Years ago, very likely in 2009, Jason Koon attended what was then the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for the first time. At the time, he was grinding it out in live satellites just trying to get a seat into the Main Event. Walking out of the venue, he saw Scott Seiver strolling in, headphones on, getting ready for the $25,000 High Roller final table.
The moment sticks in Koon's memory, as he remembered thinking to himself that one day he might be playing in those same events. Now, at the PokerStars Championship Bahamas in 2017, Koon has realized the optimistic version of his dream, winning the $100,000 Super High Roller in a field of 54 players to take down a career-best prize of $1,650,300.
"Sitting there with the trophy in front of me was kind of a surreal moment," he said of fulfilling that goal.
It's the continuation of what's been a scorching hot run for Koon in some of the biggest tournaments in the world. From July 2016 to the end of the calendar year, Koon tallied six scores worth between $273,765 and $1,000,000, the latter coming when he won the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open in August. Koon has been a monster in the high roller circuit during that stretch, with only the SHRPO win coming in an event smaller than $25,000.
In this particular tournament, Koon ran headlong into another player on a white-hot heater: Charlie Carrel. Both players cashed for north of $2 million in 2016, and they battled heads up after outlasting a final table that included Daniel Colman and defending champ Bryn Kenney, to name just two of the crushers.
"Whenever I was that age, I was a total trainwreck. It looks like he's figured some stuff out that took me a decade longer to figure out."
While both had locked up six-figure cashes, only one could make history as the first $100,000 Super High Roller champion of the PokerStars Championship era. The match would not disappoint, getting underway after the two looked over the payouts but decided to go ahead and play things out instead of making a deal.
The young British star entered with almost a 2-1 lead and just shy of 90 big blinds. Fresh off a second-place finish at European Poker Tour Prague in the $50,000 Super High Roller, Carrel surely felt confident and ready to close things out as he moved quickly to more than a 3-1 lead.
The turning point came on a board of . Koon check-raised the flop and then fired big bets on the turn and river, the latter being an all-in shove. Carrel seemed to indicate he had ace-high and thought things over while working his typical verbal probe before he ultimately decided to fold.
"That's just a spot where I shoved for full pot on the river because I'm repping at very worst a very good king," Koon said when asked to analyze the hand. "I'm repping a very thin range of hands there."
"Who knows what we had?" he said with a straight face.
With that, Koon evened things up and then grabbed a lead he wouldn't relinquish. The two continued to battle but Koon got the better of the majority of the skirmishes and finished Carrel a little over an hour later. The American was nothing but complimentary of his British foe after lifting the trophy.
"He seems like a really incredible guy," Koon said. "Whenever I was that age, I was a total trainwreck. It looks like he's figured some stuff out that took me a decade longer to figure out."
Koon called his current heater "just ridiculous." It comes at a very opportune time for him, coming off of a 2015 where he cashed for "just" $842,084. That might sound like plenty, but with the stakes Koon often plays, he said it represented a roughly break-even year.
Still, he didn't let things get him down. He has a strong understanding of how sample sizes work and he knows a year full of tournaments alone is not enough to overcome variance.
Personal relationships also played a big role in Koon's ability to shake off the slump. He began dating his girlfriend for one thing and also had the security of knowing at least one of poker's greatest minds, Ben Tollerene, had faith in him.
"It does a lot for your confidence to know that some of the best players in the world believe in you and they're there to help you," Koon said.
"There's a bunch of guys that are more talented than I am, so I need to work hard and stay on top of it."
Koon also said he believes he was one of the first tournament players to start incorporating game theory optimal concepts into his play. That strategic shift propelled him from playing $500 events to crushing at one of the highest levels in the game, piling up $7.5 million in live cashes now to go with heaps more online.
Koon now bases his entire strategy around game theory optimal play. It's helped him stay out of what he called "leveling wars and ego-fests" and left him secure in the knowledge that he has made strong strategic decisions even in spots that ended in elimination.
"It's like the worst feeling in the world to walk out knowing you punted a tournament because you got tricked by some dude," Koon said.
It's certainly served him well given all the results he has put up and Koon ranks this win as possibly his best yet.
But he isn't ready to rest on his laurels or start slowing down. He feels the window is closing on the opportunity to make big money playing no-limit hold'em tournaments, so he's looking to keep rolling and make his mark on the game. In order to retire knowing he was one of the game's best, Koon knows he will have to keep ignoring results and putting in work to keep skilled rivals like Carrel at bay.
"I think it's really important to keep my eye on the rail, stay grounded and realize that I'm having a mini-Fedor moment and that's awesome," he said. "But at the same time, there's a bunch of guys that are more talented than I am so I need to work hard and stay on top of it."
|1||Jason Koon||United States||$1,650,300|
|2||Charlie Carrel||United Kingdom||$1,191,900|
|3||Daniel Colman||United States||$759,660|
|5||Byron Kaverman||United States||$445,320|
|6||Connor Drinan||United States||$340,540|
|7||Bryn Kenney||United States||$275,060|
* Photos by Neil Stoddart/PokerStars.