Justin Bonomo Is Living The High Life

It’s a Friday night in Vegas. The top dinner spots are bristling with tourists, and thanks to the big rodeo in town, cowboys. There are no tourists or cowboys in this group, however, which is nestled away in a semi-private booth inside Carnevino at the Venetian waiting for the first course to arrive. Bonomo is a regular here, and as he sips from his water the 24-year-old poker pro mentions something about his $100,000 plus win earlier in the day. After casually mentioning the win, he decides to declare something that might come as a bit of a surprise – even to the good friends he’s dining with.

“I don’t give a fuck what anybody says,” says Bonomo, while the server drops off five antipasti for the group to share, “I really like Sarah McLachlan.” The statement draws good-natured chuckles from his friends, the kind that makes it clear that this group spends a lot of time together. Contrary to what appears to be an unmistakable fraternal bond, none of the group members are siblings. Nor are they roommates. They do, however, share an address. They all live in the same apartment building in Las Vegas, just a mile or so from the Strip.

Their residence is not just any apartment building. It is the now legendary Panorama Towers. Three buildings complete with heated outdoor pools, a manned security gate, valets and on-call car service. And Bonomo, Haxton and Siever are just three of approximately 70 professional poker players who call Panorama home.

Included in that collection are Barry Greenstein, Joe Sebok, David Williams, Adam Junglen and the Binger brothers, Michael and Nick. The number of poker pros who cohabit the Panorama warrants the Towers’ nicknames – “Poker High School” to some and the Melrose Place of poker to others. Bonomo’s take is different.

“To me it’s just like an upscale frathouse. It’s pretty awesome,” explains Bonomo, who actually never attended college. “You just go downstairs to your best friend’s place. You never get lonely. There are always people to eat with or whatever you want to do.” And a good meal with friends is exactly what brought this group to dinner tonight. These guys aren’t exactly part of the bouj’ that regularly demands bottle service and a private booth at a nightclub. Sure, there are people like that at Panorama, but Bonomo and company can’t even recall the last time they found themselves at a club.

“I think I go like three or four times a year, maybe,” says Bonomo of the club scene. But don’t be misled. He’s not some counter-culture snob and he’s most definitely not a hermit. He just knows how to do it right. And if he’s going to drop a grand or two in a casino, it’s going to be over a great meal surrounded by a close circle of friends.

They’re young, rich and set on being the best poker players they can be. Yet, rather than indulge in the Vegas nightlife, they prefer to kick it at one of their condos, either watching the latest UFC bout on pay-per-view or crushing high stakes, heads-up, no limit online.

“A night out for the most part is just go to a restaurant and get like six courses and just really enjoy it. We’ve made it a point to find all the best restaurants in Vegas,” says Bonomo. “I think there’s 18 Michelin-rated restaurants in Las Vegas and I’ve eaten at 12 of them. So I’m making it a goal to eat at all of them.”

After they’re done eating, it’s back to the Frat House. Bonomo realized a while ago that one key to becoming a poker great is to constantly learn from other exceptional poker players. To his advantage, living at Panorama lets him do just that.

“Absolutely. I mean, even before I moved I made it a point to surround myself with poker players. I’m always trying to learn as much as possible and living at Panorama makes it so much easier. Out of all the people I’ve learned from, Isaac’s style most matches mine. Specifically, his approach to the game … the way he analyzes every situation. I’ve learned so much from him.”

Haxton and Siever were actually fraternity brothers at Brown before they started dominating the online cash games. And Bonomo’s later introduction to Haxton was anything but amicable. The two young pros clashed at 2007’s PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.“I’d turned 21 four months before. I had just played the Bellagio Five Diamond and in my last five tournaments I final tabled four of them, including the Main Event where I’d bubbled the TV table,” recalls Bonomo. “The very next tournament I played was the Bahamas in January. With 11 players left going into the [second to last] day, my Mom really wanted to come visit me. I told her ‘I’m short-stacked, I might go bust at any moment.’”

Bonomo gave in and flew down his mom and her friend. She arrived at Atlantis 30 minutes into the day and in that time, Bonomo had been cruising. He was now second in chips behind, you guessed it, Haxton.

“Within 5 to 10 minutes of her showing up, Isaac is first in chips, I’m second, and I run my kings into his aces for this massive pot, like 30 percent of the chips in play. That’s how I first met Isaac.” The two wouldn’t become good friends until they moved into the Towers around the same time.

“It just worked out that all three of us were moving into Panorama right before the 2008 World Series. So with us all moving in at the same time it was just really natural for us to form a friendship,” says Bonomo. Since then, Haxton and Bonomo have come to appreciate the other’s approach to the game.

“Isaac put it best. ‘We’re gamers first and poker players second.’ When we approach a game, whether it’s a board game, crossword puzzle, card game, it doesn’t really matter. We’re always thinking about strategy, thinking about what the optimal play is. We’re trying to figure out how intricate the game itself is, what deep levels you can think on,” says Bonomo.

Bonomo, Haxton and Seiver, along with a few of the other poker pros inside Panorama, have figured out something else as a collective effort. Eating healthy in Las Vegas, while putting in 10- to 12- hour sessions of online poker, is damn near impossible. As for their collective solution, a dozen or so of the bunch have hired three chefs that they’ll put up at Panorama Towers.

“Originally it was just going to be me, Isaac, Zoe, Scott, Steve O’Dwyer, Aaron Been and maybe Jimmy Fricke,” says Bonomo. “But Dan Bilzerian just kind of revamped our whole plan. We had a big meeting. David Williams and Antonio Esfandiari were over and Dan suggested we get two to three full time chefs. What we’re thinking is, we’re going to get one main executive chef, and then we’re going to have a sous-chef and a personal assistant living with him. So there’s going to be roughly 10 to 12 of us in on this. We’re really excited.”

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, I just couldn’t convince people. Living at Panorama made it a lot easier. There’s a lot of reasons why we want it,” says Bonomo, who cooks maybe once or twice every few weeks. “Sometimes we have to play 12 hours straight online and it just sucks to have to eat like potato chips or whatever while you’re playing. So now we can have a chef deliver us healthy meals whenever we want. As great as the food is in Vegas, it’s impossible to get a healthy meal, and a chef will really help with that.”

Bonomo believes that hiring a chef – or rather, three chefs – is going to lead to even more success at the poker tables. Not that he needs the help right now. Over the past six weeks Bonomo is up over $500,000 playing cash games online.

“Recently I’ve been playing mostly high stakes heads-up online. It’s been going really, really well,” claims Bonomo. “There’s a tracking site that rates everybody on a scale of 1 to 100, and after my last session I went from 99 to the perfect 100.”

Most poker fans know Bonomo from his tournament successes. Since 2005, he’s bagged over $2.3 million in tournament winnings, including his now famous runner- up finish to Erick Lindgren at the WSOP preliminary event in 2008. Even the most dedicated players encounter some struggles going from tournaments to cash games, but it’s been much easier for Bonomo, thanks largely to his living arrangements.

“I’ve been watching Scott and Isaac play a lot so I’ve learned a lot from them. [The transition] has been really smooth. For a while it was hard for me to get better at high stakes just because I wasn’t playing on Stars or Full Tilt. And early in the year I started playing on Stars. I moved up to $25/$50 really quickly and I was just crushing that,” says Bonomo. “Once I started playing on Full Tilt I started playing a lot of $25/$50 heads-up because they’re the only American-friendly site that has dedicated heads-up tables. I did really, really well and quickly moved up to $50/$100. I’ve played a little bit of $100/$200 but that’s not my main game point yet.”

Playing heads-up appeals to the competitor in Bonomo but also has a level of game play that is missing from full ring game or even short-handed cash game play.

“There’s the challenge aspect. I’ve been playing a lot of regulars rather than just fish. I love battling –when you play someone four tables, high stakes, heads-up, hours on end. If each table is 200 hands per hour, that’s 800 hands an hour you’re playing against one per- son,” says Bonomo. “For me it’s really fun to play against the same player for 3,000 hands straight. You get to really analyze every aspect of his play, every single decision you make is so important heads-up. You really have to figure out every aspect of your opponents play and I enjoy that.”

Bonomo likes the challenge of playing against better players. Still, he is not adverse to increasing his bankroll against a terrible player who’s looking for action. In the foreseeable future, Bonomo will continue to develop his game and move up in stakes, as his bankroll and experience grow.

“I plan to keep playing high stakes online and keep building on the bankroll I have now. One thing that happens a lot when you play heads-up – you beat people at the stakes you’re playing and people won’t play you anymore, so you have to move up. That’s probably what the progression is going to be for me, playing $100/$200 and $200/$400 hopefully if all goes well,” says Bonomo.

Things going well is what Bonomo always expected for himself. Even in grade school he was aware that he was a little different from his classmates. He always felt that he was one-up on his teachers and admits to having a huge chip on his shoulder.

“It’s actually not that far off from where I thought I’d be when I was a teenager. Since I was in sixth grade I had a huge ego, I knew that I was smarter than all of my teachers, and I just did not like authority at all,” admits Bonomo. “At that time I was dedicating myself towards Magic. That was my first card-game competition. It taught me that if I put my mind to anything I could be one of the best at it. I traveled and played in this competitive group of Magic players.”

“There were actually professional Magic players. But it’s very different than poker … the best players in the world made, maybe, $150,000 a year. So for a while I thought I might do that,” recalls Bonomo. “I knew that I could never take the nine-to-five lifestyle. So I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do, maybe go into business for myself, maybe some sort of Internet company.”

Bonomo found poker, or perhaps poker found Bonomo, when his Magic buddies introduced them. As a teenager he began reading poker strategy and poker theory books. And by the time he was 16, he was playing online for real money.

“I remember one day watching Brock Parker play on WSEX, it was one of the first high stakes sites. He was just playing $100/$200 and $200/$400 heads-up Limit Hold’em. I just couldn’t believe that, with a few clicks of the mouse, these $2,000 pots were being dragged,” remembers Bonomo. “At the time, I never thought I’d get to that high stakes of poker, but I thought, if he can make thousands of dollars off of it, maybe I can make hundreds of dollars of it.”

Within a couple of years Bonomo, again, found himself in a situation where he knew he was better than almost everyone around him. Playing $200 sit-n-gos, he was stunned that he seemed to be the only player using simple math for decisions made in later stages of the tournament.

“I honestly believed at that point in time, I was the best sit-n-go player in the world. And I was 18. And so I did build a name for myself in the forums. I was one of the first teenagers to travel the tournament circuit. When I was 19, I became the first teenager to make a televised final table.”

The poker world has seen its fair share of young players show up and enjoy a year or two of moderate success, only to get bored or lose their lust for the game. Bonomo, however, has a strong desire to leave his mark on the game and be remembered by his peers as one of the best of his era.

“I don’t fool myself. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to look back at Justin Bonomo and say he’s the best player of all time. But it would be nice that the next generation of Doyle Brunsons are telling stories about how they used to play with the best players in the world, and I think it’d be cool if my name was mentioned in that way.”

As for burnout, it’s not something that Bonomo thinks about anymore. He admits it was on his mind at one point early on in his career. “That used to be a fear of mine. I’ve seen a lot of people play for two years and then get burned out and then they’re just clocking in every day like it’s a normal job. I consider myself to be extremely lucky that I really enjoy the game.”

“For me it’s just a constant challenge to do as best as I possibly can to get as good at the game as I possibly can. I just love it. Obviously there’s bad days where it just sucks but for the most part I think I have the dream job.” Talking poker and being surrounded by poker players can make those bad days seem a little bit longer. Right after having a bad session or busting out of one of the big tournaments in town (after a long fight), the last thing Bonomo wants is to have his place full of poker players analyzing everything over and over again.

“Occasionally that happens. That happened a lot during the World Series … I’d be playing for 15 hours and, to relax, I’d hang out in the hot tub and some poker players would be in there, too,” says Bonomo. The bad beat stories and fear of paralysis by analysis forced the players to create rule where poker talk was forbidden in the hot tub. “It worked out pretty well. There are definitely times where it’s the last thing you want to talk about, you just want to relax.”

Bonomo scoffs at the notion that living at Panorama Towers is akin to Melrose Place. “There’s not enough drama,” says Bonomo. There is, however, plenty of talk amongst the pros about who’s doing well and, more importantly, who’s not. “A lot of the gossip involves who’s broke, who’s not. People in Panorama, especially our group of friends, have been doing well, but there are other groups that haven’t been so fortunate. We kind of talk about that stuff a lot, that’s always a big piece of gossip in the poker community.”

The frat house comparison grows stronger when you hear about the day-to-day life of Bonomo. “I mean we obviously do the standard poker things, like going out to eat at expensive restaurants. Other than that, we just do all the normal fun stuff – hang out and watch movies, play ping pong, watch TV.”

Five-star dining out, six-figure scores playing online poker … ping pong. Just another normal day. For Justin Bonomo, anyway, and his life at Panorama Towers.

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January 2010