Akenhead, Trickett and Lewis - The British Likely Lads part two

June 2012 cover

08 June 2012

Balls to the Olympics. There, we said it! The real British hope for gold this year lies within the hole cards of our heroic poker players. Here we profile young British players yet to win bracelets who we think will shine in Vegas this summer. With apologies to the likes of Ben Vinson, Priyan de Mel, Jon Spinx, Rob Akery, Ketul Nathwani, Marc Wright, Ben Jackson, Stuart Rutter, Laurence Houghton… (we could go on forever).

Here are our tips for the top.

James Mitchell

At the tender age of 23, boy wonder Mitchell already has an Irish Open title under his belt and plenty more up his sleeve, and we sense he’s sniffing for a bracelet this year; however, as he’s quick to reassure us, it’s more about the money.

He plans to play a lot of the lower buy-in tournaments in Vegas, lots of $1,500s, as well as the Main Event. But how is he going to resist the temptations Vegas has to offer? James is momentarily puzzled. “Well, I’m going to just play lots of poker, but I’m probably going to go out and have lots of fun as well,” he says. Suddenly the penny drops: “Maybe that’s a bad thing...” he wonders aloud.

Toby Lewis

It’s been a relatively quiet year and a half for Toby Lewis since he won the EPT Vilamoura back in 2010. He’s a hugely consistent tournament player, however, even when the coin flips aren’t going his way. He’s already notched up six figures in live tournament winnings this year, a feat he has achieved every year since he went pro in 2009 (USD, anyway).

Toby tells us he has rented one of the luxurious Palms Place apartments this year with some of the friends that he plans to stake in a few events.
He intends to play fewer events than last year, making sure he takes a few days out because “Vegas gets a bit too much sometimes”. However, he’s particularly looking forward to the $10k six-max and the $3k heads-up events. With the momentum of a recent score in Monte Carlo behind him, Toby is due another big tournament win and, if he wins a few races, he might just nail it in Vegas.

Ashley Mason

He may only be 22, but Yorkshire’s Ash “DYBYDX” Mason won the WCOOP high roller for $430,000 in 2011 and, again, is hugely respected by his peers. He’s in Vegas for the duration and is going to play as many events as he possibly can, or make that as few events as he possibly can, because (he vows) he’ll be in them all until the final day. “As soon as I bust one I’ll be in another,” he promises.

Ash got all the partying out of his system last year and this year means business. He’s restricting himself to one night out a week, has purchased gym membership in Vegas and, with his housemates John Eames and James Dempsey, has hired a chef to cook healthy meals. He’s particularly relishing the short-handed events, he likes high buy-ins and is champing at the bit to play the 10k six-max.

Craig McCorkell

Our number-crunching Bluff Rankings super-computer never lies; it had Craig McCorkell flagged as “freakin’ awesome” as far back as mid-2010. By virtue of finishing in our Bluff Rankings Top 20 in that year, Craig played in the Bluff Europe Champion of Champions event in Paris, where he was pitted against players with the best results of the same year from all over Europe, and he felted them all splendidly, appearing on our front cover the following month. He has the respect by many of the other players in this feature, some of whom have tipped him for a bracelet.

For Craig, Vegas is all about focus this year: “The Series is a massive effort; a massive slog to get through. Poker’s considered to be an enjoyable job, but for the Series itself it’s quite hard to motivate yourself to play every single day, especially if you start off badly. So maybe I’ve struggled with that, but this year, I’m going to get a good routine going and stay focused every day. Even though it seems like a long time that you’re out there, you only end up playing around 25 events, so it’s quite easy to run bad, especially if you get a little bit down halfway through.”

He also epitomises the supreme team spirit of the English contingent when he says: “We all support each other. I’d be just as happy seeing one of my good friends in poker win a bracelet as I would be winning one myself. This country has the best support network of any other country – both through railing and discussing hands and situations, Skyping each other constantly. There are a few other up and coming countries that are building the same kinds of networks, so it’ll be interesting to see how things develop in the future.”

We wish we could instil some of this spirit into our frickin’ football team…

Martins Adeniya

Twenty-six-year-old Londoner Martins Adeniya is becoming one of the most talked-about players on the circuit. He’s also started to transition his online success into live cashes, most notable in his seventh-place finish at the EPT London, and is lauded by his peers who clearly expect him to break out and do something MASSIVE very soon. It’s no coincidence, then, that he’s being staked by Matchbook which is slowly building a stable of the best players in the world, a stable that already includes the likes of Sam Trickett, Tom Dwan, Jungleman, Roberto Romanello and James Akenhead.
Martins is planning to play around $100k’s worth of events this year, mainly Hold’em and Omaha tournaments, and is particularly looking forward to the $10k six-max. “It actually starts on my birthday and I feel like I always run good on my birthday,” he explains. He’s also a versatile player who also can’t wait to try his hand at the new $5k mixed event. But, most of all, he has his eyes set on the Main.

“The Main Event is one of a kind,” he says, “but I approach it like any event. Your table is all you’re ever up against. The field goes down really quickly all around you, even if you’re dealing with thousands of players. I just focus on dominating my table and making as many chips as I can. I don’t really look at the numbers or the average stack or anything like that because I usually just go for it and try to build up as much as I can. You can put so much more pressure on people in the Main Event, because people really don’t want to bust, especially early on.”

Of his live endeavours, he says, “I’ve been good at getting deep into events but I just haven’t had the breaks in the important flips when it’s down to 10 or 15 players left. But if I keep getting to those spots then I know one of them is going to come right.”
Expect great things.

James Akenhead

James Akenhead has his own theory about the reason for recent British success. “The key thing is that all the British players on the circuit are absolute gentlemen,” he explains. “They’re all really, really nice guys.

Everyone gets on with everyone, and what you get during, say, a dinner break in a major European tournament, is about 25 of us all going to dinner together and supporting each other. You don’t get that in other countries, you look around and see guys huddled together in groups of three or four, but we’re like a collective. And that’s why you get so many people cheering at the final table. The World Series is in America, yet Americans on the final table have, like, five friends cheering them on.”

It’s about a core group of British players who reject the traditional solipsistic individualism of poker for a collective will to succeed; the will of the team. And you can be sure the will of the team will be behind the November-Niner Akenhead this year. Who can forget his heart-breaking second-place finish in 2008, when he was all-in with A-K against 10-4 for the bracelet, only to lose when the board brutally ran out 10-4-10-10-x?
Do you ever get over something like that?

“After playing for this amount of years, you kind of get used to things like that happening to you,” he tells us. “It just makes you try harder because you want to win one even more. A bracelet would be huge. I’ve won the Poker Million title and made the November Nine, but I’ve never really got a first in a big live tournament. I’ve never won an EPT or a WPT. I just want to come first.”

After a disappointing year last year (awful, in his own words) it’s an upbeat and confident James Akenhead we chat to today. He started the year well when he won the PokerStars Sunday Million and suddenly things were looking up. He’s representing the Matchbook team and we think this could be his year. He has the proven stamina, he can pace himself and he likes huge fields. He’s been too quiet. Maybe it’s time for variance to level out.

Sam Trickett

So here’s our number one tip for a bracelet – el numero uno, the man with the plan, Sam Trickett. “I think Sam Trickett is the best player in the world at the moment,” confides James Akenhead. So surely Sam should have the mark of a world champion dangling from his wrist, right? Well of course, provided he can stay away from the cash games long enough to compete in these pesky tournament things. “I won’t be pissing around in all the 2-7 events,” chirps Sam. “I’ll be playing the $5k-plus events, lots of cash, and the million-dollar buy-in.”

Ah yes, the million-dollar buy-in. And this is why Sam has to be the favourite for a bracelet. We have an event capped at just 48 players and a man who has a proven record in high buy-in events. And yet, perversely, our tip for gold has been doing far less preparation than anyone else on our list.

“I haven’t been playing much,” he states. “Not much to tell you. I had a trip to Macau in January which didn’t go very well – I lost, but then went back in February and won, so that balanced itself out. I always know that before the World Series I’m going to be away for a couple of months and it’s quite hectic, so I just like to spend time with my family and friends and relax. I’ve never been one of those poker players who plays 24-7. I just tend to pick and choose when I want to play, when I feel fresh, because that’s when I play well. I played the Party Poker Premier League, but I’m not going to grind EPTs. I don’t feel I have to.”

We’re not saying he hasn’t put the work in over the years, he has, but Sam exudes the kind of breezy nonchalance that might be mistaken for arrogance, if he were not as down-to-earth and affable as they come. And we mean that. But in all our years of poker hackery, we’ve never met a player quite so devoid of anxiety, so naturally confident and comfortable in his own skin. And maybe that’s just what it takes.

And the rest has done him good, so watch out: “I feel fresh, prepared, I’m playing well. I’ve never won a bracelet, so I’m looking forward to [the Series]. But a bracelet isn’t the be all and end all. It’s not going to upset me if I don’t win one, but it would be nice.”

So, we pull out the ultimate question: If you had to choose between winning a bracelet in one event or coming second in a bigger event in which second place gave you more money, which would you choose?
“It’s a good question,” ponders Sam. “It depends on what the difference is. If second place was like $50k more, I would take the bracelet, just so I could say I had won one. But having said that, I think it’s only a matter of time before I do win one. If I keep playing good and putting myself into good situations, then I think I will win one.”
And how does he rate his chances in the million-dollar buy-in tournament against 48 of the world’s best?

“I reckon I’ve got as good a chance as anybody in it,” he says, breezily, nonchalantly, and completely reasonably.