The Hendon Mob
29 September 2011
“I’ve never been very good at poker tips,” declares Ross Boatman, “but the way I see it, there are two schools of thought. There’s the Ram Vaswani school of thought. If you play like Ram Vaswani, you’ll win the world in a day. But if you play like Joe Beevers, you’ll never go skint. The rest is up to you.”
Fresh from signing a massive new deal with Genting Poker, Bluff meets the Hendon Mob, the poker-boomers who never went bust.
We’re sitting by the Regent’s Canal outside a photo studio in East London discussing the respective personalities that make up The Hendon Mob, particularly the fearless gamble of “Crazy Horse,” versus the methodical diligence of “The Elegance”; two best friends who have enjoyed huge success as players, but are apparent polar opposites.
“How would you sum up each other’s personalities in a few words?” I ask.
Joe Beevers rolls his eyes like he’s accidently wandered into some cringeworthy group therapy session. Eventually, Ross Boatman breaks the silence. “Well, he’s a complete bastard, for a start,” he says, pointing at his brother Barny. “Not really. Barny’s basically the visionary. And Joe – Joe’s basically the bean-counter.”
Hilarity ensues. Joe looks appalled. “Those beans aren’t going to count themselves, you know, and there are a lot of them to count.”
“And I’m the piss-taker,” Ross adds, somewhat superfluously.
Ram spies an opportunity to grab a Marlborough Light and slink off. He hates interviews. He’ll be the quiet one, then. George Harrison. In the meantime, Barny and Joe take over the PR responsibilities. They’re the organised, business-like members of the team. They make sure the other two turn up to photo shoots on time. They’re dab hands at interviews, too: Joe is talkative, meticulous; Barny charming and gregarious. Natural salesmen. After all, they’ve been at it for years. They were the first poker players to see themselves as “marketable”; they foresaw the poker boom and seized the day. As the first players to get signed up, they invented poker sponsorship. And now, as world-class players across the globe struggle to get deals in this uncertain climate, the Hendon Mob are here to announce their new, trend-bucking deal with casino giants Genting, for an officially undisclosed, but off-the-record, extremely hefty figure.
“What people don’t understand is that Ram’s the real visionary,” says Barny, nodding towards his fellow Mobster, who is preoccupied, smoking a fag, looking at ducks. “Of all of us, Ram is the biggest dreamer. He dreamed the biggest dreams from the start. Joe and I may say that we anticipated the growth of poker, but Ram was the first one to say, ‘We should be like sportsmen. They should be picking us up in cars and putting us in hotels.’ He’s always been a dreamer, and sometimes dreams make sense.”
People scoffed at their dreams in the early days, when the lads, convinced that poker was going to take off in a big way, began knocking on doors looking for sponsorship. Poker players can be notoriously cynical, and the sight of four of their own, intent on becoming salaried “celebrities” must have seemed fairly ridiculous at the turn of the century.
“It’s because it was completely new,” says Barny. “It was a thing that we were trying to get that had never been got before. I think a lot of people sincerely wished us luck, but didn’t really think that we knew what we were talking about. There was a certain amount of bafflement at our convictions. Personally, I thought it was going to happen, but probably not to us. I thought a group of younger, better-looking poker players were going to get it. The biggest miracle to me is that we managed to convince people that we were a good idea.”
End of a Century
It all began with two home games, back in the nineties; one in Hendon, and another in Archway. The Hendon game was held in Joe’s flat every Monday night, and Ram was a regular. Both had gambling in their blood and became firm friends.
Meanwhile, over in Archway, brothers Barny and Ross were playing in a game based mainly around Ross’ friends from drama school. “The people in the Archway game used to hear about the Hendon game and vice versa,” recalls Barny, “but the Hendon game was probably a bit more serious – a bit more pro / semi-pro, with certain dodgy characters. As Ross and I got more serious about poker the Archway game didn’t do it for us anymore and we gravitated towards Hendon, the slightly seedier end of town.”
“The four of us became very good friends and would start to travel around Europe together – way before internet poker,” says Joe. “Way before poker was in vogue, we’d go to Helsinki, Dublin Amsterdam – all the main tours (there weren’t so many competing tours then). We’d walk into the Vic and people would say, ‘Here come the Hendon Mob!’ So it wasn’t something we cooked up, it was just what people called us.”
While they didn’t invent the name, they saw the commercial potential, and they saw that the name could become a brand. “We imagined quite a lot of the future of poker as it has panned out,” says Barny. “So we were lucky in a number of ways, but we also put ourselves in a position to get lucky. We were banging on doors and talking about what we thought we could do popularise the game and to bring brands into the game.”
In late 2000, Ladbrokes and Matchroom Sports launched the Poker Million on the Isle of Man, a tournament Joe would go on to win in 2007. But in 2000 the Hendon Mob wanted in and they wanted sponsorship. “We wrote to about 40 different companies,” says Joe, “and not just poker brands – Virgin, British Airways, Red Bull – I think we wrote about 40 letters and got about seven or eight back that said thanks but no thanks – most didn’t reply. Red Bull gave us the best deal; they actually sent us two cases of Red Bull and we were all up for three weeks. It’s funny, because a number of those companies now have their own online card rooms. But like Barny says, we could kind of see something happening...”
The Mob were also quick to embrace TV and internet poker, appearing on the first ever Late Night Poker in 1999. It was the first time hole card cams had ever been used, and so mistrustful were the seasoned pros of this new concept that creator Nic Szeremeta was struggling to fill the seats.
“People were saying, ‘I don’t want people to see how I play, I’ll never be able to win playing poker again,’ ” remembers Joe.
“Most people who played in that first series, including us, didn’t have much of an idea about how to play No Limit Hold’em,” recalls Barny. “I was a 7-Card Stud player, Joe was an Omaha player. No Limit Hold’em was probably more popular in Ireland back then than in the UK. They were only just starting to have it at some of their main events and festivals. We had to grow up in that game very quickly and under the glare of the cameras. But it’s interesting to see how quickly people got a lot better.”
In September 2000, an article appeared in the London Evening Standard, written by Victoria Coren about her friends the Mob. There was a colour photoshoot of the lads on Archway Bridge, dressed in dark suits, and on that day, according to Joe, the Hendon Mob brand was born. “It was kind of our kind of birth certificate,” he says.
“It is completely obvious,” Barny is quoted as saying in that article, “that poker is about to explode.”
Around the same time the Hendon Mob website was launched. It was first conceived of as a place where people would go if they were interested in sponsorship; more of a contact point for potential investors than the gargantuan information database it’s become. To begin with, it was just one page. A friend would update it once a month in return for a crate of Guinness (“He was overpaid,” jokes Barny) and Barny would do a write up of Mob activities for the month. Today, this would be called a “blog”, but back then it was a journey into the unknown.
Now it’s the number one UK poker website with the world’s biggest poker database. When the database was launched, it had 20,000 players, and now they’re approaching 200,000, with hundreds of thousands of unique users every month.
“It’s not cheap running this,” says Barny, “and one of the great things about the Genting deal is that we’re guaranteed, not just the survival of the site, but more development and improvement over the next few years.”
But that’s not all. Genting has 44 casinos throughout the UK, of which about 25 have poker rooms and they are talking about creating a national tour, probably something to rival the GUKPT and UKIPT. “More details will come out they become available,” says Barny “but we’re going to be travelling around the UK and we’re really looking forward to it. Instead of playing these massive events around Europe, we’re going to be playing the more affordable events in the UK.
“We’ve got some brilliant, unique, really good ideas which will really bring something new to link the live and the online. This will be announced on the Hendon Mob website very soon, so keep an eye out.”
“We’d encourage people to come to the Hendon Mob website and sign up to Genting Poker because they’re going to get the most exciting rewards and promotions if they do that. That sounds like a marketing line,” cringes Joe, “but we’ve really come up with some exciting new concepts.”
While the Mob were eager to embrace the poker explosion, I also get the sense that they miss the days when being a poker player was like being part of a secret club: “Poker was our world, and now we’re just in the poker world,” they say. But I’m also interested to know what they think about the current situation, and as pre-poker boomers and post-poker boomers, they’re in a better position than most to comment.
“The law in any country, particularly a country as big as America,” says Barny, “is a juggernaut and you’re not going to turn it around quickly, but there is an enormous and growing feeling that the state of affairs in America is absurd. You can buy a gun in that country but you can’t sit at home and play a game of cards with likeminded people. It’s absurd to us, and we certainly feel a lot for the players who have not just lost the ability to play and enjoy the game, but have lost money as well. We certainly hope it all gets sorted out.”
The situation with their former sponsors certainly must rankle, particularly when you consider the lengths they’ve gone to to popularise the game and portray it in a positive light.
Barny continues: “It’s an enormously popular game over there. Whether it’s politically popular or politically expedient to make the changes necessary or not, I don’t know, and there a lot of vested interests and issues around taxation and revenue and whatever, but I can’t imagine that the “Land of the Free” will enslave poker forever.”
But today, the Hendon Mob are looking at reasons to be cheerful. After all, as Barny puts it: “We haven’t won all the biggest prizes in poker, but one of the biggest prizes in this game is to survive, and we’ve done that.”
“Poker’s a very social game,” he continues, “but it’s also very individualistic. Yes, if two of us ever play each other in a pot we’ll go for each others’ throats, but to have three people that you absolutely trust, that you know care about what happens to you – that’s an enormous thing to have in this game. We know were very lucky to have our family, because that’s what it is.”
They’re excited, too, that after riding the shirt tails of the poker boom for so long, the deal with Genting will allow them to go back to their roots.
“We’ve never gone around saying we’re the best,” explains Barny. “Well, maybe Ram has – but that’s not what we’re really about. And that’s one of the good things about this Genting thing. It’s very much a grassroots thing. This is about supporting live, grassroots poker in this country, and that’s how we started – playing in home games and travelling the UK playing tournaments. The main events in the biggest festivals used to be a couple of hundred quid in those days. £500 was a big, big buy-in and £1,000 was unthinkable. We haven’t forgotten what it was like. In many ways it was more fun; there was more camaraderie.”
Barny pauses for thought. “It feels like we’re coming home,” he says.
The Hendon Mob are sponsored by Genting Poker. Visit thehendonmob.com and gentingpoker.com.