Monday, September 19, 2022

Life is good: the Jan Suchanek story

Perpetual Czech 

I first heard or rather saw the name Jan Suchanek when I was in Melbourne at the Aussie Millions. It was at the peak of the "blog wars" which had started when Lappin and I had written answer blogs to a blog by a prominent pro who was castigating certain types of players as a cancer on the game. Our blogs went viral which meant I woke up every day to hundreds of Twitter notifications from people weighing in on the subject. In this sea of opinions, one name started to emerge as the most articulate and well informed. I imagined him as a fiery young online kid from eastern Europe who had no time for the old guard's insistence that their cartoon book personality type was the only one acceptable in modern poker.

When he slipped into my DMs I agreed happily to meet him at a break. I got there first, and eyed the crowds milling out for this guy who called himself PerpetualCzech on Twitter. When a tall guy about my age in a sports top appeared, I dismissed him as a candidate. He must have similarly dismissed me too, because he circled the area a few times before tentatively asking "You're not Dara, are you?"

Introductions out of the way, he launched into a tirade against the pro whose blog we had responded to, based on several encounters at tables in Vegas where he quickly formed the impression said pro was an entitled narcissistic bully hiding behind a facade of bonhomie. I quickly discovered that Jan was none of the things the leading pro was castigating: he was certainly no introvert, and he was most certainly no nit. What he was was someone who appreciated diversity and personalities of all sorts, who realised that the best thing about poker is that people are different, and any attempt to bully them into conforming to your own norms of personality is not only doomed to fail but fundamentally wrongheaded. Above all, he detested bullies and liars.

We bonded instantly and that day started an online friendship that meant that for the next three and a half years, we exchanged dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Whatsapp and Twitter messages every single day. Most of my days since then have started and ended with me reading and responding to a message from him. He lived in New Zealand so his morning was my night and vice versa, which added an interesting dynamic to the ebb and flow of our conversations and our tendency to take opposite sides on almost everything. 

The background story

Jan was born in Prague in the mid 60s. By his own account, he wasn't much more than a babe in arms when the Prague Spring happened. As the rest of Prague celebrated the liberal reforms, Jan's shrewd cookie of a mother looked eastward to Russia and decided "They won't let this stand". So she looked westward to Canada, decamping the family to Toronto (where Jan grew up) just in time before the tanks rolled into Prague. He described himself as a lanky awkward outsider who didn't feel he fitted in anywhere.

After high school, Jan studied economics in university and joined the workforce. He quickly realised the 9 to 5 answering to a boss life wasn't for him. He returned to Prague and drifted into sports betting. An intelligent out of the box thinker, he quickly found some specific exploits he could use in the early days of sports betting there. A master networker, he assembled what he called "brighter minds than mine" around him as he built his empire.

After meeting the love of his life Tatjana he relocated to New Zealand. In Melbourne, he invited me and Mrs Doke to his superbowl party in his hotel suite. Mrs Doke wasn't keen on the idea, having little interest in poker or poker players and even less in NFL, but grudgingly agreed to 15 minutes. When we got to the penthouse suite, she started to bristle a little, expecting some baller show off poker player determined to demonstrate how successful he was. Jan was more than ready though: he instantly charmed her with his self effacing manner, and wooed her with the finest wines known to humanity. As he fussed and fawned making sure everything was to her satisfaction, she whispered to me 

"Is this really the rich betting guy, or is it his servant?" 

When I told her the 15 minutes were up, she looked down at her Veuve Cliquot and caviar before scowling at me insistently

"We are staying!"

I gather Jan had more money riding on that game than most people make in a lifetime, and I gather it wasn't going well, but it didn't seem to bother him. His main concern was that all his guests were kept topped up and happy as he buzzed around, the consummate host. He endeared himself to Mrs Doke to the point that her first response to every proposed meal or drink thereafter was 

"Is Jan coming?"

Jan was so unassuming in both his attire and manner that most people would never have guessed how successful he was. At the first dinner he came along to, he insisted on picking up the bill. After he'd left, my brother in law castigated us for letting him pay.

"The poor man doesn't look like he could afford to pay for his own dinner let alone all of ours"

Meanwhile, Jan was on his way back to the highest stakes cash game he could find. 

The player

Always modest by nature, Jan described himself as a whale who splashed around with the proceeds of his sports betting. When I said to a pro I knew in the high stakes games I knew one of the whales, he asked me which one. When I identified Jan, he quickly informed me

"That man is no whale. He's winning in those games"

He expressed similar "I'm a donk" sentiments when it came to tournaments. He took great delight in bragging about hands he'd punted, or tournaments he'd busted before the first break. What he never mentioned was the fact he had cashed for more on his Hendon Mob than me. He also never mentioned his 8 game Aussie Millions ring, or the fact that he'd been headsup for a bracelet against Bryn Kenney in a 10 game mix event, or that he'd once won three tournaments in a row, or that he chiplead the WSOP main event with 100 players left once before taking a horrendous beat with 50 left for all the chips. He took that beat like a champ and when I asked him about it he described the moment:

"I remember it vividly. It was surreal. I went to my rail as we waited for the river card, and everything slowed down, and I thought whatever happens I'm ok with it, it doesn't really matter. I almost wanted to get one outered, just to see what that would be like"

He had a high variance high pressure style that yes, made for a lot of early bustouts, but also yielded many top three finishes and victories. He played all the games, and he was equally at home in a 10k in Vegas and a 100 home game in New Zealand, where he loved to play.

Fast friends

After Melbourne we were friends for life. A natural contrarian, he loved to argue, and in me he found someone willing to indulge that side of him. We argued both sides of practically everything, not so much because we genuinely disagreed all that often but just to hold our views to the fire and see what stood up.

He became an instant fan of my blogs and the Chip Race. He was maybe our biggest fan, something which didn't stop him from criticising every single show we put out rigorously. He wanted his friends to shoot for the stars, aspire to the highest standards, but when they failed to meet them he was instantly forgiving.

"It'll be better next time"

He relished his Twitter spats and feuds, and that year we Chip Race boys gave him much to work with. When Jonathan Little branded us and our entire listenership as "low lifes", Jan insisted we lean into it, dubbing us "team low life".

I saw him next that summer in Vegas. He wandered around the WSOP looking like a homeless person scoffing hot dogs, the most unassuming high roller in the place. He introduced me to his friend Rob (just Rob) at the hot dog stand like he was just some guy he knew from home. After Rob left, he informed me that Rob (Campbell) was a crusher who was in the running for Player of the Year (he ended up winning, pipping the pro Jan loved to hate). Jan had that very male characteristic of insulting and criticising you to your face, then telling everyone how great you were behind your back.

One night he tagged along with us as we walked Jen Shahade back to the Palms after she bagged in the main. That night we saw a different side of him, as he was clearly a little starstruck and shy when we stayed for a drink with her. It turned out the reason for this was he was a much bigger chess fan. He loved intelligence in all its forms.

As we walked back to the Gold Coast, Jan who had decided he'd walked enough for one night ordered a limo. We insisted on walking, and as his limo passed us he opened the window, leaned out and screamed "low lifes" at us as the limo screeched by.

The pandemic

After Vegas, he told me he wanted us to room together at WSOP Europe. He ended up having to cancel, and the planned reunion shifted to EPT Prague. He didn't make it to there either but assured me he'd be over for the Irish Open. And then the pandemic happened, and the Irish Open was the first casualty.

Above everything else, Jan hated being told what he could and couldn't do. Unsurprisingly given his back story, he had a lifetime distrust of institutions and government. His inner politics was conflicted between libertarianism and a belief that we should look after everyone in society. He was the most generous tipper I ever met. He self identified as a libertarian capitalist, but all his natural instincts trended socialist. 

He was very perturbed by lock down. His distrust of authority led him into vax hesitancy, which became the main focus of our arguments. In this I had a very selfish agenda for once: I wanted to see Jan again at the WSOP, and knew he wouldn't be able to make the trip unless he got vaccinated. Ultimately though, I respected his decision as his body his choice.

Although it was frustrating not to see him in person, we facetimed and Zoomed constantly, a development accelerated by the fact that we became business partners in staking and some other stuff. We made plans to go visit him next January. When the restrictions in New Zealand were finally lifted, he was on almost the first plane out of there, embarking on a grand European tour that was supposed to culminate with a grand reunion at Unibet Malta in ten days. I was so giddy at the prospect of seeing him again I could barely contain myself on a recent Lock In.

The end

At the start of this month I committed to a 7 day a week online grind for all the series going on. That didn't leave much time for much else, and when I went a whole 24 hours without messaging him he sent an enquiring message if everything was all right, pointing out this was our longest silence. A few days later he told me he was ill in bed with stomach problems. 16 tabling at the time, I told him to be careful, reminding him we were not young men any more. We chatted a bit about the forthcoming Polish translation of my books (he was keen we translate into Czech) and then he went silent again, save for one message on a group chat saying he was in hospital. I messaged asking for an update every day, but there was no reply.

By now, I was very concerned and managed to contact one of his friends back home in New Zealand. The response devastated me: Jan had passed away two days earlier in Belgrade.  An obviously devastated Tatjana confirmed all the details when I managed to contact her. I was in shock: the thought that I'd never speak to him again left a giant Jan sized hole in my world.

There are optimists and there are pessimists, and then there was Jan who seemed to fuse both together into a very personal stoicism that no matter what happened, it was fine. His most repeated phrase was "Life is good". He used it as an affirmation when something good happened, a counterpoint when something bad happened, a general philosophy, and an admonishment against self pity. His favourite song was Monty Python's "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life". He sent me videos of him singing it gleefully with his son.

Once in the furnace of our arguments on COVID and lockdowns, he attempted to explain what he saw as the root cause of our differences. He said that public policy viewed death as the worst thing that can happen, but he did not. He went on to explain 

"I've already lived longer than the average person born 100 years ago. I've outlived my father and his father. I view each birthday as a victory. 

I love life too! But I don't view death as a negative. I just view it as neutral".

This seemed to encapsulate Jan's philosophy. He lived and loved to the full, but whatever happened, that was fine by him too. Whether that was getting one outered for the chiplead with 50 left in the WSOP main, or death, it didn't matter. Life is good.

Given that he didn't fear death or even see it as a negative, we shouldn't feel sorry for him. He lived his life on his own terms, admired and beloved by all who knew him well. He enriched the lives of everyone he cared for, and they were many. But even if I don't feel sorry for Jan (and his passing was mercifully quick and painless), I do feel sorry for myself, and everyone who knew him, because I and we have to spend the rest of our lives missing him. 



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