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Kenny Hallaert: "I’m Not One of 9 Best Players in this Tournament"
As you might guess about a guy who studied to be an electrician before turning to poker, Kenny Hallaert is not driven by big results or a huge ego.
The 34-year-old Belgian, who still considers himself more a poker hobbyist than a pro, is in fact the exact opposite:
A humble, down-to-earth guy who knows how lucky he is to get to the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event.
That being said ... he's not going to let the opportunity pass him by, either.
PokerListings contributor Nicolas Christiaens spoke with Hallaert shortly after he made the biggest final table of his life and found out just what exactly the Tournament Director has in mind for his big poker moment.
Nicolas Christiaens: Kenny, first of all, congratulations! Can you tell us how you got into poker?
Kenny Hallaert: Thanks. It was at the end of 2004. I would sometimes bet €5 on FC Bruges, my favorite football club.
I was on Unibet one day and I saw a banner ad for poker on their website. I didn’t know anything about poker but just by reading the rules I knew I’d love it.
I started to play for tiny amounts, like a proper fish. Eventually, I did some research on the Internet and bought some books.
At the beginning of 2005 I decided to stop playing for a few months in order to spend my free time studying poker with these books. After that I made a €50 deposit and my bankroll just started growing.
Today, I still spend a lot of time studying poker. Just like any cyclist or football player I have to practice. It’s not all about doing the race or playing the game. You need to take the time to progress.
NC: What did you study?
KH: I studied to become an electrician. I was working in a factory, 7 kilometers away from home.
I stopped in January 2008 because casinos in Namur and Spa offered me a job in their poker rooms.
They’d known me since 2005, when I started playing there, and they needed someone to promote their poker room. The year after that I became a tournament director.
Today I organize the Namur and Spa Belgian Poker Championships, the two biggest poker festivals in Belgium.
NC: Your first online deposits coincide with the moment you took your independence and left your parents’ place.
KH: At first I was really just playing with small change, just for fun. I had a job. I’d rather spend 10 or 20 euros playing poker than in a club on a Saturday night.
There was no hangover on Sunday mornings and sometimes I even got some return on investment. After studying the game for a while, it became more serious.
NC: When did it become very serious?
KH: For me, poker is still a hobby today. Of course I do spend a lot of time studying it and playing it, but my main activity is being a tournament director.
To give you a more precise answer, things sped up when I won the PokerStars Sunday Warm Up in January 2009 for a bit more than $107,000 (for a $215 buy-in).
My bankroll rose a lot at once and it’s still my biggest online result to date. But I was always realistic. I never thought I was the best player in the world.
What I understood is that if I focus 100% and get a little lucky, I can do well.
NC: Like during the 2016 Main Event ...
KH: Yes. But I know I’m not one of the 9 best players in this tournament. I got a good run and managed to stay focused throughout the tournament.
NC: Will you have a lighter schedule in 2017 so you can play poker more?
KH: I’ll decide after the final. The result could impact my decision. Winning $8 million can change your career a bit ...
NC: In 2008, you played heads-up against Pierre Neuville in the Namur casino to win a package for Vegas ...
KH: That’s true. It was one week before I started working for the casino. It was my last tournament there, in January 2008.
This was a good offer, the package was worth €15,000 - buy-in for the Main Event, flight, hotel. Nineteen players paid the €1,000 buy-in, including Pierre Neuville, who finished 2nd and won €4,000.
I was very happy to beat him and get the chance to discover Las Vegas. I spent three weeks there and played some other tournaments. Playing the Main Event was a dream, of course. But I haven’t missed a single one since.
NC: Pierre Neuville told us that learning Vegas costs a lot, you need time to get results.
KH: That’s true. You have to adapt to the Americans and it took me some time to get results at the WSOP.
But I love Vegas. Last year I managed to make the final table of the Colossus (22,374 players who paid the $565 buy-in). It was an amazing experience.
Right after that I finished 123rd in the Main Event. It was a unique performance in itself for me, I thought I would never get another chance to reach Day 5 of the tournament.
NC: Do you think those two good runs helped you this year?
KH: Yes, I do. They gave me experience in big field tournaments. They also gave me confidence; I just knew I could do well in this Main Event.
But, even so, you still need good cards. I was very relieved each day to see that I had tables I could handle.
I never had to make really hard decisions for all my chips. I had the best hands during showdown.
If I had pocket queens, the other guy had pocket jacks or ace king. Everything went well for me, from beginning to end.
NC: But focus is still important
KH: Of course. Days are long. We play 10 hours a day for 7 days. If you count breaks, you don’t get home before 2 am. You get more and more tired and each mistake can make you bust.
I made two small mistakes in 7 days. At the end of Day 5 I raised way too high because I messed up handling my chips, but I still won the pot.
And at the end of Day 6, I wanted to raise the flop but someone had already raised and I hadn’t seen it. These two moves could have cost me a lot but I won both.
NC: Does the world champion title make you dream more than the $8,000,000 prize?
KH: Yes! I mean, money is important too, but no sum of money can take over becoming world champion.
NC: Does that mean you’re only playing for the title? What if I could offer you second place?
KH: Where do I sign? (laughs) Coming second would be great. I’m already living a dream, so whatever I can take is a bonus from now on.
I wouldn’t even be disappointed to finish 9th, except if I make a huge mistake. Of course I want to win but so do the other eight players. If you tell me I’ll finish 2nd, I’ll be super happy!
NC: Did you celebrate the night you qualified?
KH: Not even. I was too tired and I had to be at the Rio at noon the next day for interviews and a briefing with the other finalists. We just had a beer at the Rio.
When I got back from Vegas I had a few drinks with a few friends, but there was no big party. In my mind the tournament isn’t finished yet. I’ll party properly in November.
NC: You’ve lost 20 kg (44 lbs) since last year. That must have helped your performance ...
KH: Yes, of course. I’m less tired at the tables, I feel better physically. Last year on Day 5 I was so tired. I spared a thought for those who still had to play for 2 and a half days.
I have eternal respect for Pierre Neuville, who played for 7 days to become a November Niner at 72 years old. He also does a lot of sports; I often see him swimming.
It’s the proof that good physical condition helps in poker.
NC: Your position at the table is quite favorable for the final.
KH: Yes, I’m quite happy. I’ll have Vayo, Ruane and Josephy on my right and Nguyen opposite. It’s perfect that way.
Wong will be on my left, with a small stack, but he’ll still have 20 blinds to get back into the game. He shouldn’t go all-in too quickly.
NC: Do you think there’s a favorite?
KH: Josephy. He has the chips and he’s a great player. Gordon Vayo is another favorite, I think, but each and every one can play good poker.
If Wong doubles up once or twice, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
NC: Do you know how you’ll prepare for the final?
KH: I’m going on holidays for 4 days now. I had planned it before the WSOP.
Then, I’ll probably get in touch with Pierre Neuville (7th in 2015) and Jorryt Van Hoof (3rd in 2014). They both have experience in the November Nine and I think they’ll have good advice.
I will also try to see what coaching I can get. Some players can certainly help me, especially if they can access my online sessions. I need to think about it and see what I will do. I want to be as well-prepared as possible on the day to have no regrets.
I haven’t made up my live tournament schedule yet. In Barcelona I’ll only be able to play a few side events because I’m organizing a tournament in Blankenberge at the beginning of September.
NC: Finally, do you have any advice for young poker players?
KH: Patience and bankroll management are the key words. And you need to spend as much time studying poker as playing it. It’s not just about playing.
When you do play you need to play what you love: cash games, tournaments, live or online. But online poker could be better to progress quickly, because you can play several hands at the same time and play for free (or almost).