On the Button: Poker pro Justin Young

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Justin Young is a former mechanical engineer for the military turned poker pro from Moorhead City, N.C. In 2008, he made the televised final table of the $15K WPT Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Poker Classic, finishing runner-up for $936,760. Today, he has almost $3 million in live career earnings. Our Mike Owens caught up with Justinrecently to discuss life before becoming a poker pro and his success at the tables.

Where is home for you these days? I am living just outside of Las Vegas, in Henderson. My wife and I bought a house out here about three-and-a-half years ago.

Was poker around while you were growing up? My brother and I grew up playing all kinds of games. My parents taught us chess at a very early age and that opened the door to being highly competitive. So growing up, any game they knew we would want to learn. By the time I was 10 I was playing gin, cribbage, hearts, spades, and backgammon with anyone that would play with me. Poker was kind of an afterthought. We would play every once in a while, but I think because we played with our own money (pennies) it got way too emotional. I didn’t start playing on a regular basis until college. Our fraternity would play every couple of weeks and it was always a good spot to pick up some beer money.

What made you decide to switch from cash games to tournaments? I started getting heavy into tournaments in 2008 for a couple of reasons. The first was the competition aspect of it. I loved the fact that there was one winner. There is no better feeling in poker than being the last one standing. It’s a high that I could never reach playing cash. The second reason was a bad stretch playing cash. I needed something to break the monotony. I still play quite a bit of cash these days, and I love the fact I can go back and forth between the two any time one of them has me bummed out.

Can you take us back to when you didn’t play poker for a living? Before I played poker for a living I was a mechanical engineer at Cherry Point Marine Core Air Station. The station is like a big repair shop for military planes and helicopters. I was the hydraulics and landing gear guy for the harriers. I actually liked my job and loved the people I worked with, but I saw an opportunity in poker to make my own hours and play a game for a living. I was working 40-50 hours a week then coming home and playing another 20 hours of poker. I was doing well, but I knew I couldn’t keep that up. I made a list of about 30 things I wanted to accomplish in poker, engineering and my personal life. As soon as the last item was checked off, I put in for my resignation.

What types of games are you playing now and are you still focused on tournaments? Right now I am focused on tournaments with the WSOP in town. It is a very exciting time of year, but most of the time I play cash. I have been playing a little bit of the $400-$800 mix games, but I mainly stick to my bread and butter, no-limit. Living in Vegas allows me the opportunity to play both genres without having to live out of a suitcase for much of the year.

As someone who used to be an online player also, do you prefer online or live poker? I prefer live play to online, mainly because a large reason I love this game so much is the personal interaction with others. I have met so many interesting people from all walks of life over the last seven years. I am certainly not discounting online poker, but there is something to be said about looking at your opponent during a critical moment.

Did you ever think you’d be where you are now? Well, growing up I always wanted to be a tight end for the Denver Broncos, kind of like most kids wanted to be a ninja or a space cowboy. Since that didn’t work out, I found a career in engineering that I loved. I didn’t even know one could become a professional game player until I was in college and saw Rounders. Even then it seemed so farfetched. I started with the attitude of just wanting some extra money in college and it turned into “Let’s see how good I can get.” I started at $0.25-$0.50 limit on Party Poker and just kept pressing the envelope until I was playing the biggest games online. It was then that I thought I could do it for a living. If I was competing and winning at the biggest stakes offered online then what could stop me?

What advice would you give to cash-game players making the transition into tournaments? The first thing I would tell them is it’s a completely different game. You have to leave your ego at the door. Cash-game players have plenty of attributes that not only translate but exceed even the best tournament players. Despite such qualities, the middle and late stages of tournaments where the average stack in 30-40 big blinds deep were the toughest for me to tackle. I still have some discipline problem in this respect, but through experience and having one of the better groups of friends to analyze hands have allowed me to improve by leaps and bounds. As far as a specific tool goes I would say to be aware of everyone’s chip count in relation to big blinds. This allows you to create a plan for opening and three-betting opponents. Also to understand that hand values change against different stack sizes. There was a time it was impossible for me to ever fold J-10 suited in any circumstance, but now I can see the true value of that hand based on the situation.