In May 2013, Daniel Jones followed through on a big decision: he left his job as a lawyer at a large law firm and began playing poker professionally. Since then, the Ohio native has been thriving. He improved his mental game and paid off a staggering amount of law school debt. Most importantly, Jones feels much more at peace now that he’s free from the stress of his previous career.
This interview took place at the Venetian in July during the 2015 World Series of Poker. Jones reflected on Day 1C of the Main Event and his strategy for Day 2. We also discussed mindfulness, Super Mario Kart, Dostoevsky, and why you probably shouldn’t go to law school.
Ben Saxton: How was the first day of your first Main Event?
Daniel Jones: It’s been a lifelong dream to play this tournament. I watched the Moneymaker Main Event in 2003, I can rattle off the names of past November Niners, and I’ve watched countless YouTube clips. I didn’t feel as jittery as I expected. I did feel a sense of excitement, but it didn’t impede my ability to play optimally.
Are there any hands that stick out from yesterday?
The one that’s been tormenting me the most is from the 200/400/50 level, when I played against an older gentleman who’d just lost a big pot and was down to 9500 chips. I could tell that he was frustrated. I raised to 1100 under the gun with ace-queen off, and he three-bet from middle position to 2500. Based on the context, I felt like he’s almost never folding if I reraise, and I was skeptical that he’d reraise with ace-jack or ace-ten, but I just decided to go with my hand and shove. He had pocket tens and there was a ten in the window. Although the spot was fine, equity-wise, I would prefer to chip up without getting the money in and to avoid marginal situations like that.
How did your passion for poker develop?
Going back to my childhood, I really loved all kinds of games, particularly video games, and I was instantly good at most of them. Some of my favorites were NBA Jam, Donkey Kong Country, and Super Mario Kart.
I used to be a solid Mario Kart player. Who was your racer?
I liked Bowser.
Being naturally good at games eventually led to an interest in poker. In college at Ohio State, my friends and I would occasionally play poker, mostly dealer’s choice and no-limit hold’em. Those games, combined with Moneymaker’s run and Rounders, really piqued my interest in poker around 2003.
When did law become a viable career prospect?
It was a legit possibility as far back as highschool. My thought process was a basic as, “I’ve always been a good student and I’m good at reading and writing. Maybe law school will let me do something good for the world.”
And you did go. You went to the University of Michigan, which has one of the top law programs in the country.
Yes. My second summer I worked for a large law firm in Columbus, and they offered me a position as an associate, which I accepted. This, by the way, was not what I had intended at all when I went to law school. I had a passion for education reform. But, like many others, my dreams fell by the wayside when I realized how much debt I was accumulating. I graduated with $180,000 in debt.
In your poker blog, a word that you often use to describe your experience as a lawyer is “miserable.” Why?
Well, the hours were very long. I worked seven days a week. Many days I worked until nine p.m., which took up a gigantic chunk of my life. And these were very difficult hours: every billable hour was demanding. I did enjoy legal research and writing, which played to my strengths, and I received very good reviews regarding the quality of my work.
In the midst of such a demanding job, you had also been cultivating a passion for poker. How did poker develop alongside your legal career?
When I wasn’t working, I was playing poker about twenty to thirty hours per week. My life was one hundred percent law and poker. I often played after work when I wasn’t at my best and didn’t have much patience for bad beats. But even so, I could feel my edge growing. The only thing holding me back from crushing were mental game problems, which mostly took the form of hyper-aggressive LAG-play when tilted where I constantly tried to outplay people.
I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.
A lot of people have said that, but it’s definitely true. I had huge tilt issues and was capable of getting really angry at the table. My biggest area of improvement over the last few years — by far — has been my mental game. A huge benefit has been freedom from the mental stress of the job. I’ve been so much more at peace than I was previously.
When did you seriously consider leaving law to play poker professionally?
It would be wrong to say that I left to play poker. I was in a very unhappy, stressful situation. Every day was a struggle. I didn’t feel like I owned my own life. When I was searching for an exit strategy and looking for other jobs, I had also been doing very well at live PLO. And I started to think, Wow. Maybe I can do this for a living.
What would you tell someone who’s considering a law career?
I’d say that it’s only good idea for a very small percentage of people. Most people go in without doing their homework. I had done my research, but I’d just assumed that I would be special and defeat the odds. I was wrong.
I wanted to ask what your Two Plus Two user name, “karamazonk,” means.
It’s a play on “donkey” and “Karamazov,” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Is that book special to you?
Actually, there’s a special place in my heart for Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. This will sound cynical and depressing, but…have you read The Idiot?
Then you know that Prince Myshkin is this amazing Christ-like figure and the world’s so terrible that he gets stomped on until he literally becomes an idiot. There’s no place for him in the world. The idea is that there’s a harsh reality out there and we’re not all destined for a good ending.
And that resonates with you as being true.
Yes. I can see it in poker, too. It’s very difficult to succeed. I think the game rewards being very realistic and objective.
Do you think Myshkin is wrong, then, for acting the way that he does? If you’re humble and meek and loving and compassionate — if that gets you killed or crazy in the end, then what’s the point?
That’s one of the struggles that I have with poker, to be honest. It’s difficult for me, spiritually, to play poker for a living. It pains me to see other people in pain. I see a lot of that in poker, and that bothers me.
You recently wrote that “I’ve found great intellectual fulfillment in poker, and I’ve met some talented and interesting people, but it does eat away at me that poker is a zero sum game and I am earning money at the expense of others. To the extent I am actually making the world a better place by playing poker (which I don’t think that I am), I could be doing a lot more good for the world by doing many other things that interest me.” Do you feel the same way now?
I still think that there’s limited social utility in playing poker. That being said, I had similar questions about the social utility of my previous job.
On the other hand, poker has done so much for you. You love the game.
Absolutely. I don’t regret that it’s been a part of my life at all. The way I see it, poker has helped to save my life.
Will you do some reassessing after the World Series?
Yeah. There’s still a lot I want to do in poker. But I do eventually want to transition into something else. From a spiritual perspective, I want to be doing more with my life. I also don’t think that the future of poker looks promising. No-limit edges are getting thinner, online options for Americans are limited, players are able to improve rapidly — for all of these reasons, I don’t think it’s smart financially to be in it for the long haul.
What’s your gameplan for tomorrow?
I think I’ll relax tonight and read some of Elky’s The Raiser’s Edge. It’s excellent for describing how to play certain stack depths. I’m coming back to forty big blinds with two-hour levels, which is plenty to work with. My table draw also looks promising.
I’m going to play at the Venetian for a bit. I’ll look for you at the Rio.
All right. Good luck.
Actually, how about I give you my good luck? I’ll run bad so that you can run well.
Thank you, sir! I won’t turn that down.
Daniel finished Day 2 with 77,000 chips. He was eliminated on Day 3 outside the money.
*originally published in the September 2015 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine