As the cliché goes, ‘you should keep your cards close to your chest’ and John Juanda does just that. In a televised ‘Pro-Am Poker Equalizer’ event, where the table is an equal split of professional and amateur players, Juanda limped in along with Jose Canseco and Sheryl Hines. On the big blind, Daniel Negreanu checked allowing him to see the flop of J♠9♠J♥ for free. Hines with Q♠8♠ bet 15,000 chips and Negreanu with J♣3♣ called. Canseco folded leaving Juanda to calmly and quietly pronounce ‘All in.’ Hines promptly folded leaving just Juanda and his fellow professional and good friend Negreanu playing for the pot. With his voice steady, Juanda asked, ‘You have a good hand?’ His head tilted, Negreanu replied, ‘Yeah, but I think you’ve got the better kicker though.’ Juanda, with a look of innocence on his face asked, ‘You have a jack?’ and reminded Negreanu he was on the big blind. Negreanu procrastinated, unable to read Juanda’s still features. ‘Are you going nuts on a queen, ten of spades? Negreanu asked but Juanda just watched him playing with his chips, the epitome of serenity. Eventually, Negreanu decided to fold. ‘I’ll show you one,’ he said, flashing his 3♣. With a wry smile Juanda returned the favour, showing a K♠ and leaving Negreanu wondering whether his fold was the right choice. The cards went back into the deck with only Juanda knowing that his other card was a J♠.
John was born and raised in Medan, North Sumatra, the eldest of four children. Along with his brothers and sisters, he was raised by his grandparents, both sets, as his parents, Hadi and Kurniaty, had just started a business enterprise in a nearby town. Everyone seemed happy with the arrangement and the Juanda children realised that their parents were trying to make a better life for them. Their parents regularly visited and John was able to witness his father’s gambling and drinking habits and if seeing his losing ways were not enough, he was actively discouraged from gambling by all his elders, father included. However, John was a bit of a rebel at a young age and managed to get thrown out of a couple of schools and even got involved in betting on playground marble games! Despite this, he was a gifted student and also talented runner, favouring 200 metre and 5000 metre races. When John was 17, his parents, having built a successful business called Fortune 500, used some of their money to send him to the United States to further his education. The story goes that John first learnt poker on the flight over to the States, on route to Oklahoma State University to study marketing and management. He played a bit of poker during this University days, though strictly for fun but he did learn a valuable lesson that would be crucial to his future poker career. John’s command of the English language was not so good when he first arrived and because of this he often found himself reading people’s body language to ascertain their meaning. He listened a lot too and has wisely said, ‘We don’t learn anything when we talk, even if it is more fun to hear ourselves.’ This could almost be his poker maxim.
John passed his degree in 1994 and returned to Indonesia to help out with the family business with an eye to start an offshoot venture of his own. But things didn’t go quite to plan. With the excitement of being back home and amongst his old friends, John did a bit of partying. Thanks to his status as graduate from a U.S. college, he had a credit card with a $40,000 limit and drink-fuelled, he and his friends hit the local casinos. With obvious comparisons to his father, John lost and was soon $15,000 in debt with no way of paying it back. Unwilling to confess to his family, John asked his mother for $40,000 so he could do his Master’s degree back in America. He paid off the casino and returned, this time to Seattle University with another important lesson learnt. However, short on his college fees, he was forced to take part-time work. One job was as a door-to-door Bible salesman and that even earned him the Employee of the Month award, despite the fact that Juanda is a Buddhist! Early in 1996, he and some friends visited a casino situated in a local Indian reservation where the local gambling ban didn’t apply. Texas Hold’em was on offer but remembering his earlier experiences, John didn’t want to play. He was intrigued though and over the next few weeks his resolve faltered, though not before he had read up on the game in any poker book he could get his hands on. His first buy-in was $100 and incredibly, since then Juanda has never gone broke. Every cent that has funded every poker game he has played since originated from that first $100 stake.
Juanda finished his Master’s and started playing poker full-time, moving to Los Angeles where the prizes were bigger. In 1998, he began to cash-in in some small tournaments and the following year entered the World Series of Poker for the first time. He entered two Limit Hold’em events, managing a creditable ninth place out of 609 entrants in his first event and making the final table in the next. The late nineties was the time he made mutually beneficial friends in Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey and Allen Cunningham though his superior bankroll management meant he was often called upon to help them out when they went broke. But it was the desire to learn the game from each other that set each of the players up for the beginning of the next century though arguably it has been Juanda who has been quietly the most consistent. In 2001, he won his first major tournament, Jack Binion’s World Poker Open and he chose this moment to finally tell his mother that he was a professional poker player. In the 2002 WSOP he reached the final table in no fewer than four events and also took his first bracelet at Limit Triple Draw. The next year he did even better by winning another two WSOP titles. Since then, he has reached final table after final table though despite coming close, another WSOP bracelet and a World Poker Tour victory has eluded him. His biggest cash earning to date for a single event is the $759,340 he got for winning at the Crown Australian Poker Championship in the Speed Poker Challenge.
John brings his Buddhist philosophy to the poker table and that partly accounts for his calm, unflappable demeanour. He doesn’t get upset when he loses because his ideology teaches him to respect his opponents. This respect is mutual and though he doesn’t have the high profile that some of his more animated, attention-grabbing colleagues have, he is not short of admirers. With Eric Seidel, he has opened an Indonesian restaurant called Java Spice in Los Angeles but rather than just being a sitting partner, he is decidedly hands-on, regularly visiting the place. When people hear he is in town, custom soars and he has the humility to involve himself in taking orders and serving customers with the same patient approach that he applies to poker. He also donates some of his winnings to various charities including cancer research and has put up the money for his sister to go to college. Juanda is a private man who enjoys the success that poker has afforded him but he is still seeking out new challenges. His dream is to study to become a doctor so he can return to Indonesia to practice medicine there. And if his bedside manner is anywhere as calm and level-headed as his poker table manner, he can an expect a full house at his surgery.