Over the summer, our contributor T.J. Jurkiewicz made a significant run in the Tag Team event at the famed World Series of Poker. Out of 976 entries, T.J. and his partner finished in 4th place, splitting winning of $52,390. Did you think he was our in-house gambling expert without having the pedigree to back it up? He is a professional poker player who lives in Las Vegas and is also a 2012 Rutgers graduate with a degree in criminal justice. T.J. is a diehard Rutgers football fan and didn’t miss a home game for almost a decade between 2005-2013. I asked T.J. about the experience and his life as a professional poker player, as well as his advice for others who want to play for a living. Also, at the end are two video’s that TJ made during his run at the World Series of Poker. Let’s roll.
AB: How long have you been playing poker professionally, lived in Vegas, any other background you’d like to include?
TJ: I became a full-time professional in October of 2013. I was working security at the Anheuser Busch brewery in Newark, NJ making $10 an hour when a friend told me I should move down to Maryland to be staked and coached by a high stakes player. Staked means he provided the money for me to play and him and I would split my profits made. I took the plunge and moved down there and quickly climbed up the cash game ranks, moving from 2/5 No Limit Hold Em up to 25/50/100 No Limit Hold Em which I was buying into for around $12,000 per session. After 5 years in Maryland I decided I wanted a change of scenery and moved to Las Vegas in May of 2018.
AB: How many WSOP events have you played in previously? Please explain this event in particular, how the tag team worked, any other details?
TJ: Every summer since 2014 I’ve traveled to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, which is a marathon of poker tournaments that take place from the end of May through the middle of July. I mainly went there to play cash games because that was my specialty and played a few of the WSOP events on a lark. This past summer I played in I believe 8 WSOP events including the $10,000 buy in Main Event that you see aired on ESPN every year.
The Tag Team event was something my partner Zach Gruneberg and I had been looking forward to since even before the summer. We had decided to start a vlog series on YouTube and knew the Tag Team event was going to be special for us.
The Tag Team event works pretty much how it sounds like it would, with teams of 2-4 people all competing for the coveted World Series of Poker bracelet. Only one player from each team can play at a time, and all members of the team must play at least some amount of time in the tournament.
Me being a cash game player, I played almost all of Day 1 due to my set of skills playing a deeper stack because in cash games, chip stack’s tend to be deeper. Zach is a full time tournament player so when our chips were getting lower, we would have him play and utilize his skillset in those situations.
AB: How happy were you with your performance and what are your future goals?
TJ: I was very pleased with how we ended up in the Tag Team event. Finishing in 4th place was an incredible result for us considering we easily could have gone out in 110th place had it not been for an incredible play Zach made at that time. Obviously, getting so close to a win and the WSOP bracelets and coming up short stung a bit, but as you can see in the vlog episodes, we were all smiles as we truly believe we played our absolute best which is all you can do in this game so we had nothing to hang our heads about.
As far as future plans, I’ve dedicated myself to taking the game a lot more seriously over the last year in terms of putting a lot of time into studying and staying ahead of the curve. I want to greatly improve my tournament skill set so that I can capitalize more on the large prize pools offered each summer during the World Series of Poker. I truly feel like with the effort I’m currently putting in and plan to put in that my best days are most definitely ahead of me. Stay tuned because I plan on making a lot more noise in 2020.
AB: How long have you guys known each other and was this the first tournament you played in together?
TJ: I met Zach during the WSOP in 2016 where I actually lived with him for the entire summer due to his past relationship with my good friend Chris Brand. The three of us lived together and actually all played together in the Tag Team Event that year which was the first year the WSOP had a tag team event. We ended up taking a horrific beat towards the end of day 1 and finished in the money in 109th place.
AB: How does the rush or adrenaline pump compare when playing a tournament versus a regular night playing at the tables?
TJ: Tournaments are a completely different beast than a usual night at the tables for me where I’m almost always playing in cash games. Tournaments are always very top heavy with their prize pools, so every one that you play has the potential for life changing money if you win. The aforementioned $10,000 buy-in Main Event this year that I participated in had a whopping $10 million dollar first prize.
Also when you go deep in a tournament and have the potential to earn that life changing money, your friends and family all start rooting you on and you just don’t get that type of adrenaline going when you play cash games. Cash game players like me are mostly hidden behind the scenes, grinding our money day in and day out as opposed to tournament players who can lose dozens of tournaments in a row but then all of a sudden hit big for a six or seven figure payday.
AB: How do you approach or handle the mental aspects of the highs and lows of playing poker professionally?
TJ: It’s like anything else. When it comes to the mental side of poker, you absolutely have to put time and effort into developing a strong mental game. If the best technical poker player in the world has the worst mental game, he is going to be a break even player at best and likely a losing player. This is a game where you have to handle losing well because you are going to lose..a lot. You have to be a good loser. If you let losing affect how you play you are dead in the water because now you’re playing hands you shouldn’t be playing in manners you shouldn’t be playing them and now you’ve become the spot at the table.
I’ve read a few books on developing a strong mental game and I’ve used journaling techniques to nail down the best approach for me to making sure what’s happening variance wise with the game doesn’t affect my overall approach and strategy. I take bad beats now and won’t even show a change in facial expression. There is one exception though and that’s if I take a bad beat to get knocked out of a tournament and I was deep into it, I will take those losses hard because it isn’t often you’re so close to having an opportunity at life changing money.
AB: Any tips for readers in regards to where you recommend playing in Vegas and for those who want to work on their game and perhaps play professionally?
TJ: In Vegas, my favorite poker rooms are definitely Aria, Bellagio, Wynn, and Venetian. These rooms are very well run and make you feel very comfortable while playing there. I spend about 80% of my time at Aria because I really like the feel of the room and the staff does a very good job running the room there.
The resource I use to improve my game is called The Poker Lab and it’s put out by Upswing Poker here. It really helps you build a sound theoretical poker game from the ground up and it also has a specific section for live poker that really helped grow my game by leaps and bounds.
AB: Where can readers follow you on twitter, youtube, etc?
TJ: I can be found on both Twitter and Instagram at @tjurk44
Zach and I’s YouTube channel is called Behind the Grind Poker and our channel can be found here.
If you like our videos, subscribe to the channel it would mean a lot to us.
If you have any further questions for me, just shoot me a DM on Instagram or send me a tweet and I’ll always reply and help you out with any advice I have.
Thanks to T.J. for taking time to share his experience at the World Series of Poker this past summer and congrats on his success. You can watch his videos of his experience right here: