Joe Sebok

Joe Sebok knows a little about the world of poker. He grew up with arguably one of the greatest players of all time, Barry Greenstein. However, the transition to life as a pro player was not as simple as some would think. Joe’s risen quickly, however, and has made a name for himself in the poker world, with some solid finishes in the 2005 WSOP and a final table at the WSOOP. So what’s it like as a young professional who happens to have one of the toughest critics for a Dad? Read on to find out…
PL: How did you first get interested in poker and when did you start to take it seriously?

Joe: Well, I started getting into poker about a year and a half ago and for me, I never played poker before. I was always kept away from it. Bear (Barry Greenstein) never had it around the house – he was very aware of gambling and it wasn’t something he wanted to introduce to the kids. Which is pretty ironic because he and I had bets on everything: where we were getting ice cream, who’s gonna walk the dog, etc. But it was always non-monetary type bets.

I worked in the dot-com boom and got laid off so many times by the time I was 23. It got to be a rough routine, and so one day I just asked Bear if poker was something I could have excelled at if I had chosen it for a career. And he said, “No question, no question.” So it got me thinking, then I started playing around March of ’04, and it was serious from the beginning. Most people start out for fun and maybe end up making it their career. For me, it was always, “Can I do this for a living?” So I never played recreationally.

First of all, I wouldn’t even say I’m that good at it. I’ve had some decent finishes in this year’s WSOP, and some other little wins, but by no means am I near the top level of players. It’s not something you can do in a year and a half. But it’s really fun. I’m hyper-competitive, always betting on anything possible with my friends. So now I’m channeling that energy into something I can make money at. But I do consider it a job.

The only other person I can put in the same group as myself would be Todd Brunson. Now he’s way better than I am, but we both kind of come from the same background. We grew up seeing the fun part of poker from our dads, but normal poker players don’t live like Barry and Doyle do. It’s not a normal situation, but it has allowed me to get into the same area as Bear and I’m enjoying it so far.

PL: So as soon as you decided to go “pro”, did Bear take you under his wing and start showing you the ropes?

Joe: Oh he sucks! He’s the absolute worst. True to the form in the way he raised me, all he ever tells me is, “Go play and see how it goes.” One of the things is that it’s not easy for these guys to try and tell others how to play poker – it’s just so second nature for them. I kind of look at that like trying to learn to play ball from Michael Jordan. So much of poker is instinctual and can’t be taught. It was frustrating as hell at the beginning because I really wanted that initial advice. But as I look back, it really was the best way, because in the end you have to experience all the sides of poker for yourself to really learn the game.

PL: You mention that you’re not that great a poker player, but you had some great cashes at the WSOP. Were those accomplishments just beyond your wildest expectations?

Joe: Oh yeah, for this year, definitely! I have a sliding scale of expectations. My goal for this year was to cash in an event. Next, I wanted to make a final table. It’s sort of unrealistic, but as soon as I accomplish one thing, it just makes me hungry for the next. I’ve been told I’m a little ridiculous in that essence, but that’s just how our family is. We’re really tough on ourselves and very competitive, and always looking to take things a step further.

PL: There was a famous scene in one of your ESPN appearances where I believe your father (Barry Greenstein) used the term, “brain damaged” about you?

Joe: [laughs] Yeah, he’s such an ass isn’t he? The sick thing about that was for 2 months, everytime I did something stupid, my roommates kept pulling out the “brain damaged.” It’s pretty mean – what he did! And while it isn’t the best form of parenting, it actually works, because for me, it just fires me up more. So when everyone was like, “man, you Dad is a dick, dude!”, it’s pretty much true, but I just look through the comments to figure out what he’s really trying to say.

PL: So, when you started a little over a year ago, did you immediately delve into every poker book and resource you could find?

Joe: Oh man, I was psychotic about it. I went out and read possibly 30 books, every issue of CardPlayer, played continually – it was just nuts. When I do something, I always go all out, and I wasn’t about to change that for this, especially when poker requires every ounce of your brainpower and energy to do well. With my dad, it’s one of those things where you have to shoot high. He’s at the top, so there’s no point in going for anything lower.

PL: You mention reading CardPlayer magazine, and now you’re a regular writer. How does that feel?

Joe: Well it’s funny really. Jeff [Shulman] was kicking around the idea of having a column by a “regular Joe” player if you will. Most of the other articles are not ones that most poker players can relate to, when they’re written by pros that play at such a high level. So we heard about it and it sounded like such a cool idea, just covering the things that normal players go through – finishing on the bubble, getting your ass kicked in a cash game. I mean can you imagine Phil Hellmuth writing an article about how he got his ass handed to him in a cash game?

Everyone who writes in says they love the article and that they can relate to what I’m writing about, so I’m happy that people are responding to it that way.

PL: So how much are you getting recognized now around town?

Joe: It’s funny actually, it didn’t really start until I came to Vegas for this event [the Festa Al Lago], when I got my first autograph and picture requests. So I was like, “Whaaaat??” But then you get used to it, and of course when it’s a cute girl, it’s a lot better.

PL: One of your cashes was in a NL Holdem rebuy event, where Barry also finished 7 th . How do you change up your strategy in a rebuy tournament vs. a regular freeze-out?

Joe: I don’t think I change my strategy all that much. People tend to play so crazy and chaotic in rebuy events, that I find if I just sit back, I can slowly pick them off.

PL: So you don’t subscribe to the other theory, where you want to feed the bad players your chips, so you can get them back later on.

Joe: Well, at this point, I’m not 100% sure whether I’m one of the good players or not…[laughs].

PL: Which do you prefer, live games or online?

Joe: Definitely the live game. It’s just so much more fun to sit around and talk to people, see their reactions. The interactive element always wins out for me.

PL: You recently moved back to L.A. Do you play a lot in their casinos?

Joe: Oh yeah. Los Angeles has become like Vegas when it comes to poker. It might even be a little hotter, if that’s possible.

PL: We’ve always heard the games in L.A. are just super crazy – is that true?

Joe: Oh yeah, it’s absolutely nuts! It’s made me want to play mostly no limit, because limit just makes you want to rip your head off. You might end up eking out some money, but you have to go through tons of headaches to get there.

I was in a 5-way pot once that was capped. And it got down to heads-up on the turn, and there was a flush draw out and I had a set of aces. I said, look I’m gonna show you my set, and I did, and he still called and hit his flush on the river for a massive pot. L.A. definitely lives up to its name as a crazy poker town.

PL: You’ve played both the WSOP and the WPT. Do you prefer one over the other based on structure, field, etc.?

Joe: I personally think the WPT is tougher competition, because it’s not as watered-down as the WSOP, which has players of all levels from all over the world. So I like the World Series better because it’s a bit easier, and I’ve had more success there. As far as the structures, I don’t really sweat those as much. I usually prefer the shorter rounds, just because it keeps the action moving, but of course longer rounds are more popular with the pros as they favor the skill factor more over luck.

PL: A lot of pros don’t like the way the WPT rushes players through their final tables…

Joe: Well, I’ve never made one of those tables, but I can say that I much prefer the classic 9-handed final tables used in the WSOP as opposed to the short-handed ones in the WPT.

PL: So what is your favorite game right now?

Joe: I love PL Holdem. It has all the aspects of Limit, which is good because you can’t just shove people out of every hand, but it takes away a lot of the chasers, so it’s a great combination of the two.

PL: When you first started out playing, what was your style like compared to today?

Joe: Well, I’ve always been super competitive and very aggressive, so when I started, I wasn’t used to losing. Chip Reese, whom I learned a lot from, told me that there is a lot of losing in poker and you have to be able to handle that side of the game. So I had to reign in my competitive streak and stop getting into situations where I couldn’t let hands go, arguments with players, just basic immature stuff that a lot of starting players do.

The mental aspect is the toughest part of the game – reigning in your emotions and controlling yourself. People ask me a lot about Bear’s book, “Ace on the River”, and really it’s not for me because it’s all about the mental aspect and controlling your psychological side. But I needed more card playing tips when it came out – it’s just a very different book that wasn’t marketed well. They called it an “advanced poker guide” when it’s not really that at as it is a great insight into what goes on in the minds of solid players. So a lot of people may have been let down when it didn’t live up to what they expected.

PL: During the WSOP, I headed over to the Bellagio and watched some of the “big game” with Johnny World Hennigan, Lyle Berman, your Dad, Gus Hansen, etc. I asked your dad what gave him more satisfaction this year – his WSOP success, or yours. What do you think his answer was?

Joe: He probably said that he’d much happier to see me do well, but every time we take, he tries to take the focus off of poker. I know he’d rather see me win a tourney than him.

PL: He did say he was very proud of how you were doing and, well, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but that he’d like to see you do something “productive”.

Joe: Right, right – to him, poker is not something productive. Being a star and living that life is not all that to him. He’s such an off-the-charts genius who was going to do all these great things like cure a major disease, become a teacher, etc. So poker doesn’t even come close to ranking with these things, and I can see where he’s always come from.

PL: I noticed you have a pretty extensive iPod list on your webpage. What are you listening to these days at the poker table?

Joe: When I play, I usually try to listen to classical music, or something else mellow and calming. During that first PL final table at the WSOP, I was sooo nervous, and I ended up listening to David Gray’s album “Ladder”. I played it over and over and over again, and it really put me into a relaxed state for that table. So while I do listen to harder stuff, I go for the soothing stuff at the table.

PL: So how about when you’re not playing poker – what do you like to do?

Joe: Hmmm, it seems like I’m never NOT playing, but I do run every day, I surf every now and then, and basically just the normal stuff to relax.

PL: Ok, the last and final standard question: If you were Matt Damon in the movie Rounders…

Joe: Dude, she’d have already been ON the curb way before that. For me, that whole thing is just way ridiculous. How in the hell does he NOT end up with Famke?? She’s the perfect poker girlfriend, mega-hot, and..well, it just doesn’t make sense. I think I’ll call Matt [Damon] up and have a serious talk with him.

If you liked this interview please consider making a small donation, all proceeds will go toward my children’s college fund, Thanks.

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