Online poker has been the launching pad for the biggest success stories in the live tournament scene for the past fifteen years. Earlier generations of poker pros got their lessons in private card games in smoke-filled backrooms. Even a poker legend as young as Phil Ivey got his start sneaking into casinos as a teenager, where he was called “No Home Jerome” because of the name on his fake ID.
Today’s generations of stars assign themselves colorful codenames, because most get famous as online poker pros first. Even the best online MTT players eventually want to make it big in the live poker circuit, because it’s the key to heightened visibility, recognition from their peers, and more lucrative sponsorships.
The contradiction is that, despite the two-stage path to success, today’s poker legends get famous at a much younger age. Fedor Holz was being touted for the Poker Hall of Fame at age 23. Justin Bonomo surpassed every other pro in live poker earnings by his early 30s. Patrik Antonius was in million-dollar pots in the online poker scene by his late-twenties.
We take a look at all three players’ path to success through online poker, while finding out how poker fame changed their lifestyle. Grinding in online cardrooms is a way to learn the game quick and dirty, but all three discuss how players need to take their card game seriously – and find other great minds to help them improve their skills. Then and only then might fame and fortune await.
Patrik Antonius: FinddaGrind
Patrik Antonius took an unorthodox path to poker fame. The 37-year old Finn had dreams of being a professional tennis player, but a back injury at age 15 ruined any hopes of an athletic career. When he was 17, Antonius discovered poker. A year later, he was playing live games of Pot-Limit Omaha in Helsinki casinos.
In 2003, Antonius discovered online poker, where he made his name as “FinddaGrind”. Starting with $200, he built a huge online bankroll over the next 10 years. Patrik Antonius won $6 million on PokerStars and $11 million on Full Tilt Poker, where he was credited with winning the biggest online pot in history: $1.346 million from Isildur1 (Viktor Blom) in a 2009 game.
Antonius said in a famous interview a year later,
“I love action. I live for the action. I’m ready to give as much action as people are willing to give to me.”
Though he’s an online and cash game specialist who never focused primarily on live tournaments, Antonius has won another $7 million playing live events. These days, Patrik Antonius says online poker is more of a challenge that it used to be, because everyone uses software to gain an edge. The Finnish pro claims he never used software, read a poker book, or watched a seminar.
When asked about his poker legacy and what he might do to give back to poker, Patrik Antonius said,
“I think there is room for an interesting concept to make poker more popular. It’s a huge industry all around the world, and it’s not very organized. Everyone is doing their own thing. The dream would be to do something that the poker community can all gain from. There are so many people involved in poker who are in great position to do good things. Then you have all these people suffering in the game trying to make a living, and whatever you see at the bottom you feel at the top.”
Fedor Holz: CrownUpGuy
Speaking of the top of the poker world, few names are held in higher esteem than poker phenom Fedor Holz. The young German whom many consider to be the best player in the world right now first got buzz online from 2013 to 2015 as “CrownUpGuy“. PocketFives listed him as the best online multi-table tournament player in the world in 2014 and 2015. A year later, he would burst upon the live poker tournament scene with $16 million in winnings.
Early on, it was a struggle, but Holz improved by soaking up knowledge from other players. The year of his first notable live tournament success in 2012, CrownUpGuy was having a losing year in online poker. At the time, Holz was living with a bunch of fellow card players and had very little cash to his name. Later, he described his 2012 life, saying, “
I was living in a big house, in a small room, sharing with a lot of others guys. I had just quit studying. I didn’t have much money, definitely less than €1,000.”
Since then, Fedor Holz has become a poker legend. He has $26,700,000 in career winnings in live poker events, most of which came in his phenomenal 2016 season, which many consider the best year in live poker history. If it isn’t, it’s in the debate.
Through his biggest successes, Holz has stayed in touch with poker friends he knew before all the fame and wealth. Describing his network of support, CrownUpGuy said,
“A group of people I am still very close with today. We call ourselves TGK, which is a mixture of some of our names. They know me from when I had nothing. Most of them play high stakes online or have quit and been successful in life. It’s interesting to see the exchange of information, skills and knowledge. It keeps us all ahead of the curve, and it makes me happy.”
Fedor Holz has been successful enough that, like some character in a movie, he’s retired from poker and made a dashing comeback — all by age 25. His second-place finish to Justin Bonomo in the 2018 $100k Big One for One Drop was seen by many as a showdown for the ages, pitting the game’s two finest players. These days, Holz lives in Austria and has ambitions beyond poker. CrownUpGuy continues to say he’ll walk away from poker fame at an early age. In 2017 during his brief retirement, he founded Primed Group and is the CEO of Prime Mind, which sells an app which teaches people visualization and goal-setting techniques through audio lessons.
Justin Bonomo: ZeeJustin
The player with the most bragging rights over Fedor Holz at the moment is Justin Bonomo. In fact, the player known online as “ZeeJustin” has bragging rights over every other card player on the planet right now. Bonomo recently surpassed Daniel Negreanu as the winner of the most earnings in live tournament history ($42,900,000). One of his great live tournament achievements include 3 WSOP bracelets. Like so many others in his generation, Justin Bonomo learned how to succeed through countless hours playing online poker.
The 32-year old American began as a Magic the Gathering player, but switched over to poker when it became so easy to play online. In 2012, Bonomo told an interviewer,
“I started playing $0.50/$1 limit hold’em on Paradise Poker just like everyone else that played back in 2002. My first deposit was thanks to my EverQuest character that I sold via PayPal for $500.”
Professionals are not immune to the doubts and uncertainties of less well-known card players. Many American players feared the consequences of UIGEA and Black Friday, but they adapted. When asked how Black Friday affected his lifestyle, Bonomo said,
“I moved to Malta after Black Friday and then Toronto. It pretty much flipped my world upside down. Leaving my loved ones behind was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
Here in 2018, Justin Bonomo lives in Panorama Towers, the Las Vegas high rise condominium where over 70 other high stakes poker pros live. Bonomo said he has a bit of a double life: one as a no-nonsense competitor and one as a young star who enjoys his success:
“I live two completely different lives. When I’m in L.A., I go out and party a lot; I love the nightlife scene there.”
Living in a Vegas poker palace and enjoying the nightlife of Los Angeles sounds like the glamorous lifestyle of a poker professional, but ZeeJustin says that’s only a part of the story. Giving a primer for success, Bonomo said,
“But when I’m in Vegas or traveling to any tournament, I’m super boring. I never drink. I never stay up late. I’m always super focused and I’m kind of a nit when it comes to getting enough sleep. I’ve got kind of a dual life going on there.”
These are three of top poker pro’s in the scene today, and they gave their career a kick-start when they found and made their claim to fame by playing at great online poker rooms.