Sung Joo Hyun has only 16 recorded tournament cashes to his name. However, what Hyun’s résumé may lack in quantity, is more than made up for in quality.
The 30-year-old South Korean has put together an impressive list of accomplishments, including winning a World Series of Poker gold bracelet and accumulating more than seven figures in tournament earnings with several large titles won along the way.
Hyun was born and raised in Seoul, and after graduating from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, he completed the compulsory military service required of young South Korean males, serving for two years.
In recent years, he has grown more serious about poker, making his way to major tournaments around the world. His first recorded cash came at the 2015 WSOP. Just three years later, he made the final table of the $1,111 buy-in Little One For One Drop event at the summer series, finishing fourth for his first six-figure live score of $189,098.
During last year’s live poker shutdown, Hyun overcame a field of 2,307 entries in a 2020 WSOP Online $500 buy-in no-limit hold’em event to earn his dream of winning a bracelet. He took home $161,898 as the champion, and became just the third South Korean player ever to capture a bracelet, joining Sejin Park who won the 2019 Colossus event, and Jiyoung Kim who took down the Ladies event title that same year.
After live tournament poker made its return, Hyun made a lengthy trip to Las Vegas to play in several major events. He walked away with two titles and more than half a million dollars in earnings.
Hyun’s first title run of 2021 came in the February World Poker Tour DeepStacks $1,600 buy-in no-limit hold’em main event held at The Venetian Resort Las Vegas. The event attracted 812 entries, and after four days of action Hyun was the last player standing. He was awarded $208,335 as the champion, which was the largest score of his career at the time.
That personal record only stood for around six weeks, though. In the middle of March, Hyun overcame a field of 614 entries to emerge victorious in the Wynn Spring Classic $3,500 buy-in main event. Hyun struck a heads-up deal to secure the title and the top payday of $323,409. The career-best score increased his lifetime earnings to $1,033,602.
Hyun was awarded a total of 2,172 Card Player Player of the Year points for those two title runs, enough to see him climb into second place on the 2021 POY race leaderboard. We recently caught up with Hyun to discuss how he found the game, the poker scene in South Korea, and his hot start to the 2021 POY race.
Card Player: Can you talk about how you found poker?
Sung Joo Hyun: My first encounter with poker was during a high school festival. The English majors were doing something to represent Las Vegas, and that’s where I first saw the game being played and tried it out myself. It was done with fake money, but I really fell into it.
CP: What about the game did you find interesting?
SJH: I felt like it was a small version of the world that forces us to make decisions in every hand and choose our destiny ourselves.
CP: Do you think you have any particular skills or personality traits that helped you excel at poker?
SJH: I tend to be interested in how people think psychologically about certain stuff. It makes me tired sometimes, but that habit did help me in my game in the past. Nowadays, though, I am focusing more on the theoretical approach.
CP: Do you have a background playing other strategy games or sports?
SJH: Yes. I loved playing soccer and Starcraft. I was pretty competitive, and I couldn’t focus on anything after losing.
CP: How did you transition from playing for fun to taking it more seriously? Was the decision to play larger events supported by your family, or was it difficult for them to understand?
SJH: Watching videos from tournaments like the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour always make me want to fly to Vegas. I kept it a secret until my first trip to the U.S. in order to play. I cashed my first event, and was able to explain every detail about how fun and special poker is to me. Luckily, my parents were supportive.
CP: What is the perception of poker and poker players in Korea?
SJH: The funny thing is that we have poker rooms in the major casinos around our country, but only foreigners are allowed to play. On the other hand, a lot of live tournaments are held at a places called hold’em pubs. Overall, the poker scene is growing, but I really wish that our government would open poker rooms to Koreans as well as the foreign players.
As we know, poker is a game of skill. Just because people can lose money at poker doesn’t justify the game being banned for Koreans. There are many ways that are legal for people to burn their money away if they are irresponsible.
CP: What is the poker community like in Korea?
SJH: It’s growing for sure, with some online tournament apps and live tournaments as well as some YouTube content, like my ‘ArtePokerTV’ channel. There are communities enjoying poker and rooting for players who run deep in big tournaments. But, studywise, I’d say the community is fairly weak.
CP: How would you hope the poker scene in Korea changes moving forward?
SJH: Allowing domestic people to play tournaments in the casinos would be my hope, primarily, but I would also like it if our people knew more about the game in general.
CP: How did you move up the ranks?
SJH: I played mostly live games, from $500 up to $10,000 tournaments, moving up and down many times. I began to take online more seriously in 2020, playing mid- to high-stakes with buy-ins from $100 to $1,000.
I played mostly in the WSOP events, as my first goal was to get a WSOP title. But I think nothing just happens like that. I got that bracelet after I started crushing mid-stakes tournaments. Now I want to prepare myself and be ready to play higher stakes. I’m sure that I need more improvement.
CP: Have there been any setbacks on your road to improvement?
SJH: Yes. I was doing okay in both live cash games and tournaments up until 2018. Once I started taking poker training courses, which was 2019, I struggled in both. I guess I needed more time to adjust myself to what I had learned.
CP: Can you tell me about the experience of winning a WSOP Online bracelet in 2020? Was it exciting to win a bracelet, even if it was not at the Rio with fans and a rail and all that?
SJH: It was my second time at a WSOP final table, and I knew that this opportunity doesn’t come often. I kept on saying to myself that I had to win it. I had my people watching the game and cheering for me through messenger apps. I would think winning live would be more exciting, but I don’t want to ask for too much. I was happy enough.
CP: I heard that you stream your tournament play and have started an online vlog.
SJH: I started in 2020, which was my turning point in online tournaments. I started because it was very hard to find winning players from my town who wanted to help each other and have fun together. Doing vlogs wasn’t my plan initially, but taking down two trophies definitely made me change my mind. Overall, I would like to help make this game become more popular in Korea.
CP: What do you attribute your success on the live tournament scene to so far in 2021?
SJH: First of all, loving this game leads to everything. When I am not playing, I watch poker courses and content from coaches like bencb (online tournament star Benjamin Rolle) and Pokercode (Fedor Holz’s training site). I believe that every second I spend on studying poker helps me in some way. I’m a better player than before, yes, but there is still a long way to go. Playing online changed my game a lot, and watching good poker content was what really resulted in my breakthrough.
CP: Your two big wins in the early months of this year both took place in Las Vegas. What led you to travel to the U.S. for these live events?
SJH: I was simply tired of grinding online, and wanted to just fly somewhere safe. And I heard that they have some tournaments running, so why not Vegas?
CP: What do these victories mean for you moving forward? Will you continue to play more live events?
SJH: I think these results are kind of like vitamins for my whole poker journey; I am just getting started. I will continue to play wherever I can do so safely.
CP: Do you have any goals for the next few years?
SJH: I would like to make this wonderful game more popular for everyone, while at the same time trying to get my game to the highest level possible.