Exclusive Tom Hall interview: ‘Poker should be more about reputation and winning tournaments than winning money’

Another week, another interview with an extremely talented young poker player! Tom Hall has just arrived back from a hugely successful trip to Vienna for the latest stop on the European Poker Tour. The Shrewsbury based pro managed to finish second in two side events, for almost €140,000 total. It follows a whirlwind start to the year for the online MTT specialist. Hall steered himself to a 10th place finish at the PCA main event for $112,400 and even had time for a rewarding stint in the EPT Live commentary box for the final table of that same event.

PokerPlayer sat down with Tom to talk about his recent run, commentating with Isaac Haxton on EPT Live and why top pros like Jason Mercier should be more open about the strategy side of the game…

PokerPlayer: Congratulations on your tremendous success recently Tom. How are you feeling about it?
Tom Hall: Obviously pretty good! I wouldn’t have expected to do so well in Vienna overall, because in live poker you almost expect nothing and hope for the best! So to get second in two events is just absurd. I think mainly I’m just surprised that I’ve had so much live success this year because I wouldn’t really call myself a live player – my focus has always been online.

How difficult are the side events at these big stops, are there a lot of regs?
They were both pretty soft and I’d say in general they are soft. Nine-handed Hold’em events are all still quite soft. The main thing is, these days in almost every tournament there are going to be good regs and the cream rises to the top so often that the last two tables are never going to be easy anymore.

It all follows a really deep run in the PCA main event which was a bit of a ‘breakthrough’ for you. You must be delighted…
Not really. Even now, the experience was amazing but I won’t look back at the 10th place itself, I’ll look back at the trip as a whole. For me, money doesn’t really register anymore. Even now it hasn’t really sunk in that I won chunks in Vienna or the PCA. I’ve always tried to – and this sounds depressing – but negate emotions when you win as well as when you lose. If you get really excited every time you win then losing is going to become ten times worse.

So I never really come away from anything feeling super amazing. It was just brutal to get that deep and not make it round one table because at that point I’d never made a final table really ever [that was of value], apart from maybe a UKIPT high-roller.

Any regrets that you couldn’t go all the way?
No regrets with how I played. There was a WSOP $1,000 with 3,000 runners once where I got 14th or something and that was so emotionally devastating for me, I was destroyed after that. So with the PCA I was a bit more ready for it.

The game is absolutely brutal at times and my career has been pretty brutal up until this year!

Not making the final table did give you the chance to join the guys in the commentary box on EPT Live. What was that like as an experience, especially to mix it up with someone like Ike Haxton?
Doing the commentary with Ike Haxton was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I was trying to milk him for as much information as I could get out of him! I wasn’t trying to showcase my talent at all, I was trying to bounce questions off him and tried to give honest answers about how I felt.

It was more for me about getting as much of Ike’s genuine thoughts on air as possible. I see people like Jason Mercier on the stream and they are just so pathetic, I hate it. I know at the end of the day, the more information you spread the less money you are going to make, but it’s a hard world anyway and if you don’t want to help people it’s just a bit sad.

Are there any other pros you’d like to hear more from?
I’m not trying to pick Jason Mercier out, he’s just a good example of someone who doesn’t go into strategy on the microphone and it’s just so negative for the game. Guys at the top should be wanting it to be more competitive, they must get to the point where money is almost irrelevant and it’s more about reputation and winning tournaments. Being known as one of the best is surely more important.

So you’re more in favour of sharing information than keeping it to yourself?
Yeah, definitely. If they sent me in there with the choice of being the funny guy or the strategy guy, I’d choose strategy every time. Why else would they call the guests in? It’s for that exact purpose. I really like the idea of actually helping people, it’s such a selfish environment that actually doing something that benefits others is nice for once. 

You got a lot of positive feedback from your stint in the commentary booth. Is it something you’re interested in doing more of in the future?
Yeah, I got a ridiculous amount of positive feedback. In the future I’d love to go back in the booth because it’s such a fulfilling experience for any poker player. Being able to talk liberally about the game and have people genuinely interested in what you are saying is great.

It’s really untouched in any other sport, where you can bring in a guest analyst and they can really put themselves in the shoes of that person they are watching. It’s difficult in any other sport to do that. Also, hanging out with Joe [Stapleton] and James [Hartigan] is so much fun, they are so professional about it. To anyone out there that gets the offer you should snap accept it.

How much confidence did being asked to do EPT Live give you?
The commentary didn’t really boost my game confidence, as I already knew I was good at the game. I didn’t go in the booth because I needed people to pat me on the back and tell me I was good.

You’re got over $1m in online MTT cashes, is that still your bread and butter or are you focusing more on the live game now?
I don’t think I’ll ever focus on the live game to be honest, live poker to me is just like a holiday. I don’t go out there intending to enjoy myself, I still go out there for business, but it’s more of a break from online poker. Online feels like the work.

I have got $1m in cashes but I’d say my focus is half satellites and half MTT’s, and satellites aren’t even tracked by PocketFives. Over the past year or so it’s shifted from 90% MTT’s to a lot more satellites.

We hear a lot about pros grinding the satellites and winning endless packages. Are they still a bit of a money spinner or have they been taken over by good players?
They are still good value. Satellites are always going to get tough once you start playing some of the EPT ones, but all of the smaller tours are always going to be good value. I still play all the sub-qualifiers and they are still very soft.

People generally see it as too much of a shot in the dark when they play a satellite, kind of like a lottery ticket, if they win they go. But if you really put in the focus and grind them every day there is so much money to be made.

As we are talking about qualifying for live tournaments, how did you make the transition from online tournaments to the live game?
UKIPT really helped, playing a whole season essentially was great experience. I also think taking it slow has been the main thing for me. I would never have played an EPT two years ago, just because I wasn’t comfortable enough.

It’s actually really hard to tell if you are comfortable enough because when I did play my first EPT I busted within four hours and I was like “Jesus, what just happened!” I really didn’t play very well I don’t think and it’s such a steep learning curve. The people who jump in and win immediately are just incredibly lucky, you can’t say that there’s that natural ability to instantly win tournaments. Your learning curve can be a couple of days in online poker, but in live poker it can take six months to work out a strategy that is right for you.

It’s all about learning from your mistakes I’d say, and generally the thing I’ve learned the most is patience. Even when you’re down to below ten big blinds you can’t just flick it in and hope for the best, you have to be absurdly patient even then. It’s so easy to just get it in when you’re down to dregs, but those dregs can lead you to the win!

How did you get into poker in the first place?
I played penny games at college with my friends and I knew immediately I loved the game. I knew it was so in-depth and there was so much to learn. We’d play in the common room and I’d do alright, we’d go to the pub after and drink our profits.

When I left Shrewsbury and went off to University in Nottingham I gave up on education within two or three weeks and found a love playing poker in the local casinos. Midway through my first year I started to play online, mostly Sit & Gos. 

How did you improve?
I’m an advocate of just playing, playing and playing. It was at least two years before I sat down and looked at strategy. I don’t think it’s the worst thing to wait that long either as my motto is ‘learn from your mistakes’. You can read as much as you want online and watch as many training videos but until you make the mistake yourself it won’t click in your head.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t study at all – even I do now and again – but playing is just infinitely superior.

What kind of stuff do you do outside of the game? Do you think it’s important to have a good work/life balance?
I was dreading this question because I don’t really have much of a life outside poker! When I started playing it just filled everything. It was something I could learn and enjoy, it filled my time whatever time of day it was.

The best players are going to have a very balanced lifestyle but I don’t think it’s a necessity. My current life plan is to live an incredibly unbalanced life until I have enough money to buy a house. Once I have a house I can work on more balance because at least then I’m financially secure.

A lot of people must look at me and think I’m clinically depressed but it’s all perspective. If you were in my shoes you’d see I wake up everyday and I want to play poker so much. When I’m not playing I have no idea what to do with myself. So people might think I’m depressed but I’m very happy, happy I’ve got something I genuinely care about and that I didn’t go in and get the office job that I once intended on getting.

Playing a game for a living is just unreal really.

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