Alex 'Kanu7' Millar Interview

Alex 'Kanu7' Millar Interview

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Six years ago, Alex Millar, then a third-year student at Warwick University, began playing freerolls and $5 SnGs for fun. Today, he’s one of the best NLH heads-up and six-max cash game players in the world.

He may have had a lousy start to the year, but since then his graph has soared heavenwards. Bluff Europe talks to PokerStars’ latest recruit about life at the top.

Hi Alex! How has it been being part of PokerStars Team Online?

Pretty fun. I wasn’t really sure exactly what it would entail, but I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve been to a couple of VIP Club live events, visited PokerStars HQ and finally created a Twitter account. But other than that it’s not been too stressful!

You played quite a lot of hands with Jungleman last night which went pretty well for you – could you tell us a bit about that?

For sure, it went well last night. We’re generally pretty close, me and Jungleman. Last week I won a fair bit from him, but the week before that, he won even more. It swings back and forth between us. He’s a really tough opponent. He’s one of the best in the world so he’s pretty fun to play. I’m trying to get back into heads-up because I’ve been playing a lot of six-max. Jungleman is quite a good guy to face when you’re trying to get back up to scratch, because if you make mistakes he’ll punish you for them – he basically forces you to improve.

He got pretty tilted against you last night. Were you taking advantage of that?

Yes [laughs]. I don’t know how much it necessarily affects his play, but he gets very tilted. It’s quite funny sometimes. Certainly, out of all the high-stakes players I play, he gets the most tilted in chat, which is quite weird because he’s made millions and millions from poker and he’ll lose $10k and still go mad. From what I can tell, though, he doesn’t let it affect his play too much, he’s just letting off some steam.

You didn’t start off playing heads-up. What was it that attracted you to it?

No, I didn’t. I had no money at all when I started playing. I was a student, so I was just playing freerolls and $5 tournaments. I then started playing six-max – I think going straight from tournaments to heads-up cash would have been too much of a jump to make straightaway. Six-max went well, but once I got to the higher stakes I found that I couldn’t always get action. The games were really hard to get into because there were so many people bum-hunting and table-scripting. There’d be like 15 tables with just one person sitting – that is, until a fish sat down – and then almost instantly the table would be full. So I started trying out heads-up and I found that I really enjoyed it, and it became my main game for a long time. It was also easier to get action against regs heads-up – at least when I started, anyway.

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Is it difficult for you to find action nowadays?

It’s OK for me right now because I’ve taken a bit of time off from heads-up, so more people are willing to play me – especially Jungleman. I could play WCGRider if I wanted to, or Sauce. These guys are all really good, though, that’s the problem. There’s not too much good heads-up action around. At present, it’s OK, but there was a period of about a year and a half where the only people who would give me consistent action were Ben Sulsky and Ike Haxton. That was a bit sad! [laughs]

The high-stakes heads-up world is incredibly fast-paced. Do you think the hierarchy of the best players has changed much in the past six months or so?

Yeah. Doug Polk seems to be the best, or at least very close to the best at the moment, while maybe a year ago that might not have been true. Sauce was the best for quite a while, and now Doug has overtaken him. Ike Haxton’s been at the top for years and that hasn’t changed, and Jungleman used to be the best, and now perhaps not. Obviously Viktor Blom was the best at one point, and now he’s pretty far away from that. So it does change a lot. It’s one of those environments where everyone’s constantly working on their game and trying to improve, and someone will just think of something new to do and that will propel them up for a while until people start copying it… and then after that someone else will come up with something different! It’s a cycle, and so the rankings of who’s the best can yo-yo significantly.

You said you could play Doug if you wanted to. Do you not want to?

Not really [laughs]. I will do, if it goes well against other people, but I’m not going to play Doug because he’s the best in the world and there are at least three to four other people who will play me at the moment. It doesn’t seem worth it. I’ve been playing six-max, so I don’t want to jump straight back in to heads-up or I’ll just lose! I’ll probably play some others and see if that goes well first. I do plan on playing Doug quite soon, but I just want to get back into it. Also, given that he’s quite arrogant, I don’t really want to be playing him when I’m a big underdog.

You definitely could say Doug is arrogant, but you’ve never really been like that – is that’s fair to say?

I’m not going to criticise him for it. I think he’s right up there at the top so he’s entitled to say what he likes. But he’s certainly more outspoken about how good he thinks he is compared to some other people. I think a lot of the stuff that he says is designed to get people a bit riled up so they’ll play against him. I just go the other way a little bit, and I’m less likely to play him when he’s like that.

So you’re immune to his trash-talk?

Yeah, I try to be anyway.

You’ve been pretty vocal on the changes in the heads-up lobby on Stars which are designed to combat bum-hunting. At one point they were leaning towards a forced play solution which you voiced your concerns about. Do you know what’s going on there?

I made a suggestion in that thread a couple of weeks ago. I called it ‘the Battleground’. It’s mainly for lower stakes really, but it’s just a way of creating an area where you can go and you don’t get to choose your opponent. It’s a bit like Zoom, except you sit down and play a half an hour match. If you’re down a couple of buy-ins you can quit, but otherwise you have to play the half an hour. You have to get a certain amount of VPPs in that arena or you’re not allowed to open-sit at any of the regular heads-up tables. That would reduce the number of people who just sit while bum-hunting, and it would also reduce rake – so people who want to become heads-up pros and battle against other regs can’t do that without being eaten alive by the rake.

The guy at PokerStars who’s responsible for this sort of thing said he’d get back to me about it, and he hasn’t yet. I don’t know if that’s because he hates the idea and thinks it’s stupid or if he’s just thinking about it, but hopefully I’ll speak to him about it soon. My problem with forced play at lower stakes is that, with the high rake, I don’t think it would change much overall, because neither player would want to play against each other, so there’s no forced play until one player actually sits.

Still, there would be people who would just go around sitting everyone, and it seems a bit unfair with the rake so high to be forced to play each other. I’ve spoken to the guys at PokerStars quite a bit about it, and they’re very knowledgeable about the games and the rake and everything. I think sometimes people think they don’t care about those things, or that they just make random decisions, but I think that whatever decision they make in the end will probably end up being quite good.

At high-stakes it’s got quite a bit better since they reduced the number of tables at $25/$50 and $50/$100 to 15. That’s made a fair few people play against each other just for the right to sit, if you like. It kind of goes in cycles in terms of action against high-stakes players, and at the moment the action’s quite good. It’s currently one of those times where people are in the process of overtaking other people, and edges are quite close between certain people, so they’re battling with each other to try and find out who’s better. So right now it’s not too bad, but it definitely needs a long-term system to be put in place to keep it that way. I think forced play might be a bad thing – I think you might just end up with one, maybe two guys sitting and not much action going on.

You’ve always made the choice to focus on NLH, is that still the case?

I started off playing NLH, obviously, and managed to do quite well at it. It just seems like it would be really hard to get to the top of another game. I gave PLO a little bit of a chance and it was going OK, but I started to get some hold’em action so I stopped. I expect to get back into PLO at some stage, and possibly something like triple draw. I’d say over the next year there’s quite a big chance that I’ll be learning another game. A lot of people are making a lot of money in other games so it’s pretty tempting. I do plan to put some more effort into PLO in the next year so hopefully you’ll see me playing some high-stakes PLO and not getting too crushed.

Do you think with PLO and mixed games there’s more of an opportunity to have an edge?

Certainly, in terms of the absolute standards, it’s lower in other games. More people have been playing hold’em at a good standard for a longer time. In some of these other games people will be playing worse in an absolute stance so you can get more of an edge. The level I’m at in hold’em is due to me playing it for six years and working really hard at it, so while people might be playing worse at PLO I will be as well. It’s worth a try, though, so I probably will give it a go at some point.

Are you significantly better at hold’em than, say, a year ago?

Yeah, I’d say so. I put quite a lot of effort into my six-max game when the big $400/$800 games were going on Full Tilt, so I think that improved a hell of a lot in the last year. My heads-up game was a little bit stagnant for a while but I’m getting back into it.

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You said that you had $835k sitting in your Full Tilt account when Black Friday hit. How long did it take you to get back on your feet?

I had well over half my net worth on Full Tilt, so it was pretty irritating, I guess. That might be an understatement. Certainly, it was difficult, because I was playing $100/$200 heads-up against regs and, immediately pre-Black Friday, I was in the middle of a really big upswing. All of a sudden, well over half my money’s gone, I had to move back down, and I even had to sell action to play $25/$50 for a while. A big motivator for me in poker is moving up and seeing my bankroll increase while meeting new challenges, so to have all of what I achieved and worked so hard for taken away was difficult. I had to go back to a stage where I felt like I’d already done it and ticked it off the list – eg, I’d beaten $10/$20, I’d beaten $25/$50. It was hard to pick up the pieces and motivate myself to start with, but then I just sort of thought to myself, “Right, I have to win the money back that I lost on Full Tilt. Maybe it takes me a year or even longer, but I will get to an even better position than I was before Black Friday.”

Luckily it worked out well. I managed to make back the money I lost, and then got my Full Tilt balance back as well – then lost it again within about two weeks on Full Tilt! It can be easy come, easy go sometimes. Black Friday was awful, but I felt sorrier for the people who played mid-stakes and had three-quarters of all their money tied up on there. While I had a big-dollar amount on there I was mainly OK. I wasn’t struggling to pay rent and I had a bit set aside. It was devastating for me but still manageable, whereas a lot of people in America had to move countries or get new careers. The fact that so many were way worse off than me helped to keep things in perspective.

There were stories of people who sold their Full Tilt balances for 80%. Did you ever consider doing anything like that?

No. I felt like it was going for a low price for what it was worth. At one point it was down to a few cents on the dollar or something, less than 20 certainly, and I always thought there must be a much higher percentage chance than that that it will be returned. That’s the way the market should work – people are taking on your risk so they want to get a good price, but it would’ve felt too soul-destroying for me to give away so much of my hard work. A lot of it was more an emotional decision rather than a particularly well-thought-out one – like, “Ugh, if it gets returned in full and I’ve sold my balance for a discount it’ll be so annoying!” I don’t know how much faith I had at the time, but I was definitely standing firm and hoping.

You’ve had quite an up and down year. It started out pretty horrendously.

It was definitely hard earlier this year. I wasn’t getting much action at all, and the action I was getting wasn’t going very well. I played a few thousand hands against Isildur1 at $300/$600 and lost about $800,000 to him. Then Phil Ivey hit-and-run me for $250,000 over the course of about an hour, and never showed up again. Apart from that I was getting a little bit of $25/$50 action, even less $50/$100 action, and not really anything else. It’s difficult when you’re thinking how am I going to make this money back?!

When the $400/$800 games started I also lost some there too. I was down about $1.5 million for the year, which wasn’t too much fun! Luckily I’d sold some action so it wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been. So I put a lot of work into my six-max game because I thought, “Well, even if heads-up is running dry for me at the moment I’ve got to get some action from somewhere!” I managed to make a decent amount back at $400/$800 playing six-max, and then played Isildur1 at $400/$800 which went extremely well. So fortunately it all turned round, but the last few months have been crazy. It’s been going so well it’s almost unbelievable… I’m sure it won’t last forever, but I’m certainly enjoying it while it’s going on!

So you ended 2013 on a high…

Yeah! However, since a lot of it was at $400/$800, I sold a fair bit of action, so the year is not quite as amazing as it looks on HighstakesDB or something like that. In terms of dollars won at the tables, it’s my best year ever, but in terms of how much I’ve actually won for myself after selling action, staking other people, etc, it’s my worst year in four years. Having said that, it’s still a good year.

How do you keep motivated when you’re on a big downswing?

I actually find it easier when I’m on a downswing. I’m very competitive so if things are going badly then I get even more determined to work on my game and find a way to win. When I’m on an upswing I can get a little bit lazy sometimes, like, “Ugh, I’m making money, I can take the day off!” So, maybe, strangely, I’ve always found I’m more motivated when I’m losing. That probably leads to some quite big swings for me.

If your biggest motivator in the past has been your desire to move up, what keeps you going now you’re at the top?

I still have goals, like now I want to be able to take a bigger percentage of myself at $400/$800. I also want to be able to comfortably beat WCGRider and Jungleman heads-up, and improve my win-rate in six-max games. The motivation is still there to improve and do better… I’m not the best in the world, so there’s still something to aim for.

There’s been a growing trend of players opting out of results tracking websites, but you haven’t done that.

Now I’m a sponsored pro I think PokerStars would prefer that I don’t opt out. You’re expected to be in the public eye. But before I had those obligations, I still didn’t opt out. Everyone at high-stakes knows what my graph has been like, so it’s not like I can just hide it on HighStakesDB and then that will suddenly lead to me getting loads of action because nobody knows that I’ve won money! A lot of the six-max guys have done it, and I think a lot of them have made a lot in the last year but before that I didn’t have particularly impressive HighStakesDB graphs – so it makes sense for them not to want people to know how good they are. I think, also, there may be tax issues for players in certain countries. In normal jobs, you wouldn’t ask how much someone earns, and people don’t want to discuss it.

But surely a big part of the game is railbirds can to follow their idols. With that in mind, do you think tracking sites are bad for poker?

Yes. Tracking sites are generally bad for poker. It shows who’s doing well and who’s doing badly, and it ruins action a little bit. However, I do think that high stakes are a bit of an exception to that, because it does attract a lot of people who want to watch the biggest games and see the huge swings that people are having. When I started playing I was really inspired by some other guys at uni who were playing mid-stakes and making a few thousand dollars a month. I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing! I need to get involved.” So there’s something to be said for what you see on the tracking websites inspiring people.

Does knowing there’s thousands of people watching you and discussing the way you play hands on forums ever affect your play?

No, it doesn’t. I was actually just discussing that with a friend of mine who plays fairly high-stakes as well. We were talking about the Heads-Up Showdown that happened a couple of years ago, and he said if he played that then he wouldn’t want to make any “weird” plays because he’d just be immediately slated for it if they went wrong. I did experience that a bit to start with, but not really at all any more. I’m confident enough in my game that I’m going to be happy with most of the plays I make. If I do make a bad play, then I don’t need legions of people pointing it out to know it was bad. If I was playing on TV things might be different, because that has a wider audience so people I know from university or whatever might tune in, my family would see me and the commentators might be slating a play that I’ve done that is good but they don’t realise that. When you play online, I don’t think it makes a huge difference, thankfully.

How come we never see you on TV?

I’ve only done one TV show, four or five years ago now. It was a last minute thing, and it didn’t really go very well. I think I bluffed once and got called, then stacked off with aces in another spot, then left [laughs]. It wasn’t a good start to my TV career. I’m not desperate to get into it, but if something came along then I would never say never.

You generally don’t play live tournaments much, is that going to change now you’re with PokerStars?

Probably not. I’m going to play the PCA in January. I play the World Series most summers, and sometimes I play the EPT London. I just don’t enjoy it as much as online. The speed of it is so much slower, and it can get boring. Plus, I never do very well, so maybe if I won I’m sure I’d be here singing the praises of live tournaments, instead of doing what I normally do, which is bust on Day 1 to someone who is totally useless. I played the EPT London High Roller event and was on the table with a very famous pro. The pro made a pretty awful call against me, and then had a 20 minute chat with her friend about how great she thought it was. Meanwhile, I was just sitting there hating life [laughs], thinking, “Oh, God, why do I play live tournaments?” I play the odd one, but it’s not part of my deal with PokerStars to have to play a lot of them.

What are your main goals at the moment?

Basically to get back to the top in heads-up. My most short-term goal is to try and beat Jungleman. We’ve been pretty close at the moment, and I think he might even have a small edge on me. After that, I want to take on some of the top guys. For the next year I want to get more hands in since my volume this year was pretty shocking. It’s actually embarrassing. I’ve played only maybe about 130,000 hands this year. I used to play about 400,000 a year. I’ve always played only four tables, meaning that I get in a lot less than guys who commit to serious multi-tabling. But my overall goals are the same as they’ve always been – play more hands, win more money, get better at poker!

Tags: Alex Millar, Kanu7, Jungleman, Doug Polk, Ike Haxton, Daniel Cates, Viktor Blom