I personally don't know James Akenhead, but I do know a few of his HitSquad buddies and if he is anything like them he must be a decent chap. Generally speaking I hate it when anybody who isn't me guarantees themselves at least 1 million dollars with the prospect of many many more, but when I switched on my PC on Thursday morning to look at the Pokernews Live Updates from the Main Event, I instantly did a double fist pump in celebration when I saw Akenhead's name on the November Nine list (Followed by a 'nice' when I saw he would be joined by Phil Ivey).
Why was I so pleased at the news that someone I don't know has reached the promise land of poker?
Because this could be one of the best things to happen to poker in the UK in years.
Whatever you think about the concept of the WSOP Final Table delay, there is no doubt that it is the best thing since sliced bread for the nine players who are being forced to wait for 4 months. The endorsement deals alone are worth millions and I wager a few players will make more money away from the table than they do come November when the cards are in the air. Akenhead, who all but looks like he will be a fully fledged Full Tilt Poker Pro by the time the final comes around will almost certainly be set for life no matter where he comes on the day.
The Hit Squad (The plucky young group of players he belongs to which include Sunny & Charles Chattha, Praz Bansi and Karl Mahrenholz) are one of the most successful and likeable bunch of lads out there. With bracelets, GUKPT titles and more final tables than you can shake a stick at between them, they are very likely to become big household names and will be great ambassadors for the game. I'm expecting to see more sponsorship deals being signed, as well as the Hendon Mob being given a run for their money in the top UK poker group stakes.
But what we really want to see is UK poker getting recognition in the mainstream press and now could be the time. This was the best year ever for the UK at the WSOP with JP Kelly, John Kabbaj and Roland De Wolfe all winning bracelets (The latter of course taking down the poker triple crown in the process) and now with one of our own at the final table of the big one, now is a great time for the national press, the BBC, Sky Sports, Richard & Judy and more mainstream outlets getting behind poker in a big way.
Akenhead himself seems an ideal candidate to widen the appeal of poker to the masses. A young intelligent guy, he seems wise beyond his years with a level head on his shoulders. He was already being tipped for great things by his peers and those that have played with him consider him to be something of a genius 'Stu Unger' type of player.
It sucks that he goes back to Vegas with the short stack, but this might actually really help the UK public get behind him. Its well documented that the British love an underdog (in fact, the less likely they are to win the better usually) – not to compare Akenhead with Eddie the Eagle Edwards because he is just a few double ups from being a real contender for the title, but the odds stacked against him will really endear him to a lot of casual spectators in the UK.
It helps too that Phil Ivey, the Tiger Woods of poker, is sat at the same table, making the task seem even more impossible for James. This also guarantees that anyone with even a passing interest in poker worldwide will be watching this final table, which means that Akenhead will be watched on the most view poker final table in history.
The presence of both Ivey and Akenhead at the table will certainly help the 'skill vs luck' debate that poker is always linked with. Phil Ivey is regarded by almost everybody in the poker community as the greatest player of all time, and here he is with two bracelets and the main event final table to boast in 2009 alone. Akenhead was at the top of just about every UK players top 5 list to do big things at this series, especially after coming so close to a bracelet last year, and here we were all vindicated when he made the final table of the biggest event in poker.
UK poker really needs a shot in the arm right now, especially after the issues Dusk Till Dawn are facing and the ludicrous live poker revenue tax that all legal poker venues in UK are subject to. If James Akenhead can catapult himself into the public eye and become the poster boy of UK poker, it might just be start of a second poker boom in the UK that will benefit all of us.
Even if he busts out on the very first hand, James Akenhead should be monumentally proud of what he has achieved at the World Series this year and we might all owe him a pint if he can do anything to get poker out there to the masses in the UK. We have thoroughly enjoyed following him the main event here at UK Pokernews and are even more excited to see what the next 4 months will bring for James and the rest of the HitSquad.
Now just imagine if he actually went and won it............