Timofey ‘trueteller’ Kuznetsov: True Genius

By Lee Davy

Who Has An Itch

To Be Filthy Rich?

Who Gives A Hoot

For A Lot Of Loot?

Who Longs To Live

A Life Of Perfect Ease?

And Be Swamped By Necessary Luxuries?

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Frank Sinatra may have sung it, but it’s a dream stitched into the double helix of everyone ejected into this world, and for most the gestation period continues into the grave. 

But ‘most’ isn’t ‘everyone.’

Some buck the trend.

Like the people sending ‘success’ screaming through the ventricles and atriums, radiating and reverberating a reverent YES! YES! YES!

People like Timofey ‘trueteller’ Kuznetsov.

During a tete-a-tete in Jeju, South Korea, a ball of wax must have taken possession of my cochlea, because I swear that he told me that he set the goal to make $1m playing online poker at Paul Hardcastle’s age. 

If I’m going to write about it, I had better do my due diligence, so I contacted him.

Kuznetsov did create an ambitious poker goal when 19, and hit it within three-years. Only it wasn’t $1m. 

I had missed a crucial zero.

It was $10m.

Kuznetsov grew up in Novosibirsk, on the banks of the Ob River in Siberia, the third most populous city in Russia, and a place of serene beauty according to Kuznetsov, waxing lyrical over his school walks through the vast forestry that blocked out the horizon.

The Russian star describes the people of Novosibirsk as ‘nice’ and calls it a ‘healthy’ place to grow up thanks to the clean forest air. Novosibirsk is home to a sizable scientific contingent. Still, Kuznetsov’s mother was a doctor; his father, a businessman, peddling in music stores, video rentals and toy shops. Little wonder that Kuznetsov would develop a keen fondness for games citing ‘Heroes of Might and Magic 3’, ‘Monopoly’, ‘Alias’, ‘FIFA’, and ‘Chess’ amongst his favourite games, outside of poker.

The University Years

The eldest of three children all born within nine years, Kuznetsov left his home city, moving to Moscow aged 17, to study mathematics and applied theory of probabilities at Moscow State University. To give you a sense of the support Kuznetsov received from his parents at that age, they also moved to Moscow at this time. 

The brilliance of Kuznetsov’s mind became apparent very early in life. Moscow State University has one of the most respected math departments in the world, and Kuznetsov was one of the top young mathematicians in Russia at that time. 

“I was positive about the future during those years,” recalls Kuznetsov. “I harboured hopes of becoming involved in stocks or hedge funds, and for a time, I entered some consulting competitions, thinking I may end up working for an organisation like KPMG.”

It sounded like a plan.

Plans change.

“A friend won $7k playing online poker in a few months,” recalls Kuznetsov, “I thought that was pretty cool, and as I am competitive, love playing games, and there was money to be won, I thought, why not give it a go?”

Kuznetsov loved poker instantly as it allowed him to combine his passion for mathematics with his love for gaming. Candidly, Kuznetsov wanted to be a high stakes poker player and believed it was possible. 

“Many smart people have believed they could play high stakes poker, and eventually went broke,” said Kuznetsov’s close friend and high stakes star, Furkat Rakhimov. “Timofey was different because he had the skills to match his ambition.”

That Ambition

A 19-year-old Kuznetsov began to realise that poker was more than a pastime. It was a way to make some serious money. So Kuznetsov set his first poker goal – to make $10m playing online poker. 

An illusion?

Delusion?

A naive sense of confusion?

“I was overconfident in a way, but sometimes overconfidence doesn’t hurt,” said Kuznetsov.

After depositing $25 on partypoker, Kuznetsov began playing 1c/2c, and within his first six months, he broke the $10k mark, a milestone he says was one of his most significant. 

By this time, Kuznetsov had decided that he would never work a single day in his life. Poker would be his vehicle for success. At first, his parents didn’t think it was a good idea, especially given how gifted he was.

“They assumed I would have a great career in finance and wondered what the hell I was doing with my life playing cards,” said Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov won $40k playing online cash games, and decided to continue with his university studies, but turn his back on the planned summer school position with KPMG. It was a decision that his parents supported. 

$5/$10

Then came Kuznetsov’s first big challenge. 

$5/$10.

After cruising through the menu of delicacies available at $2/$4 and $3/$6 establishing a 5bb/100 win rate, Kuznetsov kept donating it through $5/$10 shot taking.

“Bad luck is always a part of it,” said Kuznetsov, “but that time, I was unknowingly lucky that I didn’t run good right away.”

Kuznetsov is pointing to the problem of running so good that when you stare at your reflection, you see Phil Ivey. You don’t put in the work because you think you’re the nuts. The $5/$10 walls forced Kuznetsov to study, and that’s where Phil Galfond enters the fray.

“I studied hard, and during this time, I stumbled across Phil Galfond’s old No-Limit videos, which opened my eyes on a couple of key thinking patterns in poker,” said Kuznetsov.

After four months of $5/$10 driving a stake through his heart and countless nights of seeing the spectre of Phil Galfond standing by the side of his bed, Kuznetsov got lucky – his exams forced a clean break from the game. 

Deprived of the one thing, he loved, at this critical juncture in his career, turned out to be life changing.

The Break

The story of the poker player refusing to return to school to concentrate wholly on poker is a well-trodden path, but not for Kuznetsov. The Siberian native finished the full five years of his maths degree even specialising in probability theory.

Once the exams were in the bag, Kuznetsov returned to poker, and “something had changed,” said Kuznetsov.

Upon returning to the tables, Kuznetsov had a $40k bankroll. He made $70k EV and $40k profit in his first month back. By the end of the second month, Kuznetsov had earned another $100k, and that happened again in the third month. By the end of the year, Kuznetsov’s bankroll had risen from $40k to $1.7m playing mostly 25/50 cap games – quite the soufflĂ©.

“My subconscious finally had a break to decompress, analyse and properly encompass the missing parts of the puzzle I’d received from Phil’s videos.” Said Kuznetsov. “It was the second year of my poker career, and I thought it couldn’t go any better, but turned out I was wrong.”

By this time, Kuznetsov’s online avatar’ trueteller’ had become recognised as one of the best, if not the best, short-stack poker player during that period.

“The action never seemed to die,” said Kuznetsov. “I had people playing me every day at 50/100 -200/400 mostly, some 500/1k. I couldn’t believe how much money I was making and took a total of two days off poker in the next year and a half.”

By the time Kuznetsov had reached his 22nd birthday, he had achieved his $10m goal. 

Mathematical Olympiads

Is poker a game of nature or nurture?

It seems Kuznetsov leaned more towards the nature side of that complicated question.

Here’s his good friend Furkat Rakhimov to explain.

“Timofey competed in Math Olympiads, which are high-pressure global competitions, which test your creative thinking skills. It makes your mind very adaptable and capable of thinking about new subjects deeply on a time limit and is very good for poker.”

And if you wondered ‘how good?’

“Recently, we discussed a short deck hand, questioning if 89s is better against AK or AQ on AQ7 board with a backdoor,” said Rakhimov. “It took Timofey two seconds to tell me that there are 16 runouts against the first hand, and 15 runouts for the second to win. I was like holy moly! How does he do that?!”

The International Math Olympiad is the most prestigious math tournament in the world. Aimed at pre-college students, it’s the oldest of the International Science Olympiads stretching back till 1959. It’s that prestigious, in the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, the schools would select the teams years in advance, and specially train the kids to compete. 

Kuznetsov not only learned to improve his mathematical dexterity, but he also learned how to compete, and he loved it.

 “I won my first math contest when I was seven,” said Kuznetsov. “I recently found letters to my grandparent bragging about the results. Hard evidence that those tests were deeply important for me from the start.

 “I did the team and individual contests; normally the concept is that you have about 4 hours for 4-8 problems and they are very hard, sometimes crushing hard. The feeling of cracking one was the highest I felt during ten years I participated. I’ve travelled to several cities in Russia and twice to Kazakhstan to participate. My biggest achievements are a bronze medal in the final of the All-Russian Olympiad and silver in the Asian Pacific Mathematics Olympiad both in 2008. I was and still am very proud of those results.”

So Kuznetsov accrued his mathematical knowledge early doors. The kid was a smart cookie, but what about the sugar?

“I was very much inside my head until very late on,” said Kuznetsov. “I would say I was very introverted until 21/22. It was at this time that I realised that being introverted didn’t make me happy. I didn’t reflect emotionally. I didn’t feel. I was lonely.”

Kuznetsov worked on this aspect of the game of life, ultimately conquering his emotionally intelligent end bosses, but his process came at a price.

“People aren’t aware of how hard it is to manage emotions and play well when you’re losing, especially live and big. As I became more social and emotional, I started to feel more, and realised for the first time what tilt was. I had to face it, and fight it, and that’s been one of my biggest challenges.”

“Live”.

“Big”.

When did that happen?

The Transition to Completeness

In 2014, Kuznetsov began feeling contemptuous towards the No-Limit Hold ’em cash games and started playing 2-7 Triple Draw, PLO, and other mixed games on Full Tilt. 

Here’s Rakhimov to reminisce on the 2014 Full Tilt era.

“For those who don’t know, that year, the action on Full Tilt was crazy in all the games – 400-800nl deep with ‘MalACEasia’, 2-7td 1k-2k, O8 1k-2k, mixed games, always jumping in the highest stakes games right away with no preparation and learning on the fly.”

It’s during this ‘crazy’ time that an opportune moment arose for Kuznetsov – one that sent his career on a whole new trajectory.

“I was playing triple draw online, and with Gus {Hansen}, and one-week ‘Samrostan’. And we all lost a lot, and the game stopped,” reminisced Kuznetsov. “For a few weeks there was no action above $10/$20 No Limit, and I was stuck a lot. It hurt. I needed to find big action, and nobody was willing to play big. Then I heard about the Macau thing and said, “Let’s go!”

The Phil Ivey Game

If you want proof that Kuznetsov learned and earned plenty in Macau, then have a listen to this little tale. 

After some time playing live, Kuznetsov had the idea to compete with Phil Ivey in a mixed game match. 

“For all of us young players, Ivey was like a god of poker,” said Rakhimov. “There were no programs that would help you get ready for limit games, and also Timofey is kind of an intuitive player that always prefers practice. After practising mostly in PLO, and heads-up HORSE on his phone with his friends during live Macau games, he decided he was ready.”

The match started in late 2015, and Rakhimov remembers railing the game intensely because “I admired a guy who took his chance to play a Phil Ivey who had been at the top of the food chain for 20+ years.”

Rakhimov remembers that the game never seemed to end with the pair competing for 25-30 hours straight, and then back on it after a few hours of sleep. After months of fighting, and with Kuznetsov leading, the game came to an end.

How did Kuznetsov feel about beating the best in the business?

He told Rakhimov that he felt like he had played Mortal Combat for five straight years, eventually beating the End Boss ‘Shawkan’. 

A Bump in The Road

After Macau, Kuznetsov took his game to Bobby’s Room in Las Vegas, one of the most famous high stakes poker rooms in the world. 

“It’s the toughest poker game by far in the world,” said Rakhimov. “The difference of this mix is that limit games turn into pot-limit games, which makes it way more complicated. Timofey had no experience in those games at all!”

It showed.

After losing $750k on the first night, Kuznetsov continued dusting every single session until the regs gave him a special VIP seat. For the first time since he began competing, trueteller looked around the room and couldn’t find the sucker.

That year, Kuznetsov lost ‘a lot,’ but his competitiveness drove him to practice like a banshee, competing in games such as pot-limit Badugi, pot-limit 2-7 triple draw, BigO, etc. 

Within a year, the Bobby’s Room regs had removed the name of ‘trueteller’ from the VIP seat.

Today, he’s one of the most formidable players in that game.

The Best Player in the World?

It’s challenging to rank cash game players, in terms of the best in the world, but his peers believe Kuznetsov is right up there. 

Wiktor ‘limitless’ Malinowski called him the ‘Messi of Poker.’ 

Rui Cao said he is ‘the smartest person I know. He’s fearless and deserves everything he has now. I was always cosy and overconfident, and he humbled me.”

Daniel’ Jungleman’ Cates calls him one of the ‘best professional gamblers there is.”

Rob Yong called him a ‘modest’ guy; ‘humble’, and always willing to help other people – a ‘natural born wizard.’

Phil Galfond, the man who Kuznetsov credited with ‘filling in the blanks’, said, “I have nothing but positive things to say about Timofey. Despite how incredibly tough he is as a player, his kindness, intelligence, and sense of humour make him a pleasure to have at the table.”

And his good friend Furkat Rakhimov?

“Not only is he the best player in the world, he’s also the best friend, the kindest person – a true genius.”