Lee Davy got the opportunity to sit down and talk to the founder of Meditor Capital – one of the most successful hedge funds in Europe – to talk about life in the high roller circuit, and his passion for philanthropy.The High Roller circuit is a very interesting place to hang out. In a sense it’s like a small soap opera. Each person is a character in their own right. They have their own set of peculiarities, and play their part in the script that has been handed to them.
One of the characters that is not following his script is Talal Shakerchi. The man who is responsible for managing a hedge fund that contains £3bn in assets, is supposed to act out the role of the financial whale – instead he is turning into a bit of a shark.
He already has two High Roller titles on his resume, and I managed to have a chat with him as he was finishing third in the recent World Poker Tour (WPT) Alpha8 event in London.
Here is Shakerchi talking about the High Roller circuit, and his passion for philanthropy.
For a man who plays the Bigger $55 on PokerStars, and then plays the Big One for One Drop, what is life like playing at the very highest level in the game?
“I would say that the good online tournament players are as good as the players who play in the High Rollers. What happens online is the field will be filled out with more casual players, and that’s a different kettle of fish to what we have here. But the top online tournament players are as good as the top live tournament players.
“If you play a big buy-in tournament, the atmosphere is different and the game plays differently to like a Sunday major, for example. You don’t see a lot of flat calling pre flop, a lot less multi-way pots, and a lot more aggression, in these High Rollers; also fewer hands get showed down.
“You are actually only seeing one in 15-20 hands getting shown down, so that’s a difference. There is also more focus because you are only playing one game. I’ll play 15-20 tables online and you aren’t concentrating as much as when you are playing live. You can analyze more and look for more patterns.”
From the outside in you are supposed to be playing the role of the whale. How does this perception make you feel?
“I don’t feel uncomfortable at all playing against any player in the world. There are players who I would see myself as a dog – heads-up, especially the heads-up specialists – but if you are talking about a 8-handed tournament, I will happily play against anyone. I actually enjoy it more when the players are better.
“It’s possible that I am below average in the field, but I don’t feel outclassed. There are times I see things that are blatantly bad even in High Rollers. You wouldn’t expect it, but it does happen.”
During the Alpha8 event the youngsters wouldn’t stop talking, and yourself and Erik Seidel were extremely quiet – any reason?
“It’s Erik’s character. He’s not a naturally outgoing person. It’s his nature, and he is comfortable with that. I am a little less outgoing than some, not as extreme as Erik. But mainly I do need to concentrate. There is information in the game flow and I concentrate to try and pick those things up, and I find it more difficult to do that when I am talking.”
You were having some interesting discussions with Dan Cates.
“I like Dan…some people suggest he is socially awkward, and in some sense he is, but he is very easy to get on with. You ask him a question and he answers it. If he doesn’t want to answer it he will tell you why. He doesn’t make up crap. He tells you the answer and he’s not trying to gloss anything. I find him refreshing, and I get on really well with him. I was talking about his situation with Tom Dwan, yesterday, and he was very forthcoming. I like him as a person…he’s a very easy person to get on with and befriend.”
You were sharing table space with Philipp Gruissem and Igor Kurganov. Two poker players who have been inspired by the likes of yourself and have set up non profit organizations of their own. How does this make you feel?
“I think it’s great. Poker definitely has a seedier side to it and there are some characters that are probably taking more out of society than they are putting in. So it’s good to see this other side. You have it with One Drop and with REG. It’s good for poker, the people in it, and the recipients of course.”
I believe you have recently started a philanthropy course.
“It’s actually a subject that the more I discover about it the more complicated it is. It’s like poker in a way – a game than seems simple but is so complex. Philanthropy is turning out to be like that. At one level it’s easy: you make some money, find someone to give it to – that’s close to your heart – and then give it away. But when you look at it, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
“What you give to, and the way you give it, makes a big difference. You can have a bigger impact on the problem you are trying to address by channeling the money through one mechanism than another. Some mechanisms can even be net negative. You can give money and do more harm than good even though you think you are doing good.
“So to try and gain some understanding I have some consultants who are helping me learn more about the field, and recently I have joined a philanthropy course called The Philanthropy Workshop. It’s essentially a 3-4 week course. The first week was in London, then there is a week in Jan, in India, a week in New York, and an optional week in Washington.
“It’s an excellent quality course. There are 12 people on the course and they are all philanthropists who have experience, and are giving on a significant scale, and they are thoughtful knowledgeable people. So it’s great to learn through them, but also this course is teaching us a lot.
“They are taking us around to meet different charitable operations and other philanthropists who have gone through this process. On Friday we met Richard Branson’s children who had just set up a charity. That week moved my understanding forward a lot, and made me realize how little I actually did know about the topic.
“I am going to get on top of it. I am going to learn what I need to focus on and then try and find the ways to make the best impact. They are teaching this strategic approach to philanthropy and that’s in tune with my approach.
“The interesting thing about the course is the philanthropists all have different approaches. Mainly this head v heart dilemma. You have some people who lead by the heart and they want to help every single problem. I’m the guy at the other end of the scale saying, ‘hang on you need to think about this, if that money was spent elsewhere could we be doing more good?’ So we have had a lot of healthy, enlightening debates over it.
“I have taken a very logical, methodical, systematic approach to it, and some of these guys have taught me that I also need to find some ways to reflect my values and passions in my philanthropy. I think it’s wrong to just divorce the two, but you do need to think with your head otherwise you are doing the charity a disservice.
“You can end up with quite difficult moral dilemmas. Take AIDS for example. It’s cheaper to prevent a case of AIDS than to treat it. In theory more money should go into prevention than treatment, and if you have a limited pool of resources going into the problem, as you do, then you have to end up arguing that there is a case for not treating people in turn for prevention. That short term pain is very tragic for those individuals.
“The real tragedy is the world doesn’t share its resources, so you don’t have to make those choices. It’s incredible, in this day and age that you have people with incredible wealth sailing around in yachts eating caviar and there are malnourished children somewhere in the world. In 2014, those malnourished children are your neighbors.
“We are in an age where you have extremes of wealth. You have a few people – usually through finance or technological businesses – who have become extremely wealthy versus the average. But even within the normal structures there has been a growing divergent. The money that CEO’s earn in comparison to the normal worker keeps increasing, for example.
“We can have arguments over whether it’s a good system or not – but let’s say it’s the system, then those who benefit the most do have a responsibility to give more to those who suffer in that system.”
And that’s exactly what Shakerchi is learning to do; with one exception – on the poker table.