Whether you like him or not, French poker icon Roger Hairabedian is certainly a character.
A longtime tournament casher and now recent winner of a WSOPE bracelet, Hairabedian took a few moments in Cannes to sit down with our colleague at PokerListings France Fred Guillemot.
Among other things he talked about his big win, his flap with Brandon Cantu in the €10k Mix Max, his past as a judoka and, as if that wasn't enough, his plans to help put on the world's longest poker tournament in Marrakech next year.
Playing Poker is Like Fighting a War
All that, as usual, with no waffling whatsoever.
PokerListings: Roger, let's first go back to that €10k Hold'em Mixed-Max, Event 5. What happened when you lost to Brandon Cantu in the semi-finals? I guess you're feeling very frustrated, but how do you analyze it?
Roger Hairabedian: Well, of course I'm happy because it's a good result, but once you get that far you want to go for the win.
I am not happy at all about the draw system (for the heads-up round) that makes chip leaders meet. It's illogical.
In tennis, that would be like having Nadal play Federer or Djokovic in the first round. Last year already I had to play against Michael Mizrachi even though I was chip leader and he had the second-biggest stack.
I finished 3rd though, so I guess I can't complain too much.
Despite rules flap still calls Cantu one of best he's played against.
I did find that the tournament director wasn't logical on one particular hand though, when the dealer had decided I was in the right. But in the end they decided Brandon was right after they pretended to watch some video that someone supposedly filmed on their phone.
I don't even think it actually exists, otherwise they'd have decided much sooner. Despite feeling very welcome, at that moment I felt there were shortcomings on the part of the organization.
I think there is more solidarity between Americans, because we're in France and yet they decided in favor of Cantu. Not only did he insult the dealer, but they said he was right.
If I'd done something like that, I'd probably be in prison right now or something.
That hand would have changed everything. I think Brandon was very cunning and took his chance. Scandal follows him everywhere he goes, he's used to it.
On that hand, I could've taken the lead. If he pays at the turn, he has to pay again at the river. I only needed a couple of hands to beat him. I'm not a sore loser, but I really think I was completely wronged by the organization.
Hairabedian: I'm one of top 50-100 players in the game.
Losing doesn't matter, but things could have gone my way if the rules had been followed. And since a little while before that I complained about people behind me and asked to change seat, I think they wanted to punish me for that behavior.
I did everything I could to throw Cantu off balance, and it almost worked. Unfortunately they decided he was right and that calmed him down.
Psychologically, I was on top. I had practically already won. I usually accept defeat. But losing because of a trick, that I do not condone.
Then again, he also impressed me a lot. He's one of the best players I've ever met, so hats off to him.
PL: How do you feel about your game?
RH: Considering my results, I think I've reached the quintessence of the game.
A few years ago, I felt that the players were much better than I was. I've matured a lot since then.
I've reached the top level and I think I'm one of the 50-100 best poker players on the planet.
PL: Do you think the bracelet you got last Wednesday in the Pot-Limit Omaha Event is an accomplishment?
Bustout tilt leads to first bracelet.
RH: You can wait for it your whole life and never get it. So yeah, of course it's an accomplishment.
I'm delighted to be one of the French players who have won one. But to me, the most important thing is to be consistent.
It's much harder to achieve. A lot of players have won bracelets but are nowhere near as consistent as I am and they never win anything again afterwards.
PL: How do you explain these two big performances in a row?
RH: First of all, I wouldn't have won this bracelet if I hadn't been eliminated of the previous tournament.
I was so angry about the way I played my last hand that I went and signed up for the €5k Omaha tournament straight away. After that, I was confident. I played some unpredictable hands, made some players tilt.
I'm a live player, and a lot of online players can't understand the things I do because sometimes they're a bit eccentric. Playing poker is like fighting a war. You have to use all the weapons available.
Pressuring someone mentally and verbally is one of them, and making a player lose it is part of the game.
"Playing online is barely an ersatz of real poker."
One word can make a player tilt. That's something online players will never be able to comprehend. For me, online poker is to live poker what a town's public school is to Harvard.
PL: Do you feel a bit disconnected from this online player community?
RH: I belong to a completely different world. So much the better too, because that's what helps me get results.
I think playing online is barely an ersatz of real poker.
PL: What about sponsors?
RH: I would like to have sponsors, but no-one is interested. All they want are youngsters who play online and who have a less nervy image than I do.
They don't give a damn about consistency, and that's unfair too.
If you want sponsors, good results aren't enough. You have to look good too.
I don't have the looks, and I don't have the youth. I don't always understand the way things are done, but that's okay, I'm doing fine on my own.
And then the young ones run out of steam pretty quickly, but it's not their fault. Poker is a rich man's game, like golf.
I know there are a lot of talented young players out there. But they can't keep up because they don't have the necessary bankroll to qualify, what with the cost of a whole week of tournaments for example.
Young players don't give a damn about consistency.
I know a lot of talented pros who had to quit because their budget couldn't keep up. Nicolas Babel for example. And then when you get older there's also the family life and everything.
We need big investors, big groups, like they have in soccer, and then maybe poker would take another dimension ...
I'm also disappointed that the tax office are looking into poker. I don't understand why they're getting into this.
I think we already pay enough in rakes or in commissions for the tournaments. They might as well tax lottery players while they're at it.
But the day they decide to come and see me – which I highly doubt since I'm a Moroccan resident – I'll offer them an even better deal.
I'll say that since I'm so good, I offer you to become associates. This way, I don't give you 20% but half of what I win.
We go halfsies. But then you also pay when I lose.
PL: It's not something you talk about often, but you had a good career as a judoka. Can you tell us about it?
RH: Yeah, I was part of the French national team from 1976 to 1982, played 22 international tournaments and got on the podium.
Got to hear the Marseillaise played for me in a few of them. My biggest achievement is beating a Japanese in Paris.
80kgs of bad beats since judo days.
My second biggest achievement is becoming European Champion in the team event in 1981, it was a nice final touch.
My biggest regret is not being able to compete in the 1980 Olympic Games because I was a substitute. A friend of mine, that I had beaten at the French National Championship, went.
That was also unfair. I was very frustrated, which is also why I quit judo, along with a knee injury that forced me to stop.
Not being able to go to the Olympic Games was so frustrating that I made sure I did my best to win that bracelet, so that I could at least forget about my judo-related regrets.
Because you know, you only ever remember the winner. No-one ever remembers the second. If you want to make history, you have to win, there's no room for second best.
I was in the -86kgs, which is the medium weights. Now I've doubled, I weigh 175kgs. That's 80kgs of bad beats right there (laughs).
PL: What did judo bring you as far as your poker career goes?
I think poker is a sport, so clearly judo helped me because you need the qualities of a sportsman.
I'm still as resilient and mentally strong as when I played top-level competitions.
I mean, poker is all about mental strength. Skills are only 10 or 15-20% of the whole thing.
Skills are nothing, and yet that's all people think about. You have to spend hour after hour under attack and you need great physical abilities to endure that.
A light 6-bet with 5-6 is nice, but how many times do they crash and burn?
Sometimes I just bear the brunt for 7 hours without playing. Of course it's humiliating, but I can take it. Can other people?
People think it's just about sitting at a table. No, that's not it.
I often tell young players they want winning to be too easy. All they want are coin-flips that boost them without fighting.
Doing a 6-bet light with 5-6 is nice, but how many times do they crash and burn with that?
When it does work, we say it's genius. But that's not poker. Poker is about learning to read a lot of things.
I've seen abominations around poker tables. Me, I'm trying not to do things like that, and maybe that's why I'm so consistent.
There are stages in a tournament, you can go straight from 500th in the rankings to the first one.
PL: Another sportsmen need is to be able to pick up after a defeat. For you, it'll be right here on Sunday in the Main Event.
RH: Yes, but there is more luck involved in a Main Event than in a tournament with 100 top players where you can really show what you're worth.
More luck in Main Event than 100-player field.
The proof is it's never the same players who win these tournaments year after year.
There's a whole bunch of Internet players who qualified. They didn't exist before, and they won't exist afterwards.
I think Marrakech is the best school of poker. I've improved a lot there because we play for a lot of hours but in different structures and with much higher blinds than in European cash games.
This way the players are much more involved in each hand and we play more hands than they usually do in Europe.
I'm the one who started this format because I thought cash games were rather boring and the stacks were too deep.
PL: How's poker in Morocco?
RH: It's booming, and it's really becoming a big thing.
Marrakech is becoming a poker capital, one of the big destinations for poker, particularly with the Marrakech Poker Open – it's 27th edition will start in a few days.
If we do things right, Marrakech will be like a little Las Vegas in a few years where people will come and spend two weeks playing poker non-stop.
We make a lot of efforts so that people are able to enjoy their passion and have a great time.
Because they shouldn't think about professional poker, it's too hard to become a pro. They need to stop wanking thinking they're gonna quit their job and earn a living playing poker.
Or, like I say to the young Internet guys, that means you're smarter than everyone, the engineers, the architects, the doctors, everyone who spent years studying.
Poker is like a wild animal. It's beautiful to watch, but you shouldn't touch it.
If I have one piece of advice to give people, it's this one: don't go near professional poker.
Don't invest more than you can afford or you'll get your fingers burnt. Let poker be a hobby, a way to meet people and play against them, that's the best part.
Poker is like a wild animal. It's beautiful to watch, but you shouldn't touch it.
PL: What are your plans for the next few months?
RH: I have a lot of plans. I talked with the directors of the Marrakech Casino and I'm going to try to organize the longest tournament ever.
It would last 10 days, with different stages – a bit like satellite tournaments – and would be open to all budgets.
The first day would be €50 and we'd keep 20% of the field at the end of the day. Then Day 2 would be €250 and so on up to €5,000.
And I think we'll put a massive guarantee to attract as many players as possible.
We're going to be preparing that for the next 6-to-8 months, but I think it'll be one of the greatest tournaments in the world, and with different budgets.
There will also be €500 or €600 3-day packages so that players can have a good time even if they don't win.
It'll attract a lot of players and will require perfect organization. I think it'll happen next year.