Will Kassouf polarised the poker world in 2016 with his verbal prodding and poking at the World Series Main Event. His controversial style of “speech play” prompted debate in all four corners of the poker world, even dividing opinion among the game’s most seasoned veterans. Nearly a year on, we caught up with the man himself in a break at the GUKPT leg in Manchester. Here’s what he had to say…
Since your success at the World Series, have you got used to people recognising your face?
It’s been pretty sick and surreal with all the coverage and everything with the World Series. I knew I made a splash there and made some noise in the World Series Main Event. I didn’t think it would be as big and extensive coverage as it was to be on every single episode of ESPN for the World Series. It’s been sick since then to get all of the coverage that I’ve had and all the views, comments, videos and people talking non-stop around the world. People are telling me I’m the most talked about poker player in the world, so it’s been phenomenal to have that. It’s great but you’ve got to remember your roots and where you came from and the tours that you’ve been on, like the GUKPT here for example: the best run tournament in the country with their blind structure and their pay-out structure.
So yeah, you’ve got to remember where you’re from, I’m never going to stump it off and say, “I’ve won X amount now, I won a million dollars last year so I’m not going to play a 1k comp,” that’s not me at all. I keep my feet firmly on the ground and know where I came from. This is where I started and I’ll still continue to play these great structured competitions. Why not, if there is value to be had? It doesn’t matter if it’s a £10, £100, £1k or £10k comp, if there is value to be had and I’ve won a seat into it, or “get in for the min to get the max” as my motto is, then I’ve got to be in it, why not?
After playing and winning huge sums of money at big tournaments, is it strange playing small £1/2 games?
I think lots of people say it just shows my love for the game and how it is, I’m always going to mix it up with the recreationals, the pros, wherever I feel there is an edge on the poker table or any other cash game and tournament, then I’ll be there. Why not? Why would I sit in a big 25-50 game with some of the best players in poker, at the Vic or wherever I play, just because I’ve got the bankroll to do it or just to be billy big b******* to say, “look I can sit with ten grand in one night”. Why do I need to do that, when I know I’m better than most of the table sitting at 1-2 games, sitting with two, three hundred quid on one night and winning a few hundred quid a night and then going from there, so that’s how I look at it, in for the min to get the max.
Have people tried to play you at your own game, or are you still the same player we saw at the World Series?
I still continue to play my game as it is, as you saw. I have to adjust to every table, every time I play in a different tournament. You have to adjust to every player on the table, that’s what makes a good poker player: being versatile, being able to adjust to the blinds going up, moving table, moving in the big blind, the table breaking etc. You have to be able to adjust in that regard, but I’ve kept my game the same. I haven’t really changed much from what you saw at the World Series: I’ve continued to play the same. It has been tough in some regards, some people are gunning for me a bit more, trying to bluff with “nine-high like a boss”, but it plays into my hands when I do have the hand, because they don’t want to fold to me: they’d rather pay me off than me show them the bluff and say, “look I bluffed with nine-high like a boss.”
“…they’d rather pay me off than me show them the bluff and say, ‘look I bluffed with nine-high like a boss’.”
More fall into the trap of paying me off when I have got a decent hand, so it could work both ways. I don’t mind it, it’s great that I’m getting this publicity exposure and it’s great that I’ve been an inspiration to so many recreational players who look up to me and think wow look what he did, he can do it, he plays 1-2 Hold’em and got to the final two tables, finished 17th out of nearly 7000 players in the world’s biggest tournament. So one: it can be done, and two: the poker dream is still alive, and yeah just mix it up with recreationals, pros, whoever you know just enjoy the game for what it is.
What did it feel like to have players such as Daniel Negreanu supporting your strategy?
It was pretty sick, pretty phenomenal and surreal to get someone like Daniel Negreanu on my side, and I know he’s a big proponent of speech play, or ‘table talk’ as he likes to put it. I love the way he plays his game as well: getting a read of his opponents, talking through hands, talking to your opponent whilst you’re in a hand; so I think that’s a great way to get information from your opponent – it’s an information seeking game at the end of the day. It’s great to have his backing and his support, like him saying it was ridiculous some of the rulings in the World Series during the Main Event, like saying one player per hand and you can’t talk to your opponent once you’ve made a bet. They were making up rules on the fly and he went along with that and said every time the altercation between Jack Effel and Will Kassouf, “Will was right and Jack was wrong”. Which shouldn’t be the case, not one player, whoever he is, should be more correct than the tournament director in the World Series of Poker, regardless of what the situation is. So that’s how ridiculous it was.
That’s why it all got blown up as much as it did because I think a lot of people were fighting my corner, not just to be rebellious or go against the rulings or the TD’s or the officials, just principally out of common sense. What they were saying was wrong, they were making up rules on the fly and I was in the right the majority of the time and seemed to be getting hit left, right and centre with warnings and penalties and what have you. So it’s great to have the support and backing of big names like Daniel Negreanu, it’s phenomenal.
Do you think psychology has become more important than maths in live poker?
I think so, a lot of players have been coming up to me in Malta, in Prague and some of the French guys who are regulars on the EPT Tour – or what was the EPT Tour last year until it finished and it’s now been rebranded – they’re saying what we love about your game, not just the speech play and the fun and, you know, you got under players’ skin, but you found an edge in the game and you exploited that to the max and you brought it to the World Series: the biggest arena and you made the most of it. You got under players skin but you exploited that edge that you found in the game, which is really hard to find in the modern game.
Everyone knows about game 3 and maths and pot odds etc. and implied odds etc. Everyone talks about 3 betting, 4 betting ranges, merging ranges etc. but no-one has explored this avenue: down the path of the whole psychological aspect and getting into your opponent’s mind and out-witting them if you like, and speaking to them across the table. I think that’s a new area that hasn’t been explored so much, so it was something new for everyone to wake up to, something new for the viewers to look at and appreciate in the World Series.
“If you’ve found an edge in the game and you’re playing within the rules, why not exploit it?”
Without trying to blow my own trumpet, they hadn’t seen this before: something new, something unique, and they’re thinking wow, why not? If you’ve found an edge in the game and you’re playing within the rules, why not exploit it? It doesn’t matter if people hate you or berate you for it, or they didn’t like it or it wouldn’t be their cup of tea, so what? If you’re playing within the rules and you’re playing to your strengths, that’s what you’ve got to do – it’s the biggest tournament in the world, the World Series Main Event! It’s not like your local pub poker tournament where people get p***** off if they can’t have an enjoyable Friday night. So in that regard, yeah, a lot of people were backing me and thinking this is a new thing that we’ve never seen before. It’s great to see something new in poker.
It was good not just for the World Series Main Event or that coverage, or me in particular, but it was great that people outside poker were suddenly talking about poker. Like that moment with me and Griffin Benger and the whole bust up. It wasn’t just the whole aces vs kings hand, the cooler, 18th / 17th place in the main event; they’re looking at the bigger picture, a clash of two big personalities going at it, going to war basically in a big arena: the biggest arena of poker. And that’s what made for great TV. It’s bigger than just the hand; the hands play themselves, it’s an absolute cooler. It’s great to see two personalities clash and people talking about something new, even outside the poker world. So it’s great for poker overall.
What was it like bumping into Griffin Benger again?
Yeah it was a bit strange. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since the World Series. I didn’t really go up to him or shake his hand or anything like that, it wasn’t a formal meet and greet. I happened to stumble across him: I was walking through the bar area speak to one of my friends and he happened to be sitting on the sofa area. I think he was quite drunk at the time because he busted earlier from the Unibet Main Event day one. He was drinking at the time and he just jumped out and said, “how many miles, Will Kassouf, how many miles”. Like referring to my thing, how many miles from here to Hollywood. So it was all done in good spirit and everything, laugh it off, but it felt a bit uncomfortable him being there and I thought, you know, maybe he’d want to be a bit apologetic.
“I think he’s a lot more in the wrong than I am, and if anyone has got to apologise, it’s him to me rather than me to him”
I think a lot of people were calling for him to apologise to me for his outburst, the way he reacted/overreacted based on just what he was told about me, which was false: that I berated a woman to tears, which never happened, which was the reason for his outburst, so I think he regretted that. But instead of apologising, I think he tried to make it more comical and when I was walking away he said, “oh check your privilege” and “come back here” shouting across the cardroom, which was a bit embarrassing.
But it is what it is and I took it with a pinch of salt, I’m not one to hold grudges or, you know, let anyone get under my skin or anything like that. Then I’d feel like they’ve won in that regard, so I’ve let it go, whatever it is, everyone’s got their own opinion of it and everyone’s seen it. I think he’s a lot more in the wrong than I am, and if anyone has got to apologise, it’s him to me rather than me to him, so yeah, I took it with a pinch of salt but it was a bit uncomfortable.
What advice would give to someone starting out in poker today?
I’d say play within your means, try and plug any weaknesses that you have, improve your game, just play solid and try to get a profile of every player on your table: who is playing loose, passive, tight, aggressive etc., pick your spots wisely and try and play more in position. Position is key in poker, more than just playing your hand. Think more about what the opponents are doing in the pot, rather than just playing ABC, looking at your hand and looking on the board. Think about what your opponent is doing in the pot: why is he checking? Why is he raising? Why is he betting? What kind of holding does he have? It’s important to put your opponent on a hand rather than just playing ABC, looking at your hand, looking what’s on the board and just going with it.
I always say this in tournament poker especially, that if you shove all in, what is your opponent likely to call you by? Half the time he’s only going to call you if he’s got you beat, so where is the value in shoving? You have got to ask all those questions to yourself in terms of what kind of holding you have, what kind of holding your opponent has, what he’s doing in the pot, what does he want you to do and you’ve got to do the opposite. That’s where my speech play comes in, to try and get information from my opponent, which is the idea of the game. Everyone has got their own style of playing, I’m not saying its everyone’s cup of tea or everyone’s style to do that, but I think find your own style of playing, be comfortable with it, try and improve your game and the results will follow.
Would you advise someone starting out in poker to look into the psychological aspects of the game, more so than maths?
Potentially yeah, I think look at both. I think to be a great poker player you’ve got to be an all-rounder: you can’t just have this one strength in one big part of the game and be really weak in the others. I think you’ve got to be an all-rounder. Know your maths, you’ve got to know about pot odds. You can’t just do speech play blindly and have the psychology aspect thinking “I don’t need any maths” or vice versa, or just have the maths and not get involved with the psychological aspect.
I think the psychological aspect definitely plays a big part in the game, especially in live poker games: playing against eight other physical human beings on the poker table, rather than sitting behind a computer screen and clicking on a mouse button; no disrespect to people who play online. But I think the majority of people are brought up playing more online, that’s why they’re used to the whole maths induced kind of game with the pot odds and implied odds etc. and game theory. Because they don’t have the chance or opportunity to come to a local casino, they may not have a cardroom where they can play. It’s easy to flip open your laptop in your boxer shorts, in your bedroom, and just play online and I think that’s where the majority of people start out playing.
“Poker needs characters at the end of the day and especially in live poker, so just enjoy it for what it is, win or lose, always walk away with a smile on your face and live to fight another day”.
People will learn obviously in their late teens and early twenties that they’ll play more online, I think just to get used to the game, get into the game playing for like pennies and cents, literally 5-10 cents or whatever, just to get to grips with the game. So I think that’s where the majority of people start off with the whole maths and the whole game theory, and you know three-betting, four-betting merging, and all this kind of talk they hear all the time in poker articles. Not many people talk about the whole psychological aspect of the game, where they may not have had that much exposure or experience playing in the live tournament circuit in the UK, or around the world, or wherever else they play.
So I think it’s a new avenue to be explored, I think you’ve got to be an all-rounder and have both sides to your game, but yeah, I’d certainly approve of anyone who would want to go into the whole psychological aspect and do speech play, I’m all for it, go for it, why not? Poker needs characters at the end of the day and especially in live poker, so just enjoy it for what it is, win or lose, always walk away with a smile on your face and live to fight another day.