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G-Force

All sports need their villains and those contested across the felt are certainly no exception – fortunately, the role is one that bad boy of poker Tony G has always been only too happy to fulfil

In an era when many of the game’s greatest characters are being forced to make way for the new breed of ultra-serious, ultra-competitive professionals, Tony G still goes against the grain as one of poker’s true anti-heroes. The loud-mouthed Lithuanian’s table-antics have aggravated opponents and captivated viewers the world over for almost a decade now, earning him just shy of $4 million in tournament winnings and a deserved place in poker folklore. With such an impressive legacy already behind him, Gambling magazine decided to catch up with the affable pro and find out where his rise to infamy really began.

Tony, from growing up in crisis-torn Lithuania to becoming one of the most recognisable stars of poker, it’s been quite a journey for you to reach the top. Tell us how it all began.

I grew up in Kaunas in Lithuania during the Soviet era. It was a very violent time and a lot of famous gangsters grew up as part of my generation – but in those days you were considered a criminal just for doing business.

You couldn’t have any enterprise, you couldn’t have a shop and you couldn’t sell anything for profit – that was the law. Most people said to themselves “Well, we’re all criminals then” and once you’re a criminal, you might as well continue to abuse the system. I think by the government’s reckoning, about 80 percent of the people in Kaunas were criminals in those days.

As a result, I became a very rebellious kid and got into gambling from a very young age. I used to play two-ups [an Australian betting game involving coins] at school and a few card games for money, but we also had a roulette wheel at the bus station in Kaunas. I used to go down there as a kid and put money on – there were six numbers on the wheel, but you only got paid for five, so the house had about a 20 percent edge!

That doesn’t sound like a proposition that the Tony G of today would ever get involved with – did you realise you were taking the worst of it at the time?

When I was a kid I didn’t really have a sense of money. Sure, it was the prize at the end, but the goal was more to have a regular cash flow to work with. I had no hope really, because the odds were always so heavily against me. I realised there had to be a better way to make money, so when I was 12 and moved to Australia, I used to run a sports book at school and began trying to make money from other people.

Unfortunately, I was a terrible bookmaker too. I once gave someone 50/1 on the outcome of an Aussie Rules football game between the Brisbane Bears and Carlton and their team won after kicking a late goal. I should never have set that kind of price on a heads-up sport and when I lost, it kind of wiped me out. Of course, the school found out because all the kids had so much money and I was expelled at the age of 16.

That was the end of school for me. After that it was just gambling and playing poker – that became my new education. Despite the losses though, money always seemed to come to me and I never really had any serious financial issues.

It looks like the things you learnt at that time in your life have served you well in the long run. When was it that you actually started to make a serious living out of poker and gambling?

Soon after that I got into gambling on the stock market and the foreign exchange. That really took things to a different level and I started to work things out mathematically and had an edge for the first time. I was living the lifestyle just to learn how to beat it. Poker also started getting serious for me around that time, but that was a slower process and there were a lot of losses in the first year or so.

I didn’t know the strategy, I never read any of the books and we never played Texas Hold’em in Australia. When I started playing Hold’em, I had no idea what I was doing and it took me awhile to figure the game out. I was playing a lot and gradually getting better, but then Party Poker kicked off and things fell into place. It was the best site with the easiest games and I was soon making a lot of money out of it.

In terms of the sports betting, these days I’m probably the biggest punter for most of the Australian games. We have a team working out the odds on Aussie Rules football and we bet huge amounts of money now. We have an edge and it can be done, but the odds of achieving it are near impossible for everyone else.

It seems that along with the poker and gambling, you’ve always maintained a strong sense of business acumen. Is that what ultimately lead you build up interests around poker, rather than just playing the game for a living?

I just thought that playing the game was a pretty difficult way to make a good living. I saw that in other sports like golf, you have a lot of business surrounding that game, as well as the actual playing itself. I thought that for poker it would be the same – you need to have business around it if you want to make serious money. It’s not an easy business and a lot of people have lost money on it, but it can be done.

The main risk is always legislation, and the new laws in Italy and Russia have cut profits quite significantly – the same will go for America if they don’t make the right laws too. Generally though, I think it’s fair to say that most of the money is already in the bank. People who have made money from online poker already have tucked it away and if you’re going to go and chase for it now, it’s a lot more difficult.

But there are a lot of things outside of poker. I never really saw it as a profession, but you can win money out of it and it’s a great hobby. Luckily I’ve been a winner, but it’s very easy to lose money if poker is all you have to fall back on. People dream about being pros and the lifestyle that goes with that, but the odds are so slim that you’re better of pursuing some sort of career and playing as a hobby.

Along with your website, PokerNews.com, you’ve also become increasingly involved with staking players in tournaments on Chip Me Up – is that something that you can see yourself doing more of in the future?

Yeah, it’s something I enjoy. I’m going through a time now where I’ve backed off from the game a little bit and have started to stake players, but I’m quite selective. I don’t want to stake people in events that don’t make sense financially – I want to get value out of it and I want to give them value too.

Some players want to get staked just for the sake of playing, but they’re not thinking and the economics are not there behind it. I don’t want to stake players and have an overall net loss – I want to make money out of it and I want them to make money too. I mean, if I’m losing money, then my players are losing money as well and we’re all wasting our time.

I still enjoy playing myself though and I really feel that the game has helped develop my business skills and vice versa. Poker is so much like a business – you bluff and lie to people sometimes, all the while hoping you can get the goods. You’re hoping for the best and sometimes you don’t know if it will happen, but you always have to tell people good things and stay positive. That’s what it’s all about and I still love it.
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