James Akenhead: Best of British…

James Akenhead

02 July 2009

James Akenhead was a whisker away from winning a bracelet at last year’s World Series. We caught up with him on the way to Vegas to chat about his obsessive personality, the healthy state of British poker and why Mickey Wernick thinks he’s the new Stu Ungar.

Congratulations on your new Full Tilt deal James…

Thanks. I’m really happy and excited about that. It’s every poker player’s dream to be sponsored, but to be sponsored by Full Tilt – that’s a dream come true. I’m going to be so proud walking around with my FullTilt badge and I’m looking forward to forming a really good relationship with them and repaying their faith in me in the near future.

Life wasn’t always this glamorous, though, was it?

No. I was working as a train driver for about two years. I remember once, it was the end of a really long shift – the hardest shift at the depot. I’d been up since 3am. Sometimes the size of your train changes, and that day I’d had three- four- and eight-car trains. The signaller had put me across tracks three or four times since London Bridge – which never happens – and it was messing my head up a bit. Anyway, I stopped short of the platform and opened the doors because I was thinking it was a four-car train, but it was an eight car train. I realised what I’d done and it was like, oh shit, and my immediate reaction was to just shut the doors, but I trapped one guy in the doors, some old woman hit her head. Three stops later some guys in suits are waiting for me to give me a bollocking.

So when did poker come into your life?

Poker came into my life about the same time as train driving, around 2004. There was a group of Chinese guys who used to come to the snooker hall where I played and they had a game in their shop, after hours. I loved it immediately. I learnt pretty quickly. I put a lot of hours in. When I wasn’t working I was playing online or going to the Gutshot. My first tournament was a £5 rebuy at the Gutshot. I just loved it. I couldn’t wait to go back there the next week and play again. I was hooked. I played as much as I could and read some books. Poker books were the only books I would read.

So I started live and online came later, and my live game has always been so much better than online. I’ve put in a lot of hours on the internet and I’ve done OK but my live results have always been so much better because I rely a lot on my reads and how I am with other people.

So you’re a “feel” player rather than a maths player?

Yes, although maths was always my strongest subject, so it’s a good combination.

Was poker something that came naturally?

No. It didn’t. But I think I’m really good at learning. When something comes into my life that I’m interested in, I’m really determined to be good at it. It was the same with pool. When I started I was a really bad player, but two years later I was number 15 in the UK.

You were a professional pool player?

Yeah, you could say that, but there’s no money in the sport, so I’m not sure what “professional pool player” means. I played the circuit, though. But like I say, I was awful when I started – really, really bad, so I just started putting in ten hours a day.

So you have an obsessive personality?

Definitely. I’m very obsessive. And I’m determined to win, which I think is a good thing. I mean, poker’s very addictive anyway but it goes beyond that. I just want to win and be the best player in the world.

How did the Hit Squad come about?

Sunny [Chattha] wasn’t playing poker when we first started the Hit Squad, but he and Chaz [Chattha] both lived in the same road as me, although I didn’t really know them before poker. Chaz and I started going to a few clubs together and we were pretty much learning the game together. At Gutshot we met Praz [Bansi] and Karl [Mahrenholtz]. One day I went up to Karl because I thought he was a really good player and said, “We’re getting a group of us together, we’re going to meet up once a week and talk about hands. Are you interested in improving your game?” He said yes. At the time he was working as a city banker and he didn’t have much time on his hands, so we didn’t actually meet up that often. But after a while we decided to give ourselves a name and form a group. Later on Sunny quit uni and learnt the game from his brother and so he joined too.

The Hit Squad has been very successful. Some people ask us whether we profit-share but it’s not really about that. We help each other now and again but we’re not a business; we’re just a group of friends that travels together and supports each other. You always want someone on the rail cheering for you and they’re always there.

You went so close to a bracelet last year. What sticks in your mind about that tournament?

Leading up the final table I had all my money in with a set against a flush draw and some guy who wasn’t even in the hand got up on top of his chair and started shouting for the spade. This was a massive, massive pot. I’m looking at him like, “What the fuck are you doing?” It makes you wonder about some people’s mentality. Etiquette is just non-existent for some people.

So obviously the spade comes on the river. I walk off to calm myself down and when I get back I see them counting my stack out and shipping the guy the pot. They left me with 8,000 chips and the blinds are 4,000-8,000. But I knew that wasn’t right because I always take note of how many chips everyone has on the table and I’m very good at estimating stack-sizes. I knew I had 50,000 more than this guy and eventually I managed to convince them I was right. So that took me from one big blind to seven big blinds. And then I doubled up and doubled up and I was back in the game. But if I’d come back a few seconds later from my cooling off period I would have been out.

There was quite a sick beat heads up as well, wasn’t there?

From two tables out to the final hand, I got my money in good four times and lost all four. I guess, to win $500,000 after all that is a pretty big achievement but at the time it was upsetting.

There’s a lot of crushing disappointment in tournament poker. Do you have a coping mechanism?

Poker is very emotional and things can hit you really hard. That can throw you off your game and make you play badly. It’s just about experience really. When you first start to play and you get a really bad beat, you can’t believe it, but when you play day-in-day-out as a professional, you’ve seen it all before and you learn to take it on the chin. You know that in the long run it’ll cost you money if you don’t.

But something like that 10-4 A-K hand, it’s hard to fully get over it. It’s a 60-40 chance, I know, but what pissed me off was that he just flopped a house. I think if he’d just hit a four on the river I wouldn’t have minded too much. We had an equal amount of chips and we’re playing for a bracelet and $800,000. That just shouldn’t happen! I think the bracelet meant more to me than the money. Money comes and goes but a bracelet is something you’ll have forever.

Which stung more: That flopped house or having to hand half of the money to Neil Channing?

Well, like I said, the bracelet meant more, so I guess the bad beat hurt more. I got to play twice as many events as I would have played because Neil staked me, so it was fair that he got half. It was a bit of a hit, though. Handing over a quarter of a million dollars to someone is not something I ever thought I’d do, but I had to do it and he’s a nice guy, so it’s fair enough.

Do you have any tips on staying sane at the World Series?

Eat well, exercise, be healthy. That’s the best advice I can give. It also helps if you stay in an apartment rather than a hotel because you’re away from the noise and lights and distractions. You can just go home when you’re not playing and be normal.

Where do you like to go in Vegas when you do go out?

I love eating out. I eat out nearly every night in London, so I like good food. There are some great restaurants in Vegas. Top of the World, the restaurant on top of the Stratosphere, is good and it spins around so you can see the whole of Vegas. The Eiffel Tower Restaurant is quite classy. The Craftsteak Steakhouse at the MGM is good. Nice kobe beef, good wines.

Do you approach the Main Event differently from other tournaments?

Yes, it’s completely different; completely unique. It’s a marathon. The structure’s really good so you have a lot more play and you can take advantage of players who don’t really know how to play that structure. I say that, but I’ve never made it past Day 1 in the three years I’ve played it, so I may not be the right person to ask. But I understand the concept of it. I’ve just been a little unlucky in previous years. The first year, I lasted nine hours exactly; the second year was nine hours ten minutes, and the third year was nine hours 30 minutes, so I should make the final in about 400 years time.

What is it that people misunderstand about the structure?

In the Main Event we get 30,000 chips and the blind structure’s really slow. People just don’t know the difference between a one-hour and two-hour clock – you can be so much more patient. But some players find it really hard to be patient. When they get A-J under-the-gun, they’re not going to even consider folding when maybe they really should be thinking about folding. They’re going to play hands they shouldn’t, lose a few pots and then get frustrated; abusing the freedom of the tournament, basically, because that’s what the structure gives you – freedom.

What are your short-term ambitions for poker?

Cashing in an EPT would be nice (laughs). I actually cashed in the PCA this year, which is sort of an EPT, and it was a bit of a breakthrough because none of the Hit Squad has ever cashed in an EPT which is a bit strange. Hopefully I’ve broken the jinx now. I’m going to try to platy every EPT this season because I really think they’re good tournaments.

Are the EPT’s softer than the WSOP events?

I wouldn’t say they’re softer, I just think Europeans and Americans have different playing styles. Because the EPT is a tour and you travel to different countries, it’s the locals that are generally the bad players and that’s where the value comes from. Bad Italian players are different from bad French players, who are in turn different from bad Scandinavian players, so there’s a lot of variance, but generally I think the standard at the EPT’s is better than at the WSOP.

What about British players? Are we behind the Americans and Scandinavians?

Well, like I say, the styles are different and the British have their own style too, but there are a lot of amazing UK players coming through now. Chris Moorman – he’s like number two in the world now online; Laurence Houghton – he’s number seven – that’s a big, big deal. There are so many more American people than there are Brits. We’re just a small island. We’ve got so many good live players too, like Praz Bansi, and I think this year is going to be a good year for the Brits.

What do you think of Luke Schwartz?

I think he’s a very, very good heads up player, although I’ve never played him heads up. We chat now and again and talk about hands, but hats off to him really. I mean, he’s a bit loud and stuff but sometimes you need that in poker. I say good luck to him. He’s won a lot of money and he deserves to be where he is right now.

Mickey Wernick recently said you remind him of Stu Ungar. Do you think you could be the new Stu Ungar?

(Laughs) I read the book about his life and found it very inspiring, so it’s very flattering. I obviously never played with Stu Ungar but Mickey did and he says our styles are very similar. Obviously I want to be the best player in the world, and in his time he was the best player in the world. I don’t know… it’s difficult because I never saw him play, but do I aspire to be like him? Of course.