John “The Greek” Leontakianakos

published on 12/21/05 at 4:49 pm is privileged to have an exclusive interview with John “The Greek” Leontakianakos. A professional poker player for 27 years, John has made millions in cash games and recently has stepped into tournament play.

With the explosion of online poker, have you shifted your focus to online games or do you still predominantly play live games?
There is a significant difference between online poker and live games. I refer to online poker as the “great equalizer”. In online play most people’s focus is on the hand they were dealt. Thus, they are playing cards. In a live tournament, the one thing that matters least is the cards you are dealt, thus, you are playing poker. The better a player is, the stronger his advantage at a live table. In a live game I am far more concerned about position, table presence and perception, my read on the competition and the flow of play, rather than the hand itself. Online, most of these things are either ignored or not applicable. Online really levels the playing field for the novice player. So the answer to your question is, I will take a live game over online play and time.

I have read that you, as well as other professionals, enjoy backgammon. What is the connection between this game and poker? Is it the psychological warfare or something else?
I have never explored the association between the two, even though I concur with your assessment. I would assume that theory and calculations play a great role in both games and aggression is usually equally rewarded. The one-on-one competition is another aspect that I always enjoyed with backgammon. This probably explains why I am at my best in poker when playing heads up. There are significant differences between the two games. Even though I am a world-class player in backgammon, my 6 year old beats me regularly as the game is 80% luck and 20% skill. If you get the right role of the dice I don’t care how bad you are, you will win. Where in Poker the opposite is true.

Is there any previous training or skill set that helps you as a poker player?
My mathematical abilities have enabled me to embrace game theory and its application to Poker and that has given me a significant statistical advantage over my competition. Also, when I was starting out, I spent the better part of 9 years grinding out a living at the poker tables in, what was then, a very unfriendly player environment. This experience has helped me establish and maintain a consistent level of discipline which is a “must” for any serious player.

What are the biggest blinds/antes you have ever played in?
In limit Poker I usually play 200-400 and up. I will go as high as 1K-2K if I can find the game. In no limit (the blind structure being far less significant) I will play 100-200 and 200-400. My favorite game though is one I have been playing in for 17 years. It is a no limit game, consisting of Stud, Omaha and Hold’em. The blind structure is 100-200 with a $25K buy in.

You just started tournament play, why are you beginning now?
Up until about five years ago tournaments were very scarce. As such, it did not make any sense to make the time commitment required to travel to a tournament and play for a week, especially with the minimal attendance that was present, the money just wasn’t there. In addition, if you look at a tournament pay structure it is a little bit of a sucker bet. If you enter a 1,000-player tournament your odds of winning the tournament are 1,000:1. Yet the payout when you win is usually 15-20% thus, you are getting paid between 150:1 – 200:1 for a wager with 1,000:1 risk. Not exactly good pots odds if you know what I mean. Not to mention that with the same time commitment you could have made more money at a cash game, as well as control the odds. With tournament attendance what it is today, the prize money is significant. Sometimes significant enough to justify the time commitment as well as overlook the payout structure.

After taking a bad beat, how do you reset your mind to play the next hand?
The better a player you are the greater the likelihood that you are going to take a bad beat. In the WSOP main event this year I found myself all in on 14 occasions. I was well ahead all 14 times. I won 13 of them, losing the final all in just off the bubble to a one outer. There is an old Russian proverb that states, “A hammer breaks glass yet is forges steal.” Never has this statement been more true than in the case of Poker. Those of us that have embraced this game get stronger from each beat and realize that it is as much a part of the game as anything else. After you have been playing as long as I have there is no bad beat imaginable that you have not experienced. I have lost with every hand you could mention on multiple occasions with the exception of a Royal. It is the one hand that always holds up. How do you do it? Very simple, take a deep breath, suck it in, and take it like a man. Congratulate your opponent for his good fortune and walk away.

Do you play to a particular style or do you like to switch, much like an actor would do in different roles?
I have always ascribed to the school of aggression. I believe that you need to make your presence at a table known, and known early. Players need to realize right off the bat that you don’t give free cards or free rides. Please don’t misinterpret aggression for carelessness, they are not synonymous. Aggression is very simply, you have a hand, bet it. If you are thinking of entering a pot, do so on a raise, otherwise fold. If you see me limping in at a table, it is probably a good sign as well that you need to get out of the way because the only reason I am limping is to get a read on the rest of the players and have to opportunity to call-reraise. The trick is to remain consistent in the style of play that suits you and your personality. Where does the variation come in? In the hands you play and in the position you play them from.

Do you have any habits or superstitions before or while you play poker?
As I am naturally disciplined I take a very disciplined approach to the game and that includes preparation and the habitual ceremony involved. 1- I am always well rested prior to play as a session may run 20-30 plus hours. 2-I am well groomed and well fed as I never eat at the table. First of all its bad manners and gets the cards and chips dirty no matter how careful you are, secondly, you think better and are more focused with less food in your stomach. 3-I always dress well and comfortable. I am going to be there for a while so I want comfort. In addition a well-dressed person sets a conservative image and that’s what you want at the table. Don’t go play looking that you just got kicked out of an MTV party. The only superstition I have is I never lend money when I have chips in play at a table. Every time I have lent someone money when I am playing I will run into the worst steak of cards imaginable. So those close to me have learned, you need a loan from me, ask me before I sit down or after I get up, never during play.

What do you believe is the most important factor that separates average players from the great ones?
There are two significant factors and they apply about 70-30. 70% is lack of discipline. Discipline to tighten up when you need to. To avoid temptation and chase down draws. To lay down losing hands and stop dreaming of a lifesaver at the river. Discipline to play within your means and skill level. The other 30% is the ability to read. There is a lot going on at a poker table. Every hand you need to be conscious of position, everyone’s chip stack, a constant recollection of the hands they showed down and the situation they were in. Now view your cards, calculate odds and percentages, implement a theory and strategy while at the same time observing, consciously everything going on at the table and have the ability to process it, compare it to past events and have a flag go up when something material just occurred that you need to take immediate notice of. It’s not easy. Those that can do it, do it well and we have a significant advantage over others. Especially when we are at a table with the same players for a prolonged period of time. When others begin to telegraph their hand they might as well have their cards face up.

If you could give one piece of advice to the average player to help improve their game, what would it be?
The best piece of advice I can give anyone is “there is no such thing as a bad lay down” This is great advice for a beginner as they have a tendency to “marry” hands. They fall in love with them and loose their shirt. You go in with a strong hand and miss the flop. You put out a continuation bet and get raised, lay it down. You went in with suited connectors and are not “at least” open-ended post flop or looking at a four flush, lay it down. You go in with a pair and miss the set with overcards on the board, lay it down. You think you’re beat but can’t be sure. You probably are, lay it down. There are a million examples I can write all of which have the same conclusion, lay it down. This is especially crucial in a tournament. After all, you are there to win the tournament not the hand. Don’t put your tournament at risk on a hand you fell in love with, lay it down, stay in the tournament and live to fight another show down.

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12 Responses to “John “The Greek” Leontakianakos”

  1. Crazy Snake

    Dec 21st, 2005

    Hi John,

    Love the article and thanks for your contribution. If you happen to see this question and have the time to answer….now that you have played a number of tournaments, do you have any particular advice or strategy for when you get short-stacked? Your thoughts appreciated.

  2. Shrek

    Dec 21st, 2005

    Great to hear from a professional such as yourself John. I enjoyed reading your replies and it was good to see that the poker pros enjoy backgammon, a game I don’t mind playing myself.
    If you have the time, and are prepared to, could you please tell me who, out of all the pros you have played with, in your opinion, is…
    1) The biggest mouth
    2) The hardest to read
    3) The most entertaining


  3. ALI-G

    Dec 25th, 2005

    Hi John,
    Great article I thouroughly enjoyed it. Having played for 27 years I assume you have to many memorable/forgettable moments to count, but was wondering if there is one hand that has stuck in your mind as the best hand you ever played and likewise one hand so bad you still cant believe you played it?

  4. Create Username

    Dec 26th, 2005

    Very informative easy read.. thanks for letting the average guy get a “peek” into the mind of a pro…

  5. Archaeos

    Jan 17th, 2006

    Very interesting. And as a fellow Greek it is nice to see one of us among the top players of the world. Well done Gianni!

  6. John The Greek

    Jan 23rd, 2006

    Ali – G,

    In response to your question, there is one hand that sticks out and it was at this year WSOP main event. I was delt pocket 7′s in third position. I put out a sizable raise of 4X the Big Blind and was immediately called by the man in 5th position. This worried me a bit as this guy was extremely tight. He had raised out pre flop on two occassions and when I reraised back at him, he folded both times. Every time I made a play at him he would fold and now he was calling my raise. The board flopped 7, A, A. I had flopped the full. I placed a sizable bet of 1.5 x the pot. The other player came over top putting me all in. After thinking about his play, and how conservative he had played the entire day, I put him on the only hand that someone playing the way he had, pocket A’s and showed him my full as I laid it down. He was baffled that I was able to get away from this hand as he turned over his hands and showed me what I already knew, Quads. It was pretty earlier in the tournament, too early to bust out on what appeared to be the best hand. A good lesson for most, you are not there to win any particular hand, you are there to win the tournament. In order to do so, you have to be willing to lay it down now and then.

  7. John The Greek

    Jan 23rd, 2006


    At the WSOP main event I found myself in an all too common of a situation. I was doing well throughout the first day. I rapped up the evening with a decent chip count, placing me in the top 40% of the field going into day two. When day two came, however, it was a whole different ball game. I could not catch playable cards to save my life. My best hand the first hour was a J-8 off suite. I tried taking a couple of stabs at the pot, just to get some blinds back. Every time I would enter a pot I would end up with an average of two callers and a raise. Nothing was going right and I began to realize rather quickly that my presence at the tournament would likely be short lived.

    After the brake I found myself significantly short stacked with 4,200 in chips and on the Big Blind. After laying off the Blind and ante I was left with 3,200. Much to my surprise I look down to see poker 9′s, the best hand I had gotten all day. One player called the blind in late position as did the small blind and I pushed in a 2,000 raise. I could have pushed all in, and most players with my chip stack would have. However, I did not. Both the other players called the bet and we went to the flop.

    The board flopped A, Q, J rainbow. Not the best flop in the world when you are holding pocket 9′s. As a result of the flop and in poor position I checked as did the small blind. The button makes a pot sized bet followed by an All-In raise from the small blind. At this point I am ‘pot committed’ I am getting great ‘pot odds’ and conventional wisdom would tell you to push in the remainder of you measly stack. I folded. The Button called. The small blind revealed pocket Queens and the button A, K suited. The board turned a 10 and rivered a 9. Even though I would have made a set I was third best at the table with a set of Queens out on the flop and the pot going to the nut straight on the button.

    The good news was that I made a great read and a great lay down. I did not let odds or statistics influence my decision. No matter how good the odds are sometimes you know you are beat and you need to lay the hand down. The bad news was that I had almost no chips left and perhaps this was merely an exercise in futility. Then again, perhaps not.

    The most famous saying in No Limit Hold’em is ‘a chip and a chair’ well, I had three chips and a chair and all the necessary tools required. A few hands later I caught pocket 6′s and pushed all in with three callers getting almost 6-1 on my money (with the Antes and Blinds). Not to bore you with the details of every hand, but I was still at the table seven and a half hours later and had build up my 3 chips to over 28,000.

    The above play completely defies conventional wisdom. But then again this is Poker. This is not a road test at the motor vehicle bureau where we need to follow all the rules and regulations. The poker police are not going to come running out of the back room and arrest you or even fine you. If you ‘know’ your beat lay the damn hand down. I don’t care how much you have in the pot or what position you are in. Stop marrying loosing hands post flop because you can justify making a stupid call as a result of odds and calculations.

  8. Administrator

    Jan 25th, 2006

    I have been thinking about the 77 vs AA hand you played and made the correct read and fold.

    You bet after the flop, and he raised it.
    1) Wouldn’t it have been better for Mr.AA to just call that?
    2) And if he did just call, would you still have put him on AA?

  9. Chris Pavlatos

    Feb 20th, 2006

    Megale I enjoyed your commentary very much , and see that you have a very keen understanding of the game , and its many nuances.

  10. John The Greek

    Feb 21st, 2006

    Administrator – Regarding your post of 1/25.

    Your assessment is correct. A more skilled player would have slow played the AA and simply called. There was no need to press the action as I was giving him plenty of action. It was a novice mistake on his part, one that let me off the hook on the hand.

    If he had just called I would have continued in the hand as it did not cost me anything additional to see the turn. With a call of the river, I would have then checked the turn. If he chose to bet out at the point, I would have made a determination as to whether or not I should call based on the size of his bet. Knowing I was probably behind, I would want to try to get to a show down, but would want to preserve atleast 50% of my chip stack in the process.

  11. John The Greek

    Feb 21st, 2006

    Chris Pavlatos

    Thank you for your kind words. Coming from a skilled player such as yourself, its quite a compliment. In this game, recognition by those we respect is the greatest achievement.

  12. [...] Beat Story #1 On the bubble at the Borgatta Open, a World Poker Tour event, John “The Greek” Leontakianakos was dealt Kings-Kings. One other person (Mr. Opponent) is in the hand, and calls John’s [...]

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