Jeff Gross – High Stakes in Houston

“It’s been a crazy last couple of weeks; I’ve been bouncing around and I’m leaving Houston in the morning tomorrow,” is the first thing Jeff Gross says after he picked up the phone and we asked how he’s doing.

The life of Jeff Gross, for someone with somewhat of a normal lifestyle, can be considered crazy. The things he does, the people he hangs out with and the money he plays for come straight out of a Hollywood movie scene.

Characters in those types of Hollywood movies have been known to lose their mind, but not Jeff Gross. In the movie of his life he’s managed to find passion, balance and good fortune.

When talking to a successful, rich or otherwise famous person there’s always this underlying quest to relate to him or her. There might even be a little quest to uncover their flaws and find reasons not to like them, but not with Jeff Gross. In the first part of this two-part story Gross speaks about a high stakes home game in Houston, his family and how he works on his game.

“I just got back from Sundance in Park City for a charity poker tournament with Antonio (Esfandiari). We played in the ROWW event, Paul Walker’s Reach Out World Wide, and I arrived in Houston yesterday afternoon and went directly from the airport to play in this home game where I ended up staying until 10:30 in the morning, which is a little later than usual,” Gross smiled.

“I’m pretty beat now actually, and I was stuck the most I’ve ever been stuck in a poker game last night. Somehow I ended up booking a win after playing heads up for a few hours, at the end it made the trip worth it,” Gross added.

High Stakes in Houston

“It was a $200/$400 No Limit Hold’em game, which runs twice a week here and is pretty juicy. Literally every free day I have ever I look to fly in and play in that game. It has to be one of the best games in the history of poker and is certainly my favorite live cash game to play in.  Being a close friend of Bill’s has helped me to get into this game, and over the past few years have become friendly with everyone who plays in the game. I can pretty much always get a seat in that game now.”

Gross hesitated a little when we asked him about his night in this game, but ultimately he obliged and told us the story of his big swings.

“I had set over set early on, in a multi-way pot. There was a $2,000 raise pre and I called with deuces on the button. The flop was jack-four-deuce and the player first to act just open shoved with pocket fours. I was surprised to be behind in this spot but there was little I could do but pay it off. I wasn’t playing too bad the rest of the night; things just weren’t going my way. I ran one big bluff where I missed a combo draw and shoved all in for $45,000. He had hit an ace on the river, with ace-king, and called me down. So at one point I was stuck roughly $120,000 but eventually with three-handed and heads-up play I ran it back up and won $25,000,” Gross said, confident about his overall play.  We finished out the night playing $500/$1,000 heads up for the last hour,” Gross said.

“In this game I’ve only lost several times, and I’ve been playing for the last year and a half.  Leaving when I’m stuck that much just wouldn’t be to fun, to have that on your conscience until when you come back. I know I’m supposed to win in that game, even though I know it doesn’t always work like that, but it feels good to leave as a slight winner after being down a lot. To be honest, it feels like I’ve won $200,000 after being in for so much,” Gross said about how he recovered from his early losses.

There are many things that make up a successful poker player and Gross shares with us how he thinks emotions should be dealt with.

Emotional Balance

“You know you’re going to have losses and in poker one of the most important things is to keep your composure within the circumstances. If you have a big win, whether it’s cash or tournaments, or if you have a big loss you want to try to stay as balanced as you can and that’s easier said than done. I’ve got a few friends that can’t shut up about a good session they’ve had, which is fine, but for them the highs are too high and the lows too low. Whether I do well or have a bad result I try not to get too upset or too happy. I try to keep an even keel, and I’ve noticed that some of the best players in the world are very good at doing that. When you do really well you’re going to have an extra pep in your step, which is fine, but you don’t want to get too extreme either way,” Gross said about finding the emotional balance in order to perform on a high level.

Every poker player achieves certain levels of dealing with the stress and struggling with bad beats, and Gross realizes that he as well did not start at the point where he is today.

“I used to, 100%, be the guy telling bad beat stories or saying things like, ‘I can’t believe this,’ or ‘I can’t believe that’. Antonio (Esfandiari) as well as Phil (Laak) really drove home the point of never wanting to hear a bad beast story, and it makes sense. We signed up for this, we play poker and we should be aware of the facts. The fact for instance that ace-king is not always going to hold up against ace-queen and that your aces get cracked. And you know what, it happens to other people too, which is something to remember; it’s not just you experiencing that bad beats,” Gross said, realizing that wasn’t always the best when it came to handling losing.

“It’s about repetition and growing up a little bit. Back when I started of course I was more inclined to contact my friends when I was doing well, or right after a big score when you’re feeling all jacked up. Right now though I take pride in being very emotionally balanced and I feel like I’m as good as anyone at that right now.”

Jeff Gross at the WPT Montreal final table wth his friends Antonio Esfandiari and Michael Phelps on the rail. Photo credit: WPT

A Quote to Live By

“An important thing my dad taught me is a saying he told me years ago, ‘Win as if you expect it and lose as if you like it,’ and to me that’s one of the most powerful things to go by. When you win you shouldn’t rub it in people’s faces and when you lose you should try to do it with a smile. It’s intimidating when someone takes a big beat but doesn’t respond to it visibly, but I do think that’s what a true professional should do and what a tough player will do,” Gross said firmly.

Gross’ good friends Michael Phelps and Bill Perkins have to deal, and dealt with stress on a different level. Phelps is the biggest winner the history of the Olympics while Perkins runs a very successful business. We wondered if poker makes Gross better understand what his close friends have and had to deal with.

“I can relate to them more and more now, as it’s all about growing up in poker and business. I’ve lived with Mike for the past five years and he does an excellent job handling all this stuff. Back when he was active as an athlete there’d be times where he was a little stressed out or overwhelmed and I remember always thinking ‘life’s so great, how can you even be a little stressed?’ I get it now, as I have a lot more on my plate. When you’re traveling the tournament circuit there’s just a lot of random things that come up, people that want something from you, hotels and flights to book and money to manage. The saying ‘more money, more problems’ kind of works in that instance, I just have more stuff to deal with right now because I’m working at becoming more established and taking more on my plate,” Gross said.

“When looking at what Mike had to deal with, that’s just on a totally different level. He had to train, do interviews, appearances; sign autographs and take pictures with fans. Even though that was great it still takes a toll on you and it can be quite overwhelming,” Gross said about how crazy the hay day of Phelps’ career was.

Earlier Gross referred to his father telling him an inspirational quote, but of course there’s a lot more to talk about when looking at where the Ann Arbor native really comes from.

“I talk to my parents almost every day. I’m very close with my dad, who loves poker as well, and my mom. Besides that I got a core group of five to ten friends that I talk to every other day and it’s nice to have that support. I get to travel the world and play poker, so regardless of bad beats or unlucky situations I remind myself that life is beautiful and I am very fortunate to do what I love for a living. Ultimately you want to do what you love, and I do what I love. It’s also about perspective when you do something like go to El Salvador and Honduras for the OneDrop organization that I’m affiliated with. If you really think about, everyone is blessed and we should consider ourselves lucky to have the opportunities that we do.”

The College Kid 

Gross has had the opportunities needed to end up being a professional poker player. He went to college at the University of South Carolina on a soccer scholarship and discovered that his high school hobby could turn into a profession.

“Convincing my parents that this was going to be my life went pretty seamlessly. I was playing online and with friends in high school, after which I went to the University of South Carolina where I played soccer. It was a full time thing being an athlete and student, but I managed to play poker on the side. After graduating I moved to Baltimore and played online a lot in the pre-Black Friday days. Fresh out of college my parents never said that I needed to get a job, and a six-figure score at the WSOP held me over for a while,” Gross said about finishing in a 2010 $1,000 No Limit Hold’em event at the WSOP for $109,621.

“My parents started to see the skill and strategy involved and realized that this was a feasible way for me to make a living. Ultimately they just wanted me to be happy, and I know that sounds cliché, but it’s true because they’ve always been supportive. There’s never been an issue with me playing poker and they know that I will eventually transition into other stuff as well. Right now, I’m already doing some small investments, while I think that poker will always be the means to an end. I know from friends that it’s not always like this with families and poker, so for me to have my parents behind me it truly is a blessing. They’ve learned the game as well and that’s very nice when I’m explaining them things about my life and the things I go through.”

“Three weeks after I turned 21 I played my first ever live tournament at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. The result in that event, a four-way deal where I received around $20,000, really jump-started my career. I was still a junior in college and went up to Atlantic City on a weekend, as I wasn’t part of the soccer team for that weekend’s game. It was my first $1,000 tournament and there were just over 200 players. Being at that final table was a very big deal to me, playing for that type of money. I did play online at the time; some $100 buy in tournaments, but nothing like this. That score really got me hooked and made me realize that I could perhaps do this on a serious level,” Gross said.

The full WPT Montreal final table with hole cards where Jeff finished third. 

Becoming a Pro

Not too long after this nice score Gross decided to give it a shot in Las Vegas. The student at the University of South Carolina was hooked and played a few $300 events, but he did not play in a WSOP event until 2009. During that first summer Gross went deep in a $2,000 No Limit Hold’em event and finished 30th for $11,893 in the event ultimately won by Mexican pro Angel Guillen.

“The transition from playing in the smaller events to the biggest ones went really quickly. The WPT event in Montreal where I finished third in November of 2012 gave me a lot of confidence and that was right around the time I started playing bigger live cash games. Those things made me realize I was able to compete at the highest level and that’s when the WPT Alpha8 series started.”

“I still clearly remember playing $1,000 events that felt like a million dollar buy in, while now a $10,000 event feels a little like the $500 events used to. The $100,000 events are still a very big deal, but even those are starting to feel normal. Depending on the event I’ll sell action of do some swaps, but as soon as you sit down it’s just another tournaments and chips are chips,” Gross explained about going from a beginning grinder to a high stakes professional.

Make sure to check in with us again on Monday when we the second and final part gets published. In the final part Gross talks about his goals of winning WPT and WSOP tournaments and how he aims to conquer the GPI leader board. Gross also gives us a very interesting insight in how he improves his game and how it involves some serious video analysis. 

Follow Jeff Gross on Twitter and Instragram to track his poker careeer and interesting lifestyle.

Front page photo credit:

Remko Rinkema

Remko Rinkema has covered the biggest poker tournaments in the world since 2008, including many WSOP, EPT, Aussie Millions, APPT, MCOP and Unibet Open events. As an in-depth interview and story enthusiast he tries to do things a little differently. Besides the usual writings Rinkema grabs every chance to appear on podcasts, live streams and in the occasional video.

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