Marco Johnson has to wonder how his life might be different today were it not for an unusual neighbor of his, back in Walnut Creek, CA. Johnson's neighbor happened to be the late Chip Reese's sister.“When I was about 12 years old, I first heard about him,” Johnson said just moments after winning his first career WSOP gold bracelet. “I made up my mind at 12 that I wanted to play poker for a living.”Over the next several years, Johnson got to know the Reese family even better, including Chip. He even visited the Las Vegas mansion of the late poker legend when he came to town on family vacations.“Since I was very young my goal was to be a good mixed games player,” Johnson said. “I wanted to play in high-stakes games. So now, when I play inside the high-stakes room, I look up on the wall and see his picture. It's a very cool feeling from so many years ago.”Johnson came to share at least one more characteristic of Reese's on this night, finally winning his first gold bracelet. The victory came following years of close calls and high finishes here at the WSOP, including three previous second-place showings. Incredibly, he finished second in this same event last year, losing on the final hand to Ronnie Bardah.Johnson topped the $2,500 buy-in Limit Hold'em tournament, which drew 343 players. He earned $206,796 in prize money.With this victory, Johnson has established quite an impressive WSOP resume with nearly $1.4 million in earnings. He also expects to play more tournaments at this series and perhaps attend WSOP-Europe since he's now in seerious contention for the Player of the Year race.Presently, Johnson splits his time between living in Mexico and the U.S. He stays in Mexico so he can legally play online. He also resides part of the year in Las Vegas to play high stakes cash games at Bobby's Room (Bellagio) and Ivey's Room (Aria). That said, Johnson's focus will be on the WSOP over the next few weeks.“Tournaments are fun when you are winning them,” Johnson said. “Now that I am doing well, I want to keep playing them.”MEET GOLD BRACELET WINNER – MARCO JOHNSON
Name: Marco Johnson
Current Residence: Walnut Creek, CA (USA)
Birthplace: Walnut Creek, CA (USA)
Marital Status: Single
Occupation: Professional Poker Player
WSOP Cashes (including this event): 23
First WSOP Cash (year): 2007
WSOP Final Table Appearances: 7
WSOP Wins (with this victory): 1
WSOP Career Earnings: $1,386,809INTERVIEW WITH THE CHAMPION
WSOP: How does it feel to win your first WSOP gold bracelet?
Johnson: It feels really good. If I would have taken second place again, I would have been very upset. So, I'm really happy to be sitting here and not driving home upset. It's a much better experience to be feeling this right now, rather than taking second.
WSOP: Tell us how things went for you in this tournament day by day.
Johnson: I had a lot of chips from Day One. I play a lot of Six-Max Limit Hold'em. It's one of my better games. I felt pretty good. I was texting people after Day One that I was going to win this. Obviously, I ran very well also. Like, I had 30,000 in chips towards the end of last night, but then ended the day with 340,000. So, I had an unbelievable rush the end of the day and then had a great day today.
WSOP: You talked about the frustration of finishing second, but is that really so disappointing considering the money you make each time you go that deep?
Johnson: Yes, and no. When you play these tournaments, you play to win them. The money is nice for second, but playing these tournaments is with one goal in mind, which is to win. When you don't, you feel like you didn't finish something. Or, you did something wrong. Or, you second guess yourself that if I would have done this or that differently. It's nice when you win not to have that, 'I should have done this' feeling.
WSOP: Can you discuss the pressures of playing at a final table versus playing in high stakes cash games?
Johnson: For the last five years, I've played at Bobby's Room and Ivey's Room, where I usually sit in the mixed games. Winning this gold bracelet is great, but it isn't really my greatest accomplishment. I think my greatest accomplishment is surviving in those big cash games and playing every day. But this is a bigger monkey off my back, so it feels better.
WSOP: How much high-stakes poker do you play?
Johnson: When I lived in Las Vegas full time for five years, I probably put in more time in the high-stakes games than anyone. But now, it's more like 20 to 40 hours a week when I am here – depending on the action.WSOP: You said you were inspired to become a poker pro by the great Chip Reese. Did you ever meet him?
Johnson: Yes. I met him a number of times. Even today, his nephew is one of my best friends.
WSOP: What do you remember about Reese?
Johnson: It's amazing how many good things people have to say about him. He showed us how being a respectable person can go a long way. I hope to do the same thing and behave the same way, as well.
WSOP: So, what does winning the gold bracelet represent to you in terms of your poker career?
Johnson: It's more for my family to be able to say, 'oh – I won a bracelet.' It's like proof of what I do. I had a goal to win a bracelet. It's very prestigious and I am very happy.
WSOP: Was that the goal this year – winning a gold bracelet?
Johnson: This is the first summer I have dedicated myself totally to tournaments. I have a first, a second, and an eighth – plus three other cashes.
WSOP: So what does a gold bracelet winner do to go out and celebrate.
Johnson: I don't know, since I haven't ever won one until now (laughter).
ODDS AND ENDSJeff Thompson, from San Diego, CA was the runner-up. He is a 32-year-old software engineer.Hal Lubarksy, who is legally blind, cashed (23rd place). He also cashed in the 2007 WSOP Main Event.