Thursday, August 3, 2017

I guess I better take this

"OK, whose thing is beeping?"

I'm on a Skype call with my fellow Unibet ambassadors David Lappin and Daiva Byrne, recording some material for The Chip Race, the podcast I cohost with David. One of our computers or devices starts making the ringing noise. I'm about to scold whoever didn't turn off their phone or mute notifications when I realise it's my computer. Someone is trying to ring me on Messenger.

I look at my screen to see who is calling, then say to the guys:

"John Hesp is trying to call me. I guess I better take this"

The previous week, I'd sent a message to the man who had gone from obscurity to the most celebrated man in poker in less than a week, saying we'd love to have him on the show. He responded saying he'd love to come on once he had time to recover from his recent exploits, and jetlag.

Earlier that day, I sent another message saying we'd love to have him on the next show before we went on hiatus, but if that wasn't possible, then in September when we came back.

After quickly hanging up on David and Daiva, I spoke to John, and he said he could give us 20-30 minutes. At the time I assumed that was due to tiredness or other commitments, but the reason turned out to be different (more on that later). I arranged to ring him back in ten minutes, which gave us ten minutes to brainstorm some questions. Kudos to Daiva who outperstormed the two of us on this front.

Ten minutes later, David is grappling with technology trying to figure out how to transfer the Messenger group call between me, him and John to his phone (he eventually gave up and stuck with his phone). With John on his IPad making me the only one on a computer with recording software, I crossed my fingers and toes that the connection and sound quality would hold as I started to chat with a man I had never heard of two weeks ago, but wanted to talk to right now more than any other person in the world right now.

Daiva started her recent Vegas memoir blog with the observation that watching a new WSOP main event champion is a bittersweet affair. We all roll into town in June or July dreaming that this will be our year. By the time the final table is formed, we are generally not only out of the tournament, but out of town, watching the final table of a tournament we played from another town. You have to be an optimist to plump up ten thousand dollars to play a tournament with 8000 runners, but as professionals we are realists too. We know the chances of victory are thousands to one, and the chances of even final tabling hundreds to one.

So we think, well even if I don't make it, I hope someone I swapped with or bought a piece of does. And if not that, then a friend, or even just someone I know vaguely. We all think that if that happens, we'll cheer for that person, and if it doesn't, we will cheer for nobody.

This year changed all that. By the time the final table started, I was in Manchester, cheering for a man I'd never even heard of before. John Hesp. A 64 year old charmer from Hull, who had taken the tournament and poker world by storm with his swashbuckling unorthodox style both of play and dress sense. I could never really have imagined myself cheering for a recreational player I'd never heard of before this summer let alone knew, yet here we were.

I'd gone into Vegas on a high on many fronts, happy with how my year was shaping up. In March I was very happy to sign a deal with Unibet, a company whose vision of bringing the fun back into poker I very much believe in, to represent them as an ambassador. Part of that deal was the return of The Chip Race, the podcast I'd hosted with David Lappin which had folded after one season, not due to lack of popularity or listenership, but due to legal difficulties after the company who commissioned the podcast went into liquidation. In April I did livestream and TV commentary alongside Padraig Parkinson on the Irish Open final table. I enjoyed a fair degree of online success in May, culminating with winning a Powerfest series event and my best ever SCOOP series, where one fourth place finish provided my biggest online score in years. I went into Vegas as healthy and fit as I'd ever been, my weekly long run on Wednesdays having reached 36 miles, at the end of which I felt remarkably fresh.

That optimism, health and fitness gradually waned and drained away over the course of 6 weeks of losing almost all the crucial flips in the desert, eating good food but not as good as the food I eat at home, and getting out to run for a few miles a few times a week. I came back from Vegas demoralised and a little depressed at how my summer had gone, figuring it would take a couple of months to shake the blues. As it was, it took a lot less than that, helped in no small measure by Mr Hesp's performance both at the tables and in front of the media, a timely reminder that poker even when it's your job is a game, and supposed to be fun.

With so little time to prepare scripted questions, the interview which ended up being longer than the 20-30 minutes we were pledged was by necessity the most spontaneous we ever conducted, and the most fun. John was every bit as charming as I imagined, as he told us the story of how he made playing the main event go from his bucket list to reality, before the battery on his Ipad ran out. Ever the consummate professional on this front, he gave us as three minute warning so we could wrap the chat up inabruptly.

We asked him what his remaining ambitions in poker were, and he answered with characteristic modesty and generosity that he didn't want to become a professional (as he felt that would suck a lot of the fun out of the game for him) but would welcome the opportunity to play 6 to 8 events for fun a year. He added that he'd also like to see a big poker event in his home town of Bridlington, which has been heavily affected by recession. It would be great to see some site or operator step in to make the modest ambitions a reality. In a time when there's a lack of poker personalities and heroes who can carry themselves in front of the media, John Hesp is more than a breath of fresh air, he's a potential new lease of life. He's a much needed reminder to those of us who have lost sight of the fact that poker should always be fun, and a clarion call to those who haven't yet given it a try to do so.

The full interview is available now in the current Chip Race episode


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