Justin Oliver is a World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner. He has reached the summit of his poker journey.
Or has he?
Any mountaineer can climb Everest. A true mountaineer with passion, drive and love for the climb will climb the Seven Summits. The universe cut Oliver out of the same rock as those privileged few.
Driven by an ambition that he inherited from his father, Oliver is on a mission. He wants to be the very poker player there is. Daniel Negreanu is his benchmark. But he also wants to be the very best human being he can be.
He is a beautiful man. He has an incredible energy and spirit. I hope you enjoy this wonderful conversation.
I have heard you say that you have the best job in the world but are still miserable on times; please expand on that.
“I have always loved playing games. I think that’s common for men especially. When I was younger, I loved board games, sports and anything competitive. Then I went into the jewelry business and did that for a bit, but when I found poker it allowed me to do what I loved – play a game. It started out as a hobby, and then it turned into my full-time job.
“Each day, I go into work, and my job is to play a game. It’s a luxury. I get to be a kid for life. The bouts of unhappiness that come with it are First World problems. It’s the competitiveness and the drive to win. We are always trying to win, and if you don’t set up the parameters for winning you might not ever win.
“There is no peace in more. That’s the problem with poker. It’s hard to find satisfaction when you are trying to make needless amounts of money. That’s where some of the misery lies with poker players. There is no end to the hunger for wanting more.”
What are your views on money?
“My opinion on these things comes from my father. He is this larger than life character in Canada called The Cash Man. He has his own jewellery business, and he has these crazy TV commercials.
“He always taught me that we need to spend money to make money. He taught me that if you hold on to it too tightly you won’t get more. He always taught me to give to others. When he had a good year, he was always spreading it around. I believe I can attract all the money I want if I set my mind to it; think about it and just know it’s coming to me. As long as I don’t hold on to it too tight – it will flow.”
Why is the need to find approval so important to you?
“In a recent interview with Mark Hoke Ben Hamnett was talking about this. He said guys like Phil Hellmuth were so needy for attention and approval it drives them to be the best.They won’t allow themselves to fail. They have to work hard to keep on achieving things.
“I realised that’s exactly like me. I set my mind to do things that seem in large part to be looking for approval. I have this goal to be the GPI #1. I write this goal in my notebook daily and I visual it daily. I did the same prior to winning my bracelet. I have had this book for about a decade, and all of the goals I have written in it and visualised have come true.
“I am trying to prove to the world that I am the best at poker. Why do I need this approval? I think it comes down to self-esteem. I think I have holes in my self-esteem. I have been through therapy my entire life, and one person put it to me very well. She said ‘Its like there is a hole inside you, and you are trying to fill it with accomplishments’.
“Accomplishments will never fill that hole for me, that’s the truth. I am always working on my self-esteem, but it’s hard. I have to give myself constant reminders to continue the work.”
What’s your view on spirituality and religion?
“I was born and raised Jewish. We were ultra reformed. We didn’t go to synagogue; I identify with being Jewish, but I don’t follow the traditional rules. For me, spirituality is more about my belief system that has to do mostly with science and things that I have observed.
“I think everyone in the world is connected and comes from the same spirit. Somehow when we are born, we come into this plane and exist in this one body but it’s not us. When we die, we return to this unified spirituality that is everyone connected. That’s my abstract view in the world.”
Do you mind talking about your cancer?
“I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in April. I had to have a testicle removed in May. It was successful, and I six weeks later I was tested and given the all-clear. As a precaution, I have to be tested every three months to make sure it doesn’t reappear anywhere else in my body.”
What was going on in your mind when you found the lump and was diagnosed?
“It was scary. It was surreal. I never thought that it would happen to me. Cancer was something that happened to other people. It shocked, surprised and scared me. It puts things into perspective. I am going to the casino and getting upset if I lose a $500 pot, and this is a life and death situation. I realised that health; happiness and family were the most important things in the world, and I needed to have a renewed focus on those things.
“I was so terrified of this happening and how it would affect me. The doctor at the time told me that 20-30 years from now I would look back and say ‘yeah, that thing happened.’ The truth is it’s been a few months, and I haven’t thought about it. It hasn’t affected my sex drive or my life in general. It’s become normal for me, and it’s not a big deal for me anymore.
“When you get cancer, you don’t know what it means. You had your sexuality, and everything was normal, and then there is this significant change. We connect these things with our masculinity, and I think it’s important to talk about these things and spread the word. If we make the diagnosis earlier, then that helps so much. Technology has advanced so much.”
I believe so many people are afraid of approaching the doctor about a potential lump.
“I put it off for so long. I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want anyone being around that area. I resisted it at first; then I went to the doctor a year or two before I was diagnosed. He told me I was fine. Then it got worse, and again I resisted going. Eventually, I did go and see him and was diagnosed. Perhaps, things could have been better had I gone earlier.”
Suicide Prevention Month, you took an active role in trying to raise awareness, do you mind if I ask why?
“Someone very close to me committed suicide. That was another shock to the system, and another day where I was thrown into a situation where I had a different perspective on everything. I was crying. Everything was meaningless at that moment. This person just died out of the blue, and I had no idea. I knew he had problems in his life, but I would never think he would kill himself. I would never have read that about his character. It was a complete shock, and I wanted to raise awareness that when people have problems, and are talking to you about those problems, we have a responsibility to listen and help in any way we can.”
If you could work on anything for 10,000 hours what would it be and why?
“It’s poker for me. I am pretty close to hitting that ceiling now. I have always been driven to be the best at what I am doing. Since I chose poker to be my career I want to be the best I can be. I am ambitious, and that ambition drives me on.”
What is the strongest craving you get?
“I will go with food, specifically sugar. I have a sugar addiction. My family are sugar freaks. My father would come home with bags full of chocolate bars on regular occasions. I loved anything sweet. I have set myself a personal challenge not to have any desserts, except when it’s a special occasion such as a birthday party or Thanksgiving, between now and the end of the year. So far its been three weeks and I have been sugar-free.”
Who inspires you and why?
“My Dad is a big inspiration. My poker coach Bill, who died recently, was one of my greatest inspirations and influences. Daniel Negreanu is also a big inspiration and influence on me. He is an absorbing character. Not only is he the most famous poker player in the world, and in my opinion the best poker tournament player in the world, I like what he has done with his life in terms of balance and giving back.
“He does so much for the community, in terms of charity work, but he also gives back to the poker community. Whenever I shoot him a hand we have discussions. He is very open with his poker knowledge. He has been a big influence and the benchmark that I aim for.”
Give my teenage son some great advice.
“Live in the moment. Enjoy your time as it passes so fast. I am 39-now, and it seems like I was 16 yesterday. Don’t spend your time in the past or future. Be in the present moment. When we think about the past, it causes depression, and when we worry about the future, it causes anxiety. Be in the moment, enjoy your youth and to have fun.”