If you followed the WSOP Main Event you’ll have heard about William Kassouf, the player who talked his way to the top of the leaderboard and into Jack Effel’s bad books. Dave Woods traces his unlikely journey from The Vic in London to the ESPN highlight reel…
It’s the biggest poker tournament of the year. 6,737 players entered over a week ago and now just two tables remain. The 17 players left aren’t fixed on the $8m first prize yet, though. At some point tonight the clock will be stopped and the remaining nine players will celebrate one of poker’s ultimate milestones. They’ll be guaranteed a million dollars, and will return to the Rio in October to play for the bracelet.
In the Mothership, the cavernous stage area of the Amazon Room, the feature table is crackling with tension. The eight players have the glare of the TV cameras on them, and the expectancy of friends and family on the rail. This is poker amplified to the max.
First to act, Canadian pro Griffin Benger squeezes his cards and looks down at two black Aces. This isn’t the time to play cute and he raises to 875,000. Action folds round to William Kassouf who looks down at two black Kings. Kassouf three-bets to 2,300,000 and sits back. Players fold in turn until just Benger and Kassouf are left.
Benger counts his chips and moves a large stack forward. The bet is 5,600,000. Kassouf has just under 13.5 million left. And he starts to talk.
‘All these coolers, really? I can’t call, it’s all-in or fold, what do you want me to do?’
Kassouf knows Benger has a big hand. With the dynamics of the game and the magnitude of the event, Benger isn’t four-betting light. Kassouf knows he could have Aces. But he could also have A-K or Queens (and even, however improbable, the two remaining Kings). He’s crushing two of the three most likely hands. Kassouf keeps talking. If he’s going, he’s not going quietly.
What happens next, happens in a blur. And it’s pretty shocking. Someone from the rail shouts – ‘Come on! Get it in dude!’ – and Benger snaps, shouting, ‘This is verbal abuse!’
Suddenly everyone is involved. Somewhere along the line the clock has been called. Benger calls Kassouf an idiot and the two start arguing, with Kassouf saying, ‘I’m just trying to get information.’ Benger slams his fist down on the table. ‘The bet is 5.6 million!’ Etiquette has gone out of the window.
Kassouf is smiling. If he’s feeling the pressure he’s not showing it. Ignore the crowd, the TV cameras and the lights and he could be playing a £100 tournament at his local casino. He’s still got a decision to make though, and he’s got ten seconds left to make it.
April 3, 2009 – The Vic, London
Kassouf’s journey to the biggest poker stage of them all started in 2009. The Grosvenor Victoria Casino, known as The Vic, is a world away from the WSOP. The card room was packed with locals and Kassouf bought into his normal £1/£3 cash game for £300.
Kassouf has a motto: ‘In for the min to win the max.’ He likes to sit with 100 big blinds, to see where it takes him. By midnight it had taken him to £1,800. Then he heard a call for a £5/£10 game.
‘I looked and saw some rich businessmen going to sit down,’ says Kassouf. ‘I didn’t normally play £5/£10, but I saw some of these people were gamblers. I put my name down. There were a few chuckles round the card room. People were saying, “Are you sure?”’
Kassouf sat down with his profit and quickly spun it up to £4,000. Then John Duthie bought in for £5k. The game changed in a heartbeat.
‘He’s a very good player, a very aggressive player, but I had position on him,’ says Kassouf. ‘I was playing well and he was getting a bit annoyed.
‘He lost most of his £5k to me, reloaded for another £5k and lost £4k of that to me playing aggressively. I’m now sat with about £14k. He made a phone call and asked for £15k to come from the cashier. It was about 3.30am. By 6am, out of his £15k I’d won at least £12/13k of it. I was in for £300 and I cashed out with £28k.’
The Irish Open
Straight from his biggest win at The Vic, Kassouf flew into Dublin to buy-in to the biggest poker tournament of his life. Kassouf had only got one live cash to his name and his ambitions were modest: to make the money and take his girlfriend to see the sights.
Towards the end of Day 1 Kassouf snatched the chip lead. He was enjoying himself and talking a lot. It’s what he does at the poker table. The bubble burst towards the end of Day 2 and with 64 players left and €600k up top, things were getting serious.
Kassouf made the final table in sixth. As it turned out, the first three players went out in order of stacks. Kassouf dropped in sixth for €100,800 when he ran Jacks into Queens. The ‘sickest of spin-ups’ was complete in just over a week.
Perhaps the strangest bit of the Irish Open final table though, if you know Kassouf, is the lack of verbals. Watch the highlights and you’ll see a very different man. Dressed smartly in a pink shirt and cuffs, Kassouf sits silently, playing his cards and studying the action. The first time he talks is in the post-exit interview. What was up?
‘It was the biggest tourney I’d ever played in,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t necessarily stage fright but there was €600k up top. On the outer tables on Day 1 and 2 I was having a craic. It started getting a bit more serious when the big pay jumps started kicking in, and these were top quality players, all patched up. They’re no fools and I didn’t think they were going to fall for my speech play.’
The win gave Kassouf options away from the traditional career that he’d mapped out for himself. After completing a degree in Law from Leicester University and a Legal Practice Course in London, Kassouf got a training contract at Royds Solicitors and then spent a year in insurance litigation.
His heart wasn’t in it but poker’s a tough profession. After his big win at the Irish Open, Kassouf only cashed in another two tournaments in 2009 and three in 2010.
In 2011 Kassouf was still juggling poker and law, playing cash games at The Vic at nights and shadowing barristers by day. Something had to give and at the beginning of 2013 Kassouf decided to focus full-time on poker.
He announced himself to the poker world by baiting Vanessa Selbst at EPT London, and showing her the bluff in an infamous hand that’s been viewed over 100,000 times on YouTube. (The action starts at 28:40 although there’s more vintage Kassouf in there too.)
‘We had a bit of history,’ Kassouf says with a smile. ‘I knocked her out of a previous EPT when she played a hand really aggressively against me. That’s what made the TV crew come over. She let it get under her skin, which is unusual for such a high profile player, especially on Day 1 of a six-day tourney. That’s why the video’s popular. She shouldn’t have let it get to her.’
Kassouf didn’t cash but he had a better year. He was still looking for his breakthrough win, though. And, like all other ambitious poker players, he was taking the annual pilgrimage to Vegas to play the Main Event.
The first time he played it he was about 40 players off the cash with 20BBs left when he got A♣-K♣ in mid-position. A big stack raised and he ended up all-in against A♠-Q♥. A player next to Kassouf whispered to him that he’d folded J♦-Q♦.
The flop came down 9-3-2 with one club and when the turn brought the 8♣ Kassouf was almost home and dry. The Q♠ on the river was a brutal reminder that poker’s not always fair.
Half an hour later everyone was in the money and Kassouf was gutted – ‘I almost wanted to quit the game and cry’ – but he dusted himself off and vowed to work on his game, improve his speech play, and show people that he could get a big result. 2016 – his fourth shot at the Main Event – would prove he could do it.
2016 World Series of Poker
Kassouf lands in Vegas about ten days before the Main Event. His first goal is to spin-up his buy-in. He wins $3.5k in a Planet Hollywood tourney and cashes in two $235 Deep Stacks to give him close to $6k. He decides to buy-in for the rest. He doesn’t sell any action, but swaps 10%.
Day 1 doesn’t go so well. In his own words he’s running bad, getting outdrawn and outflopped. He’s also sick and sipping Lemsip at the table. At the end of the day he has 30k from his 50k starting stack. Day 2 goes much the same way but he limps his stack through to Day 3.
With about 60 players to go before the cash, and a stack of nine big blinds, Kassouf picks up A♣-K♣ in mid position. He shoves and picks up a single caller with pocket Queens. The board bricks to the turn and it looks like history is set to repeat itself. In desperation he calls for the Ace of spades and, improbably, the river delivers. He still doesn’t have enough to fold through the bubble, though.
30 off the money Kassouf raises the small blind with pocket Sevens. The big blind calls to see a flop of 2♥-4♣-5♥ and the action checks through the 3♥ turn and the 4♥ river.
‘He bets but I don’t put him on a full house,’ says Kassouf. ‘I think he would have bet the flop to protect his hand with a set, so he’s only repping the nut flush, which is actually the straight flush. I’m thinking he’s turning his hand into a bluff.’
The clock is called. If he calls and gets it wrong he’s virtually out. If he folds he’s super-short with 30 players left to the money. As the clock counts to zero, Kassouf makes the call and his opponent shows two pair. ‘It would have been sick if he’d had the King of hearts,’ says Kassouf with a smile.
WSOP Main Event Day 4
Kassouf is in the money. It’s his first WSOP cash. What’s more, he’s feeling better. His cold has evaporated and he’s started to talk. Good for him, bad for his opponents. Kassouf starts crushing. Each pot he wins gives him more confidence, and the more confidence he gets, the more he talks.
Towards the end of the day Kassouf picks up A-K in the small blind and decides to smooth-call a raise. The big blind makes it 3x and the original raiser folds. Kassouf just calls again. The flop is A-T-5, all spades. Kassouf has the Ks and checks. His opponent bets about a third of the pot.
‘I ask him what he wants me to do,’ says Kassouf. ‘He says, “It’s up to you,” so I say, “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it, I’m all-in.”
‘Now he’s cursing to himself in French and I’m giving him the speech, saying, “I’ve got a big hand. If you’ve got a flush you’ve got me, are you slow-rolling me, what are you thinking about? Get your chips in. I’ve got a big hand, I’m willing to gamble, you’ve got a flush, a set or two pair, good luck to you. If you had me beat you’d have called by now, so I think I’ve got the best hand. I deserve to win the pot just for this speech, go on pass, good hand. No shame in passing, you don’t want to go broke with two pair.”’
He eventually calls with A-J (with the Jack of spades) and Kassouf wins the massive pot when the 9♠ hits the turn.
WSOP Main Event Day 5
After limping through the bubble Kassouf now has 2,713,000, good for 16th spot on the leaderboard. There are 250 players left and the ESPN cameras are on the lookout for narratives. Their job is about to get a whole lot easier.
William Kassouf v Stacy Matuson
Matuson opens from UTG+1 with an average stack and Kassouf calls with 9-6 in the big blind. He’s got double average.
The flop is 5-3-2, giving Kassouf a gutshot and the possibility of making a higher straight if Matuson has an Ace. Kassouf checks, Matuson bets and Kassouf calls. The turn is the 8♥, giving Kassouf a double gutter. Any Four or Seven gives him a straight.
‘She bets half pot again and now I know she’s got a made hand – Jacks, Queens, Kings or Aces. She hasn’t got a set on this board,’ Kassouf says.
He calls and the river bricks with the T♠. There’s over 700k in the pot and Matuson has less than 600k behind. Kassouf decides to start talking.
‘If you’ve got one pair I’ve got you beat, I’m all-in,’ says Kassouf.
It’s what he’s been doing all day, but this time the dealer steps in.
‘Sir, you can’t discuss your hand.’
‘Well, whatever you’ve got I want you to call, I’ve got you beat.’
‘Sir, you can’t discuss the contents of your hand.’
‘I wasn’t discussing the contents of my hand, I was discussing the contents of her hand.’
‘Sir, you can’t discuss the contents of either hand, you can’t say anything like that.’
‘Okay, keep it friendly, whatever you’ve got, if you fold and show I’ll show, I’ve got you beat, I want you to call.’
‘Sir, you can’t say anything.’
‘What do you mean I can’t say anything?’
‘You’re influencing the action.’
‘What do you mean? I’ve gone all-in, she’s either calling or folding.’
‘You can’t influence the action.’
‘Well that’s the whole point of speech play,’ Kassouf says.
The dealer calls for the floor. Kassouf is still talking and Matuson asks for Kassouf’s hand to be killed: ‘You’ve told him the rule and he’s still telling me that he’s got me beat. How is his hand still alive?’
Jack Effel, the TD, approaches the table. Kassouf tries again. He knows Matuson wants to call.
‘There’s over 600k in the pot already I want you to call,’ he says.
‘You cannot say anything that influences the action, you cannot say what’s in the pot,’ says the dealer. ‘Anything that influences the action, you cannot say.’
Meanwhile Matuson is still talking. ‘All these rules he’s breaking and you’re not giving him a penalty.’
‘The decision’s on you young lady,’ says Kassouf. ‘You don’t need to go on about it. I want you to call, good luck to you. But I did say I’d keep it friendly. Because it’s you and it’s a friendly table, if you fold and show, I’ll show. Keep it friendly. But I want you to call 100%. You don’t want to bust out with the whole camera crew watching, this would be embarrassing. You don’t put me on this hand, I tell you. I can’t say what I’ve got but you’re not putting me on this hand.’
The floor says: ‘If you say one more word, you’re going to get a penalty.’
‘How come his hand is still live?’ says Matuson.
‘I’m just saying you don’t put me on this hand, that’s all I’m saying,’ says Kassouf.
At this point it’s confirmed that nothing that Kassouf has said is out of line.
‘I was just saying, keep it friendly, if she shows I’ll show. Friendly table, we’re just enjoying ourselves.’
‘Just stop talking until this hand is over, that’s friendly,’ says the TD.
‘Why wouldn’t you be trying to bust me?’ says Matuson to Kassouf.
‘I don’t want to bust you.’
‘Sir, I’m not going to ask you again,’ says the floor.
‘I said I’d show, keep it friendly.’
‘You’ll just show me the worst hand, what does that mean?’
‘Sir, this is your last warning if you say anything else you’ll get a penalty,’ says the floor.
‘But she’s talking to me…’
‘She’s not talking to you, she’s talking out loud. I’ll give you a penalty if another word comes out of your mouth until this hand is finished.’
Kassouf shuts up and someone calls the clock. The hand is getting silly now. Jack Effel says he’ll take over the floor duties, Matuson is still eyeballing Kassouf and talking to him – ‘I’m sure I’ve got the best hand’ – but he can’t say anything. Instead he starts miming with his hands – ‘you fold and show, I’ll show.’
‘I’m going to ask you, if you make one more gesture like that to the lady…’ Effel says.
‘I’m just trying to be friendly,’ Kassouf replies.
Effel takes it further. ‘This is not friendly. I don’t want to see you move. You and I are going to have a conversation when this hand is over.’
Matuson eventually open-folds pocket Queens. Kassouf asks if she wants to see. She nods, he flips his cards saying, ‘Sick bluff, turned a double-gutter and missed. Nine-high like a boss. Big heart. Heart of a lion.’
Jack Effel gives him a one-round penalty, allegedly for taunting. ‘You were taunting that lady, that was 100% taunting.’
‘What did you think I was trying to say to her?’ Kassouf says, puzzled.
‘You were trying to get her to call, to make a decision.’
‘No, no… I said I’ll keep it friendly, if you show I’ll show.’
‘This gentleman is on a one-round penalty,’ Effel replies leaving no room for misinterpretation as Kassouf tried to explain again, ‘get ready for a two-round penalty.’
On the rail, Effel and Kassouf talk. According to Kassouf, Effel says: ‘Listen, you’re a smart guy, you’re a lawyer, you know exactly what you’re doing, your speech play strategy is working for you. You’re getting under their skin, you’re annoying them and it’s getting you chips. While you’re not actually breaking any rules you’re pushing the boundaries to the max and forcing me to intervene for the integrity of the game.’
‘I said I appreciate that and the integrity of the game,’ says Kassouf. ‘But if I haven’t broken the rules, why should I get a penalty?’
Ironically Matuson is eliminated while Kassouf serves his penalty – her Aces cracked by K-J. When Kassouf returns to the table he shrugs off the episode, and gets back to accumulating chips. If the WSOP are hoping Kassouf might go quietly, they’re set to be disappointed. He briefly takes the chip lead and ends Day 5 in sixth spot with 8.3m. Day 6 doesn’t go so well, but Kassouf survives again. With 27 players left, he is in 22nd place.
(The Matuson hand starts at 1:05.)
WSOP Main Event Day 7
Everyone is now guaranteed $269,430. By the end of the day nine players are going to be left, all guaranteed $1m.
A lot of players have tightened up, hoping to nurse their stacks over the line and it creates opportunities. Kassouf opens his game up. From 22nd in chips he gets to second. And then he picks up Aces.
The action folds to Gordon Vayo in the small blind, who limps. Kassouf makes it 3x and Vayo calls. The A♦-9♦-5♦ is dangerous. Kassouf bets 1.7m into 2.5m and Vayo calls. They check through the 6♦ turn to see the 7♦ turn. Incredibly, Kassouf is now playing the board, but he knows a bet will take it down if Vayo doesn’t have a big diamond. He bets 3.3m into a pot of 6m and Vayo calls with A♣-J♦.
It’s a blow, but just three hands later Kassouf gets the perfect opportunity to get his chips back as he looks down at Kings.
Griffin Benger raises from UTG, Kassouf three-bets to 2,300,000 and sits back. Benger counts his chips and moves a large stack forward. The bet is 5,600,000. Kassouf has just under 13.5 million left. And, just as he has been doing all day, he starts to talk.
‘This is verbal abuse!’ Benger shouts.
Suddenly everyone seems to be shouting. Somewhere along the line the clock has been called and Kassouf has less than a minute to make his decision. Benger calls Kassouf an idiot and the two start arguing, with Kassouf saying, ‘I’m just trying to get information.’
Kassouf moves all-in, and Benger calls and flips his Aces. Kassouf shows Kings and the commotion continues. Benger walks to his rail saying, ‘Whatever happens, it won’t change my life.’ The rail starts baiting Kassouf. A ‘USA!” chant starts up, despite the fact that Benger’s Canadian. Someone shouts, ‘Brits go home!’ and someone else starts a Brexit chant. It’s in danger of getting physical.
‘Any Kings about?’
Kassouf is still remarkably calm. If he’s bothered by what’s happening he’s not showing it. The board doesn’t add to the drama and, just like that, Kassouf is out. Two of the game’s best hands, Aces and Kings, have done for him in the space of just 10 minutes. He goes to shake hands with the table and a few players refuse. It’s not a nice way for it all to end. What does Kassouf make of it?
‘I’m obviously gutted to get this far and not make it into the November Nine,’ says Kassouf. ‘I was in a great position to make it, but it shows what poker’s all about. To go from 22nd to second in a couple of levels, then to end with those two hands… It’s a dream to get this far though.’
As for the controversy, Kassouf says it didn’t affect him. ‘I was unbelievably relaxed,’ he says. ‘I got threatened with a three-orbit penalty on the feature table by Jack Effel. All the US players were complaining, Cliff Josephy called me a clown. Oh, so he’s allowed to call me a clown? I was told no-one’s allowed to insult anyone but they didn’t penalise him. I took it with a pinch of salt. He called me a clown, to me it’s a circus – there’s no business like show business! He wants me to bite and call him an idiot so he can complain and get me a penalty. 100% I’d get one straightaway, even if he started it.’
The next day Kassouf gets back to what he loves doing. After a few hours’ fitful sleep he gets a cab to the Strip and wins a turbo satellite straight into the $5k at the Venetian, which he busts with a couple of bad beats. As soon as he gets home he heads to Coventry to play in the £120 Goliath and comes 364/5,232 for a cash of £300. The stage might have been bigger in Vegas, but for Kassouf the show must go on.
The Matuson hand has aired now on ESPN and poker players – including Daniel Negreanu – have been rallying around Kassouf calling the penalty outrageous.
Just saw the penalty against Will Kassouf. Absolutely horrified by the unjust ruling of a one round penalty. So many things wrong with it.
— Daniel Negreanu (@RealKidPoker) September 21, 2016
@dontsayshipit he has ZERO RIGHT to tell him he can not talk. ZERO. He can’t say “I like peanut butter” because floor doesn’t like it?
— Daniel Negreanu (@RealKidPoker) September 21, 2016
ESPN commentator Norman Chad was interviewed after the hand and this is what he had to say when asked his opinion on Kassouf.
‘Nuts, nuts nuts. As in am I nuts to be entertained by him? Sure, he might start another American revolution against Britain, but it might be worth it. Hey, we can’t complain about nine guys sitting around the table in hoodies thinking about merging their ranges and then get all hot and bothered when someone wants to bring some life to the game. If he’s crossing the line he’ll pay for it with a penalty, or with bad karma, in general talk is good for poker… a battle of the wits, a mind game, sure his talk can tilt it’s a great weapon, it’s his tongue versus your tolerance.’
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