John Kabbaj: Sex Pistols shocker as Brit wins first bracelet

London poker player John Kabbaj has seen and done it all on the European stage, but a WSOP bracelet in Vegas this summer was the icing on the cake

At the grand old age of 36, John ‘Large’ Kabbaj is already one of the veterans of the UK poker scene. He’s played all around Europe, winning tournaments in London, Paris and Moscow, as well as being a permanent fixture in the Vic’s big cash games. For years British players like Neil Channing have talked up Kabbaj’s chances of winning something big Stateside. And finally, after a series of near-misses, he proved them right by winning a bracelet this past summer in the $10k Pot-Limit Hold’em World Championship for $633,335.

Starting Out

I’ve always played cards since a young age. One day I went to the Vic to play blackjack and saw these people sitting around tables playing poker and I got hooked. I was lucky in that I got friendly with Donnacha O’Dea and I’d watch him play.

In 1995 I won a tournament for £15,000 and the next day quit my job where I was earning about £14,000 a year. It was a crazy decision, the wrong decision. You win a tournament and you think you’re a genius. It didn’t take me long to realise I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to be honest with myself so I just started over.

I missed a lot of my youth as I was in a casino for ten hours a day for most of my twenties. Back in those days most of the other players were at least in their mid-thirties. I’ve always considered myself both a cash and tournament player. Back when I was younger I had too much gamble in my cash game. Also, I’d play everything back then – I’d be in £25 freezeouts five or six days a week.

Fifth Hendon Mobster?

I think Barny Boatman was the person who labelled me the ‘fifth member of The Hendon Mob’. I met them on the circuit in 1996 when I made the same final table as Ram [Vaswani] at the European Open. I became friends with them all but especially with Ross. We used to travel to tournaments together.

Joe Beevers used to have a private game in Hendon and I used to joke and call them ‘The Hendon Mob’. When they decided to form a poker group they needed a name and Joe said, ‘Why not “The Hendon Mob?”’ Ross asked if I wanted to be on the team, but I was a one-man team, young, and I only saw trouble, so I said no. Two years later they signed a big sponsorship deal! I’m happy with my decision though – they’ve had to do a lot of work away from the tables and I’m happy to just play poker.

Vegas Blues

It’s been a dream of mine to win a WSOP bracelet. I’ve been going to the WSOP since 1996 but never really played that many tournaments. Us Brits would go for the last two weeks of the Series and I’d just play cash apart from the Main Event, which at the time was probably the only tournament you could win $1m in.

In 2004 I finished second in a $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em event. For the next few months I was very unhappy as I really wanted to win, but I played badly heads-up and never did myself justice. I’d just had the biggest score of my life but was so depressed I didn’t speak to my wife for a week.

In 2008 I bubbled the final table of the $10,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em World Championship when my Aces lost to Queens so I felt the tournament owed me somewhat. In 2008 it was the first tournament I played and it was a really bitter pill to swallow. It ruined the entire 2008 Series for me as I didn’t have the heart afterwards.

WSOP Success

Down to the final two tables in this year’s $10,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em event I went on a tremendous rush going from 500,000 in chips to 2m. I was chip leader going into the final table but it was a very tough one. The person who I thought was the weakest had won a bracelet in 2008! My plan was to be very patient and let the young guns fire away.

I got heads-up against Kirill Gerasimov who is a good friend of mine. We’d both made a lot of WSOP finals before, but neither of us had a bracelet. I first met him in Moscow in 2000 and actually taught him a lot about poker. The night before the final table we had dinner together and we did again the night after the final table. Heads-up I knew I’d have an advantage as I mix it up more; as a result I knew where I was more often.

The Ceremony

There was an incident during my bracelet ceremony at the WSOP where they played the Sex Pistols’ version of ‘God Save the Queen’. I’d seen a couple of the ceremonies that had happened earlier in the Series and thought the ceremony was a good idea, but wasn’t sure about the national anthem – you’d often be in the middle of a hand and have to stand up for an anthem.

I was shocked by what they did – I had no idea it was going to happen. One of the floormen had jokingly said they were going to play the Sex Pistols’ version but I Iaughed it off. When it happened I just froze and caught a glimpse of Jack Effel and he looked a little shocked too. If I’d been a bit more aware perhaps I could’ve said ‘time out’ or something. As it was happening a couple of Brits – John Shoreman and Dave Barnes – came up and were screaming, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and ‘Don’t you know this song was banned in the UK?’

I went straight from the ceremony to the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event. For the first couple of hours my head was gone – it really tilted me. They rearranged the ceremony for the next day but I was in bed as I’d made the second day of the H.O.R.S.E. event and, to be honest, I was so pissed off with the whole thing. The [organisers] apologised four times but they’d already ruined my ceremony and I’d been waiting 13 years for the chance.

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