Paul Berende: Player of the Year and Craig McCorkell: Champion of Champions

March 2011 Cover

03 March 2011

Craig: “I can play a ten-hour tournament day, then go home and play online, whereas I don’t know many 40-year-olds who could do that or even want to do that. Young people also have a lot of free time and time to dedicate to learning the game and putting the hours in”

There’s a hackneyed old question that goes back to the dawn of poker journalism, back when Mark Twain was hand-blogging on the Mississippi river boats. It’s the one you fall back on when you suddenly wake up halfway through a Greg Raymer interview and realise he’s stopped talking: “Which players would you have on your dream final table?” it goes.

Well, here’s our answer. On February 8th, eight players from our B.E.S.T. Rankings leader board of 2010 gathered at the Aviation Club de France to compete in an all-star SNG to determine who truly is the B.E.S.T. of the best – at stake: a WPT seat, a spanking new trophy and the chance to bask in your own knee-trembling greatness.

Not since they turned on the Large Hadron Collider have such powerful forces of nature crashed together, leading many to speculate that the world might actually explode at some point towards the end of level two.
And if you think we’re laying it on a bit thick – well, yes, we are, because when the dust settled, the world was still turning, and Paul Berende faced Craig McCorkell heads up for the title.

Paul had already earned his Player of Year trophy for topping the rankings, and was a river card away from picking up the Champion of Champion’s trophy too. But that dodgy river doubled up a shortstacked Craig and suddenly we had a fight on our hands. And after two hours of intense heads-up, it was Craig who came up smelling of roses. Bluff Europe congratulates our two Bluff Europe Super Tour Champions.

The players
Seat 1: Nicolas Levi (France)
Seat 2: Per Linde (Sweden)
Seat 3: Steven van Zaddlehoff (Netherlands)
Seat 4: Nicolo Calia (Italy)
Seat 5: James Mitchell (UK)
Seat 6: Jimmy Ostensson (Sweden)
Seat 7: Craig McCorkell (UK)
Seat 8: Paul Berende (Netherlands)

Congratulations, Paul and Craig. First of all, as poker players, do you think accolades like this – of the non-financial variety – mean anything?

Craig: I think they’re a big deal. The nature of every single poker player is that he’s super-competitive inside and wants to be the best. Awards like these really are important.

Paul: People always look up how much they’re up on the Internet and how much other people are up, and also with live tournaments. It’s like a competition among each other; you feel good when your results are above the other players. It’s just a thing for yourself; it’s just an ego thing, I guess.

I suppose it’s something that people outside the poker world can understand as well. European Player of the Year means something to people who don’t understand poker. Like your mums, for example…

Paul: It was quite difficult, actually, to start explaining to my parents, friends and family how it works and that you don’t get first or second in every tournament. In my street, they’re going to think you cash one out of two tournaments, which is not the case. Awards like these are nice for the outsider; they get confirmation that you’re doing OK.

When you first became poker players was it something your families accepted?

Craig: Yeah, I think every single poker player of our age would have had to have that conversation at some point with their parents. The image that poker has, from their point of view, is very different from my image of it, having been playing since I was 18. That conversation was... not easy, especially with my mum. From a religious point of view, gambling is frowned upon. It was easier to tell my dad than my mum, but these things help, and the financial aspect helps as well, obviously.

Talking of “people your age” If you look at our rankings top 20, most of it is people your age. Why?

Paul: I think young people are working so much harder on their game than older people. The older generation are just relying on the game they used to play five or ten years ago and they’re not working as much as us. That’s the most important thing. The young people are all playing a lot on the Internet and sharing information, getting on forums...

Do you think it’s something in the psychological make-up of young people that they’re willing to absorb more information?

Craig: Yeah, I think the older generation, even at a lower level of poker, are very set in their ways. They don’t play as many hands... the long days, I think, do take their impact on older people more in live poker. I can play a ten-hour tournament day, then go home and play online, whereas I don’t know many 40-year-olds who could do that or even want to do that. Young people also have a lot of free time and time to dedicate to learning the game and putting the hours in, whereas a lot of older people have “real lives” and families and can’t dedicate time to poker.

Paul: They have less time but also are not willing to spend all the time on poker. Young people are spending so much time on their game and older people aren’t. There are exceptions – sometimes older guys in the Netherlands, maybe they have an image of being old and tight but use they it really well and they’re actually quite good.

I guess it’s easier to get obsessed when you’re young. Do you have to be obsessive?

Paul: In the beginning, I was. I always played card games ever since I was young. My friends and I saw poker games on the TV and played ourselves, almost every day. I think I spent too much time on poker then. Now I’m better at planning when I’m going to play and giving myself more of a social life.

Craig: I was obsessive at the start but less so now. I try to have a bit more of a balanced life as I get more successful. Obviously when you first start, everything is quite exciting and the money means a little bit more.

Is there a danger in having so much money so young?

Craig: Obviously, yeah. So many poker players waste money and need help managing their finances. One of my sisters’ boyfriends is an accountant and he came to my housewarming and met my poker friends. He couldn’t believe the stories he heard about money being wasted, just sitting at home in a drawer or bank account doing nothing. I know a lot of poker players who are not smart with their money.

So do you guys keep level heads?

Paul: In the beginning it was more swingy for me; when I had, like, $2,000, I’d play SnG’s for $200 or $300, but at that moment... it’s less important, I think. When you do have a good bankroll after a big tournament win or something, then it’s important to get better bankroll management not go broke. The high roller events I played, for instance, I mostly sold action or qualified through a satellite, so it looks like I’m playing quite high, but I’m not really.

Do you spend money on stupid things? What’s the most expensive bottle of Grey Goose you’ve ever bought?

Craig: In Vegas we bought Magnum at XS but I’m not sure how much it was.

Have you been to Blush?

Craig: Yes....

Then you spent at least $800. Do you hang out with the other players?

Paul: Yeah we have our poker friends. Everybody is really open to each other. We go out and have fun – sometimes too much before one tournament.

Craig: It’s the same with the English guys, too. We’re from a small country so we’re quite close and share information. You say obsessive; we’re not obsessive, but we’re quite close with the people we talk to and our common ground is poker. That can only help.

Paul: For me it’s a good thing that I can keep poker really separate from my normal friends. I’ve known the guys I now live with since I was five-years-old, so with them I know they aren’t interested in talking about 3-betting, so it’s good for me to separate poker. It’s the perfect combination.

When did you realise you were on the B.E.S.T. leader boards?

Paul: I realised in London, actually. During the EPT in one of the preliminary events, I was reading a copy and they had the rankings in there and I was first. I was like, huh? I didn’t have any idea. I was ranked first in Holland, but that’s different. I looked up the site and I still didn’t know why I was first because I hadn’t won an EPT or anything, and then I heard it was all about rewarding consistency – so yeah, I liked it.

Craig: It was during GUKPT London and a bunch of us were flicking through a Bluff Europe. It was me, Matt [Perrins], Jake [Cody], James [Mitchell] – we were like 11th, 12th, 15th and 17th.

2010 was the first time we did the B.E.S.T. Rankings, so the parameters we set out for awarding points were kind of an experiment. Are they fair? Do you think there is a truly fair way judge a tournament player?

Craig: With live tournaments, there aren’t that many a year so it’s hard to get an accurate reflection of how everyone is playing. You’ll always get people disagreeing with the way you’ve done it, though.

Paul: It’s hard to say who is the best tournament player – in one year you play maybe a maximum of 40 or 50 tournaments and you can easily run bad to cash only three or four times, even though you’re really good. People don’t understand variance. If you want to get a real good eye on who’s the actual best, they’d have to play so many tournaments at $1,000 and $2,000 and higher events.

Does it blow your mind to be at the top of the rankings?

Paul: Nah, it’s nice to show to your poker friends “hey, I’m first”, but I’m not like “oh, I’m the best!” But it’s good when there’s something attached to the ranking, if you can get a WPT ticket if you get first or something, of course that’s a nice thing.

How did you guys get started in poker?

Paul: I started with one friend of mine online, just playing freerolls, and we were able to win $0.05 on one site and made it up to $0.60 before I lost it. That tilted me so I deposited $20 and began to run that up, but I was also getting more into the internet and posting hands and watching videos and stuff. This was five years ago. If I started a year ago, or now, it’s almost impossible to get to the same level as players are now. When I started, no one was really good. Poker developed so fast in such a short time. I learned most just talking to other players who were better than me.

Craig: I started playing with my friends from Uni at a casino. I’ve always played a reasonable amount of live poker. I started playing online for the past two years and I’ve played cash and MTTs online.

Let’s talk about the B.E.S.T. tournament. How were the dynamics of the table, considering that you were facing the top players of the year?

Craig: Obviously the table was really strong when we started. I didn’t go in with a plan; I’m sure no one did, they just planned to adjust to the table. It was pretty tight at the start and no one really did much but, with the structure, you couldn’t prevent clashes; it goes to 100/200/25 pretty fast, so you’re going to see a lot of action.

Paul: I expected it to be more aggressive from the beginning. Everyone was playing really seriously because it was a winner-take-all, so that changes things. Every chip-EV spot counts. It’s not like there are bubble factors and stuff like that. If there’s a spot that’s plus-EV for you, you have to take it.

Any interesting hands?

Craig: There was quite a strange one against Per Linde. It was 75/150 and I opened the cut-off and he flatted in the big blind. He check-raised me on 6-7-2 rainbow flop. I didn’t think he’d check-raise super-strong hands here that often, so he doesn’t have many hands that beat me for value. I thought it was more likely he’d have straight draws, gutshots, random bluffs like K-Q. If I click it he could do something crazy over that, and we hadn’t seen much craziness, so timing-wise it felt like a good time. He called and the turn was a ten to give me the second nuts. I sized my bet really small to try to get him to jam, but he called. The river paired the six. He checked and I shoved for like 4.5k. He had, like, 5.5, so it was a big call for him to make. He ended up having T-9 for top pair and he called. That was a pretty big hand for me and I was able to open up my game after that.

How about heads-up? You hadn’t played together before had you?

Paul: A little at Partouche Day 1a, but not really, no interesting hands. I knew he was a good player and that edges were going to be small, so I just played my normal game. I’ve played a lot of SnGs in the past six months, so that was nice, and I started with a big chip lead. In the beginning I was just waiting for a big flip and then he re-shoved a standard spot and I picked up a better hand so... yeah. After that we were both deeper with 30 or 40 BBs and then it was a good game. We had some interesting hands.

Craig: I think you 3-bet me 14 or 15 times and I didn’t call once! It was nothing to do with anything really, I just didn’t have it. I never 4-bet light, but I didn’t realise until afterwards how many times I folded to your 3-bets. It was cool, though, it was a really good heads-up match. Going in with a big chip deficit, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

Paul: I think if it had been for an EPT final I’d be quite upset, but it was a freeroll, so I don’t lose anything. It was cool. It was a fun and friendly game.