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The Rebirth of ZeeJustin
Justin Bonomo skyrocketed to fame as a young internet pro, making a name for himself by taking down six-figure scores on both the PartyPoker.com and PokerStars.com Sunday tournaments before he was legally able to set foot in a brick and mortar casino. His fame turned to infamy, however, in early 2006 when a controversy over the way "ZeeJustin" was playing multi-table tournaments resulted in PartyPoker.com confiscating more than $100,000 and closing his account(s). It was a dark hour for the young star, whose reputation took a heavy beating despite his attempts at a public explanation and apology.
That fall from grace, deserved or not, is all but forgotten on the tournament circuit these days, courtesy of some astonishing results as of late. After finally turning 21 in September, Bonomo tore through the World Poker Tour's Five Diamonds World Poker Classic, final tabling multiple events whose rosters ran rich with the names of the best poker players on the planet.
At the WPT's latest stop in the Bahamas, ZeeJustin entered Day 3 with a massive chip lead over second place Steve Paul-Ambrose, and appeared poised to take home much more than the $11,797 he was guaranteed at the end of Day 2. I talked to Justin near the end of Day 3 at the PokerStars.com Caribbean Adventure.
How are you running today?
Somewhere in the middle. I just had my kings cracked by ace-ten, but I've had a couple of fortunate situations too.
You came in with the chip lead. How did you get so many chips on Days 1 and 2?
Yesterday I played a lot of big pots - a little bit of everything happened. I got sucked out on. I had some big hands that people paid me off on. I had a lot of big bluffs, but I also had a lot of bluffs that got called. There's no way I could really sum it up; so much happened.
How have your table draws been today?
Everyone I've played with is pretty decent. You're not going to see many big mistakes this deep in the tournament. But at the same time, none of the top players in the world are here - I think they're all going to be in the tournament in Australia.
On that note, has the caliber of play been any different for you than last month at the Five Diamonds?
Absolutely. More so the types of players than the caliber - there are so many internet qualfiers. The average age here is like twelve, and it shows. But at the same time, a lot of them are good internet players and they know how to play. They play a very different style from the live players.
What do you think are the differences?
Internet players know the math better, and they're usually a lot more aggressive and capable of bluffing. But they also make bad calls too, so generally they're looser and more aggressive.
You had a pretty sick Five Diamonds. Do you want to talk about how that went down?
Yeah. I mean, I played eight tournaments and made four final tables, so it was a great two weeks. I'm a little upset that I never got to close one, especially since tournament prizes are so top heavy, but I'm doing well today and hoping for another chance.
How much did you end up pulling in?
You busted out on the TV bubble in the Main Event. How was that for you?
I mean, I was miserable when that happened. My expectations were so high with 10 players left, and then my jacks got cracked by ace-ten. I mean, I wanted that final table so badly, so it really hurt.
How did you find playing at the final table with Joseph Hachem and Daniel Negreanu before the TV bubble?
It was very interesting. Hachem was playing pretty tight, so I didn't have to worry about him. Negreanu was playing a very weird style. But I had the good fortune of reading his blog the night before, in which he said he wasn't going to bluff at all, and I think just knowing that was a huge advantage. He would have been a lot tougher to play against if I didn't know that.
So he played exactly as he'd outlined in his blog?
As far as I can tell. I mean, he played pretty small-ball poker; he wasn't getting into many big pots, so I put him to the test a couple of times and re-raised him, made him get out of his comfort zone, and he just folded.
You turned 21 in September, and since then have basically killed the tournaments you've played in. Are you just running hot or is this the sort of play we should expect at every tournament from you?
I mean, I knew eventually I would have good scores, but there's so much luck in tournaments that there's no way I could expect it that soon. I mean, I certainly had to get very lucky to make the four final tables. But I know I'm going to be playing for a long time, so I'm going to have a lot of big scores.
Were you expecting to have this much success against big-name pros?
Without trying to sound egotistical, I think I'm a really great tournament player, and I think I can compete with the best of them.
How did you get into poker?
I used to play Magic: The Gathering with players like Eric Froehlich and David Williams and Noah Boeken, and Brock Parker. Brock Parker in particular started doing really well in high-stakes poker, and I just thought it would be an amazing way to make a living, so I took a shot at it.
What's your strategy going into the end of Day 3?
I'm in a weird situation. Normally people with my chips would be raising a lot of pots, but even when I'm playing tight nobody gives me any respect, so I think all I can do is play fairly tight, which I'm not happy about. I prefer to play loose, but you do what you have to.
Definitely. I'll let you get back to your table, but good luck in the rest of the tournament.
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With $1,052,000 in his stack at the end of Day 3, ZeeJustin is guaranteed at least $36,026 for his efforts at Atlantis this week, but you can bet the Sherman Oaks, Calif., native won't be happy with anything less than a first place finish. He's a quiet player who seems to prefer to let his game do the talking, but his opponents would do well to not be fooled by his reserved demeanor; the kid's got game, and he's playing to win.