Felipe Ramos is already known as one of the best poker players in the world. But what all of his accomplishments in the game won’t tell you is that he is also one of the best human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of getting to speak with.
I met up with him during the PokerStars Championship Barcelona just days after the August terrorist attack in the Las Ramblas area of the city that shocked Spain and the world. He was very close to that area on the day of the attack, and shared an incredible story of how he just narrowly missed being right in the epicenter of one of the darkest moments in Spain’s history.
Felipe exudes a warmness that is rare to see, fun to be around, and a joy to experience. But most of all, as the interview below illustrates, Felipe is a kind soul who has spent a long time being introspective about who he is, what he stands for, and how he can fight for what he believes in.
This interview with him was conducted impromptu when I noticed him sitting on the floor after busting one of the tournaments. I sat down next to him and we just started talking. He’s just that kind of guy — willing to give me over an hour of his time to speak about his poker career, passion for the environment, and thoughts on how he reconciles his love of charity and desire to do good with the aftermath of nearly being in the middle of such a shocking display of human cruelty.
You are very active on social media. What’s it like to have such a large fan base?
My Instagram is very active; people ask me all kinds of stuff. And they keep requesting favors. For example, sometimes I get people who ask me to help them with a poker tournament they are running. So if person sends me a flyer with all of the information, I will do things like use my Snapchat to help people do the promotion. It’s pretty cool. I’ll do things like an “Instagram show” where you the person can get three snaps to talk about what they are trying to do.
And you just do this for free?
Yeah. It’s like payback for all of the great things people have done for me.
I read your PokerStars bio and was surprised to learn you used to be in Finance. Is that natural transition to poker? Did you work as a trader?
Yes, I worked as a trader. But I worked in a bank for six years, and for the last three years I was a relationship manager for medium and large companies. So, I would be a company’s financial advisor within the bank. So, I could do whatever was needed. Say a company needed a payment solution; I would make sure they had it. If a company wanted to invest money, I would look at its profile and suggest the best investment. If a company wanted a loan, I handled that, too.
I liked the job. It required a lot of skill and was always busy. I’m very active, and hate doing one thing at a time. The only bad thing about that job was that commuting in Sao Paulo can be difficult. I had to visit all of my clients in their offices and it was always very stressful with horrible traffic. Or, I was sitting in an office every day. That’s not my thing.
It’s known that you’re active in charity. What are some of the charitable activities you enjoy?
I do a lot of charity work every day. I’m trying to do a little more nowadays. Today, I feel the pain and so it makes more sense to me. In the past, I used to do it without really having my heart in it. Today, I do environmental activism in Brazil, trying to protect forested areas and national parks.
I was working on getting some new laws blocked that would have done damage.
As a non-Brazilian, it’s always been interesting to me that the rainforest is such an integral part of the global environmental balance. At the same time, the way the world is governed, the rainforest is also within Brazil’s sovereign borders. So, in a way, you are the custodians of a precious resource. Does that make you proud? Fearful? Do you feel the weight of the responsibility? Do you not care?
I do care and I feel the weight. Before, when I mentioned that I didn’t have my heart into my charity work, I was talking about raising money to help out. I wasn’t doing anything specialized or trying to understand the issue. I was just a stupid guy trying to do nice things.
Nowadays, I know a lot. I’ve done a ton of research and have attached myself to many different environmental organizations. I don’t want to be politically involved with anything, so anytime there is a political decision I just walk away. But the reactions I get are still hard. I started to talk more about it on my social media, and it’s really not popular.
If there is a new law that will cause serious deforestation and I post about it, I will get at most 500 likes and maybe 1,500 sign-ups. But tomorrow, there is a players party; if post a picture there, it will be super popular and get tons of likes.
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) August 26, 2017
Why do you think that is? Do you think people just don’t care? Or do they feel like it’s such a big problem they can’t do anything about it?
No, it’s because the issue doesn’t affect them right now, and so they don’t care. Because they feel like they can get away from it, that it’s not their problem and so it really isn’t a big issue. For example, there is a big rain forest called the Atlantic Forest that Brazil has a huge part of. How much do you think remains of that forest today?
I’m guessing you’re going to tell me a lot less than I’m going to want to hear…
11%, and people want to destroy more. And so my point is that if a company wants to do something that will create jobs or the government wants to do something like build a road, I’m going to say — stop. It doesn’t matter how many jobs you are going to create, you’re going to kill everyone else.
How do you balance being a PokerStars brand ambassador with your political activism? Where is your comfort level with that?
I don’t have any comfort level with it. I know I’m stepping into something that can get me in trouble, and I don’t care. A few people, when I post about global warming or something related to it, there are still some people who are going to go over my posts and say “you were bought,” and tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That I’m just some rich guy who should shut up.
But they have no idea… they know that I have a genuine interest in the subject but they still react that way. For instance in the Amazon, there is a big a portion of the population that believes destroying the rainforest is good, because they don’t have any job opportunities. So as long as they are destroying the forest there will be opportunity for them.
What kind of opportunities do they get?
Most of these people, when I post, they tell me that it’s easy for me to say because I live in a city and have a job, while they don’t except for the opportunities created by destroying the forest.
That’s the real problem, and it’s bigger than the government. It’s a culture problem. We need to separate out what’s important here; the government should try to provide people who can’t get a job with other types of jobs.
Why doesn’t it?
Because too many people only care about themselves. It’s been like that forever. I know Brazil is a developing country, but I still feel like we aren’t learning quickly enough. It’s hard to make things move if there are only a few people trying to do it.
So why do you keep fighting?
Because if you can reach more people, then there will be a little bit more light. My goal is not to move mountains. If I can get one person every day, just one person to change their mentality, they are going to go and talk to their friends and family and then it keeps growing.
Some people will only love/like you if you fit in their box. Today is a new opportunity/week to disappoint all of them, with kindness 😊🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/ccVrWJ0GV0
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) August 14, 2017
It’s really no different than poker. I was playing the WSOP Main Event this year and we played down to the last 300 players. Two years ago I lost a big hand on Day 5 which would have given me a top 10 stack. So this time, when it was late on Day 4, people were excited for me and telling me this was my time.
But then again this year, the last three hands I played, I checked back a full house in a moment of inspiration and my opponent had quads. Then I lost AA<44 and QQ<99 all-in on the flop, and I busted.
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) July 15, 2017
Most poker players won’t talk about that, but I need to and want to. I won’t just complain or hide. So I started talking about it, about how I was sad and mad that I wanted to win but couldn’t despite trying my best,
Some people will come back and tell me to stop complaining. Others will criticize me. But I’m opening myself to receiving this type of thing because I’m open and willing to talk about these kinds of things. So, I know it’s going to come. And I’m fine with that; I want that.
But you know what? I also woke up the next day after that to a bunch of messages from people telling me things like I had changed their life, because they weren’t going to show up to work, but then they saw my difficulties and started to believe they could go on, too.
That’s why I raise any subject, whether it’s poker or the environment.
— phil_hellmuth (@phil_hellmuth) October 29, 2017
That’s amazing. How else would you say that poker mirrors life?
I don’t even really think of myself as just a poker player any more. I use the game to share what I do and inspire people to get better themselves. I think everything is related. I’m currently writing a book about how people can use poker in their personal lives and businesses.
Tempo, perseverança e 10 anos tentando vão fazer você parecer ser um sucesso da noite pro dia. pic.twitter.com/71mKpwAYon
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) October 26, 2017
Every time that I talk about poker either in front of a company, or when I do my private coaching, people get locked in and want to hear more. For example, I was hired by a trading company to speak for just four hours, and they ended up rehiring me to coach their entire executive board. They loved the applications the game can bring.
I also recently coached a soccer team in Brazil’s first division. I started talking about how my thought process works during a poker hand, and how they can do the same before they make a play — basically how to think properly when they play. The coach was amazed; we started comparing poker hands to strategic soccer plays.
And then they won the game using the play we had discussed during my coaching session! The coach sent me a message afterwards; it was insane!
Do you think people realize how important and valuable this foundational thinking can be to them, even if they aren’t in poker?
They have no idea. People don’t have any kind of idea what it means to be a professional poker player. They see you sitting at a table and think you’re gambling, or just having fun most of the time, or that you don’t have anything else to do.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I play poker. But then they ask me, “and what else?” They have no idea.
In fact, I would even say that the really nice thing is that most poker players don’t even think about the game that way. That’s the beauty.
You think that’s still the case today? Even at the level you are playing at?
Nope. Especially at this level.
I spent two years not having a sip of alcohol to prepare to play. I also did some work with a nutritionist and a tennis coach who came up with a diet for poker players. I actually got down to 7% body fat at one point, and people just assume that I was always like that. They don’t realize the work it takes to do things like that.
One of my best friends is a famous footballer who has access to all these kinds of amazing people. When they were in the Champions League two years ago, I was at the final and I went to the after-party. Everyone was going crazy drinking, I was drinking sparkling water.
People will never believe me. Only my friends who saw me do, and even they say I’m crazy.
So what’s your goal in poker? Are you looking to be considered the best player? Do you have a monetary goal?
I don’t care about money.
So are you looking for respect from the community?
No, I think I have that already. I’m a very accomplished poker player and I don’t worry about what people think.
So then what keeps you going?
My goal is to make people understand what poker is. To spread the word that our game is really good and healthy for everyone. That everyone can play, and to try and be a good ambassador for the game.
That’s my main goal.
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) October 5, 2017
And my second main goal is to try and be number one in the poker rankings. But it’s not for my ego. It’s because in Brazil we only have two sports, soccer and volleyball. We’ve always been the best in the world at these two sports, and that’s all Brazilians think about.
But there was also a professional tennis player from Brazil, Gustavo Kuerten. He was the first Brazilian player to win back-to-back majors and became #1 in the world. Everyone in Brazil was talking about him, and now we have a lot of great tennis courts, tennis schools, and people developing the sport.
I just want to do that. What he did for tennis, I want to do the same thing for poker.
Would you say that there’s a “Brazilian” way to play poker?
Yeah, 100%. The one thing I teach in my poker coaching, especially in the poker mentality seminar, is that people bring their personal lives to the table. Brazilians are very emotional, so it’s really hard for us to let go. This is why if we lose a hand against somebody twice, we tend to go on tilt.
AA x KK 🙁 mas depois de conhecer a turma do PokerFamily no HomeGame num dá pra chatear. Somos apaixonados por Poker, diversão, somos irmãos pic.twitter.com/pYCFDCU7Rw
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) July 30, 2017
But this also makes it really hard to be good at poker. I’m the exact opposite at the table, and sometimes people ask me if I’m really Brazilian. We have a very bad reputation as calling stations and bad players. We have no background in the game. I was the first Brazilian to cash in and appear on a televised event (EPT), and that was 10 years ago. I’m 34 now.
Where are you from?
Especially you guys from New Jersey! You’ve been playing poker since when?
Since I was a young boy.
So there you go.
It’s also hard for Brazilians to travel, which is a huge barrier. If you really want to be a professional, you need to give 100% of yourself. 110%. And that’s really hard. You have to grind the lower levels of the tournament, and then you’ll bust anyway. Other times you build a stack and you still lose.
There’s a lot of variance involved; you can win a lot of hands in the beginning and then lose a big hand in a critical spot at the end. It’s very situational. In the long run, that doesn’t matter though. I’ve been very successful over my 10-year career, and I’ve still never won a really big event.
You have to put a lot of time into it, and time is the most precious thing you have. And you have to have your mind in great shape, too. If you don’t, you’re going to dump money 100% of the time. That was something that used to happen to me, too, even though I’m very good at separating things and blocking out outside influences. It’s a reality.
And 99.9% of people have no idea. They think poker depends on luck or that if they play enough events they will eventually win one. I want to show Brazilians that that isn’t the case.
How do you work on your technical game in the live area, without all the tools that online players use to collect and analyze hands?
When I started coaching people, I have a large number of questions they have to answer first so I can understand how they think. And if they don’t play online a lot, I make them play online so they can understand the stats and find the leaks in their game. So, I force them to do it. And if they are unwilling, then I tell them to go and hire someone else.
So basically, we develop a big portion of selected memory and then release people to the table to do the process on their own. And they become monsters; they know exactly what info they need to gather and how to gather it.
So do you improve your own game by coaching?
I started coaching because of that. I make more money playing that I do coaching. My time at the poker table is more valuable. But, I review my own game when I coach. And that’s what makes a good player — consistency. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best — if you aren’t interested in playing your best then you aren’t going to play well.
You have to play the game like if you lose the tournament, you are going to die. That’s the mental aspect for me; to better understand my own strategies through coaching, and develop them further. I get to process a lot of information from a lot of players, so I’m able to grow a lot more.
Right now, there are tons of people who coach at all levels and all buy-ins. That gives me a good idea of the state of the games across the entire poker ecosystem — $1Ks, Spin & Go’s, etc. I get all that information. So, I’m never outdated. That’s why I keep doing it.
My coaching business was actually doing so well that I needed to cut back on it. I wanted to remind people that I’m a poker player first, then a coach. Some other players decided to become coaches instead of playing, but I went the other way.
Right now I’m just trying to improve my own theory and game so that I can coach even better in the future.
I heard that you were at Las Ramblas during this past August’s terrorist attack in Barcelona. Would you be willing to share your story?
Basically, it was a normal day in my life. I came to play in one of the $10K high roller events. I woke up a little late, which I don’t mind in those events, and when I got to the casino I saw one of my best friends from Brazil out in front. It was very funny because I was actually riding a bike and taking a photo for my social media accounts when all of a sudden I saw him. So I went over and after catching up I suggested we go into the casino and buy in to the tournament.
But he said that he was actually an alternate for the day, and that he could only play Day 1C, which was the next day at noon. So I said, OK, great, we have the day off. And he asks me “what should we do?” It was already later in the afternoon, so I said that because it doesn’t get dark here until really late we should go buy a guitar. This is something new I’ve been doing — everywhere I go, I buy a guitar and play and then donate it to charity afterwards. So I suggested we buy one, head to the beach, and have a great time. He thought it was a great idea.
Mondays in Barcelona be like… 🎸🇪🇸 pic.twitter.com/P1N4lR60lB
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) August 21, 2017
He was with his sister, and his wife was actually doing some shopping elsewhere because she thought he would be playing in the event. So, his sister suggests we get a taxi, go pick her up, buy a guitar, and go to the beach. I said that was a great idea, but because it was such a nice day out we should all rent a bike and go biking instead. My friend was complaining that it was too late; but I asked him — when the last time was that he rode a bike? He said it had been over 10 years. So I said, great, let’s get a bike. And he agreed.
So we all go rent a bike and go biking through the city towards Las Ramblas where my friend’s wife is supposed to be. As we get closer, we start to hearing all the noise; we see people running over and screaming and asking if we’ve seen people who look like members of their family or their friends. Still, we have no idea what’s going on. And then we learn that there is a terrorist attack going on.
I started to shake and we all became instantly emotional. The thing was we were so close but we weren’t actually right there, so we couldn’t totally see what was going on. And then we stopped for like five minutes and we see helicopters, police cars, ambulances. The police started isolating the area, so we knew that something really serious had happened but we still weren’t sure what.
Then suddenly, I started getting messages on Instagram saying “you’re right in the middle of a terrorist attack, get out there.” My dad sent me a message asking where I was; asking if I was still inside the casino. At that point, we were aware (something was going on) but we still didn’t know what exactly had happened. Then I saw a video on social media what had happened. All of us started crying. After a little bit of time had gone by we got back on the bikes and rode back to the casino.
Was there any sense of communal grief or was everyone still in so much shock that they were just running?
It was a bad experience in that way as well. My friend’s wife was actually locked in a store when we got there, and they weren’t letting anyone in or out. They said it was for security reasons, but I don’t understand that. All I saw was everyone taking care of themselves. I didn’t see anyone helping anyone; anyone trying to help. What I saw was people replying to my Instagram posts saying “get closer! We want to see!” I saw some people actually doing that, trying to get closer so they could get photos for their own social media accounts.
I saw the worst. I’ll tell you, that part made me more sad than anything. Because I know, I know I’m not a doctor or a policeman and I can’t help in that way. But I don’t need to be only concerned about myself in that moment, either. I saw a lot of people acting in an individualist capacity, which made me really, really sad.
It’s really interesting you say that. How do you keep a sense of positivity and hope? How do you reconcile your desire to help people with seeing the worst in them on social media?
I think I’m going to answer that question by telling another story and then coming back to it.
The next day, I had to play in the tournament. So, I came to play and lost count of how many times I lost track of the game because I was looking at my phone. I cried at the table; people had to remind me when it was my turn to act. Then, on my dinner break, I decided to go check out the exact location of the guitar store. I knew the store was on Las Ramblas, but I had no idea if it was far away and nothing would have happened to me if I had been there or if it was at epicenter of the attack.
So I walked there and I saw that the store was exactly where the attack had happened. I either would have been inside the store — which might have saved my life — or, we would have been walking right on the street right where it happened. There was a 100% chance that I would have been in the middle of the attack and dying right there. We were just late because we decided to go by bike. If we had gone by cab, we would have been there exactly at the same time as the attack.
And so that’s why I know, figuratively speaking, that the bike saved my life.
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) August 19, 2017
When I was walking back and saw all the candles and flowers and everything, I was instantly moved. People’s families were there, TV was there; it was very upsetting. People were glad I am alive, but my reply was that my life isn’t worth any more than the lives of those who died. So, it’s the same thing to me as if I had died. And it’s not only that; it could happen to anyone, but people still think that people are different. It’s insane to me. Even people who would agree with that statement will still act differently.
It’s the same thing as when people say they are going to plant a tree to save the forest, even while 90% of the forest is being cut down. It shouldn’t matter if the trees are being cut to feed your family — you still shouldn’t want the tree to be cut. That’s the point. Because people are only thinking about themselves, even in matters that concern everyone.
So in the end, I had a tattoo of a bike done to remind myself that I need to be more active and happy, regardless of the outcome of stuff that happened in my life. That I can never be sad about busting a poker tournament — because so many people would love to be in my position. And that’s why I need to keep going.
— Felipe Mojave Ramos (@FelipeMojave) August 18, 2017
That’s why I’m doing this interview. Because I was just playing and was telling people on my Instagram that I can’t go on playing today. And they wrote back and said “yes, you can; you can play, you can win, you talk about the difficulties and people will hear you. You can do this because you are living my dream.”
And so people remind me that I need to keep going. And that’s the only way we can all make the world better.