Pedro Canali
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Truths & Myths About Jon Finkel: Magic:The Gathering, Poker, and Finance Genius. An Interview by Pedro Canali.

It’s an honor to interview today the most talented player in the history of Magic The Gathering. The only one who has been interviewed by Forbes and who is the subject of a book: @Jon Finkel.

Jon, I know your time is very precious, thanks a lot for this interview. At the age of 36, you've lived several lives already, and in each you’ve accomplished more things that most would dream of in a lifetime. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure where the facts end and where the rumors, the myth of Jon Finkel begins. Here is what we've heard, in chronological order:

  1. Best MTG player of all time, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars
  2. World class Black Jack card counter, youngest of a 100 man team, netting millions while still a student
  3. Successful poker grinder both online and in New York underground gambling dens
  4. You insisted to back @David Williams when he finished 2nd in the WSOP Main Event in 2004, creating a poker boom amongst MTG players.
  5. A very successful sports bettor
  6. You are now in the finance world heading your own Hedge Fund

Can you help us distinguish the truth from the legend?

  1. Partially true. I'm not sure if you can say I'm the best of all time - I'm sure Kai would like to have a word with you. I'm happy with being one of the top two.
  2. Partially true. I won hundreds of thousands, not millions. And I was the youngest for awhile until I brought on people younger than myself, like my sister.
  3. True. I did quite well for myself playing poker.
  4. Myth. I didn't back Dave at all. In fact, I think Dave won more than @Greg Raymer at that WSOP because of all the action Raymer sold off or traded away.
  5. True
  6. True. I'm one of four managing partners though, I don't manage it myself.

Photo: Brad DeCecco/Wired.com

Is anything missing from the list of Jon Finkel accomplishments?

Well, I did have a book written about me, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, but it mostly covers these areas. But really my biggest accomplishments have been in Magic, gambling, and finance.

Why not continue to play poker?

I didn't enjoy poker a ton. Playing properly, expecially online, is grindy and often boring. I moved on the sports and then investing, which use a lot of the same skills. Plus, in the end, I'm not sure how good I really could have been. It's possible if I'd continued I'd be world class, but it's possible I might have capped out not much above consistent grinder.

Can you explain for outsiders what your job as hedge fund manager consists in?

We are a quantitative market neutral fund. This means we look for statistical relationships, but have no real opinion on the direction of any of the broader markets, nor about how well run or profitable any individual companies are. In the field of finance, it's probably the closet thing there is to "gambling", with edge of course.

The tricky question:
The general wisdom is that the two greatest MTG players of all time are yourself and Kai Budde “the hardworker”, who broke your record to win 7 pro tours. Does the competitor in you wish to be uncontested number 1 or is it an honor to share the title with Kai?

I'm very happy to share it with Kai. Obviously I'd like to do well in more tournaments but even if I win another Pro Tour, is that even going to really settle the issue? The idea of us being the two co-best of all time has been around for so long (since I won PT Kuala Lumpur in 2008) and has so much truth to it that even a couple results aren't going to change things much. It's probably more likely that someone like Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, or William Jensen goes on an insane run and eclipses both of us than that either Kai or I will really pull away from the other.

Are you two close?

We always had a healthy respect for each other but never became that close back in the day. The last few years we've been playing together on the Pantheon and one of the things I've liked most about it is getting to know Kai better. The two of us have become legitimate friends, and obviously he's a phenomenal teammate to have. He also has a very good, very German sense of humor and is quite the cook, which are the real reasons we decided to work with him.

Most of your friends say about you that you are “the greatest genius they know”. What sets you apart from the rest and gives you an edge in everything you do?

There's something called impostor syndrome, where a lot of successful people feel almost like a fraud. When playing magic, the commentators and audience would always assume when I made a "mistake" there was something they were missing. Sometimes there was, but often I was just making a mistake. I think I'm a bright guy, but I'm also aware of how much of my success has been luck. I was born a white man to upper middle class parents in the wealthiest country the world has ever known. I had a very specific set of skills that are easily translatable into money in our current society, but would have been far less useful for most of human history. The game I got obsessed with happened to grow and expand into the enormous thing magic has become, and it just so happens that I was actually good at it. So basically, I dont think I have an edge in everything at all. I think I had a couple specific intellectual skills and it just so happens that they're most obvious in the games that all the smart people I know also play, so it makes me look more talented than I really am.

According to you what are the reasons so many MTG players have such a good transition into poker and or finance?

I think they test for a lot of the same attributes - rational quantitative thinking, an innate acceptance of variance, and a drive to constantly learn and better oneself. In short, they're all very competitive intellectual endeavors, so it's not surprising people who do well in one also do well in others

What magic players and poker players are you closest to? The ones you admire the most?

So many of my best friends are magic players, and the poker players are just the ones who overlap. @David Benefield, @David Williams, @Gabriel Nassif@Eric Froehlich@Brock Parker  - they've all had great poker success. For magic? Kai and Billy Jensen. There are a lot who are very very close, but I think those two are a step above everyone else. In terms of closest to? I probably see DanOMS more than any other magic player or anyone I dont work with.

Have you thought about what your life would be like if MTG had never existed?

I have and it's really hard to determine. I can't decide if I would have become a scientist, an investment banker, or a ne'er-do-well. Probably an equal chance of all three.

It seems your rise to the top will never stop, and you’ll end up President of the World or something like that. What’s next for Jon Finkel?

I certainly don't need to be president. For now - things are going well and I plan on continuing working with our fund and helping make it the best it can be. We're finally to the point where institutional investors are interested in us, so the next year or two are key.

If you enjoyed this interview, make sure you register and follow the MTG Poker page on RankingHero so that you don't miss our next posts and interviews!

 More #MTGpoker on RankingHero:

An Interview with Gabriel Nassif by Pedro Canali 

Impressed by how humble John is, that's awesome for someone with such great achievements.

Very interesting article, thanks !

une interview très intéressante merci

merci pour cette interview et voilà - je follow la page :)

Very impressive ! Thanks !

Playerd competitive MTG against Jon 3 times. Did not win. #truelegend