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There aren’t too many poker players that come out of ‘nowhere’ and win their way into contention in the Card Player Player of the Year race. The top of the POY leaderboard has largely been constituted by a familiar list of the top tournament stars, arranged in varying order depending on which high rollers have recently fared the best.
This year, however, there have been a few new faces who have fought their way alongside the high-stakes elite to climb to the top of the standings. Among them is 26-year-old Jesse Lonis from Little Falls, New York. Prior to 2021, Lonis had just over $116,000 in earnings from 27 cashes. His average buy-in across those scores was a little over $530.
So far in 2021, Lonis has cashed for $615,549. He has made 39 in-the-money finishes this year, with eight POY-qualified final tables, including a fifth-place finish in the World Poker Tour Lucky Hearts Poker Open main event for $223,895 and a runner-up finish in the World Series of Poker Covid-19 Relief Charity $1,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em event for $30,086. He also took down a $1,600 buy-in pot-limit Omaha with 248 entries at the Venetian DeepStack Championship Poker Series for $81,485.
As a result of his success so far this year, Lonis now sits in 25th place in the 2021 Player of the Year standings. We caught up with Lonis at the Rio during the WSOP to discuss his breakout year, how he got into the game, and more.
Card Player: Can you talk a little bit about when you first discovered poker?
Jesse Lonis: My earliest memory [of the game] was actually watching my grandmother play online on Full Tilt Poker when I was 10 or 11 years old. She would let me watch, and then she’d go use the bathroom and let me take over for her and play. And that’s how I first started playing. My uncle, he would play all the time too. And then by the time I was 14, I was playing little tournaments with them. That’s how I first fell in love with it. I just always just loved it because it ran in my family.
[It also helped that] I always had a knack for math. I played basketball, football, and baseball growing up and was always just competitive with anything that I did, just always wanting to win.
CP: How did you get into working construction?
JL: Right out of high school I did construction in New York City for about a year and a half. I decided to go back to college and play basketball. I was playing poker while I was in college and started to play more and not pay attention to school as much. And then after a while, I just decided to go full-time and started playing cash games at Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York.
CP: How did poker transition from something you did for fun with your family to something more serious for you?
JL: My first couple of years playing while I was in college, I just loved to play and I thought I had an edge. But like any other player, I probably went broke 20 times before I ever caught on and actually started building a nice roll. It took a while to start understanding bankroll management and how to maintain it while playing. I had to pick up jobs on the way to build up my roll again and again, before I actually was able to learn. It definitely cost me some money to learn how to play.
At the [18 and up] casino where I was playing, the biggest game they used to have was a $2-$5 no-limit with a $500 max buy-in. It was very hard to make consistent money to live off of, because the game was very tight and just wasn’t that great. Once Rivers Casino opened up in Schenectady, New York, it got a lot of New York City traffic and I started playing in bigger games. There was a $2-$5 game with a $1,000 max and even $5-$10. Some of those people really didn’t respect money at all, compared to what I was used to, and I started really building up a nice roll playing in those games.
The fact is that I could sit down and do something comfortable and make as much money as I was making working 40 hours a week in construction. In two days, actually. I could make as much money, while just sitting there, having a good time and interacting with people. The social element of it was something I always liked, talking to people. I always felt comfortable at a poker table.
CP: So you got access to a different player pool and that helped you take the next step?
JL: Exactly. I just didn’t have the right game selection before. I had just turned 21, so when it first opened, I couldn’t play. Once I had a few days where I made five-figures plus playing cash, I just started taking it more seriously and then finally built up a nice bankroll. Then, before I knew it, I was moving out west. That’s when I discovered tournament poker.
I had played a few at Borgata and upstate New York, but there weren’t enough tournaments to play consistently. That’s why I moved, to have more access to Vegas and other tournaments out here.
CP: Is tournament poker your primary focus now, as a player?
JL: Now I just mainly play tournaments and some cash games every now and then. I actually play a lot of limit hold’em, like $40-$80 at the Bellagio. I’m actually one of the younger people that still plays a lot of limit. It’s a dying game for sure. But I’d say now it’s 90 percent tournaments. But if I’m at a series in Florida or something and they have a big cash game, I’ll play.
CP: You first started accumulating some live tournament results in 2018, but this year has been a big breakout. What would you attribute it to?
JL: During COVID it seemed like a lot of people completely stopped playing live poker and were studying, but they weren’t getting the actual reps in. As early as I could find a place to play, I was playing private cash games. Then, as soon as Thunder Valley Casino opened up in Sacramento, I started playing cash there because they had cash games like $5-$10-$20 no-limit.
I played there for four or five months before any tournaments started running. So when tournaments started back up, I was really in the zone and ready compared to everyone else. A lot of people seemed pretty rusty because they were just getting back into it.
CP: It seemed like a lot of your tournament play was in mid-major level tournaments prior to this year. You kicked off 2021 with a final-table finish in a $3,500 buy-in World Poker Tour event for your largest-ever score. How did you come to play that event?
JL: I actually won a satellite into that one. I planned on going to that series and I was going to play either way, but I satellited in for $400, which was nice. That series was already going pretty well. I had made a lot of money playing cash games there, playing $10-$25 no-limit. In the first couple days, I had won about $25,000. So I had a good roll already, more than I brought down. I also found out around that time that I was having a baby, too. So I had that motivation in my head. That really helped me lock in and focus more.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve been able to be consistent despite playing in primarily large-field events?
JL: Well, with live poker you can be more consistent compared to online. There’s just more ways to manipulate opponents and get chips. It’s an easier game, I guess I would say. To stay consistent you don’t really need as much run-good. You can get chips without having cards falling in your favor, just with live reads and going for it in certain spots.
CP: As a result of your success you’re now in the hunt for the Card Player Player of the Year race as one of the only players near the top who doesn’t play the high rollers. What would it mean to you to just have a really strong finish in this points race so early in your career?
JL: That’s what I’m honestly the most proud of. That I’m in contention even though I’m not playing all these small-field high rollers. But I do plan on taking more shots during [the rest of this] WSOP. I sold a little bit of action in some $25,000 buy-in events, so I can try to contend with those guys. My goal is to hopefully, in the next two to three years, be playing all the high rollers and be in that scene. I mean, that’s a poker player’s dream; to progress and keep getting better and better while playing against the best and toughest competition.
Lonis’ Top Tournament Score:
|Jan 26, ’21||$3,500 WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open||5||$223,895|
|May 09, ’21||$1,000 Wynn Spring Signature Series||3||$89,486|
|Jun 29, ’21||$1,600 PLO Venetian DeepStack||1||$81,485|
|Oct 01, ’21||$1,000 NLH WSOP||2||$30,086|
|Jul 09, ’21||$1,600 PLO Wynn Summer Classic||2||$28,159|
|Jan 30, ’20||$600 NLH Wynn Signature Series||3||$27,991|
|Apr 22, ’21||$2,200 NLH Hard Rock Poker Open||9||$22,735|
|Apr 18, ’21||$600 NLH Hard Rock Poker Open||12||$20,300|
|Apr 04, ’21||$1,100 NLH Venetian DeepStack||7||$18,790|
|Feb 21, ’20||$425 Pacwest Poker Classic||2||$13,684|