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Barny Boatman: Mobster, Pioneer, Benjamin Button of Poker (Pt 1)
I have enormous respect for Barny Boatman.
When his mugshot stumbles into my eyes from the Internet, I don't see a professional poker player; I see a pioneer.
It was Boatman and the Hendon Mob who first thought of the idea of personal branding. The term ‘professional poker player' would have evolved eventually, but Boatman and the lads from Hendon certainly pushed it along.
Donkey years later, he's still playing poker. And at a time when you speak to so many younger players about their futures in the game and they leave you with the impression that poker is nothing but a stone amongst stones en route to something better.
He plays today because he loves the game. He is also bloody good at it, winning two World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets in an era most say the game is tougher than ever.
There is no disputing it. Barny Boatman is the Benjamin Button of poker. And a more-than-deserving nominee for the 2016 Spirit of Poker Living Legend award.
In part one of a two-part interview, I sit down with Boatman to talk about the changing face of the WSOP, his love for writing and to hear his views on the talents of players from two very different eras.
Lee Davy: Welcome to the WSOP. Where are you staying, who are you with and how are you settling in?
Barny Boatman: It's going well, thank you. I'm breaking even and that's a record at the WSOP for me at this time of year (in the first week).
Last year I came third in the first tournament I played and that's the first time I have hit the ground running. Normally the first week is a bit of s struggle. I have won a bit in the cash and played The Colossus and that's it so far.
I am staying with my brother (Ross). We have condos off the beaten track. It's nice. We have been here for a week without hearing a poker story.
It has a nice feel to it; it's very peaceful. We stayed here last year, and previous to that we stayed at Palms Place because we wanted an apartment with a kitchen.
But they closed the pool too early. Here we can sit at the pool until midnight and that's important to me. Also, as much as I love my poker pals, I have a low tolerance towards bad beat stories. It’s always the same.
I arrive at The Rio for the first time and within minutes of walking down the corridor I have heard all of these whiney Nevada voices talking about bad beats or what great players they are and I want to block it all out, so it’s nice to stay somewhere you can escape from poker.
LD: The energy at The Rio is very mixed during WSOP.
BB: It's physically taxing going up and down those corridors and queuing for the toilets, half bumping into people. There are a lot of people you are happy to see, but it's a challenging context to meet people because everyone is rushing around.
It's great. It's huge. They, on the whole, do an incredible job to run such big tournaments. But it is a gruelling place to be in.
LD: How has it changed over the years?
BB: The first time I came here I was disorientated and out of my depth so … nothing has changed, really.
I first came to the WSOP after winning a mini league that my local card room was hosting. It was called The Barracuda - it doesn’t exist anymore - and my prize was a trip to Vegas for the WSOP.
I won it, came over with very little money, and was in Binions for about a week getting lost; playing in small games. It must have been 1998?
I don’t think I played any tournaments because I didn’t have any money. I just soaked up the atmosphere. I remember watching the Main Event and was blown away that people I knew were pulling $10,000 out of their pockets and putting it on the table. I remember thinking, ‘this is ridiculous.’
If you are asking how it changed me? It's helped me treat the two impostors of success and failure the same and to value what's important in life and people.
I have made some good friends over the years, and what's important to myself and other people is not primarily success in poker. It's other things. I have had times when it's been hard, and times when it's been exciting and fun.
I think you get better at being self-reliant and better at not falling into the traps of going for glory and instead doing things that suit you and knowing your limitations. The way I experience Vegas today is completely different.
In the first few years I would come with a few grand and play satellites to win my way into the Main Event. From 1999 onwards I always managed to get into the Main Event. I remember being with Pascal Perrault and we both won a seat into the Main Event via satellite.
In all my years I have never been more excited about winning anything else. I remember going to the Voodoo Lounge and getting drunk because we were already world champions. Then Willie Tann knocked me out, which could have happened any day down The Vic.
In those days I stayed in the cheapest room in Binions and never left Downtown. Now, this is the second or third time I have come right from the beginning, and I am going to play more events this year than I have ever played.
I can't play everything. I haven't got a bankroll like Daniel Negreanu, but I can play something every day if I want to.
I have a nice place, a car, and when I looked at people who came to Vegas in the early years and had a set up as I do, I thought it was a different world.
I am incredibly privileged that things worked out and I can do this now. It's this time of the year that I get stuck into tournament poker, and I love it.
LD: I interviewed Niall Farrell the other day and he said he couldn't see himself doing this forever. What about you?
BB: You have to remember that Niall will have made his money and retired from poker way younger than when I started playing.
When people talk about doing something else I have already done a lot of ‘something elses’ and I still do. I love the game. I still feel like I can compete. I am still getting something from it, still learning, and meeting people.
It's a big part of my life but it's not my whole life. I don't want to give it up. The WSOP is a big part of that. It's very special. There is so much potential there and excitement.
If I was one of these young pros - these incredibly admirable people who are very smart and have law degrees on hold - I may be saying the same thing. But it's different for me. As long as I don't lose the plot, this is something I want to continue doing.
LD: What are some of those ‘something elses’?
BB: I am trying to write. I enjoy travelling. I have friends all over the world I like spending time with. I like friends staying with me.
I am involved in a few projects that you may not necessarily think I would be like investing in a jewellery design business.
The main thing, leisure notwithstanding, is writing. That's what I was always supposed to be doing, I think.
LD: I believe you are about to have a published poker story on your hands. Can you talk about that?
BB: I was approached by a friend who is an editor, five years ago, about an anthology of stories relating to poker. She knew I had some writing ideas and asked me if I had something for her.
I came up with an idea on the spot. It's a story that I'm pleased with. It dealt with an aspect of poker and what it's like being a poker player but written in an unusual way.
I wrote it five years ago and forgot about it. My friend recently got in touch and said they had done a publishing deal and has managed to get an extraordinary roster of writers. It's exciting to be involved in such company.
It will be launched at the WSOP next year. It will be well illustrated. I think it will be a big deal. They have Patrick Marber, who is the best playwright and screenwriter of his generation in Britain. Jesse May has written something and he has written the best poker novel ever.
Tony Holden, who has written the best poker memoirs ever. And some great names in poker - Jennifer Tilly is writing something, and Carol Anne Duffy the poet Laureate is contributing! People who are known and are great characters.
It's a real fluke that I am part of it, really, and I am in a great position because I have done my bit and I am just waiting for it to be published.
LD: Is it your first piece of published work?
BB: I have had articles published before. I had worked as a freelance journalist years ago before I got into poker, but yes, it will be the first time in a long time.
It's hard work to write, isn't it? You have to go back and edit it, and a big part of it is just taking things out. With journalism most people fall back on cliches a bit, or you are reproducing things that you know. And as long as you are clear, it's ok.
But if it's creative you don't want anything in it that grates in any way. You want the dialogue to sound like dialogue. You want similes and metaphors to look like they should be there.
I like going through sentences and removing words that don't need to be there.
LD: Writing should be simple like poker should.
BB: I recently sent a tweet that said: ‘I dunno if you new skool kidz make better decisions at the poker table, but you sure do have fancier reasons for making them.'
It's true and not true. There are all sorts of great ideas and thoughts going into the game, and the smarter people are super smart, and you should listen to what they have to say.
However, sometimes you watch the top players in a game and they'll take a line in a hand that is not necessarily different to what you would have done, but the language used to explain how they made their decision is so complicated.
Sometimes I think, ‘yeah I would have checked on the turn for pot control because I wouldn't have gotten three streets of value.'
It's fundamental thinking about poker, and then someone will have an incredibly complicated reason for arriving at the same answer or a very complex reason for ending up with a different answer.
There are smart people out there and plenty of individuals who learn a different way. They don't necessary see the danger of applying these ideas in a particular, actual situation and sometimes - and I hate to use the word - that's experience.
LD: So where do you fall on the side of things relating to Daniel Negreanu’s view that it's easier to make a living at poker today than it was pre-Internet?
BB: The profile of a pro poker player today is very different from the past. So it's difficult to judge. I do get bored of hearing average players saying they would have cleaned up in the 1990s.
It's a stupid thing to say. It's like the first-world arrogance of people who think because they live in an advanced industrialized society that it makes them smarter than people who live in the third world.
And yet it's the individuals in the third world who are smarter because they have to make it up as they go along and survive and eat with few resources. They are brilliant people just to be alive.
So the idea of parachuting someone into the 1990s so they could ‘clean up' is ridiculous. It was an era of survivors and people who were doing things for the first time. If you were a smart guy and had ideas like Daniel Negreanu, you might never have been found out.
I remember when I first got into the game it was axiomatic that you followed the rules. It wasn't as complicated.
I was always trying to do things differently and that meant sometimes a hand went on its back, and you had a suited connector where you weren't supposed to, and people thought you were an idiot. But they had never seen the thousands of times you made the same move and took it down with a c-bet on a king-high flop.
Poker was a zero-sum game then and it is now. A different kind of person thrives in the current environment. The person who puts the work in will get there.
I have always been very lazy and got by on what I can do. When I was eight, they moved me up to the next class in school because they thought I was smart. I was so pissed off for being separated from my friends I just scrawled all over my paper until they put me back.
It wasn't until years later I realized I blew a chance to skip a year of school. I wanted to get by on the fact that I was smart and do less actual work. I have always been like that.
Although I am aware of the resources out there, I don't think I will ever do the graft because I am too lazy. But I am always watching how people play.
LD: I believe people from the past have a bias to that era, and people of today have the same bias for players who compete today. However, Erik Seidel, Daniel Negreanu and yourself have all played in both eras. Which was tougher?
BB: I once again refer you to a Tweet I sent out the other day that stated: ‘The best poker players now are exactly the same as the best players twenty years ago. They’re as good as they need to be to beat the rest.’
There is a truth in that. Some great players bring an enormous amount of analysis to situations and a lot of experience taken from a lot of hands, and you have to be very careful. You might put in a big bluff and you know it's very believable.
These players might believe you. But the pot odds are this, his range is that; enough of the time he could have that, and although it's entirely convincing he will call anyway. So I will try and bluff infrequently enough against this player to make the call unprofitable.
This is a game where the best players adapt to the player in front of them. They make the most of all the information in front of them at the moment. And part of that is knowing your opponent and how they think and are likely to react.
I have enormous respect for people like Fedor Holz and my job is to understand enough about how they think and to try and play against them in a way that works.
Sometimes it means that you are playing on their terms, but not always. Often it gives you an edge because they are not giving you credit for understanding that they are floating you and check raising you with no hand.
When I started playing you didn't necessarily know what the best players were up to because there were no under-the-table cameras, articles or training resources.
You mention Erik Seidel and Daniel Negreanu, the quintessential examples of old-school players who still compete at high levels today, and I am flattered you even mention me in the same breath.
Daniel, in particular, still has everything in his armoury. The kind of things that give experienced live players an edge - talking to put people at ease and then manipulating what's going on in other ways other than the pure math of the game.
He has also put the work in to understand the modern concepts of the game. Erik Seidel has done something similar and is an absolute master of the High Rollers.
There are so many brilliant people who would never have found their way into poker into the 1990s. There are so many more routes today.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2.