Lee Davy sits down with Kenny Hallaert to talk about his berth in the World Series of Poker November Nine, his views on the speed of live tournament poker, and more.
What follows is an abridged version of the accompanying audio interview.
“If I win a WSOP or EPT event who knows? Not everyone can win a huge tournament; let’s hope I am one of them.”
That’s what Kenny Hallaert said the last time I interviewed him.
Back then he had just finished fifth out of 22,374 players in The Colossus. It was great to watch Kenny doing so well in that event. He is one of the good guys.
A year later, and Hallaert returned to the scene of that once in a lifetime run and 16-hours ago he became one of the November Nine after Michael Ruane and Gordon Vayo checked down their trash hands hoping to eliminate Josh Weiss in 10th place.
So how does Kenny feel?
“I am feeling great at the moment. It’s an unbelievable experience. I’m not sure if I truly realise what has happened. It’s only 16-hours after the final hand was dealt and it’s unbelievable. It’s a dream coming true.”
It’s a monumentous occasion for a poker player to make the November Nine. Since the WSOP introduced the concept in 2008 only 80 players in the whole wide world, have done it. I wondered at what point Kenny realised he had it licked?
And what a year to make it, I have never seen as many world class poker players competing for a spot in the November Nine. It was a like a who’s who of poker, and I wondered ho, in particular, Kenny was glad to see hit the rail?
“The field was still pretty stacked with three tables remaining: Tom Marchese, James Obst, and Jared Bleznick were eliminated with two table remaining so I was quite happy those three were out, but it’s still tough with the remaining players. It’s a nice final table, you will see some good poker, the average chip stack is more than 70bb which is insanely deep for a tournament. It could be a long final table full of interesting situations.”
And what about the seat draw?
“I can’t complain about my position at the table. The vast majority of the chips are to the right of me, but everyone who has made it to this stage knows something about the game. Winning it would make me very happy, but won’t be disappointed if I finish ninth.”
I got the impression with his experience and the flow of the tide at the time, the cessation of the final table hindered Kenny more than helped him.
“Before the Nov Nine existed we would have been playing the final table today. I was mentally exhausted. It’s a long day. It’s a tournament with a deep structure. You get into hands where you need to think, and although I avoided situations like that or more accurately situations like that didn’t come up for me, one small mistake can mean the end of your tournament. You have to be focused for seven days straight; 11 hours of play per day, it mentally hurts you at a certain point. Had I had to play today the adrenaline would make up for the tiredness, and it would have been the same for everybody. Maybe, I might have been one of the people who could handle the situation better because I play 12 hours sessions online. I don’t mind that it stopped, but if I had to play I would have been ok with it as well. Now I have three months to ensure I am in good shape for the event.”
It’s insane to think Kenny finished 5/22374 in the Colossus and has now made November Nine in back-to-back years. I asked him if that deep run last year helped prepare him for this one?
“Last year was unique as it was the biggest ever poker tournament regarding field size. Making that final table was a unique experience. I would say that the tournament did help a lot although I have experienced big fields playing online. This tournament is so unique because of the structure. The Colossus had 40-min levels on Day 1 and 1 hour on Day 2 onwards. In this tournament, you start so deep with 50,000 blinds at 75/150 with two hours levels. It’s a bigger grind. You can’t compare it with any other tournament.”
When played reached 11 or 10 handed the tournament team took the unusual step of removing the right to call the clock from the players and instead gave that power to the floor. I asked Kenny why that happened?
“The payouts between 10th and 9th place was very big. It was a pay jump going from $650k to $1m, and then the next pay jump at the final table was $100k. It’s a big difference between making or not making the final table. There was a player on the other table taking a lot of time to make his decisions. Some players complained about that from our table because we were playing at a faster speed. So they decided to go hand for hand and took the right away from us and decided to call the clock if necessary. But when we went hand for hand the pace quickened, and it wasn’t needed, but I liked the way they handled the situation.”
There was a hand reported from the WSOP where Chris Klodnicki had a highly publicised problem with the pace at which Jordan Cristos played. At the start of Day 1C of the Main Event, Joe McKeehen told players not to be afraid of calling the clock. I wanted Kenny’s view on the pace of the game at a professional level?
“It’s becoming a problem. Some people take a long time to make what seems to be an easy decision. I don’t know if we have come to a point where we have to introduce shot clocks. I’m not sure if that’s good for the game, especially recreational players. It’s usually the pro players who are taking the time which is weird because some of those players play 10-12 tables online taking seconds to make decisions. It’s up to the players themselves to change the way they are playing. The way they are handling it right now is not good for the game of poker in general. It’s not good for recreational players who want to have fun. If they are only playing one hand every five minutes, they are not going to have a good experience. Pros need these recreational players, so tanking on easy decisions doesn’t help.”
I seem to have the contrarian view that the power to maintain the flow of the game should rest with the dealers. I ask Kenny what he thinks of dealers taking more control?
“I still think the players should have the right to call the clock on somebody. The floor can put someone on a 15-second decision. It happened in the Main Event at the Bubble. Someone was taking a long time, and he was put on a 15-second decision for every single decision. I don’t think the dealers should have that right. Dealers are next to the players, close to the players, and I believe if the dealer thinks that a player is slowing the game they should inform the floor. That happens now.”
There is a difference between Colossus Kenny and November Nine Kenny. He looks lean, fit and healthy and I wondered why?
“I changed the way I was living because I didn’t have a healthy lifestyle. After EPT Barcelona I decided to change. I have been eating healthier, playing sports, working out from time to time. I have lost some weight, feel great, and I recommend it to everybody.
“I was overweight and motivated myself to change. I didn’t make a side bet. I just did it for myself. I like the way it turned out. I wasn’t in a hurry; I took it slow. I still enjoy my life, and I eat lots of things that I like. I discovered I like cooking. I make simple, healthy meals, and I like the way I am living right now.”
Behind every great poker player is a highly efficient team. I ask Kenny, who is the key player in his team. His reaction was startlingly quick. There was a passion in his voice. I thought I detected him choking up.
“Steven Van Zadelhoff – He is my closest friend, and he has been a big motivation for me and vice versa. He was one of the first people I knew when I got into poker. We are in daily contact. We discuss poker and general stuff in life. I can tell him anything, and he can tell me anything. Together we are making ourselves better.”
It’s time for Kenny to rest and reflect before preparing for the biggest moment of his life. I ask him if he has given any thought to preparations at this early stage?
“I have discussed this with Steven. I am also in a situation where I know some players personally who have made the Nov Nine, and I will seek their advice. I might contact some poker players I consider very good to see if they could help improve my game and look to see if I have any leaks. I want to work hard on my game to ensure I am prepared as possible and make as few mistakes as possible.”
Not everyone can win a huge tournament. Let’s hope Kenny Hallaert is one of them.