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JJ Volpe’s story takes us from a 22-year-old hustling poker on his first day in the Vietnam War to 34 years spent competing at the World Series of Poker.
Volpe’s played poker professionally since 1981, in Las Vegas for 11 years and the rest in California, mostly at the Commerce Casino.
He’s semi-retired now. He lives in Arizona where he bought some land.
The first entry on his Hendon Mob results page is a 1st-place finish in the 1984 Grand Prix of Poker at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas.
Now, almost three and a half decades later he’s still playing at the WSOP. We caught him before the start of the $1,500 Seven Card Stud event.
Funnily enough, it was Stud they were playing in an officer’s tent all those years ago in Vietnam.
PokerListings.com: How is poker different now compared to when you started in the 1980s?
JJ Volpe: Well, technically I’m an outspoken guy. I’m a Vietnam veteran and I’m an outspoken guy. The new guys, frankly, drink the Kool-Aid.
PL.com: What does the Kool-Aid represent here?
JJ: Well, if you create waves around here, they don’t appreciate it. Don’t make any waves, just be quiet.
PL.com: Is that your approach to the game?
JJ: No. I’m what you might call an asskicker so I don’t like to take bull from anyone. Let’s put it that way.
PL.com: What else bothers you about people today?
JJ: You know what really aggravates me? Nobody even watches the game anymore. They just watch their cell phones and their tablets.
Concentration and focus is the biggest thing in poker and nowadays you sit at a table with nine players, at least six of them are on their phones.
PL.com: You mentioned you served in Vietnam. Did you play poker over there?
JJ: There were big games in Vietnam. I was 22 years old. I went right after college. My first trip up country I went in the officer’s tent and there was a poker game on a bumper pool table.
There was all kinds of money on the table: Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, American, IOUs. I didn’t know what any of it meant. It was my first time up country. They were all sergeants and high-ups and they were playing Stud and I got in the game.
I won the first four hands in a row and then I picked up some garbage hands and thought to myself that they wouldn’t think a young guy like me would be bluffing in that game so I put some bluffs out.
Long story short, I won the first seven hands I played.
I’ve got so many different currencies I don’t even know how much it is, and also I don’t have enough room for it because we’re playing on this bumper pool table.
This game was my first day up country and it’s now pushing like 4am and a goddamn mortar hits right outside the tent. I grab my weapon and jump in the bunker. By this time the entire tent has collapsed.
Afterwards we raise the tent and go back in. All the money was gone.