James Dempsey talks about Black Friday, pro banter and becoming poker’s elder statesman
I’ve caught WSOP bracelet holder and WPT winner James Dempsey at a bad time. Stood in the middle of an no named train station, he asks me to hold on while he hurriedly buys a ticket back home. ‘The life of a poker player is all glamour,’ he jokes as he umms and ahhs over his ticket selection.
Every few seconds his south coast accent breaks the silence to politely ask me to ‘wait a second… be right with you… almost done’. It’s not your average start to an interview, but then Dempsey is not your average poker pro.
The Brighton legend has been at the heart of the UK’s poker scene since before there was a UK poker scene. He may have burst into the spotlight in recent years thanks to a WSOP and WPT titles, but he has been working hard for ten years to become an overnight success. And as he catches his breath on a quiet train carriage, he explains just how different poker is now from his early days grinding play money tournaments for fun.
‘The style of the poker has changed dramatically and the size of the game is just so much bigger,’ he says. ‘Just look at how many big tournaments there are these days and how many people play them. If you had a 10k with a 15 minute clock it was amazing, now it’s a crapshoot.’
Dempsey’s ten-year love affair with poker has been a mixed bag to say the least. After years of grinding he suddenly found himself a WSOP bracelet winner with a Full Tilt sponsorship deal. And then Black Friday happened.
‘I had a pretty good deal with Full Tilt, and probably as much security as you can get as a poker player. It was something I expected to be so safe. But then it collapsed and I didn’t really believe it. I kept thinking things would blow over. I was gutted. Just when you think you’ve got something sorted, poker comes along and does something else.’
After the highs of 2010, with a bracelet win and Full Tilt sponsorship deal, last year was beginning to look a bit of a nightmare. Patch-less and with only a few cashes to his credit, Dempsey had all but written off 2011.
‘My game had been lacking since my bracelet win in 2010,’ he admits. ‘I came second in another WSOP event straight afterwards, but since then I didn’t really have anything going. I felt I wasn’t playing that great. I was always confident I’d get back to the top, but I was maybe trying to force it too much.’
Enter Chris Moorman and an unlikely Vegas trip. Moorman, in Sin City for last December’s Epic Poker League event, called on Dempsey to deliver some grinding money to him. The rest, as they say, is history. ‘I’d always planned on going out to Vegas at some point after the World Series, I always do. Usually, I go in November and come home when the games dry up, but Chris wanted me to meet him so I tried my luck at the WPT Five Diamond Classic. If he hadn’t needed some money sorted, I wouldn’t have been there.’
Dempsey made his delivery and signed up for the $10k major in December. In one week, he joined the likes of Jake Cody and Sam Trickett among 2011’s biggest winners, pocketing $821k after triumphing over big names Vanessa Selbst and Antonio Esfandiari on the toughest WPT final table in recent memory. Throughout it all, the UK’s finest were there to cheer him home.
‘Myself and Tom Middleton went together, Sam Trickett just rocked up out there a few days before and Chris Moorman flew over early to rail the final,’ he says. ‘It was a pretty hilarious night out. In fact the WPT trophy
was brought to a club at one point and dropped. There’s a bit that’s chipped off. I can get it fixed but I think it adds a bit more character really – it’s a war wound.’
Mine’s a water
The aftermath of his WPT win was a mish-mash of boozing and ‘hijinks’ in some of Vegas’ most exclusive clubs, but like most things with The Doctor, it wasn’t your usual night out. A self-imposed hiatus from the bottle meant Dempsey was the sole ‘non-drinker’ celebrating his success.
‘It’s too easy to get carried away with all the partying, especially with all the young lads around today. They love getting on it. But I’ve been doing that for quite a while now, and quitting wasn’t the worst idea. It’s definitely something I would advise others to give a go.’
Jokingly, I ask how he’s managed to stay friends with so many of the game’s youngsters when he’s always clean and sober. ‘I dunno,’ he blurts. ‘I’m just someone people get on with. I think a lot of players are similar nowadays, and that’s why I’m enjoying it so much. I’ve been around for years, so I’ve got to know a lot of people.’
It’s a typically modest response. As one of the ‘elder statesmen’ of the British game, Dempsey’s had plenty of time to build such friendships. But it wasn’t always chipped trophies and nights out. Dempsey came into poker after watching Late Night Poker back in ‘2001 or 2002’ and was already hooked before the Moneymaker effect changed things forever. ‘When I started I was absolutely diabolical, but luckily so was everyone else,’ he adds. ‘I guess timing is everything.’
‘When I first started playing, I was just playing. I can’t think of a point where it became a motivation and I decided this is what I’m going to do. Luckily, every year has been better than the previous, which is pretty rare. Even if I did cut it a little late last year!’
Dempsey’s career has always been a gradual build. He never took shots or went outside of bankroll. ‘I’m more complete in terms of my playing style and understanding of different types of players than others,’ he says. ‘A lot of people don’t get that. They haven’t been bad players because they learnt so quickly. But because I was so bad for so long I understand how amateurs think.’
The overwhelming feeling you get when chatting with Dempsey is that he’s a nice guy who has ended up a lynchpin of the UK scene. He’s famous for his staking (see boxout), but less so for his abilities at the table. While Cody and Trickett were snapping up all of poker’s honours last year, Dempsey was getting it quietly on the live cash scene, and were it not for Moorman’s intervention, he’d still be there. T
here’s an unfussy consistency to his game. And as the phone line struggles to cope with a network of tunnels, I ask whether having to watch the plaudits be lauded on others, while his WSOP win almost faded into history, got to him.
‘Oh no, it was great,’ he says sincerely. ‘Obviously there’s a part of you that is jealous when somebody has a score, that’s just natural. If you weren’t then you’re not going to do very well in the game. But any time a close friend wins, it makes it all seem a lot more realistic. You get the feeling that you could do it again.
‘As long as I’m happy in how I’m playing then that’s all that really matters. It’s great being back. I’ve never been one to travel where all you can do is play poker, like Deauville in the middle of January. But I’ve got the bug again so I’m putting myself through it.’
A major reason for Dempsey’s new-found hunger is the company he keeps. While the Brits have been on top for a few years now, people often overlook the effect having a solid group of friends can have on your win-rate. According to Dempsey, there’s never been a better time to be a UK poker player.
‘The group is fantastic now and ever-growing,’ he beams. ‘Every time I meet someone new they just seem to be really good at the game. I hope it continues. The more the merrier. It makes going away so much more fun. When I first started playing around Europe, there was no one really there, especially in my age group. But now you can have fun at every tournament. When I first popped up it was so much the opposite. Poker was so much newer, and I definitely notice it.’
Taking the Michael
One by-product of such a tight-knit group of UK pros is the constant banter and mickey-taking. And Dempsey can clearly hold his own. When asked whether he uses his new-found WPT fame to wind up Moorman, who, try as he might, can’t seem to book a major live win, he laughs once more. ‘We never stop winding the Moorman up about his second places.’
And that’s James Dempsey in a nutshell. One minute he’s the all-seeing, all-knowing man from Brighton who’s been there since the beginning of the poker boom. The next he’s The Doctor, ready to put down his fellow pros with a one-liner. Throughout our interview he’s never once expressed any regrets. Whether it’s the loss of his sponsorship deal or money lost staking losing players, he’s never wished his career could have taken a different path.
As the phone line begins to crackle, Dempsey gets ready to tell me one final anecdote. But I can’t make it out. Instead a tunnel brings our conversation to an abrupt halt and the last thing I hear is the sound of Dempsey laughing his head off at the memory. It’s not a bad life.