Commentary

Bellande a Survivor

Updated: November 29, 2007, 5:10 PM ET
By BLUFF

Jean-Robert Bellande has never slid under the radar. Since his first TV appearance, he has commanded attention, and stolen the spotlight at the poker table. When we first heard of Jean-Robert's appearance on "Survivor," honestly, we knew nobody in the poker world would be a better selection. We caught up with Bobby at the Bellagio after he got back from the show.

Bluff: Give us a little background. What was your childhood like?

Bellande: I was born in New York and, when I was around the age of 5, my father got a contract to do some government work in Iran. My mom was very excited about going to Iran and dancing with the Shah [laughs]. Somehow, last minute, the Iran job didn't work out and my father was reposted in Taiwan. So I went out there and my parents loved the environment for us to grow up in. There was a youth group there and my parents ended up running the group, which was great for my brothers and me. We had personal private tennis lessons as kids; we got to play soccer, baseball. The whole youth community was very tight-knit. So as a kid, I was always really competitive and really athletic. I was a pretty strong soccer player, but not too into baseball. I spent most of my childhood there in Taiwan. I came back to the States to go to university at a small state school in California, where I graduated with a marketing degree.

While I was in school, I read an article in GQ Magazine about a club in L.A. called The Roxbury. I found it so fascinating. I think Madonna at the time was dating one of the owners, and for some reason it was just the coolest thing to me. Six months later, on my 21st birthday, I finally ended up getting a chance to go. I waited outside for about an hour to get in, and when I finally did I was the happiest kid in the world. There was a singer, Al B Sure, who was popular then, and we walked in at the same time; somehow we became quick acquaintances and he walked me into the VIP -- that was my first taste of the night life. Within a few weeks I was helping out some of the club's promoters and working at the club. I started doing one night a week helping out the promoters. I was excited about just being there, making a few hundred dollars a week, but at the same time I was able to get all my friends in, hang out at the hottest club, and have fun.

I guess some of the big promoters out there saw that I had a talent as a young kid to make whatever types of people feel comfortable. Whether it was celebrities or beautiful women, people wanted to either hang out with me or would give me their number so I could call and invite them to different events. I was happy going out six nights a week, and hanging out at The Roxbury, which at the time was the hottest club in the town.

Bluff: So tell us how you first found your way to a poker table.

Bellande: Well, I first got into action games in college. I would typically gamble on pool, foosball, your standard bar games for a bit of money through college. It was just to make the game interesting. When I got out of university, I frequented a place called Hollywood Billiards and Athletic Club in L.A. I was never a great pool player, but I was always a good negotiator. So I would always make a game that was workable. My first year playing pool, I was actually a losing player. It wasn't until the second year that I began making money playing pool.

Bluff: Explain to us how you could be not a great player, yet a winning player.

Bellande: Well, you can see within three balls or so whether someone can actually play pool, and how sharp they are. The big difference between pool and poker is that the good pool player is going to win most of the time. Even with a spot, the better pool player will usually win. In poker, a bad player can get lucky. The numbers may be in the better player's favor, but the good player can lose a good amount of time. I just love the action. I love playing pool. I was doing pretty well promoting clubs, I was 22 years old, and I was making $4,000 a week cash, which at the time was a huge deal for a kid like me. I guess now it's not as big of a deal, because there are tons of online poker kids making that kind of money. I was like the celebrity of all my friends at the time. I was also making $20,000 to $40,000 on the side, playing pool.

One day, about nine years ago, I was playing pool at a place called Hard Times. It's a nostalgic place for pool, where the big action games take place. I won about $5,000 one night, which is pretty big in the pool world, and I drove past the Bicycle Casino and I saw a sign for California Blackjack. Being the action junkie that I was, I couldn't help myself. I walked in and proceeded to win about $25,000, which was kind of odd, since you are beating other players out of the money, not the house. On my way out I noticed the poker room. The floor man, seeing I had no clue what I was doing, sat me down with a rack of $300, at a $6/$12 limit hold 'em game. I blew through the money in about 25 minutes and was bored to tears. I had just won $25,000; please put me in the real game. So, they went ahead and put me in the $60/$120 game, where the players quickly realized that I was clueless. They decided to bump the game to $80/$160, and I wound up losing $13,000. All the while, I felt I was getting the gist of it, but I really had no chance. If it was no-limit hold 'em, I might have had a shot, but we were playing a mixed-game format. Even though I lost, I had gotten that taste, and I felt the money was a well-worthwhile investment. I probably lost about $200,000 playing poker my first year.

Bluff: Wow, that's an expensive lesson. Was that hard to deal with at the time, losing all that money?

Bellande: Well, I loved playing. Because I was doing so well in the club business, I didn't realize I was losing as much as I did playing poker. All my money was going right to poker, and as well I was doing, I was putting myself in debt playing cards. I didn't start breaking even in cards until at least my second and third year. I probably should have gone through the levels, but I couldn't face playing lower than $40/$80.

Bluff: Was this before the boom, meaning the competition was pretty steep at the time?

Bellande: There were not many bad players in the game at all. It was before poker got popular, and it was playing mixed games, which was only guys who were trying to make a living playing poker. I didn't get to start out the way I should have. I wish it was no-limit hold 'em I was playing at the time, because I think I wouldn't have lost as much money learning the game.

Bluff: When did you start playing no-limit hold 'em?

Bellande: I started playing no-limit hold 'em about two years after I started playing poker. I'll tell you what happened. I was playing $60/$120 heads-up with someone, and I was losing my ass. I was down about $6,000. He got called away for a while, and the only other game in the high-limit section was $400/$800 mixed game. They were on the Omaha high/low section, which was my specialty at the time. I figured I would take a stab at it. It was, of course, way over my bankroll, but I had to take a shot. I ended up winning about $13,000 in the high/low round. I didn't want to be a jerk and get up and leave, so I stuck around and I ended up winning about $50,000 in that session.

Funny thing is another gentleman and I were considered the live ones in the game, and we ended up being the big winners that day. The lineup was pretty nuts, too: Barry Greenstein, Allen Cunningham, Yosh Nakano, and some other big grinders. I knew they were good players, but I figured my Omaha game wasn't behind by much to anybody. But $50,000, that was a huge score for me. The biggest of my career at the time. I took half of the money and blew it in Vegas; and the other half and played Jeff Lisandro in Omaha high/low, and he crushed me. I knew he beat me because he outplayed me. We became good friends through that, and he eventually invited me to Prague to run one of his poker rooms, which is where I first picked up no-limit hold 'em.

I had been going through a tough time, so I went to Prague for a month. My night club was at the end of its run, my girlfriend and I broke up, and my father passed away from cancer all around the same time. So the Prague invite was perfect timing. That was about four years ago. I went for one month, and I stayed for about six to seven months. I was running the cardroom; I was winning at the games. We basically had the only game in town.

Bluff: Was Jeffrey improving your game while this was going on?

Bellande: Absolutely. I was asking him questions all the time. That's something that I was always good at, asking questions. Anything I see, I will ask someone about it. Even today, I will watch Joe Cassidy play heads-up limit hold 'em online, and will see him do something, and I will ask him all sorts of questions. I am always asking questions, and I think that has been a major help. Jeff would get frustrated even with all the questions. I think he thought I might be getting too good too fast.

In Prague, no-limit hold 'em was the only game in town, so I was really able to hone my skills in that game there. I felt I was getting very good at it. I would play in the casino and then I would go home and play three $200 sit-n-gos on Party Poker until I would make $1,000. That was going great, and I went 30 straight days making $1,000 playing those sit-n-gos. Those sit-n-gos improved my tournament game more than any other learning tool I ever had access to. They allow you to learn every aspect of the game, every dynamic.

Bluff: When you got back to the States, did you start playing tournaments? How did that work out?

Bellande: Well my first memorable tournament was not a $10,000, it was one of the prelim events -- I think it was a $2,500 buy-in. It was right before the Grinder got really hot. I made the final table and it was Gioi Loung, Grinder, and me. A huge hand happened that I think was pretty sick. Gioi raised with two kings, a short stack moved in with two jacks, guy after him called with two kings, and Grinder moved all-in with aces. It was an absolute monster hand. I was destroying the table at the time, and it was very unfortunate for me that Grinder won that pot and so many chips. I lost my hold, and I think that was the first tourney that Grinder won. He played great, and that was a sick hand.

Bluff: Your first TV final table was pretty interesting. Tell us a bit about it.

Bellande: I really felt that this was my tournament. I had A-5 on a J-5-5 board, and I check-raised a guy all-in, and he called all in with K-J. The turn and river came K-J, and it made me realize that my talk at the table made people want to beat me so badly that they would get it in with junk.

Bluff: Have you always been a talker at the table?

Bellande: I have always been a talker. I started in Prague, because my confidence level just got so high. I felt like the best player. I came to the States, and I felt just as confident. And I found it gave me a huge edge talking at the table. It makes people want to beat me. It's not that they hate me; they just want to beat me. Afterwards they want to grab a beer with me.

Anyways, that hand with the A-5 got me severely short-stacked. I forced myself to focus and buckle down there. I ended up at the final table, but I remember it was interesting when we were down to 10 or 11 people. Phil Ivey had about 3.5 times the big blind, and he moved in from the button or the cut-off. I had a ton of chips and picked up A-Q suited, and I folded it face up. We were one away from the final table. Everyone though I had lost my mind. It was not that I didn't want to double up Phil Ivey. It was that I wanted Phil Ivey at my final table. I knew if I got to a TV final table of Phil Ivey, Jennifer Harmon, Tony Ma, Gabe Thaler, that this would be one of the greatest final tables. I thought it was a negative EV for me, losing Phil Ivey at the table. Most folks still thought I was crazy, keeping Phil there. But it was a marketing thing. I am one of the guys who gets a lot of press because of my act at the table. I'm like an Anna Kournikova: I have done pretty well, but not incredible. I have never won a major nor been at that many TV tables. I love ESPN for pegging me as the villain at my first TV table. It made me a poker personality. Even though I didn't win, I think people still look at it as my table. That's probably the reason the folks from "Survivor" found me.

Bluff: Did you follow "Survivor" at all? Were you a fan at all of the show?

Bellande: No, not at all. I maybe watched six or seven episodes of the first season.

Bluff: So they approached you?

Bellande: Someone who I used to work with in the club business is now on the casting team of "Survivor." She came to me and thought I would be brilliant. She had actually approached a few folks who have gone on to win either "Survivor" or "Amazing Race." When she first approached me, I thought, "No way! I don't want to starve myself and go through all that." I had already had TV exposure from poker, so that wasn't a factor. The more I thought about it, it seemed like it made a lot of sense. I decided my EV was way higher than 1 in 16 at a million dollars. This could increase my popularity in the poker world and increase the perception of my character. Every show needs that charming a------. I wanted to be the bad guy who was also fun and easy to like.

Bluff: We all remember the rumor of you being on the show, and that a thread on 2+2 potentially could have cost you a spot on the show. Is this true?

Bellande: They don't like any information being leaked. It creates an edge for the competition, because they can do research on you.

Bluff: I hear there are some pretty wild folks on the show with you.

Bellande: This cast is a particularly good cast. We have a grave digger in there, a lunch lady, a WWE wrestler, a chicken farmer. It's an interesting cast.

Bluff: How long before you headed out did you know you had made it?

Bellande: I thought it was a no-brainer for them to pick me. It's interesting -- the process. They get you excited about it, but you never know for sure whether you are on it. They keep calling to let you know you made another cut, and leave you hanging. They only let you know at the last minute. The truth is, when the rumors were out there, I didn't even know for sure if I was going on the show. Once you get the call, you have about a week to prepare. They ask all the finalists to prepare in case, so I was getting ready while I was waiting.

Bluff: Did you start putting together a strategy and do some research on the show?

Bellande: Well, they give you tapes and videos to study so you can begin to prepare. I will say that a lot of people going on the show should study up as much as possible, and it's definitely worth it. I love my strategy. Basically, my thought before going in was to be the biggest jerk possible without being voted off. I wanted to barely squeak by in the beginning and then as the show progressed I wanted to start to grow on people. I have had relationships like that in life, where you don't hit it off in the beginning, but you learn to grow on each other, and that's what my plan was getting into the show. I wanted to piss everyone off, but not get into jeopardy by winning challenges, and doing last-minute damage control. As time progressed, I was hoping others would see me so much as the bad guy. So that was it, my strategy going into the show.

Bluff: Obviously, the game of poker has a very strong psychological factor. Did your poker skills help you on "Survivor"?

Bellande: Absolutely! I am a firm believer that the skills you learn in poker -- the social dynamics, the reading people, the vibes -- are skills you can use in everyday life. In the promotion business, you have to know people and get along with people and get reads on people. That's probably why I feel poker is successful for me; it's not so much the technical tells and such, like the neck bobbing, or eyes dilating. I usually go with the vibes I get. What does my gut say? Is this person full of it or telling the truth? And I feel like I am right most of the time. I have made some crazy moves in my days. I laid down aces-full in a tournament against Paul Wasicka the first time I ever played with him, and you know what? I was right. I am capable of making the huge laydowns and I am capable of making the big calls. I once called a reraised pot preflop against a player. It went, raise, reraise, re-reraise, and I called this player with jack high in a cash came, because I had such a gut feeling the guy was bluffing. These may sound impressive, but to a good player who knows the situation and trusts his reads, these are musts.

Back to "Survivor" though, sometimes your antenna would go off. So and so is not telling me the truth or isn't looking me in the eye. Those are things that poker helped me with a lot.

Bluff: Was it harder than you thought?

Bellande: It was way harder than I thought. I really believed that a lot of it was exaggerated; I thought maybe they had outhouses or some sort of help. No, not at all. You go out in the woods, and you dig a hole, and you use a leaf. Then you go down to the lake and wash up; well, at least I would. I can't stand the idea of not being clean. I liked being in the water all the time. That was my place of refuge.

Bluff: Any fun gambling, or action on the side when you were on the show?

Bellande: Well, not on the show, but about two months before the show, Mike Matusow bet me like $10,000 that I couldn't do 20 push-ups. I thought nothing of it and thought it would be a cakewalk. I ended up trying to do military style pushups to show him up. I got to the last push-up and collapsed right there in the middle of the Commerce Casino. Everyone thought it was hysterical, and I told that story on the set. Folks thought I made it up, but it was 100 percent true.

Bluff: Now that you are back here in Vegas, are there things you can take from the show that will help your poker game?

Bellande: When you are out on the set, patience is a big factor. Our job was to make shelter and feed ourselves. Sure there are challenges once in a while, but it can get pretty boring. The show packs about three days or so into that one hour. You have to be patient on the show. There were nights when I couldn't wait for the night to be over, when I just wanted the whole thing to be done with. I think my patience level was stretched to a whole new level. I think it was harder for me than most, because it was happening during the World Series of Poker. I wanted to know how my buddies were doing; I wanted to know just any bit of news. That was frustrating. Sometimes the conditions were so brutal, you think to yourself, can I really do this for 39 days? No, I wanted to go back and play in the main event. But that was not an option by the way. There was no leaving unless you get voted off. And even then, if you get voted off, you don't leave until it's over. They have a little side camp that you stay in before the show starts, and if you get voted off, you don't see what's going on in the show, but you are still there.

Bluff: We talked a bit earlier about your presence at the table, you being known as a villain. How about the poker forums? Do you let any of that stuff bug you? I have often read about rumors about you being broke.

Bellande: Well … I'm going to say that it doesn't bother me. People talking about my performance, it doesn't bother me, but it does kick me in the ass. Here I am thinking, when I was 22-23 I was making four grand a week; I bought a Mercedes; I owned a night club at 26. Now I'm 37 years old, and there are times when I am broke. There is no excuse for this. I know what the problem is: I am a talented poker player, but I consistently play too high for my bankroll. However, one thing I am really good at -- and this is really important -- I convinced myself that I am a compulsive gambler, that poker is gambling with an edge. I consider myself at least a 4-6 percent advantage, sometimes more, sometimes less. Therefore, poker is a good proposition for me.

The Bellagio, for instance, gambles every day, except they always have an edge and they will win at the end of the year. I don't sports bet, I don't play pit games, I know that I have no edge in those games. Gambling is only good if you have an edge. For years I didn't even touch a table, since I knew that, like an alcoholic, the smallest bit would get me going again. Now, for entertainment I will gamble once in a while for fun, but nothing of any consequence. Now my biggest weakness is that I play too high for my bankroll. I lost $280,000 of my own money at the end of December, playing heads-up against a player, who I was probably about a 3-2 or higher favorite against and I lost all my money. I probably should have put the brakes on after I lost like half of it, but I couldn't. My money management is really, really poor. Poker is an industry where you see a lot of people who are not nearly as talented, but are really successful players because they have great money management skills. They have discipline. They play games where they are comfortable, and they make their money. I try to do that, I play smaller games and grind my way back, but I'll run it up and take a shot again and lose it all. Now, I think the ideal spot for me is to get involved with something where I have a steady income, and gain some financial security.

The interesting thing about my being broke is that it doesn't really matter for me. My lifestyle doesn't change. I still take the same trips. I was at the VMAs last night. That's always going to be me. Last week I flew in my buddy's private jet. I am always going to be living this lifestyle, and I love it. But enough's enough. There really is no excuse for me to ever be broke.

I have a book coming out at some point, called "Broke and Living Like a Millionaire," which really goes into detail about some of this stuff. I have been very fortunate, even with being broke. One of my concerns is kids playing poker and going broke and letting it all ride. I advise any kids who ask me about playing poker professionally to get their education first; get a degree, have a backup plan. Being broke is not fun. Most people are not as lucky and blessed to get bailed out like me. There are plenty of big-name players who are broke and people don't hear those stories. Young guys don't hear about how hard this business is. There are guys playing as high as the $4k/8k game who are broke, guys who have won millions in tournaments, but they aren't as vocal about it. I keep it real; I don't mind my business out in the open. I just don't want others to follow in my footsteps like that.

So yes, my next task, and it's a big one, is to improve my bankroll management.

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the No. 1 poker magazine in the country, Bluff magazine.

•  More analysis BLUFF.com
•  Published since 2005
•  Powers the WSOP Player of the Year Rankings

ALSO SEE