‘Best poker player in the world’ is an impossible metric.
Tournament winnings are, for the most part, public information but do not properly track player net wins and losses. Likewise, the biggest winners – and losers – from cash games are, at best, based on exaggerated rumor and braggadocio. Attempting to properly quantify the relative skill sets of mixed game experts versus those who specialize in No Limit Hold’em and the myriad of players who exist in between those two poles adds another complex layer to an equation with no answer.
Joao Vieira knows this but also believes that if there are going to be conversations about the best players in the world, his name needs to be included.
“I think I’m up there. I’m not the best player in the world, I don’t think so. I’m one of the best tournament players in the world, especially if you put mixed games in it too,” Vieira said. “If you play in a tournament format, I’m very certain I’m up there. There’s so many people, so many good players around. It’s very hard.”
Vieira doesn’t demand that his name be included in those discussions, but rather expects it because he knows how much work he has put into the game and believes that with $3.8 million in lifetime live earnings plus untold millions of online earnings he has the results necessary to be included. That success comes from a combination of a passion for poker and an insatiable work ethic that he developed while growing up in Madeira, Portugal.
“I just love the game. I’m trying to be the best version of myself. I’m trying to get the absolute best of my abilities and then I’m going to see if that’s the best in the world or not,” Vieira said.
This time last year, Vieira was still basking in the glow that came from winning his first bracelet and in the process removing himself from a list most tournament players would rather avoid: best player without a bracelet. Vieira won the $5,000 Six Max No Limit Hold’em event for $758,011. While there was certainly a celebration to be had, Vieira felt a sense of accomplishment and relief.
“To be honest, (it was) kind of a weight off my shoulders more than anything else,” Vieira said. “It’s something that I kind of felt that I should have won already. So I felt it was a long time coming, that it was kind of validation for me. I felt that winning that would at least prove a point to myself.”
It’s not as if Vieira had been coming to the WSOP for a decade or more and simply wasn’t able to pick one up. His first time out to Las Vegas to play the Series was 2016. Some ambiguity over the Portuguese tax laws made it nearly impossible for him or other players from Portugal to play in the United States before that. That changed in 2016 and Vieira has made the trip across the Atlantic each year since.
He cashed nine times in 2016, six times in 2017, and then seven times in 2018. Last summer he found the money nine times including the bracelet win. Despite averaging more than seven cashes per summer over his first three years, Vieira believes he should have – and could have – done better.
“I ran pretty bad the first two years. Sometimes I feel like you need to run really good to understand when you were actually running bad and when you weren’t,” Vieira said. “I put a lot of cashes in, I built a bunch of stacks, but then I ran really bad in the mid-game,” Vieira said. “Your luck has to hold for a couple of days, and then you’re going to get a final table or something. Otherwise, you’re just not going to get that far.”
Confident enough in his poker game, Vieira couldn’t help but jump at the opportunity to take up Daniel Negreanu on his high stakes bracelet bet. In mid-June, Negreanu challenged any other player to bracelet bets for the 2020 WSOP and was willing to bet up to $100,000 per player. Vieira was immediately intrigued. So were his friends.
“He put it up there on Twitter. He was taking all comers. As soon as I saw the bet, I got a bunch of text messages from friends who were saying, ‘Can I get a piece of your action?’, assuming I was going to bet,” Vieira said.
It didn’t take long for Vieira and Negreanu to settle on terms. The player who wins the most bracelets on GGPoker events from August 2 onward wins $100,000 from the other. Whether or not Vieira, and his ever-supportive group of friends, thinks he’s the best tournament player in the world or not, he does believe that some of the people betting against Negreanu aren’t giving the six-time bracelet winner enough respect.
“I think the high stakes, the super high roller crew, or at least the high stakes community underestimates Daniel’s online ability and his ability to compete. The amount of stacks that he just gets handed because the recreational players are in such awe,” Vieira said. “People underestimate him a lot. I’m not going to do that. I just have to do my thing. I’m not competing directly versus him, but I think he’s far better than the younger generation like to admit.”
Vieira was 15 years old when he started playing basketball for CAB Madeira, the local pro team in his hometown. While playing time may have been in short supply those first few seasons, it was during the frequent road trips across Portugal where he was first introduced to poker. His teammates, some in their 30s with wives and kids at home, were playing cash games in the hotel to kill time.
“They were spewing hard. $3/$6 No Limit Hold’em games. For sure, they compete but that’s how it went. We were playing like $1K pots. I was like, ‘Well, this is interesting’,” Vieira said. “It was never about the money. Then I found out a little bit about the strategy and I went from there. The money never really struck me. It was more about the game itself, the puzzle.”
While he learned about poker while playing the first game he ever loved, the first game he ever loved prepared him for his life as a professional poker player. Heading into the WSOP Online – or any series, live or online, for that matter – Vieira puts energy towards studying because he knows once the series begins, it’s game time.
“I think you have to have the same approach as I did when I played basketball. You do the preseason, you go really hard, you get ready, get your conditioning ready, get your skill set ready, and then when it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” Vieira said. “You’re not going to work on your form in the middle of the season, (before) the playoffs. That’s either done or you’re done. That’s it.”
Motivation has never been hard to find for Vieira. Growing up he ran track, played soccer and basketball and always wanted to be the best. Any statistic he could use as a metric to track his progress – either team or personal – was part of the way he pursued excellence. That carried over when he turned to online poker and admits PocketFives played a role earlier in his career.
“All the Triple Crowns, I think I had 15. I was on my way to catch (Chris) Moorman. I was #2 all-time and I was #5 on the PocketFives Rankings and all of that was a big part of my motivation,” Vieira said. “Those kinds of challenges, the titles, the scores, the point per game or season, that kind of basketball mentality, that’s what motivates me. To have all of the accolades, the rankings, all of the bracelets, in this case, the stats. That’s what keeps me going.”
Wanting more than just the one bracelet, Vieira has spent years playing every poker variant with the intent of getting better at it. That desire came from hearing an interview with a Poker Hall of Famer.
“A cool thing that Barry Greenstein said once was ‘If you’re a true poker player, you play all the games’. I was just starting. I was just a fish at the time and that sentence stuck,” Vieira recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense. If you really love poker, you love all forms of poker, not just your form of poker. Not just the two cards.”
The purist in him believes that to be considered one of the best poker players, you have to be able to play more than just one game type. That’s part of the reason why Vieira, a self-described poker purist, loves the annual trip to Las Vegas for the WSOP so much.
“That’s my favorite time of the year … Even though I’m European, I think I fully embraced the American mixed game culture. So every time I go (to Las Vegas), it’s a chance that I have to play the $10Ks, the $1,500s, the $3Ks, the non Hold’em events,” Viera said. “I want the $1,500 Single Draw, I want the Badeucy, Badacey, whatever they can find. I want it.”
There have been a number of players who have railed against the WSOP holding 85 bracelet events online this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Vieira hears them loud and clear and agrees that the WSOP needs to be vigilant in protecting the brand and the value of the bracelet.
“I’m one of the guys that puts a lot of emotional value behind (bracelets). But I know it’s just emotional value, because the difference between the Rio events and the Venetian events, it’s just the bracelets,” Vieira admitted. “If the World Series wants to be here in 20 years, they need to protect the emotional value. So they can’t just hand out 300 bracelets a year, otherwise nobody cares in 10 years. And what’s the World Series of Poker without the bracelet’s emotional value? It’s nothing.”
Over the next six weeks, Vieira plans to be in front of his computer each and every day hunting down WSOP bracelets in an attempt to make it even harder for his colleagues and the rest of the poker community to ignore his place at the top of the game. Even if the bracelets don’t come, Vieira wants to leave his mark on the game he loves so much by simply putting in the work.
“I’m 30. I’m young, but this thing goes fast. I know. I always have that idea of mortality in my mind,” Vieira said. “One day I’m not going to be here. So as long as I’m going to be here, I’m going to go 100%.”