Jake Abdalla Interview:
Hey Jake, thanks for taking the time to chat. Even though your results speak for itself, I guess many players do not know who you are just because you represent less popular formats. Can you share how did you end up playing poker and when your journey started?
Jake Abdalla: My poker journey started early before high school. Back then, I was fairly competitive playing Magic: The Gathering; in fact, I often played with Bryn Kenney and others who went on to professional poker.
The Magic crowd was naturally drawn to poker, with $5 or $10 Sit-N-Goes running on the side of Magic tournaments. When I did start High School, I introduced many of my friends to poker, and we ended up playing small stakes NL cash games 2-3 times a week. I think my win rate in these games was the highest of my career!
At 17, I began playing online underaged and opened my Pokerstars account on my 18th birthday.
At one point in your career, you even had Supernova Elite status on PokerStars, which requires heavy grinding, to say the least. What were you playing at that moment, and what you learned over that time?
Jake Abdalla: I made Supernova Elite in 2008. About 95% of this was playing 6-max Limit Hold Em, the game I had initially gravitated towards online. That year was by far the highest volume I ever played, and it was quite a grind, but it was helpful in cultivating a work ethic and figuring out how to manage my time.
I had dropped out of college the year before, so it was important to prove to myself that I was taking poker seriously and could make good money at it.
When, and most importantly, why you decided to move to mixed games?
Jake Abdalla: An important step in my progression to mix games was actually getting back to NL. In late 2011 (post Black Friday), I moved to Vancouver for a few months with Doug Polk. At the time, I was staking him for HUNL.
I had accumulated a decent poker bankroll from grinding limit games but wasn't really pushing myself to play high stakes or other formats.
Watching Doug Polk go from $1/$2 to $50/$100 vs. people considered top regs at the time opened up my mind to what was possible.
It also helped me get used to bigger swings (and making me a good chunk of change). Doug then taught me HUNL, and for most of 2012, I played that exclusively.
At the start of 2013, I decided I wanted to crush heads up 8-game. I had already favored playing heads up LHE, and now with a strong HUNL game, I could apply a lot of concepts from the two to develop the other games.
Having had the “halo effect” shattered by seeing all the surprisingly weak play at high stakes HUNL, I assumed that the landscape at 8-game would be even weaker, which was certainly correct at the time. This naturally led to me also playing 6-max 8-game, as tables would fill or as I was waiting for action.
What is your favorite game to play, and why? What do you mostly play these days?
Jake Abdalla: It's always hard to pick a favorite. Heads up battling is always what I enjoyed the most, but that has been a rarity for a while. I enjoy Omaha 8-or-better quite a bit, as well as 2-7 Triple Draw. I also wish the live mix games were more accommodating of LHE and NL, but they tend to be avoided.
I haven't played full time since 2017, but I do still like to play in the local Vegas mix games some throughout the year, as well as a decent amount of play in mix tournaments and cash during the WSOP.
I may someday splash around again in Bobby's Room 2k/4k mix, but it's not super likely as it is very hard to stay competitive without playing all the time, and the regulars there are quite strong. But never say never!
While limit games can be a lot of fun, it is not very easy to find low stakes mixed games in casinos for anyone starting, so it might have a high barrier of entering. Also, it does not seem that there are plenty of such games in an online setting, so what is the best way to practice to anyone new to these games?
Jake Abdalla: It can be challenging to find good ways to practice, but there are some opportunities. Some casinos in Vegas are spreading low stakes mix – Mirage has a 3/6, Bellagio has an 8/16, and I believe others will accommodate it if there are players.
Low buy-in tournaments online are another great place to get some hands in, as the level of competition will be fairly weak. Another idea is forming a group to learn the games with, and then taking utilizing the play money home game options available online.
Since we touched the learning part, I have to mention that you have Mixed Games Mastery course at Upswing. I saw your videos, and without a doubt, it is the go-to resource for anyone looking to learn these games. How you decided to engage in coaching experience, and how do you like it?
Jake Abdalla: I'd gotten a bit of interest a few times about coaching and making videos, but I never thought it would be worth the time, especially considering the potential downside of my opponents having insight into my game.
However, when Doug and the Upswing team suggested it in 2017, it coincided nicely with my decision to take a step back from poker and focus on business and investing.
I'd never made any videos before it, but it struck me as an interesting challenge that would serve as a natural endpoint to my full-time poker playing.
After creating the 30-odd hours of content (I don't recall the exact number), I didn't really know what to expect from the reception, but I've been very grateful for the extremely positive feedback it received.
I'm happy to have helped a bunch of people learn some of the games at a higher level, as well as help established pros strengthen some of their games significantly – 2019 WSOP player of the year Rob Campbell thanked me in his bracelet speech which was a welcome surprise.
Jake Abdalla: We have plenty of solvers and other poker software to study No-Limit Texas Holdem, but how do you study and improve in games like Razz, Stud, Triple Draw, and others?
Well, the good thing is that the playing field is relatively level here, so even though you may lack the kinds of advanced solutions that exist in other games, your opponents will also lack these.
The other thing to keep in mind about games like Stud and Razz is that every hand is essentially a new situation, with so many changing factors with the up cards and available information.
So it is important to develop an ability to reason on the fly in these games. Triple draw you can get a little more technical with. The best way to improve here (apart from the Upswing course) is to play a bunch, and study/discuss what transpires.
What was your motivation to always improve in these games? Do you devote a lot of time to studying, or is it mostly playing, and how that ratio changed throughout your career?
Jake Abdalla: I would say I always did a mix of study and play, but always the majority was playing. When I had opponents that would play me heads up frequently, I spent a good amount of time studying their game and making dedicated game-plans against them.
My highest stakes and most exciting battles were with Phil Ivey in 2014/2015, where I was decisively victorious despite losing small in 5 of 8 games.
In those matches, I put in a ton of effort away from the table, and looking back at it, I ended up improving a lot at the games I lost in.
I think the ideal mix of study vs. play is different for everyone, but most players tend to do too much of one or the other. It is important to make sure that you don't always gravitate to your comfort zone, but also that you continue to get in enough volume.
Can you talk about the variance part? How big of the bankroll you need for playing mixed games, and what was your own biggest swing?
Jake Abdalla: It is hard to give general advice on the bankroll since everyone's situation is different. Whatever exact requirements you end up with, what is vital is that you don't put yourself in a position to bust your roll and be taken out of action.
The variance will be the highest in PLO and 2-7 TD (and Badugi if you are playing that), and a bit lower in the split pot games.
In terms of worst downswings, I used to know all these numbers by heart, but looking back a few years removed from my biggest swings, it sure looks a lot more like a straight line up.
If I had to estimate, I'd say something like $350k and 350 big bets are my worst downswings from my own personal play.
Had a couple of worse stretches when factoring in my action in other players too though (i.e., losing 300k in a day when Doug battled Isildur. Got it all back eventually!)
How do you relax after playing poker? Do you have a hobby or favorite activities you engage in?
Jake Abdalla: Now with a lighter schedule and less focus on poker, I don't get too stressed out by it. When I was full time, I would get much more caught up in the daily swings.
My most relaxing hobbies are probably watching good TV shows with my wife, hanging out with my dog, and doing more than my fair share of eating and drinking with friends.
What do you think is the future of mixed games? Can any of it reach a widespread similar to Texas Holdem or PLO?
Jake Abdalla: Mix games seem to be ever-increasing in popularity, so I think this can only continue. However, I'd be surprised if they ever match the popularity of those games, as it is simply more challenging for people to learn how to play multiple games.
If someone wants to learn a new format alongside Texas Holdem, which game you recommend to start with, and why? Is it easier or harder to beat than Holdem or PLO?
Jake Abdalla: Opinions differ here, but I like to suggest learning 2-7 Triple Draw as the first step of branching out. It can be an introduction to limit betting and draw games at once.
A lot of live mix games have a bunch of different draw games, and learning this will set the stage to apply the concepts to many of them.
It also has more technical information you can learn before veering into the less defined world of stud games. Whether it is easier or harder to beat than NL or PLO all depends on who you are playing with!
You played a LOT of live games during your career, so you probably engaged in all kinds of interesting stories. Can you share the most memorable one?
Jake Abdalla: One that comes to mind was playing in the $50k Poker Players Championship in 2017 or 2018. I was seated next to Jean-Robert Bellande, who didn't know who I was. A couple of years prior, I beat him for heaps online.
In the tournament, he was running super hot against me, making a couple of bluffs in limit games that rivered the best hand. An LHE pot developed where the pot was large on the river, and I felt very sure I was beaten, with pocket aces on a KT3K9 flush possible board, but also a fairly standard call-down given the price.
He was drinking expensive wine and offered me a glass if I called and lost since he felt bad about what was transpiring. I ended up making the call and losing to Kx, and as he was pouring the glass, he asked for my online screen name.
Dan Zak immediately told him I was JLlama, to which JRB stood up and yelled “WHAT THE HELL, YOU'RE JLLAMA!? YOU TORTURED ME MORE THAN ANYONE! YOU DROVE ME AWAY FROM ONLINE POKER!”
Fortunately, he was a man of his word, and he gave me the glass of wine, despite our torturous past. I proceeded to win some back, showing bluffs while I drank his wine. I've never laughed so hard during a tournament.
What would you do differently if you had to start in poker all over again?
Jake Abdalla: The main things I would change would be pushing past limiting beliefs sooner. Earlier in my career, I had the ideas that I wasn't suited to working out bet sizing, or that I shouldn't play in rarer high stakes games since a loss could take a long time to recoup, or that regs at higher stakes were doing something dramatically different.
These things all had some truth to them, but were mostly excuses to avoid harder/ more stressful situations.
In reality, you can pick up a lot from hard work as long as you can power through failures. Similarly, as long as you use reasonable bankroll guidelines, poker is a lifelong session, and the less you worry about the results of the day, the better off you will be, unnatural as it is.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
Jake Abdalla: 2020 will likely be a huge year for some of my business ventures, so I'm looking forward to all that. I'm also going to try and play more poker if I can, as I've always enjoyed it, and I can get excited about winning no matter the stakes.
I'm hoping to find something substantial to engage in, but hanging out and living the dream isn't too terrible of a plan B.