reads that, and has also gone broke before, it's tough to believe something like that is possible. But in Juanda's case, it was the absolute truth.

"John is one of the only guys out of all the big-time poker players, who I can honestly say has never had to worry about money," says fellow pro and good friend Daniel Negreanu, who first met Juanda in 1997. "His ability to manage money is just nauseating sometimes. There were times when I would go broke, and I'd come to him and ask to borrow some obscene amount of money to get me back on my feet; and before he'd even discuss it with me, he'd always ask me what happened, then lecture me about what I did wrong or how bad I was playing.

"And all the while, I'm just standing there, listening to him try to nurture me and tell me how I needed to start doing this or that better, when inside I'm just screaming, 'Dammit, John… just give me the $30,000, and shut up already! '"

But long before any of those types of conversations took place, Juanda actually did have a problem with his money management skills, a problem that, up until our interview, he was pretty sure no one knew about.

"I actually got myself in trouble with money when I was younger, and had to lie to my mom to get out of it," Juanda began telling me with guilt in his face and hesitation in his body language.

Turns out, after Juanda's mother and father sent him to the US in 1990 to go to college and earn his degree, they expected him to return and either take over the family business or start one of his own. Juanda originally was on a flight headed for New York to attend Stony Brook University in New York City where he wanted to study medicine, but after the two friends who flew from Indonesia with him couldn't get along, one friend decided he was going to move to Oklahoma, attend Oklahoma State, and study business because it was easier and faster. Meanwhile, the other friend went to New York to become a doctor, leaving John in the middle. In the end, Juanda chose "the easy major" and ended up at Oklahoma State.

Once settled in the Midwest, Juanda progressed quickly in the classroom, also learning skills outside of school that would later become critical to his success in poker. Juanda's observation skills were being honed as he arrived at OSU, because he spoke almost no English when he arrived in the US, he had to rely on reading people's body language just to understand what they were trying to communicate.

"Even though I couldn't really speak English, I did know that we don't learn anything when we talk, even if it is more fun to hear ourselves," Juanda explained. "We learn more when we pay attention and listen. And it weren't for that early experience of trying to watch and figure people out because I had to get by, I don't think I ever would've been the player I am today."

While Juanda dabbled in poker (mostly Friday night, dorm-room five-card stud games) in college, after graduation from Oklahoma State in 1994, he returned to Indonesia and began falling in line with his parents' plans for him. But shortly after he arrived home -- thirsting, in a way, for some type of the gambling action he'd grown accustomed to back in college -- Juanda said he reached one of the lowest points in his life.

"Once I got back home, I had this credit card with a pretty big limit on it, and I don't know whether it was because I was back around old friends or I was drinking a little too much, but before I knew it, I'd run up more than $15,000 of debt at one of the casinos in Indonesia," Juanda said. "Here I was, just graduated from college with my degree, yet I felt so stupid."

The only way Juanda knew that he could pay it off was to tell his mother that he wanted to go back to the United States and get his master's degree. He knew that she would give him $40,000 to go back to school and study again, and he could take $15,000 of that to repay his debt.
"It was bad of me, I know," Juanda said. "But that was the only solution I had to get myself out of trouble."

Juanda then sighed and regretfully added, "To this day, I've still never told my mother."

Juanda returned to US later in 1994, this time enrolling in Seattle University in Washington to earn his MBA, though he knew he still needed to find a way to replace the $15,000 he'd foolishly lost back in Indonesia.

Midway through his time in Seattle, Juanda discovered that Harrah's Casino had financed a new establishment on an Indian reservation about an hour outside of town. He visited during an off day and eventually turned it into his "home." While it seemed obvious at this point how Juanda slowly began his journey into the professional poker world, I still had to ask: "If you'd never lost that money in Indonesia and had to find a way to pay it back, would you have ever returned to the US?"

"Probably not. It's strange, because a lot of things had to happen for me to get to where I was at that point in my life. I still wake up some days and say, 'I thought I wanted to be get into business, or become a doctor, but, wow, I'm a professional poker player." He makes his living playing cards, even though he graduated with his master's in 1996. "Sure, I had my MBA, but I had also seen how much money I could make playing poker, and knew that it wouldn't compare."

And while his family back home believed he was overseas putting together ideas for the next Fortune 500 Company, Juanda was quietly putting together a poker career that ultimately could go down as one of the finest in history. "In fact, it's funny," Juanda says as the waitress clears our plates, "but I never even looked for a job."

"Papa John" and the poker dream team

In any friendship, each person plays a role. And as Juanda's notoriety climbed during the mid-90s among those in the -- then-very-small -- poker community, he found that role within a group of fellow pro players.

"What initially attracted me to John was his personality; that we were two of the only guys in their twenties really trying hard to make it in poker, and he really cared about the game and succeeding at it," said Negreanu, who met Juanda at Commerce Casino in L.A., where John moved in 1998. "Plus, John just got me. And for anyone who knows me and knows how I act at the table, if you didn't get me and my antics, most of the time I offended you, and John never got that way."

Juanda recalled it much the same way, and says some of his fondest memories from poker were the days he spent -- with a group some have dubbed "The Crew" -- traveling the pro tour together and discussing the struggles and joys of everyday life.

"The first time I met Daniel was in L.A., and he just came up and started talking to me kinda fast, like, 'Hey, you're that John Juanda guy I heard about. How are ya? Nice to meet ya.'" Juanda said. "He just had really great energy, seemed sincere and we really connected right away. It wouldn't be until a little bit later that we met Allen (Cunningham) and Phil (Ivey) and all started hanging out. From that point on, the four of us were best friends."

Soon, four of the best poker-playing minds today could be found chumming it up at tournaments from Atlantic City to Aruba, sharing ideas and theories on the game, discussing tells they were picking on opponents and, scariest of all, improving each other's play simply by being around one another and constantly sharing perspective.

"It wasn't really any kind of accident that we all became friends like we did," said Cunningham, who remembers first seeing Juanda sitting at a $40/80 cash game at the Commerce, describing Juanda's chip stack as a "massive pyramid" that was quite comical in comparison to his opponents' stacks. "We were four guys in our early twenties, we all liked poker, girls and sports, so that's all the common ground you need to start a friendship. Plus, I think from the very first time any of us saw the other play, we all truly respected each other's games. And as long as you don't allow jealousy or envy to get in the way, then all you could do was feed off each other."

As for roles, The Crew had plenty of those, too.

"Allen and John were the stable ones," Negreanu began, "while Phil and I were the sick gamblers who would have these wild swings but a lot of times end up broke. We called John "Papa John" sometimes because he always felt like he needed to give us advice when we'd come to him and start telling him how we'd lost. All of us always felt like we had to answer to John when we went broke."

What made Juanda's sermons even worse to take was that most of the time he was right.

"So, if I, or anyone else ever came to John to borrow money, he would say, 'Now, you've got to learn you can't do that,' or 'You should've played this way,' and a lot of times make pretty valid points on what we did wrong," Negreanu said. "Something a lot of people don't know about John is that while he might be a professional poker player, he's also a professional needler. He might seem disciplined and quiet at the table, but he'll jab you to no end when you falter because he can do that since he is so level-headed and cool under pressure. I think that kinda toughened us all up and made each one of us stronger players in the long run."

In 2001, Juanda won his first major tournament at the Binion's World Poker Open in Tunica, Miss., after which he called his mom and told her about the feat.

"She was happy for me that I had won that much money, but I'm not sure she fully understood that I had to risk my own money to get there or how big a deal it was to win a major tournament," said Juanda, whose father passed away in 1998. Meanwhile, Juanda and the dream team were tearing up the pro circuit, each winning a major title within a year of each other. Along the way, Juanda also won three WSOP bracelets, and somewhere in between he met Seidel, who actually is a part-owner of Java Spice.

"John is just the kind of guy you want to be around, if not for his personality, for how genius he is at the poker table. But because he doesn't have a loud, camera-friendly personality, he doesn't get more credit for how good he really is. And that's a shame," Seidel said.

As Juanda's bank account and list of prominent friends grew during his rise, the dream team would, for the most part, stay intact, adding wives and girlfriends along the way. After all, says Cunningham, "We all grow up sometimes, and it's only natural to move on to other things. But for some people, it's like high school, where you say you'll talk to them soon, but you never really do. That will never happen to us, even if we all might be going in different directions now than when we started years ago. But the friendships we all had, and still have, I think will always be some of the most unique ones in all of poker."

Time to move on?

Almost eleven years have gone by since Juanda first considered himself a professional player, and in that time, he's proven to be one of the game's most original characters. His style is unparalleled, his talent undeniable, and his overall and consistent success in tournaments is nearly unmatched among career professional players. But aside from all the success he's enjoyed -- most recently he won the Speed Poker Championships in Melbourne for $750,000 -- I could see from the restaurant and his desire to always be challenged, what would be one of my final questions of our interview: "I might usually ask what you think you would be doing right now if it weren't for poker, or if poker hadn't worked out for you. But I think finding out what your plans are for after poker might be more fitting."

"There are a lot of things that I still want to do in life, and I'm only 35, so it's not too late to still try some of them," said Juanda, who told me his other serious aspirations, aside from Java Spice, still include medical school and then going back home to help in Indonesia, possibly even researching cures for diseases. Juanda then added, "Who knows what I'll do if I decide to stop playing full time. I'm kind of busy right now outside of poker, and I've played fewer tournaments already than I usually do."

And he might already be headed in that direction. He's currently putting his girlfriend Jenny and sister Sally though school at UCLA, as well as investing in a California doctor who has opened a clinic called Aurora Breast MRI of Orange Country that's dedicated exclusively to detecting breast cancer. Plus, Juanda says, sometimes when he plays poker these days, he can't help but look around and get that feeling of been there, done that.

"Some days I feel bored with poker and just really think about moving on," Juanda said. "But that's one of the great things about finding success in poker; because it's now brought to me to a point where I can explore these kinds of things. I mean, how cool would it be to one day say, 'Hey, I helped find the cure for cancer.'"

How cool, indeed.

It's now 6:30 p.m. and getting dark outside of Java Spice. Meanwhile, word is spreading fast that Super Bowl XLI is over. The Colts have won, 27-19, and neither John nor I had seen a second of it. John realizes it's getting late and offers me a ride, while I realize that even though I'd just missed my first big game since I was five, getting to -- for over three hours -- delve into the normally private life of one of poker's few icons was quite the acceptable replacement. On the ride back to the hotel, Juanda told me he was leaving in two days to go back to Indonesia on vacation to have a reunion with friends.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Juanda tells me as we near the Commerce. "I haven't seen a lot of my friends back home in a while, so it should be fun."

I couldn't think of many parting words of advice to offer a guy like Juanda for his upcoming trip back home, except that given what I found out about his history, I could only jokingly tell him that for the sake of his thousands of fans, the countless friends he's made along the way, and all his grandiose plans for the future, "Be careful and stay out of trouble." Juanda just smiled coyly.

"Okay," he said, "I'll try."

While I left that night not sure if I'd ever completely figure out the mysterious John Juanda, I did have one read on him I knew was dead on: While he very well might've been the genuine kind of guy who will never forget where he came from, it was clear he'll also never forget where it is he's still going.

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