Lee Davy sits down with Justin Smith to talk about his beliefs and values when it comes to his involvement in poker, film and the arts.
Kill or be killed.
Justin Smith gets it. It’s a lesson that he learned at the poker tables, and now carries with him like the Leatherman of life. Poker is tough. Everyone is getting better. The same is true in the real world. A lesson, which left unlearned can make life quite stymied. Fortunately, like I said, Justin Smith gets it.
Smith’s life has always been entwined with either controversy of creativity. A fact that makes him true opposition for the defatigated status quo. You think you know him, and then you peel off another layer and realize that you didn’t really know him at all. There is a whimsical, childlike purity to him, but also a hardened embattled fire. He’s the type of person who will sit and play games with you for hours, but still hard enough to put out the candle with his fingers. He doesn’t even wet them, saving his spit for those who do not believe in the cosmic chaos of creativity.
I had the opportunity to speak to him recently. I could have asked him so many things. He was an open book. I decided to concentrate on what makes him tick. What hides behind flesh and bone. It was a real page-turner. I hope you enjoy reading it, as much as I enjoyed making it.
PS: The audio was created over three different sessions. Apologies in advance if they are not knitted together in the seamless fashion that your Grandmother used to knit baby jumpers. If this is a problem for you, then as my Grandmother used to say, when I told her I didn’t have a child to wear her baby jumpers: “tough shit.”
When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you tell them?
“That’s always a complicated question to answer. Right now, I’m concentrating on the WSOP, as I have done since I was 21. It used to be an easy answer: poker player. Lately that’s changed and I’ve invested in a number of different business, as well as working in film producing, and being very active in the contemporary art world. There are a lot of correlations in those two industries, I am interested in them both, and that’s where I spend most of my time. I am also excited about attending the Stanford Online Business School. I love learning, and this is my opportunity to get back into it after I quit school early to focus on online poker.”
Why have you been so successful?
“I wouldn’t even say that I’m successful at this point. I wouldn’t use that word. I’m working very hard, and poker has provided me a very unique opportunity. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people in poker: recreational and professional. It attracts very interesting people, and I have picked up a lot of diverse knowledge from all of them. Ultimately, I have used poker as a way to capitalize on some of my other projects. I want to make the world a better place, in any way that I can, and right now I think I can do that best through film and supporting contemporary art.
“One of my biggest assets is my ability to adjust. I was one of the first young guys to try and learn the mixed games, because I could sense things were moving that way. I lost a bit in the beginning, but I kept learning, played more and I eventually got better. Times are changing faster than ever. You need to be able to adjust. People need to pivot when appropriate, pick something else up, attack it, and take control of it very easily.”
When I say the word success, who is the first person you think of and why?
“That’s a really tough question. I’ve been fortunate to be in the company of some incredibly successful people. It’s a cliché at this point but Elon Musk is an incredible guy. I want to be able to take necessary risks where I need to, and change the world, in whatever kind of capacity I am capable of. But this guy attempted to fly two rockets into space, was unsuccessful, and then put everything on the line to try it for a third time – and he did it.
“If he was a poker player, and played the highest stakes in the world, and lost, did it again and lost, and then put his entire bankroll on the line for a third time and went from there…then wow. He’s launching rockets into space. Anything that’s gambling related pales into insignificance when compared to launching a rocket into space.
“As a person I want everything that I do to be inspiring and related in some kind of way to a larger audience. He’s chosen two very good sectors to focus on: clean energy and human civilization projects, and I think that’s great.”
Who influences you and why?
“There are two very important people in my life who influence me, because of their complete die hard mentality in attacking – quote-on-quote, the establishment – and doing what they think is right, and being so persistent about it.
“They are both involved in film and arts. My art advisor is Stefan Simchowitz and he’s been featured in the New York Times, Paris and LA magazine. He is doing things in a very unique way, and that’s important. The other person is Adi Shankar, one of my film producer partners. They are so confident that their way is a way, or the way, that they will do whatever it takes to do the things that they want to do. They don’t care about the money, they care about how the system works.
“Another great example of the contrarian mindset is Peter Thiel. When you are going against something, and you happen to be right, your win is big. Everyone is betting the opposite way, and if you happen to find a derivative of whatever right might be, in whatever sense you are talking about it, your gain will be tremendous. Whenever you identify something that goes against the status quo then that’s very interesting, and inspiring. People who don’t care, and go for it all, is where I want to be. I want to be going for it all, all of the time, and I want to support my friends in their version of what going for it all looks like for them.”
Do you see a bit of yourself in them?
“I hope so. I certainly learn from them, and I’m certainly inspired by them. I’m still young. I’m 27, and I’ve been soul searching and thinking about my way. I think it’s important to serve others, but you also need to be selfish with your time. You have to know when something is your thing, and when something is not your thing. I’m very confident that I won’t be sending rockets into space like Elon Musk. It’s interesting and inspiring, but I need to know my place. That’s a version of being selfish with your time.
“But I do say yes to a lot of things a lot of people might not say yes to. I am very open minded, but for me, the way I see it, the more things I do the more experiences I get. I am optimistic, and I believe the experiences will be beneficial to me. I always want to hear what people have to say. Interacting with humans is very interesting.”
When did you wake up and understand that serving others was the most important thing in your life?
“I think it’s all about personal growth. Every minute, every hour, every day, every week, every month, every year I am learning and enjoying life. There was no particular time when I changed. It’s been a steady cultivation of knowledge and being around inspirational people that lead lives that I want to emulate in some kind of way. I want to learn from others that I respect.
“I think it’s important to do everything you can for others. To serve people in any kind of way, even if that means serving your children, your wife, your boss, or your parents. It’s important to do whatever you can for people, and worry about the specifics later. It’s important to do what you love. People worry about money, because this is how the world works, but you need to do what you love first and foremost.
“I was recently talking to a very successful man in the movie and comic book business. The way he has been successful is to completely live and breathe what he is ecstatic about doing. He believes the money is a by-product of that. Of course I have heard that before, but you do need to do it. Serve people and someone will take notice, appreciate it, and you will be compensated in whatever way works for you.”
What books have you read that inspires you?
“I get inspired by people in business and the idea of creating some form of inspiration for people to progress as much as possible through entertainment. I do read a lot. I am a voracious consumer of the Internet, and I read Dale Carnegie back in 2009. That was a very inspirational book. I read poetry, but I don’t read as much fiction as I should. I get most of my fiction through film. My friend gave me a book for my birthday. It’s called Zero to One by Peter Thiel. It takes seemingly simple concepts and really touches on them in a way that shows perspective in a very unique way. It makes you think about the simple things that you may miss, and always gaining a new perspective on the basic things is always great. It could be just making me see the sun shine in a different way for example.”
Who has been inspiring you recently?
“My girlfriend is very inspirational. She never stops pushing me hard to think big. I am a little less detailed orientated, and more of a macro thinker, but she really pushes me to work harder and that’s very important. She is not afraid to call me out on the slightest bit of bullshit, and I think it’s important that she has been pretty big on being herself, and the way she lives. She reminds me to stay true to oneself. We are all unique, and people being unique is the definition of creation, and that’s creativity, and we should work our hardest to show all the shapes that we can be as people. If you are a little bit different, or strange, that’s ok, because everything we do comes from a different place, and there should be respect for being unique and different.
“I am a big proponent of collaboration. I’m always collaborating with my friends. Once it’s the right time I think it’s important to take action. If you are not initiating anything then nothing gets done. You have to take a stand and find a direction and then be confident enough to go for it. It’s the actions that you take that shape your life.
“I also think persistence is important. You have to take initiative over and over again until it works. You have to try different things, and sometimes it gets frustrating. There are many ways to get something done. Through that I think context is crucial. Where to find the next value and where to find the opportunities defines the really special opportunities through context.
“There are all sorts of reasons about who, why and when. In a cultural sense I think one of the most significant contributions to culture, which is sometimes knowledge based and sometimes more social commentary, is the site Genius.com. It’s my favorite site on the Internet. It provides context for people: explaining lyrics, films, politics, and there are many sections on the site .
“Back in the day the founder went on 2+2 and asked what their site should be called and told people, what they did. Back then it was about rap songs; where the beat came from, and what lyrics meant. Understanding the subtle meaning to a witty line. Something so subtle that without help you wouldn’t understand the context. The whole point of the site is to help you understand context. There is enjoyment to be derived from that. To be able to enjoy things in life, especially the important things, it’s important to be provided the context and then you can really learn.”
What has held you back from achieving even more?
“Everyone has their struggles. I have my well-documented fair share of bad moments. I’m trying to make more good moments, than bad moments. You have to learn through any kind of tough moments in life. There will be all kinds of tough moments. I have been put into some very unique situations. I have not been happy with the way I have handled some, and have been happy the way I have handled others.
“I don’t think these things hold me back, because I learn from them. I’m not sure that anything is a mistake, because it can be viewed as a learning experience. If something is good I try to emulate that, if it’s bad I try not to do it again.
“Without experiences, how do you know that it’s what you want, or don’t want? I try to experience a lot. I try to experience a lot of people, and you are never going to know what you like or don’t like until you try it. I feel the energy and vibe and that’s the way I live my life. I know if something is my vibe, or isn’t my vibe.”
What are the qualities that you look for in people you want to spend time with?
“I want to surround myself with inspiring people who do cool things. I live in LA so of course it’s the heart of Hollywood, and that’s the sector that I am in now. I like artists, because I have been active in that area. Picking up ideas from pure artists is super inspiring. I am a hybrid in a sort of way. I love my creative side, but I also have a business logical side.
“I can’t be in the creative mode after poker. It drains me of any kind of creativity. It’s so logical and math orientated I cannot be creative at all after a poker session. There is an element of creativity in poker, especially when you find players that are exploitable, because you can find new ways to do that, and it’s fun if you find a new play that makes you feel like a genius for two minutes. But in general poker is about logic.”
Any advice on how to get creativity kick started?
“Being around people who are great in whatever way they are trying to make an impact in life. I have been so fortunate to meet the right people who have inspired me to think that I actually have a chance at doing something. That little bit of confidence of being able to breathe the same air as some people is important.
“I love experiencing people. When I have great conversations with people about life, business, or ideas – that stimulates me. When I am in a good mode, and actively doing things I feel creative. When I have drank a bit of coffee or wine I can also be a little more creative. Just being clear headed, having confidence in life in general transcends into the smaller things that help push my creativity. Also having a lot of energy helps. I try to work out, eat healthy, and these are all contributing factors to helping you being clear headed. All of these things help me live every second of my life in the best possible way that I can.”
What does art mean to you, and how do I explain art to my 14-year old son?
“Art to me is simple. How to explain it to a 14-year old? There is a quote by Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it to a six year old you don’t understand it yourself.” The way I would explain it is as an idea. If you look at articles related to art recently, the financial market of art is reaching new heights and Picasso’s are selling for $179 million.
“Art is represented as an idea, then with it’s relationship through history it reflects a time period of subject matter. It’s important for inspiration. Thinking about relevant ideas is very inspiring. Art inspires me. When I see something interesting that’s conveying an idea or mood, however it speaks to you, everyone has their own interpretation of life. Making something, that makes people think, is a winner. If we aren’t thinking of anything, then there is no output. Getting a reaction from someone is a win.
“If you are doing things with the right intentions, and someone doesn’t like it that’s cool. Everyone has different tastes in life. That goes for people to. Sometimes people don’t like people and that’s ok. I think people not liking people is completely normal. Some people are just not connected to other people’s vibe and that’s fine.”
If you had three wishes what would you ask for?
“To continue being inspired is important. Finding that and keeping that and holding onto that is super important for everyone in the world. I think that’s it. I don’t need three wishes. I wouldn’t even wish for good health and happiness. It’s important to me, but I wouldn’t waste a wish on it. I think it’s cool to have cool things going on that you believe in. Wait…I wish I am never bored and to be doing things that I can be proud of. That will be my selfish wish. In general, I don’t believe in wishes. I just want to make things happen.”