An Interview with Mr. Joe Sebok

Last week, Joe Sebok and I agreed to meet for an interview next to the WSOP ESPN stage. After retrieving my recorder, it took 20 minutes to walk back to the other side of the room. It was my fault it took so long, I wanted to take pictures of Amanda Leatherman raking in a big pile of chips playing in the Ladies Event. Then someone said “hello”, we began to chat, I saw someone else, we began to chat, then my purse began to buzz and I continued East.  It also took 20 minutes because that’s how long it takes to walk anywhere inside the Rio.

Then it took a few minutes to start the class=”hl”>interview because Sebok’s fans, including MySpace friends, started showing up for autographs. Actually, the MySpace friends was a joke.  But several friends stopping by to see Joe is not a joke because he’s Mr. Friendly.  He also had to make sure John Stapleton cleaned his buffalo wings off the tournament  table.

The is media life in the Amazon Ballroom.  It consists of delayed agendas, welcomed chats, photo opportunities, non-stop joking around and buffalo wings on the table. It’s really one big summer camp party… except for moments of elimination. Six weeks of 55 events…the Amazon Room can get old.  Yet, Sebok lives this experience all year, developing relationships with people who love, respect and believe in him.

Holding a psychology degree from Berkeley and known as “Barry’s kid” he is often feared at the table. However, Chops, of Wicked Chops, will tell you “He is one the nicest, smartest guys I know in the industry.” So, to make sure Chops wasn’t lying… I asked Sebok to share with me about his success, furrys, media adventures, infamous and famous prop bets and what advice he received from Barry Greenstein.

Michele Lewis: When did you start in media?

Joe Sebok: I started writing a column with CardPlayer before I even got started playing at all because the concept was… I’m going to come in and try to play poker and have the view point as somebody who has no idea what they’re doing. Kind of… run the gamin and see if this person can make it. I did that for a year then got involved with Scott Huff and The Circuit doing the radio show and it’s just kind of gone from there. It just kind of blew up and now we have PokerRoad going and all the Shenanigans that go along with that.

ML: So, you weren’t an official pro when you started with CardPlayer?

JS: No, I was officially nothing. I didn’t even know how to play poker. The concept was Barry’s (Greenstein) kid, obviously everyone knew Barry…well you know Barry?

ML: Right.

JS: And I said “Hey, I’m going to try to play poker, maybe CardPlayer or one of these magazines will find that interesting. That angle of… following a newbie and seeing how that goes with the trials and tribulations that I go through. Unfortunately for the column there really were no trials or tribulations. I was really lucky and really fortunate, I moved quickly, made those two final tables and it was kind of off to the races from there.

ML: Wow, so you hadn’t played at all?

JS: I didn’t play at all. I didn’t know if a flush beat a straight or anything.

ML: Really?

JS: Yeah, no clue. Never had thought about poker, played poker, touched poker… you know, I had printed out the starting hand rankings. I had no clue what I was doing.

ML: So, when you started… did you get Barry to coach you?

JS: Basically the way we started was… well, in my world I wanted him to coach me. You know, I wanted him to sit me down and bestow all of this knowledge upon me and that’s how I thought it was going to go. But in reality he said “You know what? Just go play. And as you play you’ll have questions that will develop through the experience you’re going to gain.” So I played computer simulators, then I soon started playing the limit games at the Lucky Chances right outside San Francisco. Just 1-2, 2-4 (limit) really, really small. Then I would go to him and ask questions “Oh, listen to this hand… I don’t know what I did wrong.” It was very organic and happened very naturally. It was frustrating for me because I wanted it to be like…[using a gruff voice] poker school, lay out all these lessons and explain everything. But I think the way that he taught me was better. I learned from my own mistakes and even though it was more frustrating at the time, it was much better.

ML: Trial and error is always best.

JS: I agree. He knew what he was doing. He pissed me off but he knew what he was doing.

ML: Were you reading poker books?

JS: Yeah, I read voraciously as much as I could. I read all the CardPlayers, Bluff didn’t actually exist at that point. He would tell me to read Super System and Theory of Poker. Literally every single book I could get my hands on. For me it was different because I didn’t know anything about poker. I’m good with people and I’m very good at reading people. But my weakness to this day is card sense and being around cards. There is something that comes from just playing cards your whole life… actually understanding the mechanics of just playing the game… everyone in the big game, almost all of them, have been playing their whole life. Even guys like Phil Ivey, who are still young, they’ve still been playing since they were like… ten years-old.

ML: It becomes automatic.

JS: Right and that, for me, was always the issue, but I did read constantly. And I wanted to get better, so I certainly had the drive.

ML: Tell me about PokerRoad. How long have you been up and running?

JS: About seven months. PokerRoad is, all at once, my single most painful thorn in my side and yet my biggest achievement and I’m very happy about it. I always wanted to own my own business. I guess it was born from… Scott Huff and I used to always talk about …“you know, we should start our own company, we should do our own thing.” And that’s basically what happened… we went through the circuit days and Pokerwire radio… the companies let them go and finally I said “you know what? I’ve had enough, I’m just going to start my own thing.” And that’s what I did. It’s been great; it’s a lot of work. Our number one issue is getting the public to know about us. With that said, we’ve only been around seven months and you know, obviously I know Jeff Shulman (CardPlayer), Eric Morris (Bluff) and all the CEO’s of these companies and they all say the same thing… “You are light years ahead of where we were at the six or seven month point.” I guess in that sense you have to be pretty happy about it. My team is great, it’s all the people I’ve done poker media with and I really feel bless because I kind of have the dream team.

ML: So, do you have a home base or is it a traveling motor van?

JS: Ha, home base is my bedroom in Los Angeles. But we are on the road most of the time with the WPT, the World Series, Aussie Millions, World Series of Poker Europe and everything. Hence the name, PokerRoad, which is from chasing these tournaments all over the place. But Huff and Stapleton stay in Los Angeles and head the project there. Communications are our biggest challenge because no one is ever in the same place for very long. Yeah man, home for PokerRoad is where ever the majority of us are at that given point in time.

ML: Well, if the headquarters are you bedroom… is Gavin Smith (top photo) ok with going to the headquarters?

JS: [Laughs] Oh, Gavin loves it, we snuggle. You know, we have conversations about what we’re going to do on the radio show then we just cuddle up for the night and watch a movie. It’s good stuff, man.

ML: You guys started the prop bets at the 2006 WSOP, right?

JS: Yeah, it was.

ML: How was it wearing those tights?

JS: The most terrible thing was dressing up as the bear. It was so hot; I thought I was going to die.

ML: Yeah and it was really cold in here (Amazon Room).

JS: Yeah and it was so not cold in that suit, it was so hot. I was still doing deals with Full Tilt and I would go in there (Full Tilt Lounge) on breaks, unzip and literally just lay down on dinner (break) because it was so hot. We actually decided we wouldn’t do that again, where the person is actually uncomfortable and it’s affecting… because it’s still the Main Event. It’s the biggest tournament of the year so we never wanted to impede the other’s ability to do well in an event.

ML: After the photo was taken of you in the bear suit, did anyone ever ask or accuse you of being a furry (see Entourage episode 49)?

JS: Ha.  Not yet!  No one has figured it out! 😉  I entrust you to keep my secret forever though!

ML: Uh, sure… no problem, Joe.  How did you two meet?

JS: Gavin’s a fun guy, a good guy and we both like going out so we kind of met that way, we had our prop bet which we set that up at the Atlantis. We were just having a good time drinking, trying to come up with things… one of us was like “heeey, we should do a prop bet for the World Series.” And it was born from there.

ML: Do you ever feel guilty for winning so many of the prop bets?

JS: Do I? No, because he made me dress like a bear. So, I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever feel guilty. Ever.

ML: Well, how does it feel being the Champion Electric Bull Rider from the RawVegas prop bet?

JS: It felt good. I’m not going to lie. All of it, I’ve basically kicked his ass up and down in everything we’ve ever done. Other than the first costume bet or something that is 100% luck, those are the only things he can win. It’s been fun and he’s taken it pretty well. I think he’s pretty much accepted at this point that he can’t beat me in anything like that… so I like to rib him but it’s all in good fun.

ML: Did you get a belt buckle for the bull riding contest?

JS: I did not and I should have. And I’m upset that I didn’t. Hopefully, Gavin will read this and he will make me one because it’s not right. That’s all I’m saying.

ML: In case he read this… what do you want the belt buckle to say? Maybe… Joe or… a big bull?

JS: Maybe Joe and a big bull. A little bit of both. You know, I’m lucky; I have marked him, if you will. I’ve branded him with my tattoo.

ML: Right, it was originally to be on the ass, so he didn’t want to be the ass man?

JS: I guess. It was going to be on the ass, we went to the tattoo parlor and he got a little spooked. And he was like… oh, I don’t know if I can get it on the ass and I was like… you know, I don’t care, just get it where you want. So he settled on the shoulder. I think I would have gotten it on the ass, if I were him; it’s a little less visible on the ass.

ML: Yeah, now he can’t go to the water park.

JS: Yeah, totally.

ML: Does it say Joe or just your initials?

JS: It’s my initials and has a shamrock with a little crown. So, it’s very cute, very cute.

ML: A shamrock?

JS: [Shrugging] It was what he wanted. I told him the art itself was whatever he wanted. It’s a G Smith thing and I don’t know where it came from. I didn’t question, I just let it go.

ML: Do you ever call him G Smith Daddy?

JS: I never call him G Smith Daddy, I do call him G Smith, I call him G a lot and I call him idiot… a lot. But I never call him G Smith Daddy. I don’t think I could incorporate Daddy into anything. It’s too much, it implies that he can tell me what to do and I can’t have anything to do with that.

ML: I asked him the other night why you guys haven’t done a prop bet with loser entering the Ladies Event. He said “Uh, because I don’t want to enter the Ladies Event.” Would you have taken that bet?

JS: Sure! I’ll do any bet with Gavin.

ML: Didn’t he dress up as a woman a few years ago or wear a dress?

JS: Not for me and not from a bet with me. I had to dress like Wonder Woman. But Gavin’s very public; he won’t do bets with me. So, I think he’s afraid. He’s a dog and he knows it.

ML: But now we know you can’t enter the Ladies Event but if you could… would you?

JS: I don’t think I would unless I had a reason. If I had two million dollars in bracelet bets and it was a loop hole that nobody saw… I would probably enter. But I wouldn’t do it just for fun. But, on a bet… I would because I think that stuff is funny.

ML: What if that was your first bracelet? Joe Sebok wins the Ladies Event.

JS: Oh, that would be so brutal. If I lost a bet and had to enter the Ladies Event then I actually won it…that would be the most brutal situation.

ML: So, how’s the World Series going?

JS: It’s going OK, it’s early. The challenge for me isn’t the poker; it’s getting my head out of everything else when I sit down at the table. I think it’s going to be a good World Series… I just want to get a couple final tables and hopefully a bracelet.

ML: How do you… ha, well don’t we all? How do you balance media with poker? You know… feeling like you want to do well with work then transitioning to play well.

JS: It’s brutal. It’s very tough. I’m still learning. I think a lot of it has to do with having people that can handle things when you’re playing poker. I’m not good at that because I’m one of those people… I want to do everything and make sure it’s done correctly… but you have to find a way. It’s the reason why you don’t see Howard Lederer play all of these tournaments. I was chatting with Mori Eskandani, who runs Poker PROductions, does Poker After Dark and NBC Heads Up, and he said he only plays about three tournaments at the World Series because he just can’t do it. It’s like his head is in too many spots at once and it ends up being in effective on all levels. It’s been a huge challenge and I can’t say I’m doing it that well yet. I’m hoping I will improve. I love running the company, I love doing the radio show, I love playing poker, I mean, I love doing it all.

ML: Ok, so tell me something you haven’t told anyone.

JS: I haven’t told anyone…all right… when I was twelve… I broke a… no I’m kidding. Everyone knows… I’m so public about everything, everybody knows I have the radio show. You know, we never pull punches on that show and obviously a lot of people will come after us at different points because of it. But, we shoot from the hip and we always have. I don’t think there’s much people don’t know about me, at least in poker. I live a very public life and that comes from being Barry’s kid and just being really honest. If I make mistakes when I play I say “hey man, this is ridiculous what I just did, this is really bad. And I try to use it as an educational tool either via writing or the radio show. I’m pretty bare, I’m naked to the poker world.

ML: You live in a glass house?

JS: I live in a glass house, man, I do.

ML: What do you do when you’re not working, aside from running?

JS: When I’m not working? Do I ever not work? I don’t think that happens anymore.

ML: [We both laugh]That’s not…no…I should know… that was a really bad question because I know better…when you’re self employed then you work all the time.

JS: Um, what do I do… I used to go out a lot… now I’m getting slightly older… it’s getting tiresome to go out and go clubbing so it’s (life) pretty normal now. I used to go hear live music constantly, I’d love to get back into sky diving, I haven’t done that in a long time. But I think I’m always working, I think in life you go through those stretches where you’re selfish and you take some time for yourself. I’ve been through those times where I travel and I have amazing memories from those times…But then you get into those cycles where it’s just all business. And I’ve been in that cycle ever since I started playing poker where I want to become a better player, now I want to run a company, so that’s kind of where my heads at. I don’t really feel like I need to take breaks right now because I want to be doing this and I want to build up all these situations that I have.

ML: This is the time to do it.

JS: It’s a little psychotic; I probably should take a break.

ML: No it’s not, because you want to do it now when you don’t have kids…

JS: I’ll never have kids so I don’t have to worry about that.

ML: No?

JS: [Laughs] I guess it’s possible. I shy away, I’ve had more issues with relationships so…

ML: You know everybody says…wait, what? Oh, who hasn’t? Get in line.

JS: Ha, that’s true, that’s true. That’s a good point.

ML: Plus, no one is ever ready for kids anyway.

[This is the part where I say something really funny but you can’t hear it on the audio due to the tournament director’s announcement. But Sebok laughs a lot. Which means it was really funny.]

ML: So what’s on your agenda for the future?

JS: I used to play so many of the prelims at the WPT and actually that’s where I’ve had most of my success. I won four or five of those and did pretty decently in the main events… Unfortunately I don’t have the time for that anymore so it’s pretty much just the main events and the World Series, obviously… PokerRoad goes to all the WPT (events) and WPT sponsors PokerRoad. And we try to hit all the big events. But it’s tough, it’s a lot of money and it’s a lot of mileage on the body so… But we will bring people as much as we can before we keel over dead.

ML: Will you branch outside of poker?

JS: I would love to branch out. We have Two Jacks in a Hole which is our comedy show. I would love to see PokerRoad grow.

ML: The Campaign Road?

JS: Yeah, who knows, I would love it, it would be great. Once you get into a business like that you realize how much work it is and no matter how smart you are, if you really are smart, you realize you know so little. And it’s only the people who act like they know everything who really aren’t going to have a successful business. You need to be able to say… I need help, I don’t know this as well as I should.

ML: Continue to be humble.

JS: Exactly… you also have a little personal responsibility to your employees now… so I’d love to get it to the point where they’re making a little bit more. Because it’s a start up and everyone is making a start up salary and everybody is certainly making sacrifices to see it grow… they knock themselves out for me and do an amazing job, never complain. They all understand the situation. So that’s my primary, to get them more, so they feel appreciated. We’re lucky, Barry and I know all the players that’s why we’re able to get people like Phil Ivey because they’re our buddies, it’s a totally different situation.

ML: Do you play for yourself?

JS: Yeah, I do. I did some stuff with Full Tilt. I was about to sign a deal with Full Tilt right as the UIGEA was passed so I got screwed by that. There’s always the huge thing that Barry puts me in everything but that’s of course not true. But I can only deny it so many times and I get sick of having to deny it. But, we do all kind of play together… Barry, myself and Mimi Tran. We have a family-like situation where we just kind of pay for everybody and sometimes I’m paying for their buy-ins and sometimes Barry is paying for mine and it all kind of evens out.

ML: Well sure, that’s pretty typical. But did you at least get a free book from him?

JS: A free book? Well, I haven’t busted him so I didn’t get that kind of free book. But yeah, I’ve gotten free books but I helped edit it so I did a certain amount of work for it. But I’ve gotten too many free books; we have like 18,000 of those things so I use them for door stops now instead of actual reading material.

I don’t know the truth on the furry issue but I do know the PokerRoad posse has set up shop at this year’s WSOP. They will be broadcasting live just outside the Amazon Ballroom from 11am to 12pm, Monday through Friday. And don’t forget Big Poker Sundays with Scott Huff and Haralabos Voulgaris. Will they be signing autographs? According to Sebok “We will sign anything anyone likes…come out, chat with us, ham it up a little bit. We have a good time out there and welcome anyone who wants to hang.” Ahh, what a nice young man.

Joe Sebok and Barry Greenstein Photo Courtesy PokerWire

About Michele

Michele: Blog owner since 2006, online content since my Commodore 64.


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