James Akenhead: “I am Playing The Best Poker of my Life, And It’s Not Even Close.”

James Akenhead: “I am Playing The Best Poker of my Life, And It’s Not Even Close.”

Lee Davy sits down with the former Poker Million winner to talk about his early poker career, his time as a restaurant owner, and his return to the game.

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James Akenhead is sitting in The Vic.

He doesn’t know the time, the day, or even the month.

Life is one long poker game.

He stands up; stretches, and casts an eye on the crowd. Regs in their 70s are ordering hot tea to rejuvenate the bones.

“I asked myself if I wanted to be one of those guys?” Questioned Akenhead.

The question arose out of the ashes of a losing streak that had gnawed into the marrow of his confidence. He was second guessing everything, and that included his standing in the poker community.

James Akenhead: "I am Playing The Best Poker of my Life, And It's Not Even Close."“A few days later, and I was sitting in a pub, having a few beers. I looked around. There was a buzz about the place. There was laughter, joy, and excitement, and I thought to myself: how hard could it be to run a place like this?”

A few days shy of the 2008 World Series of Poker (WSOP), James Akenhead, 25, comes third in the Grosvenor United Kingdom Poker Tour (GUKPT) Main Event in Newcastle. The £23,625 prize was a nice bankroll boost for a man about to embark on his first serious foray into the world’s greatest festival of poker. Along with 3,928 other players, he enters a $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE) event. After several days of play, he is heads-up against the American Grant Hinkle.

The blinds are 80k/160k, and Hinkle has a 6.5m v 5.3m chip lead. He peels back his cards and sees T4dd. He opens to 350k. Akenhead takes a look at his cards and sees AcKh, moves his hand from his mouth, feels the rim of his black baseball cap, before motioning the words “1.2m.”

The British pro slides the chips across the line. Hinkle, wearing a Bodog baseball cap, and green shirt, looks straight ahead. 20-seconds pass before he says ‘all-in’ – Akenhead calls instantly.

Spectators rise from their seats and surge towards the rail. Akenhead is busily pushing his chips past the huge pile of cash in the middle of the table. Hinkle hasn’t moved an inch.

“You have a pair?” Asks Akenhead.

Hinkle is shocked – “What?”

“You have a pair?”


Both players stand up and start prowling.

Akenhead is first to show, and Hinkle perks up a little. He is 37% dog, but it could have been worse. It is the bracelet defining pot. If Hinkle wins it, he is our new champion. If Akenhead wins it, he will take a stranglehold on the contest.

There is a cry of ‘Ace’ from Akenhead’s rail. Over on Hinkle’s side, his mother is praying. The dealer is about to lay down the most critical flop of these player’s lives. Akenhead can’t look. He moves both hands to his cap and hides his eyes.

Flop: ThTs4h

Hinkle has flopped a boat. His rail goes wild.

“Oh My God!” Squeals his mother who still has her hands locked in prayer mode. Tears fall from her eyes. Hinkle is in the crowd hi-fiving everyone. Akenhead slips his cap off his head.

He is smiling.

“I don’t think it was a smile of enjoyment,” Said Akenhead, ” I couldn’t believe it was happening. I was so confident that I was going to win it. I had never felt that before. When he flopped the house, I thought it would come KK or AA. I was shocked by the flop but still so confident I would win the event; I thought I would still win the hand.”

The dealer burned and turned the fourth ten.

Hinkle had quads.

It was over.

“When I saw the ten on the turn that’s when it hit me.” Said Akenhead, “But then, after a while, you start to realise what you have just achieved. I had gone from being a small stakes UK grinder to winning over half a million dollars; got some sponsorship money, got some TV time, and all during my first real WSOP trip. It was a huge mixture of emotions. You either laugh or cry, right?”

I think I would have cried.

“It was my birthday as well.” Said Akenhead.

Yeah, I would have cried.

Poker players measure success and failure over the long run. Akenhead may have lost the bracelet, but something clicked into place after that event. The following year he made the November Nine finishing ninth for $1.2m. He would also make the final table of the World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) Main Event, finishing ninth for £66,533. He finished the year by winning the Poker Million for $500,000. In total, he earned a little under $2m in 2009. In 2008, he won close to $700,000 – not bad for a lad used to earning £30,000 per year driving trains.

“It was a lot of money for a 25-year-old,” said Akenhead talking about his 2008 exploits. “I never had money like that before.”

Was he mature enough to handle it?

“I wasn’t ready for it,” said Akenhead, ” I have always been a bit of a punter so it was hard to hold onto. I lost control, which you expect when you give a 25-year-old having that much money at one time. I did it all. I paid off my debts, bought a car, and then frittered away the rest on things I wouldn’t do today.”

It was a high followed by a low.

There would soon be another high.

A pattern was starting to form in Akenhead’s life.

“It taught me a lot. The next year I had a ridiculous year. I invested in property, got another car and made some investments. I don’t blame myself for blowing my money in 2008. It was inevitable.”

Money or no money, James Akenhead had become a global star. Together with Chaz and Sunny Chattha, Praz Bansi, and Karl Mahrenholz, the quartet formed The Hit Squad and started to pepper the front pages of poker magazines worldwide.

“We wanted to create a brand like the Hendon Mob,” said Akenhead.” We looked up to them. They were well established, great players, and such nice guys. It was never about the money, although we were looking for sponsorship. We just wanted to make some patches, wear them with pride and have some fun. It’s not like that today. Everyone is doing their own thing.”

And what happened to The Hit Squad?

“We are still good friends and talk a lot. Chaz, Praz and I still play. Sunny is working now, and Karl is also working and has had a baby.”

The Hit Squad was a phenomenal success.

It was time for another low.

“I hit a bad run over a period of a year and a half where I had most of my action. Then that bad run followed me into my sponsorship deal with The Poker Farm {Matchbook}.” Said Akenhead. “Poker is very streaky, and when you are on a downswing, you play worse. You try changing your game hoping it will change your results. I had a bad time. It went bad for my sponsors.”

The Poker Farm was fun, but it didn’t last. Matchbook shut it down to concentrate on their core business of sports betting. And that’s when we catch up to Akenhead, sitting in a bar, telling himself that it can’t be that hard to open up a restaurant.

“I started looking at some venues that I could turn into a restaurant or a pub.” Said Akenhead, “I found this amazing building, plugged loads of money in, and renovated it the way I wanted for six months. I didn’t stop. Then one day the carpenters and electricians had left, and I sat at the bar on my own having a few beers thinking what the fuck am I doing?

“I still had a lot of confidence, and it worked out. It was a beautiful place. It got some excellent reviews. Our food was great and the chef was great.”

So where did it all go wrong?

“I didn’t have a partner. For the first 18-months, I worked a hundred hours a week. I lived there. If I weren’t in work things would go wrong. I was so wired. I would need a few beers before bedtime to take the buzz off, and then I would be back to work after a few hours sleep. It was non-stop.

“Suddenly you realise that you have no life and no energy. As I moved into the second year, I realised I couldn’t go on. I looked for investors to come in and give me a hand. I didn’t find anyone. Eventually, someone wanted to buy it so I sold it and lost a shit load of money.”

Many people would see the project as a failure, but not Akenhead.

“It’s sombre in one respect because it was my project in life. But it was also a success. I learned more in those two years than I have learned in my entire life: business, dealing with people, customers. I would say that other than doing a lot of money, it was a positive time in my life. Money comes and goes, but the experience remains.”

And so, with the restaurant business behind him, what next for Akenhead?

“I had no qualifications, no work experience – I pretty much don’t exist because I have not paid taxes since driving trains. So I thought why not give it ago again? You never know what’s around the corner in poker. I thought I would give it a go for six months, and If it didn’t feel profitable, then I would leave.”

It was a bold move when so many professional poker players believe the game has changed so much, and that it’s harder than ever to return after a long absence and pick up where you left off. How does Akenhead find the game he came back to?

“I have always relied on a certain aspect of my game that brings me success; I don’t use HUDs and PokerTracker. I am not the wizard who knows what to do on every street. I am a feel player. My instincts are excellent. I am never going to lose those abilities. I was born with them, developed the skills very well, and the players I am playing with aren’t changing their mannerisms much, so I had a high confidence I could come back and compete.

“I have a lot of top online players as friends like Craig McCorkell, Chris Moorman, Toby Lewis, Jake Cody and I was bugging them in Vegas asking them what had changed and why people were doing certain things? I don’t think the game has changed so much. I think people are playing a little less aggressive pre-flop. I adapted to that. I also noticed that people were calling any two from the blinds. I would raise with KT on the button, and if it came King high I was betting all three streets because they are calling with K2 pre and not folding. I found that successful just by speaking to those guys, and gaining experience in the past few months. I wouldn’t say the game has changed ridiculously.”

The six months testing period is nearly over. During that time Akenhead beat close to 1,000 entrants in a World Poker Tour (WPT) Warm Up event in Vienna, waded through 2,887 participants to make the final table of a Mid-States Poker Tour (MSPT) Main Event finishing eighth, and finished 64/1840 and 18/1125 in WSOP events.

“I think I am playing the best poker I have ever played by far, it’s not even close.”

So, what’s changed?

“Eight years ago all I did was play poker. It made my decisions a little robotic. I wasn’t concentrating 100% of the time. I am hungry now, I want to play, I am enjoying the game and my decisions are fresh and come to me quickly. Before my mind was clouded and it was difficult for those thoughts to come through quickly. I don’t know if something has changed in me, or the time away helped. I am looking forward to playing every tournament now.”

His life off the felt has also settled. He is engaged and has never felt better in that area of his life.

“I realised the importance of balance. You can’t just have poker in your life. You need to have time away to see friends, family and play sports. Meditation is good. My girlfriend teaches it, so I am quite excited about getting into that. She is cool. Having a balance in life is good. She’s smart, and I am sure my relationship with her brings great positives not only to my life but also poker. I now have someone to hold me when I am crying because I have just lost again. That’s real life, right? It puts everything into perspective, and I am really happy right now. I believe happiness promotes more happiness, and that fosters success. To summarise: a balance in life is key.”

Has poker helped mature him?

“Matured is not the right word. Poker trains you as a human being to handle all sorts of emotions excellently. You see it in every single poker player. There isn’t a poker player alive who, when they start playing, isn’t ridiculously happy when the wins come in. Then when the bad beats come in you are shouting externally or in your head. It’s a flow of emotions that’s completely natural. Poker levels both of those emotions out. You don’t get too excited when you win, and when going through a bad run, you train yourself do deal with that as well.”

So what next for Akenhead?

If we follow his pattern he is in the midst of an ascent to greatness once again.

If he got up from the table and saw the regs in their 70s ordering cups of tea, would he aspire to be like them? What would he do if I gave him 10,000 hours to work on anything?

“I am not sure how to answer that question. I am taking every day as it comes. I am engaged now. My life will change a lot. I am looking forward to every tournament I play. I am enjoying it. If you told me tonight there was a $250 tournament at the Hippodrome, and I decided to play it I would be excited about it. I am a pretty good place right now with my life. I don’t have heaps of money, but I am full of confidence, and I think that’s very important.”