Barny Boatman Interview

Barny Boatman Interview

Thursday, 1 August 2013

We meet Blighty's latest big winner.

As Jesse May’s commentary sidekick on Late Night Poker, Barny Boatman taught the dynamics of the game to a whole generation of Brits. “Tell us about the button, Barny,” Jesse would demand and Barny would oblige, while we sat at home straining to grasp the concept of position. We remember thinking back then that, with his complex knowledge of how the button worked, it was just a matter of time, surely, before Barny won a major tournament. Actually, it took bloody ages. Bluff chats to a mightily relieved UK poker icon.

Congrats, Barny, how’re you feeling?

Normally, at this stage of the trip, when you get knocked out of the Main Event, you’re just exhausted, demoralised, you know, fed up and burned – but it hasn’t taken the sweet taste of victory out of my mouth at all. I’m still feeling very buoyed up by the bracelet.

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We’ll get to that in a bit, but let’s backtrack first. Tell us of your pre-Hendon Mob existence…

Let me see now. I spent some time living in Barcelona in my early twenties. Worked there as a teacher, which is something I also did in the UK. I did a bit of teaching English. I did work as a freelance journalist for a while. I did film reviews and wrote a couple of features and stuff like that. What else did I do? I worked in Bermondsey in a law centre quite a long time ago. I represented people at tribunals. I really enjoyed that actually. It was hard work. It was very stressful because people’s lives and livelihoods were at stake but I was getting paid to argue and I quite liked doing that.

I travelled around a little bit in Central America, then I worked quite a long time in computing and I went around the world with that job. I worked in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Australia as a computer programmer. So that was actually the job that I was doing when I became a professional. For a while I was playing poker at the same time as working in the day and it became a bit untenable. I decided that something had to give. This was back in 1998. I just decided to give up the day job and give poker a proper go.

Had poker always been part of your life or is it something you discovered later?

Games have. I actually used to invent board games. I got ripped off by a company – I still don’t know quite how it happened – one of the board games that I was hawking around finished up getting produced and I didn’t get credit for it. Basically I got ripped off. That was a bit of lesson in the difference between being someone who just has ideas and being someone who was able to be a businessperson.

But I played chess when I was a kid and all sorts of games. I’ve played poker from a pretty early age, I suppose. I played recreationally when I was at school, alongside a lot of other games. I guess poker was a bit different because the other games were purely intellectual pursuits, whereas with poker there was the money and the gambling and the excitement that came with that and it soon became my game of choice.

Tell us about the early days of Late Night Poker and how you came to be a commentator…

The four of us, The Hendon Mob, we were already playing in a game together. We knew each other and we were all on the European poker scene and, in one way or another, playing tournament poker. I remember at that time I had a bit of a profile because I was the top-ranked European 7-card stud player according to some ranking system that just looked at a few tournaments or whatever. You know, I don’t think for a moment that it made me the best 7-card stud player in Europe but I just happened to have done well in the right tournament to get to the top of this ranking list.

They didn’t invite The Hendon Mob as a group but they invited all of us as individuals because we all had a high profile in the game at the time. Ross and I were already having conversations about promoting ourselves, about promoting the game, and we were foreseeing some of the things that might happen in the game in terms of it becoming more like a sport – televised and all the rest of it.

So when we got the invitation to play we were happy to accept, whereas a lot of other people weren’t. A lot of other players were very suspicious of it, and they had a point – they didn’t want cameras looking at their cards. For me, actually, it didn’t matter too much because hold’em wasn’t really my game anyway. My game was 7-card stud mostly, and I was quite happy to go along and play what I thought would be a very simplified version of the game because it was a quick one-table sat. It wasn’t even a version of the game that we were particularly used to and I didn’t really think I would be giving that much away.

But it was great fun doing it and we got a really good response. I personally had an opinion about the commentary from the start. I felt it could be better and I felt the way the show could be presented could be better in various ways and I used to have conversations with the production company about ideas I had for the way they could do things. But I really got into commentary because I was invited to do the live commentary for the first Poker Million in the Isle of Man.

I was actually in the finals of that but I was the first knocked out and then I went into the booth. It was the first time poker had ever been presented live and we were kind of making it up as we went along. But that was very exciting and it went well and then I was invited to go in and be the commentator for Late Night Poker alongside Jesse May, who is absolutely brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant to work with.

I ended up doing two or three series of Late Night Poker, but I’ve done so many different poker commentary jobs since then and learnt a lot in the process. I’ve really enjoyed it. It was a very different challenge, and I always had an approach to commentary as a colour commentator. It wasn’t about telling people how you would do it and what a good player you were, it was about trying to explain what you thought the players were thinking and why they were doing what they were doing, because they’ve always got a reason, and I think you have to give players the respect.

People don’t really want to hear what the anonymous voice would have done if it had been playing. I’m not completely uncritical but I try to see it as if I’m telling the story of what’s going on and keep myself out of it – maybe not my personality but certainly myself as a player. I don’t think enough commentators take that approach. I think commentary’s getting better, though. Annette Obrestad, for example, is a very good commentator because she has got a very deep understanding of the game.


You and Jesse introduced a whole generation of viewers to the dynamics of the game, many of them now poker players. That’s why a lot of people are so chuffed that you won the bracelet. You told us about the button!

(Laughs) It was a bit of a joke, actually, the button thing. I was never prepared in anything I’ve done in TV or press releases or commentary or interviews. People often try and give you a script and say, “Can you look at the camera and say this,” and it’s a line I won’t cross because I think, once you start being told to say things, you’re not yourself anymore and you’re out of control.

But in the case of the button thing, they did have a little script and we did have to do it every time. And we had to re-record it for every show for some reason – they couldn’t just use the same recording. Jesse would say, “Tell us about the button, Barny!” and I would basically read this little script explaining what the button was. For a long time that was considered to be a very good way of getting the basic idea out about the dynamics of the betting and I think we probably carried on doing it for a long time after most people knew perfectly well what the button was. But it became like our catchphrase. People used to see me in clubs and stuff and shout out “Tell us about the button, Barny!”
One of the things that a lot of people have said to me is that me winning the bracelet makes them feel like anyone can do it. And you can take that in more than one way. I could take that to mean anyone can do it because I’m just an ordinary player and if there’s nothing special about me why can’t anyone win? But the way I choose to take it is more like – well, we know you, we feel connected to you and when somebody we know does something it feels closer.

I choose to take it not as a commentary on my ability but as a comment on my familiarity and approachability. I think it’s a nice thing to say.

What about the tournament itself. What were the critical moments?

Well, it’s a funny thing, actually, because I’d gone very deep in the previous tournament I had played, which was the antes-only event. I went from having a very good position to kind of crashing out, just because of the way the cards ran out.

I was a bit exhausted from a few close calls and I decided not to play the following day. The tournament started at noon and I was down by the pool till about 2.30pm. And by then I felt sufficiently rested and I thought, “You know what? I’ll take a shot at today’s tournament. I feel alright now.” I’ve never late registered for a tournament before. I always feel that the early stages are very important because the blinds are smaller and you can play. The weaker players tend to be there at the beginning giving away their chips.

The table I went to was actually quite a tough table. It was all full of young dudes talking about how they were getting all the money online and this, that and the other. I sat there and just kind of nursed my stack really.

I came back on day two and there must have been a pool of about 250 players left. Once you get into the money and the tables start to break down, you start to think about the possibility of making a final and – I don’t know – I was just zoned in. I’m quite experienced at being in that position in tournaments, which maybe not everybody at that stage was, so I knew the value of my hands and I knew when I had to press, and when my hands needed to stand up they did, and when I needed people to fold they did, and everything just really went right and I got through the end of the session somewhere in the middle of the field with 21 players left.

Coming back on day three, I had to be quite brave in some of the things I did to get to the final. I wasn’t interested in laddering. I was focused on trying to get to the final with a decent stack and I was prepared to put myself in positions to do that. I was prepared to make a couple of big calls and make a couple of big moves and enough of them worked. And when I got to the final, actually, I ran very well getting down to the heads-up. And the rail built and that was really exciting. First of all it was just my brother and one other person but as the night went on more and more people turned up on the rail. At that point there hadn’t been a British bracelet so we hadn’t had as much to shout about as usual.

So when people realised there was a possibility of a British winner, the word got around and a lot of people came down and I was sending beers to the rail – it was very exciting. It was like a football match. We got down to the heads-up incredibly quickly, which meant that there was a lot of play in the heads-up. We were more or less level in chips and I immediately lost two big pots – one a little bit of a cooler, and the other one, I got over-aggressive with a hand. I raised from the button with J-6s, he re-raised and I raised again, and I thought “I’m going to get him! He thinks he can three-bet me!” And then he raised again and I realised I was up against a real hand and I had to leave the chips behind.

But then I just said to myself, “Okay, go into your shell a little bit, keep the pot small. You’re a very experienced heads-up player, just try and play flops,” and that’s what I did. And the heads-up battle lasted three hours, during which there was no called all-in. And during those three hours I wore him down. It went from him having a lead to me having a three-to-one or more chip lead by the time we got to the final hand, which was a flip which I won. Even if I’d lost that flip, I think I would have still had a slight chip lead, but it certainly was a huge relief to win it.

The heads-up was very gladiatorial, it was like a boxing match and the rail was brilliant and they were funny and they were loud and they were boisterous and I was laughing a lot of the time. That helped me to relax, to feel at home. So I really felt that the rail helped me a lot. And it helped me to realise what a big thing it was. And it’s why I felt so emotional when I won because they were all there. My brother leapt over the rail and gave me a hug. Everybody was there, you know, cheering and it just made it feel like such as huge event.

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What does this bracelet mean to you? Is it like what Wimbledon means to Andy Murray?

Well, it’s very hard to make those comparisons. We talk about poker like it’s a sport, and in some ways it is, but you can’t really compare the achievement with Andy Murray. Andy Murray is at the top of a game that is very, very hard and there are only a handful of people in the world who can do what he does. In tournament poker, on any given day, someone different is going to win a bracelet. If you think that it means you’re the best, then you’re kidding yourself.
So many things have to go right with the tournament. There were 2,500 players in this field and a lot of them were capable of winning. One of the reasons it meant so much to me is that, over the last ten years, I have made so many big finals or run very deep in huge events and haven’t had the rub of the green in the late stages.

It did feel as if I was never going to get that day when it just went right all the way to the end, and I did feel like it was kind of due for it to happen to me but it never would. Of course, there must be a lot of really good players out there who haven’t had the success that I’ve had and haven’t been as lucky as I’ve been. Poker is a funny thing. But it meant an enormous amount to me to feel “Yeah, actually, I’m allowed to win”.

What about the World Series Main Event in 2000? Weren’t you a big chip leader at one point? What happened there?

I was the bookies’ favourite. I was the chip leader for a while and I was still the chip leader when we were down to two tables, I think, and I lost a massive pot making a move against Hassan Habib that went wrong. I got criticised for it, although I think what people didn’t realise is that’s how I’d got my chips. I didn’t get my chips by getting dealt aces against kings every half an hour; it was by playing back at people and being brave, even when it wasn’t, perhaps, the most sensible thing to do. But that was a big part of my game and it got me that far. It was very disappointing to have got that close. I finished up 16th, I think, or something like that.

What do you think about the young generation of British players? Do you get along with them?

I’m a big admirer of the young generation of British poker players. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve got all these great players like Sam Trickett and Jake Cody and JP Kelly and Roberto Romanello. I could go on, the list is very, very long. They’re great players, which speaks for itself, but through knowing them and seeing them on the circuit and hanging out with them a bit, I’m an admirer of them as people. They’re very down to earth. They’re approachable. You get this phenomenon that tends to be more common with American players, where they win something big and all of a sudden they’re up themselves. And not just poker players, some people are that way in life. Some people think they’re something special; they don’t want to talk to other people anymore. And this lot are so not like that and they’re so straightforward and approachable and they enjoy the game and they enjoy their lives and they support each other. They carry themselves well. They represent the game well. And the rail really says it all about the spirit of the British game.

I also learn a lot from them. You should never think, in any complex pursuit, that you know it all. You never should think that you’ve learnt even your own language let alone someone else’s language completely. You should always be trying to improve. And the way that I try to improve is by watching the way these people play. They’re blazing a trail in the way the game is played.

There’s nobody better than the young British players. Nobody better in the world.

Tags: Barny Boatman, WSOP, Jesse May, Late Night Poker