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Barny Boatman: Mobster, Pioneer, Benjamin Button of Poker (Pt 2)
Without putting too fine a point on it, without Barny Boatman the poker scene in the UK wouldn't be what it is today.
Along with his brother Ross, Ram Vaswani and Joe Beevers, Boatman was one of the original Fab Four of UK poker -- the Hendon Mob.
Together with the cast and crew of Late Night Poker, John Duthie and the EPT and, lately, a new generation of online superstars, they've built the most established poker culture in the world outside of the US.
A PokerListings Spirit of Poker Living Legend Award nominee for 2016, Boatman still has plenty of game left as a bracelet at last year's WSOPE can attest.
LD: It started well. We're now 40+ events in. How's the WSOP going to date?
BB: I feel like it’s half time, I am one-nil down, but I still have a lot left in the tank.
LD: What's your view on the Global Poker League?
BB: I have seen some of it and am quite impressed. The top players are taking the time to talk through their hand, and it’s quite educational.
More importantly, you get the sense that you are seeing elite players playing at the top of their game.
I think it’s great that Aaron Paul is involved and beat Fabrice (Soulier). To have someone like him, who is a star and a player, makes it exciting and draws in the right publicity, instead of having someone who is purely a 'name.'
They strike the right balance with Aaron. I am a big supporter of the whole thing. Take your hat off to Alex Dreyfus; he puts his money where his mouth is and has a very creative imagination.
LD: There was a time when you and the other lads in the Hendon Mob were visionaries like Dreyfus. Does his work bring back those memories?
BB: The GPL is the sort of thing I always thought would happen. It presents poker as a game of skill. It makes it entertaining.
The team element is essential but I also believe that it’s smart having professional teams that can pick and choose from a draft.
LD: Why didn't you sign up?
BB: I considered putting in for it but decided not to. I am not at a point in my life where I can make commitments.
The only commitment I make is to be here for the WSOP. Also, I had no reason to believe I would be chosen.
I have experienced a lot of games where the action has been edited and people have picked apart the way I played and I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself out there in that way.
I am happy with the way that I play most of the time, but I am not sure I can justify what I do in the terms that people use today.
However, I want it to be known that I am a big supporter and want it to succeed.
LD: It's funny that you seemed concerned about people dissecting your play when you were one of the pioneers of the hole cam during the Late Night Poker era.
BB: When Late Night Poker was first muted I wasn’t a Hold’em player. I was a Seven-Card Stud player. I didn’t feel I had anything to hide. I worked the game out as I was going along.
That was a time when there were one or two of us who knew it was going to be the next big thing, and we felt if we didn’t do it it might not happen. Today, there are a million people who will do it. They don’t need any one individual anymore.
The game is very complicated and you get sometimes frustrated when you are playing, and people are talking about the way you are playing. In the final I was in last year I was playing a certain way which was working for me - making small bets on flops whether I had hands or not to gain cheap information.
Even if it was exploitable, it wasn’t being exploited which are two very different things.
The commentator kept going on and saying that I had a huge tell, 'whenever I bet small I don’t have anything, and it was exploitable, and I didn’t have a chance, and he wished he was playing and was heads-up with me so he could exploit it'.
I was thinking, 'this all sounds very convincing but I know it’s rubbish and it’s quite annoying'. You want to be in the commentary box explaining to this person but at the same time if people don’t understand what you are doing that should be okay.
In the GPL players talking about their game is a big part of it and it adds enormous value. I haven't necessarily put the work in to have the vocabulary to talk about things in the way people expect us to. I don’t think I am the best person for that job.
However, if they wanted a personality, a talker, or someone who can play and win then it's not like I would be the worst person either.
I can tell when people are making a good decision for the right reasons at a poker table, regardless of whether they dress it up in a certain way. I can also tell when someone has learned some terminology and they don’t have the depth of knowledge and understanding to back it up.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a language-based person. I am very comfortable with concepts. If I hear a new poker term, I will get it.
What I haven’t done is a lot of homework. I am very lazy and have gotten by all my life without doing the work. I got through school that way, and I get through life that way.
Some people have worked hard, spent countless hours online and have studied and memorized all the right ways to play the game. They know the exact math in particular situations, and if someone wants to hear that stuff, it’s better to hear it from someone who has done the work.
I can go into as much depth as anyone on breaking a hand down but it might not come off in the way that people are used to hearing it today.
LD: Are you worried about what people will think about you and your game without you being able to justify your reasons?
BB: I’m not worried about it, but I don’t necessarily want to volunteer to be criticized in that way. By the way, these were thoughts I had before I saw the GPL.
Sam Grafton is a superb commentator. He’s not overly technical but he is technical enough and clearly understands the big picture and explains it very well.
Having seen it, I think I would be quite happy but you never know what you are going to get when you sign up to have your game dissected.
"I think it's very generous of these very successful, deep-thinking players to volunteer and put their games on the line.
LD: Author Ryan Holiday advises writers not to read reviews of their work. Are we talking about something similar here? Are you saying it might be better not to watch the highlight reel?
BB: I don’t think the two are the same. There is a profound difference between writing and poker. In poker, there are clear outcomes although if there were only one way to skin a cat there wouldn’t be a game.
I also watch back and learn from interesting observations. In that final I watched, it got to a certain point where I thought about limping on the button because my opponent had a stack size where he could shove all-in over the top.
But I had assessed him as a player who was not likely to do that unless he had a hand. So I let my read of the player override what would be the normal thing to do with our stack sizes.
Afterwards, when the commentator questioned my play, I knew he was right. I was over-thinking the situation. It was useful for someone to point out something straightforward at the moment that I had not done.
So it’s not as if nobody has anything useful to say or interesting. (David) Tuchman is always very nice about me. He comes across as a nice guy, and he is halfway between a pundit and a fan.
He brings people in to give analysis but he tends to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is nice if you are a player.
When I was a commentator I was always aware that these players got to this situation for a reason, and when they do something there is a reason for it. People don’t want to hear what the commentator would have done and why they are cleverer than the player.
What people want to hear is the commentator's view on what the player is thinking and why they might be doing that. Then you can make your mind up if they are doing the right thing or not.
On the other hand commentators these days are more knowledgeable than they used to be and they do have useful insights. There are ways of conveying this information. You don’t have to try and show you are smarter than the player when delivering it.
LD: I want the Hendon Mob back in the GPL. I think it would help create a sense of team togetherness which is important in sport. Are you ready to get the old team back together again?
BB: You would hope that the team spirit will build amongst the players partly thrown together by their captains, and it will emerge from what's there. It’s a lovely thought, but I don’t think that would work with anything they are doing.
What might work is a veterans team. People who are veterans of the game like Doyle Brunson picking a team who are over 50, and people he thinks that have something to offer, and it doesn’t dilute the purpose of being an elite sporting arena.
LD: How do you view your role in poker these days?
BB: On the one hand, I am like the old uncle in the corner who is allowed to say what he wants because I have reached a certain age and tell everyone what I think about them. Plus, it’s not like I’m trying to get a sponsorship deal or anything.
I used to write the verdicts for 'You are the Tournament Director' on the Hendon Mob website, and I think a lot about the game and what is good and bad; rules, and cultures, and the rest of it.
I don’t have much of a forum for putting my thoughts out there, but if anyone asks me I will tell them what I think.
Some things arise where I have a strong opinion and I will speak my mind. I am a link to a different age. I like to feel that there are people around who keep the conscience of the game.
For people who grew up on the Internet, they don’t learn about some of the nuances of things you should and shouldn't do in the live game. The software either allows you to do a thing or it doesn’t.
You can’t bet out of turn, for example, so you get some people who think poker is very morally neutral. People like me are around to remind people that this is human interaction, and there are right and wrong things to do, and it is more subtle than it would appear.
The live game teaches you all sorts of things that doesn’t necessarily get passed on to younger players grown up on the Internet.
LD: What non-poker books have helped you in your poker game?
BB: I remember reading Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. It’s not about poker in any way, shape or form but on strength of character and overcoming adversity and retaining a sense of yourself under the most difficult circumstances it is incredible.
Nothing that befell him is analogous to the worse thing that could happen in poker. And nothing close to what has happened to me in life in general. But there are periods in poker where you have to be mentally strong.
I am severely tested right now in Vegas. Reading something like that gives you perspective on the depth and reserves of resilience people have and how petty your bad beats are.
I am currently reading News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and am reading it in Spanish. Reading, thinking, and communicating in other languages is important. Especially for someone like me, who is older.
It helps your flexibility, mental agility and ability to look at things in different ways - I can’t put my finger on it, but I get a sense that part of who I am in terms of keeping my mind fresh is down to engaging in a different language and culture.
LD: Who inspires you?
BB: Some of the answers I have given over the years have become a lot more fashionable now like Nelson Mandela and Muhammed Ali. I guess members of my family have been inspirational.
Ross has, my sister was, and when it comes to poker Victoria Coren comes to mind. I have been asked to introduce Vicky into the Women’s Poker Hall of Fame and speak at their lunch.
I know I won’t have time to write a speech. But I kind of feel it’s easy to say good things about Victoria Coren. She is an inspiration in poker because as well as being a great player, and a great female player at a time when people didn't believe women were as good as men, she dealt with an enormous amount with great humour.
She never got brutalized by the game, never got angry, always had affection for everyone and everything in it, but she was never a soft touch.
She was so smart and could do anything. She did an enormous amount of good by just doing what she was great at.
And then she was principled enough to hand back a lucrative sponsorship deal because she wasn’t happy to be associated with a casino product.
I don’t disagree with her that it's uncomfortable to promote this very addictive gambling product onto people, and she wasn't comfortable with it.
Whether I would have torn up a lucrative sponsorship deal because I have that issue, or whether I would have found a way to be ok with it, the chances are I would still be a sponsored player.
I won’t stand for racism or sexism, but in that case, it would have felt like I knew I was promoting something connected to gambling and casinos and I would have convinced myself that it would have been OK. She didn't do that, and that’s very inspiring.
LD: If I gave you 10,000 hrs to work on anything, what would it be and why?
BB: If I could snap my fingers and have spent 10,000 in the gym getting fit, then that would be great. But I don’t want to live through 10,000 boring hours in the gym.
I would probably like to get a philosophy degree. I think it would be fascinating.
The snippets I have picked up over the years shows me that it's the ultimate expression of human culture; thinking deeply, politics, language, people, sociology, power, science, what's real, what isn’t real, theology, spiritually, it's everything that matters - why wouldn’t you want to learn that?”