FEATURE: Poker’s holy grail no pipe dream for Sydney plumber

The first multiple Pro Open winner in APL history, John Azzi

The one dream that just about every poker player shares is to take their seat alongside the world’s best poker players in the WSOP Main Event. Just by looking at the thousands of people that cram into every square inch of the Rio each year, even somebody who doesn’t play poker can appreciate just how special it is.

The road to Las Vegas, however, is not, a cakewalk. Not all of us have a spare $10,000 lying around, so the other solution is to try and satellite into the event. It’s hard work. It’s time-consuming. And in some cases, if you fall just short of the mark, it’s heart-breaking. But if you can somehow shake it off and persist, eventually, all that hard work will pay off. Just ask John Azzi.

For the past 18 months, he’s been grinding the NSW Pro Open Circuit and in that time, has reached seven final tables. The 30-year-old plumber from Illawong travelled all over Sydney (with his then expectant wife Jackie) and time after time came up short. In March this year, he finished runner-up to Phil Faux and Azzi almost didn’t even show up for the April event – and for good reason.

“Jackie was due to give birth on the day I won the Pro Open (April 19),” Azzi said. “That was perhaps the scariest thing. With her blessing, I was able to play in the event, but she was sitting behind me the whole time, watching on and trying to deal with the stomach pains from the contractions. I really thought she was going to give birth that day!”

Little Antonio must have known, because he managed to hold on long enough for him to win it all. Just 15 hours later, he was finally introduced to the world, much to the delight of Azzi: “His birth, my birthday (Azzi was born on April 14) and winning the Pro Open capped off the greatest week of my life.”

Born Jonyson Azzi and the eldest of three children, he was a talented rugby league player at high school and upon leaving school, took up an apprenticeship in plumbing. He now owns his own business and between looking after his wife and newborn son, he finds time for some weight training and the occasional fishing trip. And of course, poker, something that he and his family have been playing together since 2001.

“My Dad prefers Manila of course,” Azzi laughed, “but we started playing Hold’em soon. We used to have Foxtel at home and Dad would sit there and watch it on Friday nights and I’d stay up with him and watched it too. I thought it was a great game, so we’d take notes and then start playing Hold’em in our home games.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that Azzi and his wife started playing APL and while they both enjoyed it, Azzi was looking for something more: “My first games were at the Revesby Workers Club and I won in the second week that I played there,” Azzi said.

“After that, I didn’t win another tournament for eight months – I’d always be watching on as Jackie made one final table after another.
“I needed a bigger challenge though, so I started focusing on just playing the Pro Open Events. I love the deeper structures and with no antes I can just relax and wait for my cards. Instead of finishing in three or four hours, I can sit there knowing I’m in there for long haul.

“The key to playing any big event like this is patience – you can’t win by trying to get chipped up early. If I’m not 100 per cent confident with my hand, no matter what it is, I’ll fold it, because I know I’ve got plenty of time to build my stack back up.”

As good as a strategy it may have been for the Pro Open events, Azzi discovered that he would have to employ more than a tight-aggressive image, finding out the hard way when he played in the ANZPT Canberra and Sydney Poker Champs main events.

“The big name players will play any two cards. I thought that seeing as these guys were professionals, they’d just be playing big hands like queens or A-K – all the good hands you see them play on TV,” he said.

“Instead, they like to call your raises with suited connectors and hands like Q-10, J-9 – any two cards really, if they can see a cheap flop or if there’s value to call. If they hit on the flop, they’ll just hammer you, but it’s not about trying to get lucky. It’s about playing the man, not the cards.”

“I guess they were able to get reads on me and maybe I wasn’t aggressive enough in those tournaments. Sometimes, it pays to be aggressive and bet them out of the pot, but I’m working really hard on making sure that I control my emotions at the table as well. I’m always learning more as I play these tournaments so that way I can prepare myself for the World Series as best as I can, outside of APL.”

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