Jesse Lonis surrounded by his poker trophies, gold bracelets, & ring.

By Denise Louise Gregorka

Twenty-eight-year-old Jesse Lonis, is spending Thanksgiving with his family here in Little Falls and has a lot to be thankful for. He is relatively new to the professional poker world, but that has not stopped him from taking it by storm and he is not showing any signs of stopping. I sat down with Jesse this past week and he had much to share.

~ A Humble Beginning

Jesse Lonis was born in Ketchikan, Alaska, in 1995. He returned to Little Falls when he was around three years old. From that point, he and his two siblings lived with their grandmother until he was about ten years old.

Jesse was aware at a young age that his family was not well-to-do as they lived meagerly.

He stated “It didn’t bother me then because you’re a kid so you are just happy, but I was aware we were definitely on the poorer side. But I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me growing up because it made me more hungry. I knew from a young age that I was going to be financially good and my kids were going to be good. It makes you want it more, and you’re never scared to go broke because you’ve been broke. I knew from a young age that I had to go and get it.”

Ready to conquer the world at a young age.

Ready to conquer the world at a young age.

He had an early exposure to the game when he was very young watching his grandmother play online poker and card games with her friends. He watched his grandmother and her twin sister play all kinds of games like cards and Scrabble, stating “Those were all strategy games at the end of the day. I would sit there for hours and watch them play. I picked up on their competitive nature and it stayed with me. It came pretty naturally for me to be good at games”.

Jesse went to Little Falls Elementary and High School. He stated “If I enjoyed what I was doing I got good grades. The main reason I kept my grades up was because I wanted to play sports.”

He played football, baseball & basketball. At the time he was in school, he held the school’s record for the most points scored in a basketball game which was forty-one.

In his 2013 senior year, he was elected Homecoming King. Jesse stated ” I was close with Coach Dodge and Coach Shepardson growing up. I felt they were always looking out for me.”

He also was encouraged by a grade school teacher, Mrs. Wehrum, who told him that he was exceptional in math.

Jesse had his share of sadness as a child. He was separated from his mother at two years old. His grandfather, who made him a Raiders fan, died a tragic death, and then the woman who had raised him, his grandmother, passed away when he was only twelve years old.

Reflecting back, he stated, ” It happened to me at a very young age where I felt the pain, and it made it so that nothing was ever too tough for me. If I could make it through all of that stuff, then I could do anything.”

After graduation, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He had offers from a few different schools to play college football and basketball but decided to enter the workforce in order to earn some money.

He went to New York City, where he was a laborer in construction. “I was working six days a week and sometimes 16 hours a day, but I was still broke because it is expensive to live in New York City. I was struggling financially when I was living there, and it was hard work.”

"17 years old with about $200 to my name, living in the Bronx working construction."

“17 years old with about $200 to my name, living in the Bronx working construction.”

~ Early Poker Years

While working in New York City, Jesse had one day off each week and spent it playing in a private poker game with some guys he knew. He said, “I was doing good. I was just starting, but I was thinking ‘I could make some serious money doing this.’ I was making more in one-night playing cards with these guys than what I did all week working.”

During his time in the city, he was also playing a lot of basketball and felt he had significantly improved his game. He stated “I just had a calling…you should go back to college and try to play. That’s why I moved back upstate, to go to Herkimer College and play.”

That was a short-lived plan as he was kicked out of college for brawling with other kids. He admitted, “It wasn’t meant to be I guess…I had one foot out the door anyway because when I was at college, I was playing poker at Turning Stone. I was skipping some classes and I would be up there all night playing. I was winning but not enough to live off the poker.”

Jesse continued playing at Turning Stone Casino. He stated, “At that point, I was thinking, ‘Now that I’m not in college, I really have to start taking this seriously’.”

He worked odd jobs and spent his remaining time at the casino. During this time, he and his now fiance, Meghan, were starting to date. He stated, “At this time, I was playing poker every day. I went broke probably ten to fifteen times at least within that year.”

He realized that Turning Stone was not a big enough venue for him, so when Rivers Casino in Schenectady opened, he started to play there. They were bigger games, and Jesse started making bigger money. He saved up his winnings with his eye on the west.

~ Making the Move

Jesse had saved a fair amount of money from his winnings so he and his fiance, Meghan, made the decision to move to Oregon where he could be closer to the bigger casinos.

He recalled “I wanted to play tournament poker. I was a cash game player in New York, where people with more money had the advantage. What I like about tournament poker… you correlate it with life. No matter where you come from or how much money you have, everybody starts out with the same amount of chips, so there is no advantage. We are all on equal ground. I thought….’if we are all on equal ground, then no one is going to beat me.’ I remember the first big tournament I played in Atlantic City. There were four or five thousand people in this tournament, and I remember getting to the top two hundred or something. Just to be in that big field with all of those people and getting almost to the end…I was like.. wow, I almost won this my first time! After that, I said to myself ‘I need to play tournament poker.’ I knew that if I wanted to play tournaments, I had to move out west where the majority of them were.”

One of the first tournaments he played in was in Reno, Nevada, where he did not do well. He jumped into some cash games and ended up making ten grand in a couple of hours. He was encouraged by being around bigger pockets where he could make some better money. He entered a series in northern Oregon where he cashed for around $11,000 and by the end of the series he walked away with around $30,000.

He said “That’s when I realized that I could do really well in these tournaments. A few weeks later I went to Vegas and played in a tournament at the Wynn and cashed for about twenty or thirty grand. I could tell when I was playing that I had a big edge over people. I was able to read people well, and I was comfortable.”

First gold ring win, Jan 13, 2020

First gold ring win, Jan 13, 2020

Jesse had a good enough bankroll that he could travel a bit and enter some tournaments.

He decided to go to Florida to play a series where he lost all the money he had. His flight home was the next day. There was one little tournament that would interfere with his flight, but he bought in anyway. He ended up winning all of the money back that he had lost in the series, caught his flight home, and felt pretty good.

Shortly after that, Covid hit. Jesse played a bunch of cash games in Oregon. He also was playing on-line poker to practice and get better. He stated, “I would have twelve different poker games on one screen playing twelve games at a time. I was training my mind. I was seeing my mistakes and getting better. I was teaching myself. When Covid ended, I felt like I was ready.”

~ Picking Up Some Wins

January of 2021 was the first tournament in which Jesse won a substantial amount of money. He headed to the Hard Rock Casino in Florida with $7000 to his name.

He planned on playing the $400 and $1000 buy-in events. He thought if he did well in them, he would play the main event. He busted in both games.

He decided to enter a satellite tournament where a $400 buy-in win could get him into the bigger $3500 buy-in game. He won the $400 buy-in and got into the bigger game, where he found himself at the final table playing for almost a million dollars.

Before he even got to the final table, his father, Mike Lonis, jumped on a plane to be there with him. Jesse said, “That’s the confidence my dad had in me. He always followed the updates and when there were seventy people left, he decided to fly down that next day. He got there the night before the final table. I looked up and saw my dad there and thought ‘What the heck is he doing here?’ He surprised me. There were twelve people left, and I was the chip leader. I asked my dad how he knew I was going to make it. He said, ‘I just knew’.

The last day, Jesse went out in fifth place, earning $250,000. He stated “It was crazy turning $400 into $250,000 with no one backing me. Now I had some money to actually play the game. I could play aggressively, and that helped me to be the player I wanted to be.”

He had also found out that Meghan was pregnant with their first baby while he was in Florida.

5th place win at Hard Rock Casino for $250,000

5th place win at Hard Rock Casino for $250,000

~ Vegas

After that big score, Jesse felt that he was ready to make the move to Las Vegas where he put a down payment on a lovely home for him and Meghan.

In Sept. 2021, they welcomed their daughter, Harley Jean, to the world and Jesse had that much more reason to keep winning.

"We took home the trophy for my daughter on the way!👶🏻 plus $90,000! May 2021"

“We took home the trophy for my daughter on the way!👶🏻 plus $90,000! May 2021”

Jesse started playing tournaments in Vegas and stated, “Before I knew it, I was dominating in those.”

In 2022, Jesse averaged better than one live tournament cash per week.

"Took 2nd in the last event of the series, the 1k turbo for 118,000" July 18, 2022

“Took 2nd in the last event of the series, the 1k turbo for 118,000” July 18, 2022

During 2023, he cashed in more than 30 live events through the end of July, including a trio of six-figure results.

In January, he finished third in the $25,000 high roller at the Hard Rock in South Florida for $260,000 and then added another $370,000 with a win at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.

"Won the 10k pca tournament in Bahamas on January 29th 2023"

“Won the 10k pca tournament in Bahamas on January 29th 2023”

I asked Jesse how he answers people who say that he is gambling and risks taking on a game of luck. He stated, “If it was luck, then every different day, someone else would win. Eighty or ninety percent of the time, I am going to beat that person. It is a skill game, for sure. There is luck involved in certain spots, but luck is only a short-term thing. The math and the percentages are gonna play out over the long term. There are so many factors. It’s not just one, two, three things. It’s five hundred different things. There is always a way to get better at the game. Poker is the only game where you are not going against the casino. You are going against other people. It’s the only skill game for gambling.”

~ The Big One

This summer, Jesse made a last-minute decision to play in the $50,000 pot-limit Omaha championship.

He stated, “That’s a totally different game which I am technically new to. I learned it a few years ago. I wasn’t even going to play in that tournament. That’s the craziest part about it. It was a long summer and I was playing every day. I was taking that day off. I was with Meghan and the baby. We went down to the strip and had dinner and I was having a cocktail. We were looking at updates, and I saw that it already had 120 people and for a $50,000 buy-in…that was unheard of! It ended up getting over two hundred people and was the biggest $50,000 buy-in in the history of poker. I messaged a good friend of mine, who sometimes backs me, and said ‘Hey man this PLO 50K is getting really big. I am having FOMO (fear of missing out) because I’m not in there.’ He called me right away and said, ‘Do you want to play it?’ and I said,’ Yeah bro, I am always ready’. He said ‘Let’s go’ and had someone bring me the money right then. The rest is history. I bought into my first $50,000 buy-in ever. It was a lot of pressure. You know you have to play your A-game. I knew I needed to get this done. I ended up dominating the tournament and probably knocked out twenty percent of the two hundred people.” Jesse broke through for his second bracelet and a massive payday of $2.3 million. He was very emotional during the post-game interviews as he admitted that he does it all for his family, which made his fans love him even more.

WSOP $50,000 pot-limit Omaha championship. Credit Poker News

WSOP $50,000 pot-limit Omaha championship. Credit Poker News

 

Meghan supports Jesse at every step. WSOP $50,000 pot-limit Omaha championship

Meghan supports Jesse at every step. WSOP $50,000 pot-limit Omaha championship

Jesse decided to take a break from playing poker, awaiting the arrival of his second daughter.

On August 18, Myla Michelle Lonis was born. Jesse spent a couple more weeks at home, before heading back to the tables.

Jesse, Meghan, Harley & Myla

Jesse, Meghan, Harley & Myla

I asked him how he had gotten so confident about his playing. He stated, “When I was growing up, I would watch the WSOP, World Series of Poker on ESPN. That’s what I always wanted to do, to get on TV and be like that. I had friends telling me I was crazy. I remember watching a poker champ on TV a long time ago and pointing out all of his mistakes. I told my friend, ‘If this is the best player in the world, I am going to be way better than him.’ Poker was a perfect game for me. All the things in my life added up for poker. I felt most comfortable there. If it’s a mental game with math and reading people, I felt like I was always going to be the best at doing that. I still believe I am going to be the best player in the world one day. There is no one in the world that I will sit with and feel nervous playing.”

He reflects back to his childhood and realizes that the hardships he endured have made him a stronger person who is self-reliant.

He feels that he has beaten the statistics. He stated, “Guys playing poker sometimes complain that it is so tough and I tell them ‘You guys don’t know tough…this is easy.’ I would never change anything. It has shaped me into the person I am. I was always dependent on myself. It has made me mentally tougher, which helps at the table.” His father, Mike Lonis, stated, “I am very proud. I have supported him along the way. He has worked very hard, and I am his number one fan.”

Jessie and Meghan are in the process of planning their destination Wedding in Hawaii for this spring.

After his Thanksgiving break, Jesse is playing in Florida and then the Bahamas.

He stated, “I think poker will be imprinted in me for the rest of my life.”

So the next time we see “Cool Hand Lonis” he might just be a few more million dollars richer!


Denise Gregorka

Denise Gregorka

Denise Gregorka is a longtime Little Falls resident who has a love for the city’s people & history.

She is married to Craig, who is a Little Falls native, retired photographer & former business owner.

Denise has done costume collaboration for Broadway and off-Broadway theatre for 18+ years and has also been an antique/collectibles dealer for over 25 years.

She is not a professional writer but is compelled to hear and share the “background story” from engaging Little Falls residents.

If you’d like to reach out to Denise about a story idea, you can email her at gork4444@gmail.com.