Sinishtaj was a prodigy, there’s no other real way to describe his meteoric rise in online poker that saw him win close to $1 million while he was still a teenager.
Born in Sterling Heights, Michigan, Sinishtaj was busy raking in pots worth hundreds of thousands of dollars while kids his age were studying algebra.
To put things in perspective: Sinishtaj has been playing from such a young age that he doesn’t even remember how exactly he got into the game.
During his time in poker Sinishtaj has played in some of the biggest games online games imaginable, basically guest-starred on 2M2MM as an arch-nemesis for Jay Rosenkrantz and started his own business, most of which he did before he was old enough to buy a beer.
PokerListings: First off, I have to ask, you have a very unusual name, what’s your background?
Gjergj Sinishtaj: I was born and raised in Sterling Heights, Michigan, which is about 25-30 minutes north of Detroit. My parents however, were both born in Albania, and they are all about keeping the Albanian heritage alive!
Gjergj, which translates to George in American, is a common name back home. I am the youngest of six children and all of my family members have traditional Albanian names.
PL: Could you talk a little bit about how you got started playing poker? When was the first time you remember seeing the game? What did you like about it?
I was so young and it’s tough for me to remember that far back to explain exactly.
PL: Is it true that you built a bankroll of $100k by the time you were 14?
When I was 14 years old, I had over a $200,000 bankroll online. At the age of 15 I had a bankroll of close to seven figures.
PL: How did you progress through the stakes?
When I first started playing for real money at the age of 12 I would play on a couple of my family members' poker accounts. I quickly got irritated with constantly grinding out $20 and $30 wins at the smallest stakes possible and me not being able to build my own bankroll in the process.
I took the matter into my own hands. I remember going to Walgreens and buying a reloadable Green Dot credit card and putting $250 on it. I ended up making an account at Absolute Poker in my sisters name and depositing the funds.
With a strict bankroll management system in place, I was excited to hit the tables. I built that $250 deposit into $15,000 within a few months. At this time, I realized how much money I was missing out on playing around the clock with no rakeback. I ended up expanding to two other sites, Bodog and Cake Poker and built my poker bankroll to $200,000 within a year.
While grinding my bankroll up I transitioned into a No-Limit Holdem heads-up specialist. Since there wasn’t always action at the higher-stakes games on these sites and Bodog only having a max game of 10-20, I went and scouted some more options. Other poker sites I joined included Ultimate Bet, Wingows, Carbon Poker, EuroLinx, and a couple others.
PL: What were the biggest games you played before you were 18?
The biggest I played before I was 18 was a 200-400 NLH match on Euro Linx against Larz Luzak. Some other big matches included a 100-200 NLH match against an unknown opponent (TODOALATAQUE) on Ultimate Bet and a 100-200 match against another unknown opponent (Disneyland) on Wingows Poker. My usual stakes were $10-20/$25 up to $50/$100 so I specifically remember these matches because they were shots to me.
PL: Were you affected by the super user scandals on the CEREUS Network or any other sites shutting down?
I am very thankful that I started playing bigger stakes on Ultimate Bet when I did because I just missed all the super user nonsense. I got no refund, and when I heard about the scandal I remember the actual cheating happened before I started playing on the site.
The Euro Linx shutdown did not impact me at all, thanks to my $200/$400 match with Lars Luzak. However, Wingows shutting down hurt me pretty bad. They folded and I unfortunately had $220,000 in my account with no chance of getting it back. Wingows was a part of the Future Bet/Digital Gaming Network mess.
PL: Did your parents know the stakes you were playing?
I don’t think my parents knew the amount of money I was really “risking” until I was around 16 years old. I put risking in parentheses because I always led them on to believe I would play small buy in tourneys and risk a small amount of money to win a lot in large player fields.
I felt like if they knew I was winning and losing tens of thousands (sometimes 6 figures) on a regular basis, they would not approve. No parent wants to see their son growing up gambling. To make matters worse, they looked at poker like blackjack, roulette, craps, etc. It took a long time and a lot of my explaining for them to realize it is actually a game of skill.
PL: Was it odd going to high school but also winning/losing tens of thousands online?
During this time in my life, I was infatuated with the game, I wanted to eat, sleep, and breath poker. High school was getting in the way of playing time, but I still had to maintain good grades and attendance. Achieving success in the class room was kind of like a hall-pass from my parents for me to play poker.
It was a little odd associating myself with kids in high school. I never looked at myself as being better than them, but being in a better financial position than even my teachers was a little weird. I didn’t hang out much with people from high school outside of school hours. All that was on my mind was getting back to the computer and playing some poker. This is the only thing I look back and frown upon. The experiences I missed growing up because of poker literally taking over my life as a teenager.
PL: Did that early success give you a slightly skewed view of the value of money?
Since I started at such a young age I didn’t understand the true value of money and how valuable it is. It's not like I had a previous job, bills, or responsibilities at that time. When I was playing with hundreds of thousands of dollars online, I didn’t know what that really meant! To me, it was just numbers on a screen and the objective was to get that number as high as possible. I honestly think this was a huge advantage for me. Just imagine playing your opponent with no pressure of winning or losing from a financial standpoint, but still wanting to really win to get that bankroll number on your screen higher.
PL: What was it like being featured in that episode of 2M2MM when you played that epic match against Krantz? Do you remember much about the session? Did you get a lot of people asking you about it?
That definitely was one of my proudest moments. As a 16 year old, watching my alias beating someone heads up on national television, was a great feeling. Although many think otherwise, I had absolutely no clue this match was going to be aired on TV. Heck, I didn’t even know who was behind the “ELDERWAND” account while we were battling it out. When the show aired for the first time I wasn’t even watching. I got a bunch of AIM messages from friends and that's how I found out.
The only specifics I remember from the session are things that are highlighted in the episode because to this day I still watch it every once in a while. There was one hand where I had 8-9 and Krantz had 4-5 in a 4-bet pot, we both hit straights, and I stacked him for a $75,000 pot. There is also one part where Krantz says “He’s super aggro, dude, his 3-bet is 40%!!!” 40% for a 3-bet in any game is unheard of, let alone No-Limit Hold’em.
Alot of people would ask about 2M2MM on the Internet and in chat boxes on the poker sites. I responded to a couple forum posts and even created a blog that was short lived. It was really tough interacting with the community and having a blog. I couldn’t come out and tell everyone my real story because I was playing underage. I figured it was best to just leave all that alone until I was of age.
PL: I believe you played the WSOP for the first time this summer. What was that experience like for you?
Ever since I started playing as a preteen I’ve been looking forward to my first WSOP. The experience was great! I came extremely close to a bracelet, but a sixth place final table finish in a prestigious 10k PLO tourney was still a great showing.
A bracelet has always been one of my goals, and to capture that my first year being able to play would have been remarkable. I didn’t play too many tournaments because cash games are where I focus most of my energy. I think I will play about 10 tournaments in the upcoming WSOP and hopefully bring home that gold bracelet that I got so close to last year.
PL: I understand you started VIPRakeback.net. How does running a business compare to playing poker?
You got that right, I started the business when I was only 16 years old. The reason for starting VIPRakeback was simple. At that age I saw what a beast poker was, and I wanted some kind of fall back plan and consistent income.
In two years time we took VIPRakeback to thousands of users using special marketing techniques that worked really well. Everything was going smoothly, and we hit six figures in monthly generated rake. Which was great especially for hitting the market when it was saturated.
Then, what is known to poker players world-wide as “Black Friday”, came around. We didn’t have much of a diversified player base so it hit us really hard, business dropped 80% almost overnight. Since Black Friday I stopped putting a ton of time and energy into the site. VIPRakeback.net is still active and gets random traffic, but it is not doing anywhere near the numbers it once was.
PL: Do you still reside in the US these days? If not, do you play any online poker? How do you think the games are these days compared to when you were getting started?
Yes, my primary residence is still in the US, but I still play online poker. Living in Michigan, I am very fortunate to be close to Canada. I have a condo there and drive across the border when I want to play online. I did really well at a young age with no previous experience, coaching, books, so that right there should show how good the games were when I first started. The game has changed a lot, with all the tools, tracking software, and training sites, players are getting better so much quicker then before. Which makes a huge difference in the ecosystem of the poker community.
Honestly, in all of my years playing online I never used a HUD or any type of tracking device. Now, when I’m sitting down at a table with most likely everyone else using a HUD, I feel like I’m at a disadvantage.
This is one reason I am shying away from the online scene and playing more live poker. In general, I prefer live poker over online because of the social interaction and the people you get to meet. Especially in higher stakes games, the connections you make with the recreational players who just crush business in the real world are very valuable.
PL: Since you’ve been around online for awhile now, where do you see the industry going in the US?
I would have thought after the first few states launched it was going to create a domino effect and others would legalize shortly after, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The only way it could ever gain some traction is if the states figure out a way to connect their player bases. Not sure if that would require federal level legalization or what. Either way, online poker in the US will never be anywhere close to what it was pre Black Friday. Like I mentioned earlier, I am very fortunate to be a hop and a skip away from Canada so I can play on the top poker sites with very little inconvenience.
PL: Besides poker and VIPRakeback what else are you working on? What interests you about Bitcoin?
Currently, poker is a main source of income for me, but in the coming years I am hoping that changes. My goal is to not rely on poker to live a comfortable lifestyle that I have grown accustomed to. As mentioned earlier, since Black Friday I don’t put much effort or time into VIPRakeback. Other projects/investments I am working on involve real estate and the stock/commodities market.
I also had involvement in a charity poker room here in Michigan, but the Michigan Gaming Board got a huge push from downtown casinos and about 75% of the charity rooms got shut down. The reason I like Bitcoin so much is because you can move large amounts of cash instantly and with anonymity.
For a poker player, if casinos would accept Bitcoin, it would be so much safer then carrying cash around in a back pack thru airports and cities you are not familiar with. It has some great characteristics, however, Bitcoin is a LONG ways away from global acceptance. The average person is not going to feel safe with Bitcoin, after hearing about hackings and exchanges going under on the news such as Mt. Gox.
The Bitcoin community needs to fix these types of problems before it gains the confidence of average people. Once you have average people buying, selling, and using bitcoins, that's when we will see its real potential.