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Everything From Nothing

You’ll find Tony Guoga wherever there is good value. In life, that mantra has kept him going. In poker, it’s been the model for success. And despite Moscow being his choice destination for value, Carl Friedmann meets up with him in rich surroundings in London.

The Dorchester Hotel on London’s prestigious Park Lane is an institution for the supremely wealthy and well known. Rich, tailored suits and immaculate shoes blend into the opulent scenery. But when I go to meet Tony Guoga on a pleasant spring day, the elevator door opens, he walks out and everything comes right back down to earth. Dressed in a white golf shirt, jeans and broken-in Rockports, he looked a bit out of place but he sure doesn’t act it. It may come as a surprise to people who think of him as a bombastic aggressor, but if anyone knows how to use understatement to his advantage, it’s Tony G. Even when the bar host gently dissuades us from sitting in a £500-per-hour section, drawing his own conclusions of Tony’s budget, the Lithuanian native shrugs it off with great aplomb, sits down at another section and orders a bulbous snifter of Hennessy. So apart from the matted hair and tourist choice of wardrobe, the confidence and sense of belonging he exudes makes people take notice. And with over $2.5 million in tournament winnings and having amassed much more than that in high-stakes cash games, he can afford to have people draw their own conclusions—just not at his expense.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind right now for Tony despite claiming that these few days in London are to relax. He just got back from a day on the Isle of Man, following a few days in Moscow. But here, you’d imagine with the poker boom happening and the strong currency that he’d take advantage of a few unsuspecting opponents at the many high-end poker rooms.

But for him, London being a great city and a coveted stop on the international poker map doesn’t translate into big opportunities. “Everything’s too small for me here,” he says. This coming from a man who won’t play anything lower than a $200-$400 pot-limit game; he’s been known to play $5,000-$10,000 pot-limit games, but admits those are rare. And in the next breath, he starts speaking of his second home. For a man of the world, that could be one of many places, and it begs the question of where he considers a first home considering he was born in Lithuania, brought up in Australia and spends impressive amounts of time in the UK, the US, Asia and Europe. But in this case, it’s Moscow. “It’s the best city in the world right now—it’s the new Las Vegas,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s still dangerous but there’s a lot of big action and a lot of money. Everything is available but you have to have money.” Apart from his superior poker skills, he also has the advantage of speaking the language.

So that’s where his attention is dominantly focused—even now, in the middle of World Series of Poker season. He’s pretty ambivalent when it comes to tournaments and the WSOP is no exception. He isn’t sure if he’ll even bother. The Main Event is definitely out, especially considering the new final table format, which will be postponed until early November. “I’m not really into it,” he says of the WSOP. “When things free up in Russia, I’ll drop down to Vegas to have a look for a while and see how it goes, but I’m not desperate to play. If you want to put in so much time into an event, you have a very small chance of winning it. I think there are better things to do. Poker has to be more of a hobby if you’re playing tournaments. I don’t know if people are crazy thinking they can be professional tournament poker players. Good poker players have to win the money in cash games. That’s the way it is. Tournaments are just for fun.” So racking up a forearm full of bracelets isn’t a priority. “I’ll probably never win a bracelet,” he continues. “What’s a bracelet?” The question causes him to shrug and gesture rather patronisingly to his wrist.

As if he needed another reason to skip the WSOP, it’s just inconvenient considering the government-run $10,000 no-limit hold ‘em tournament at the Zavidovo Resort 100 kilometres from Moscow is in mid August. It’s a tournament nonetheless, but this one, with a $150,000 added to the prize pool, seems more inviting to Tony. “It’s in a nice resort area,” he says. “It’ll be sold out.” But more than anything, it gives more weight to his campaign to establish an EPT in Russia. “I think we’ll have [one there] for sure next season,” he says with confidence. “We just have to wait for the dates but it is going to happen. It’s going to be huge.”

Natural Born Hustler

Overall, Tony Guoga (pronounced like “guava” only with another “g” instead of a “v”—he hears it mispronounced and misspelled all the time) is soft-spoken and accommodating, but lacks warmth. Perhaps it’s a natural defence mechanism wrapped in a particularly thick skin. But you can’t fault him for that. After all, that personality trait was the key to survival as a boy on the streets in Lithuania, part of the Soviet Union at the time. “I didn’t have it easy,” he says. “I had to do everything myself.” It must be surreal being surrounded by so much extravagance here in the Dorchester, and on the elite poker tour, knowing that years back he had to fight for each meal. So it’s natural to misinterpret his self reliance as arrogance. His allegiance to Russia, therefore, evokes complex strains of thought. “It’s difficult to say if [Lithuania] is Russia or Soviet Union,” he contemplates. “But I enjoy the place. I’m pro Russia and I’m happy to declare it.”

Of course, having been in Melbourne, Australia, since the age of 11, he’s pro Australia too. “It’s the best country in the world,” he adds. “But there’s not much poker there.” Some may argue that, including 2005 WSOP Main Event winner Joe Hachem and all who praise the Aussie Millions, but Tony sees poker as an enterprise, a way to amass as much money as possible and you don’t do that chasing trophies, bracelets or hall-of-fame titles. But don’t think he’s a miser either. It seems like yesterday he donated half of his first-place winnings at the 2006 Betfair Asian Poker Tour main event in Singapore to charity. A year and a half later, he’s in a position where he can afford to give away all his tournament winnings. Mostly to underprivileged children—something he can directly empathise with. The luxurious lifestyle he’s built for himself is gratifying but equal fulfilment comes from a position where he can make a longer-lasting impact. “I’m giving away some money here and there,” he understates. “It’s not much but it makes me feel better about it. You have to understand that very few people can make it. For me, having come from nothing and to make all my money from poker is close to a miracle. Even if you have a very good ability, if everything goes your way, you still might not make it. There are many things that have to go your way and you have to be successful for a long time.”

So what gift does Tony have to facilitate such a successful career (first place 2007 Moscow Millions, third place 2007 WSOPE PLO championship, first place 2006 Betfair Asian Poker Tour, first place 2005 European Poker Championships, second place 2004 WPT Paris, season 3) without one bracelet to his name? “I find the game easy,” he says. “I’m always thinking ahead, especially in cash games. I know where I stand. Everything comes together in a certain way. I don’t put myself in a position where I have to grind things out. I’m looking for value—the key in poker. You have to find value in whatever it is. Wherever in the world you play, you have to find the value. Without the value you can’t do it.” He then finds value in an incoming phone call regarding a transfer of €100,000 from a particular account.

After hanging up, the topic of poker history comes up. And for Tony the Entertainer, history was made when he had two memorable spars. One was against the UK’s Surinder Sunar and the other, the US’s Ralph Perry. “It’s something I did and I’m not ashamed of,” he says. “People can have an opinion about it. I’m happy with it and respect people’s opinions. I always want to be an entertainer and I had my brief chance and grabbed it and entertained in one way or another. And it all turned out okay. I can’t complain.” With Sunar, it was combination stare-down, verbal fusillade bluff under which Sunar crumbled. But it was a case of sour grapes for Tony as Sunar went on to win the event. With Perry a couple of years later, it was an all-out pummelling loaded with personal motivation that went beyond the game of poker. Born in Belarus, Perry represented Russia in the Intercontinental Poker Championship held in Las Vegas in 2006. “But he had no reason to play for Russia at the time,” says Tony. “And when there was Kirill Gerasimov who was second in the Bellagio $25,000 WPT main event, world head’s up champion [2002], it seemed corrupt to put in an American to play for Russia in such an event. A non-Russian playing for Russia—it doesn’t make much sense, especially for Russians who really wanted to play. I wasn’t happy with that and had words with that.”

At the Controls

Away from the main stage of live poker, Tony has wrestled with online poker and has taken many to the mat with impressive results. Tony G Poker (tonygpoker.com) is going strong, but his latest venture is with T6 where he has already amassed €800,000 this year alone. “I’ve been playing €100-€200, €200-€400, €300-€600 PLO games,” he says. “I’ve been doing very well.” Of all the options, he liked T6 for its in-house software and refreshing six-handed format, which is great for poker he claims. “I’m all for new sites with new ideas,” he says. “I know all the players, the conditions are really good—there’s a lot of value there. And I hope more and more people come into the poker industry, build new sites and invest millions of dollars.” But he leaves all those worries to others. Now, he’s focused on Russia and making sure his time in London is spent taking things day by day, trying to relax. But London is perpetually on the go, loaded with lengthy, exhausting itineraries waiting to be fulfilled, and that’s a pace he’s trying to avoid. “It’s always busy here,” he says. “I like being free.”
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