James Akenhead had an epic 2009, winning nearly $2m and final-tabling both WSOP Main Events. We out why poker fame hasn’t affected Britain’s unassuming new star
There’s always another day, kid.’ The voice – a familiar deep Texan drawl – is just a few metres behind James Akenhead, but with his head spinning, the young Brit has no idea it’s addressing him. Thirty minutes earlier Akenhead had been at the WSOP Main Event final table, still gasping at the cruel fate of running pocket Kings into Kevin Schaffel’s Aces. But now he’s snaking through the empty halls of the Rio, punch-drunk from his ninth-place finish and contemplating what might have been
The familiar voice draws alongside Akenhead. ‘You busted?’ the man asks. ‘Yeah,’ croaks Akenhead, snapping into the here and now. It’s his poker hero: two-time WSOP world champion Doyle Brunson. The septuagenarian is buzzing along the tenth floor of the Rio on his mobility scooter. ‘There’s always another day, kid,’ repeats Brunson, with a smile and a tip of his Stetson.
Doyle’s bit of wisdom quickly proved prophetic, as Akenhead’s ‘day’ came just three weeks after his WSOP disappointment.
At his third big final table of the year the young Hit Squad star managed to win one of Europe’s most prestigious events: the Poker Million. Just a few days later, he agreed to drop by the PokerPlayer offices and give us the full story on how, during the course of one year, he’s become one of the biggest stars in the poker world.
The quiet man
If you’re wondering whether the ostensibly quiet Akenhead has a raucous alter ego away from the table, you might be disappointed. He’s polite, softly spoken and never rushes his answers. During the photoshoot he has two expressions: serious and sort-of-smiling. Every so often he braves the cold for a cigarette break.
His dress is understated: he sports the same cropped hair, blue jeans and plain black T-shirt we saw him wear throughout the World Series, the only splash of colour being the Full Tilt patch on his top. Apart from the chunky watch on his wrist, he’s as secret a millionaire as they come. The only inconspicuous detail is the big grin he sports when the camera is off: he just can’t hide how chuffed he is about winning the Poker Million VIII and another $500,000.
‘Coming first in a tournament means so much to me. Having so many near-misses builds up. I was over the moon and it topped off a great year for me.’ It’s easy to scoff at an event which is essentially three turbo sit-and-gos – ‘The final table’s such a crapshoot because they want to air it and get it done in the five-hour slot’ – but no one can deny the event’s rich history and the fact that the 2009 line-up was probably the toughest ever.
In his semi-final Akenhead faced durrrr and Antonio Esfandiari, and in the final he was sandwiched between Luke Schwartz and CardRunners co-founder Taylor Caby. Akenhead’s secret weapon was dedicating himself to knowing the players inside out. ‘I’d been studying the players quite a lot from the videos of the heats. I knew it would be tough to read Dag Martin Mikkelsen and Caby because they don’t give much away. Luke’s weird because his emotions change all the time, so it’s tough to pick up things on him.’
Luckily, Akenhead’s best read was on Finnish star Juha Helppi, against whom he ended up heads-up in the final. ‘I had a very, very reliable physical read on him. I was pretty sure when he was strong or weak every time, even when I wasn’t in the pot with him.’
It says something about the breadth of his achievements that even without the Poker Million, Akenhead would still have emerged from 2009 as one of the all-time heroes of British poker. If you’ve been hiding under a rock, here’s a recap: in July he became one member of the November Nine in Las Vegas and a few months later repeated his heroics, making the WSOPE Main Event final table in London. In 40 years of WSOP history, only five other Brits have made the WSOP Main Event final table (Mansour Matloubi won it in 1990) and no Brit has ever gone on to make the WSOPE final in the same year.
To put this remarkable story in perspective you need to understand that for most of Akenhead’s life poker wasn’t even on the radar. As a teenager, he had only one goal: to make it as a professional pool player. ‘Playing pool came first in my life. I didn’t want to do anything else.’ He got good enough to make the top 16 in the UK but reluctantly hung up his cue to search for a more financially secure career. After leafing through job listings, he applied to be a train driver.
One interview and a year of training later and Akenhead was on a solid salary of £30,000. At just 21, it was like having all the money in the world. ‘That was a lot to earn at that age with no qualifications,’ he says.
Although he’d developed a small taste for Hold’em at this point – indulging in £5 rebuy tourneys at the Gutshot – it was nothing but a hobby. It was only when he approached Karl Mahrenholz and Praz Bansi about forming the Hit Squad that things ratcheted up a level. Week after week of discussing hand histories and strategies created formidable players out of all of them and suddenly ‘going pro’ seemed like a realistic proposition.
When Akenhead finally took the plunge and quit his job in September 2006, he didn’t get off to the best of starts. In the first two years on the circuit he won just $100k in live tournaments and bankroll management issues meant a lot of that was frittered away online. ‘I always had a problem of playing beyond my bankroll. That was the sole reason I went skint a few times.’ His record
at the WSOP was practically nonexistent. His first shot at the Main Event in 2006 ended on day one and the following year he fared only marginally better. ‘I lasted an extra 15 minutes: nine hours and 15 minutes!’ he jokes.
It wasn’t until 2008 that he started to show the potential frequently talked up by his peers, finishing second out of 3,929 players in a $1,500 no-limit Hold’em event at the Series. ‘I was confident from day one that I was going to win that event,’ he says. ‘It sounds a bit far-fetched but I had that overwhelming confidence.’ Only a bad beat prevented Akenhead from fulfilling his vision and winning the gold bracelet. The question was, could he come back from this blow and carve out another chance at glory?
Coming of age
Akenhead went into 2009 absolutely convinced that he’d have a big year. ‘I’d been telling everyone I thought I was going to go very, very deep in the Main Event. I really went on about it.’ Although he had a slight hiccup on the opening day, his foresight seemed to hold true. ‘Getting through the first day with so many chips (72,000) was a massive accomplishment and I went into day two with a lot of confidence. I played really well for that day and the whole tournament. I don’t remember one hand where I played that badly.’
Akenhead explains that one of the key attributes that helped him get through the field was his tilt control. ‘In the World Series Main Event, you’re really deep and there are lots of emotions flying about, so it’s one of the easiest times to lose control of yourself.’ In past years he’d known how to build a stack but had little idea how to keep it. ‘I guess up until even a year ago I was getting angry with myself, with the game, with the hand. Now, even if I play badly in a pot – which can really put you on tilt – I’ve been able to get on with the next hand. That’s a part of the game that I’ve improved on the most.’
Given some of the situations he found himself in, keeping his composure was essential to his survival. The most testing moment took place at the start of day eight, the day when the field was pared down to the November Nine. Sitting just outside the top ten chip leaders overall and second chip leader on his table, he was in an excellent position to throw his weight around. The very first hand he woke up with Kings and a sizeable pot seemed conceivable. But he would end up being the chip donator, running his cowboys into Ian Tavelli’s Aces. ‘I went from 8.7m with loads of confidence to 3m.’
To make matters worse, Akenhead had turned up to the table five minutes late anyway. Just one minute more and he would have missed the hand altogether. Composure kicked in. ‘I thought about it for two or three seconds and by the time the next card was dealt, it had completely gone out of my mind.’
Although he managed to get back to 12m an hour later, Akenhead’s gut-wrenching swings continued. He found himself on the wrong end of a coinflip against Antoine Saout and was left hanging on by his fingertips with just 2.4m in chips. His World Series appeared to be over when he got the rest of his chips in against Jamie Robbins with K-Q. He’d run into Aces again, but this time his luck was in.
A glorious flop containing a King and a Queen gave him two pair and meant he was back in the hunt for a seat in the November Nine. ‘Because I’d got it in against Aces, I was freerolling. I should have been eliminated so I was happy just to still be in there. I knew I had a mountain to climb but noticed that the players were getting knocked out quite fast.’
He can’t quite verbalise the sense of relief that washed over him when Darvin Moon turned over a set of eights to make Jordan Smith one of the most unlucky bubble boys ever, but his lit-up eyes say it all. ‘I couldn’t believe it! To make it to the final nine is really great.’ He might have been nursing the short stack but he’d done it: he’d made the November Nine. He had three months to perfect his gameplan.
A large part of that gameplan involved not doing much of anything – especially not poker. ‘I went on holiday and had a really nice time in Thailand, relaxed and took it easy,’ he says. However, with the last quarter of the year being one of the busiest times in the poker schedule, particularly in London, Akenhead was drawn back into the fray. ‘I played poker in Macau and came back and found myself playing quite a lot of poker,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really want to do that but there was so much on, in particular the World Series of Poker Europe and EPT London.’
After early bust-outs in the Omaha and no-limit Hold’em side events at the WSOPE, Akenhead admits his confidence ‘might have been a bit damaged’. And with November’s judgement day just a few weeks away he was left questioning whether playing the WSOPE Main Event would make for good preparation. But he soon came around. ‘It was actually the first tournament that Full Tilt bought me into with 100% buy-in, so I really wanted to put my full effort into it.
I actually went in with a lot of confidence, as I do normally.’ He wasn’t able to match the breathless pace set by fellow Hit Squad member Praz Bansi, who charged to the top of the leaderboard from day one, but he found the high quality of the field forced him to play his absolute A-game. ‘When you sit down and your table is full of top pros it’s a different game, it really is. You can’t run
over the table, even though that’s what I like to do. You’ve got to think about strategy and put more effort into thinking about how you’re going to get chips. You’re really zoned in and focused.’
With two or three tables to go, Akenhead seemed dialed in to do the astonishing – make the WSOPE final table. Incredibly, Antoine Saout, another November Niner, was right there with him. It’s a phenomenon that Akenhead is more than happy to attribute to the confidence of knowing you have a guaranteed spot in poker’s biggest tournament. ‘Look at the results some of the November Nine got. Antoine and I both made the WSOPE final table, while Kevin Schaffel and Steve Begleiter did the same in the WPT [Legends of Poker].’
Much of the WSOPE remains a blur for Akenhead, but he remembers the final day with the kind of clarity that accompanies real pain. ‘Obviously I had high expectations going in as second chip leader,’ he says. ‘There was no reason why I wouldn’t think I was going to win it. It wasn’t going to be easy to beat those guys but I’d put myself in a spot where I’d have a really good chance.’
The early signs didn’t look good. First he was forced to concede several hands to massive chip leader Jason Mercier, then he lost a sizeable pot to Daniel Negreanu after check-calling two streets with pocket eights. ‘I didn’t play many hands at all but every hand I played just went wrong. I raised two or three times and got shoved on.’ He ended up finishing ninth, and even with hindsight claims there isn’t much he would have done differently. ‘It’s just the way it goes – I just need to run better on final tables!’
After such an anti-climactic finish at the WSOPE (including watching Bansi finish third) you’d think Akenhead would be happy just to relax before he was due to go to Vegas. The opposite was true: he was hungry for more action and his sponsor persuaded him to play in the Poker Million. ‘It was a $20k buy-in and I’d never bought in to a tourney that big. You get TV bonuses but I would only have got $5k if I’d gone out in my first heat.’ Fortunately, he cruised through his heat and semi-final and boarded the plane to Vegas knowing he’d have the final to return to however he fared at the WSOP.
After three months of waiting and expectation, November 7 had finally arrived. Things got off to a flyer even before a card was dealt. As they were getting mic’ed up backstage, Ivey naturally couldn’t resist a prop bet. ‘It was 11.40am and we were supposed to start at midday,’ explains Akenhead. ‘Ivey said that he’d set the line at 12.25pm for the first hand to be dealt.
I was sure it was going to be later because they had to do all the announcements, so I took $5k on the over. The first card dealt was at 1.10pm so I was already $5k up and I’d beaten Ivey in a prop bet!’ Aside from the financial reward, winning the prop bet carried the added benefit of relaxing Akenhead straight away. ‘I blocked out all the sound and went into focus mode.’
Although not immediately imperilled, his stack of just 22 big blinds didn’t afford him many options. ‘I had a pretty shit seat draw,’ he says. ‘Darvin was on my right and I’d never seen him raise-fold preflop. And I had Phil Ivey on my left so my strategy was quite limited. Obviously with my stack I wanted to ship on some people.’
Things went from mediocre to pretty depressing. ‘I got dealt junk after junk and got blinded down,’ he says. By the first break, he was down to 4m (from his original 6.8m) and knew that the walls were closing in. He was in push/fold territory now.
After he shoved twice with K-9 and Q-J respectively and got everyone to pass, Akenhead sensed he was building a degree of momentum. He decided to take a third swipe with the hand that had served him so well in the summer: K-Q. ‘It’s a bit iffy under the gun but, saying that, K-Q is not a bad hand to see five cards with,’ he says. He recalls how at this point the Brits on the rail were silent, not saying a word, just holding their breaths to see what would happen next. ‘Steve Begleiter called and I thought, this is either me out or I’m doubling up.’
When Eric Buchman reraised, Akenhead remembers his response like it was yesterday: his head dropped and his hands covered his face. The crowd’s screams whirled around him but the English boys remained still and quiet. ‘They just wanted to know what I had – obviously they knew I was in bad trouble.’
The next few moments would end up being some of the most extraordinary and unforgettable in the 26-year-old’s life. ‘Steve passed and I saw Buchman’s A-K,’ he continues. ‘I went over and told the boys and then went back to my seat and focused on the flop. It came J-3-2 with two spades. The turn was a King, which changed nothing, and all the boys were shouting for a Queen. I just sat there focusing on the last card.
And the Queen came down. I started jumping around and my friends were jumping on top of me. After expectations of getting knocked out, suddenly I had 13 million in chips and my confidence was through the roof.’
Akenhead calls the moment ‘the best in his life’. ‘I had all sorts of different strategies to think about,’ he says. ‘I could really start playing poker.’ After a jubilant break surrounded by his closest friends and infinite possibilities, Akenhead set about the task of doing what he does best and taking the fight to the table. The cards had other ideas. He was dealt Kings and had it in mind to play it tricky after Kevin Schaffel raised.
‘I thought it would be better to smooth-call preflop. If it was textured I was going to lead and if it wasn’t I was going to check. It came JÚ-9:-4:, which is as textured as they come. He’s going to go broke with a lot of hands now. So I led out, he shoved and I called.’ Schaffel turned over Aces and Akenhead’s World Series dream was all but over. He still had 4m chips left but he might as well have had nothing. He’d been punched in the gut and there was no getting up from it.
‘After that high I was instantly back down to below ground,’ he says. ‘I was deflated and disheartened. I lost confidence and thought that the next time I shoved I wouldn’t survive. And I didn’t.’ Akenhead bowed out four hands later, running 3-3 into 9-9. It may come as a surprise to learn that Akenhead’s heartache didn’t last too long. He grieved for just a few hours. ‘I’m good at getting over things – I never really let it affect me. We went out, had a nice meal, and it was one of the best nights ever. I had all my friends there. We stayed in Vegas for another five days and played golf. It’s the best trip I’ve had to Vegas ever.’
On the rise
Some might put his optimistic outlook down to the fact that he knew he had the Poker Million final to fall back on, but listening to Akenhead speak about his goals for 2010, it goes deeper than that. In 2009 he proved himself both against a huge field of amateurs and against some of the best players in the world. And this isn’t a case of Brit bias. The top Americans have already recognised Akenhead as one of the elite. Negreanu raved about his performance in the WSOPE and out of all the players on the WSOP final table, Akenhead was the only one Ivey called out as impressive.
That’s why when he talks about the November Nine not being a one-off but repeatable, you start to think it’s possible. He truly believes he can do it again, and better next time. ‘The fields get tougher and tougher every year, but whenever I play I’m really confident. So I’m going to be going back every year with the intention of winning.’ Doyle Brunson was right. In poker, there is always another day; for Akenhead, it’s just a matter of when.