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
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
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”
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
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
PL: So how much are you getting recognized now
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
You can keep up with Joe at his website JoeSebok.com