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Best of the British Isles: Alex "Kanu7" Millar; High Stakes Cash Game Specialist

Alex Millar

In recent editions of The Best of the British Isles features, we have showcased some of the very best tournament players from our shores. Tournament players get all the glory, but it is often cash game players who are raking in the cash day in, day out. One such cash game player is Alex Millar, better-known as "Kanu7" on PokerStars and "IReadYrSoul" on Full Tilt Poker.

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak to us today, Alex. For people at home who do not follow high sakes online poker action, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hey, no problem. I live in Bristol, I'm 28 and I've played online poker for a living for the last 6 years or so since graduating from Warwick Uni with a degree in Engineering. I currently play a mix of HU and 6max NLHE at the highest stakes online, although I'm probably better known for my HU results over the last few years.

I believe you got into poker while studying at Warwick University. Tell us what first got you into poker and how your love of the game progressed from there.

I started out playing with my brothers for fun with no money involved after watching some poker on TV and liking the look of it. That was in the summer holidays after my second year of uni. When I got back, one of my house mates had been watching some poker on TV as well so we played a bit against each other and set up play money accounts online and started to play there as well. One day, my house mate came in and said he'd deposited some money and won $50 in half an hour. I used to usually beat him so I thought in that case I had better get involved with this as well! Unfortunately for him, after another half an hour he had lost it all but luckily it went a bit better for me.

From then I just played mainly freerolls to $5 tourneys for fun throughout my 3rd year of uni and made a few hundred bucks, which I was really happy with. In the 4th year I decided to go to the University Poker Society and there I met some people who were playing mid stakes cash online and I realised that you could make quite a bit of money if you were good so that inspired me to take it a bit more seriously. Still though, throughout my 4th year, I mainly stuck to low buy-in tourneys and sit 'n' gos before starting to play a bit of 50NL cash towards the end of the year having built up a bankroll of $2-3k from my tourneys.

Players such as former EPT San Remo champion Rupert Elder and EPT Loutraki champion Zimnan Ziyard both studied at Warwick. Is there a big poker community there? Is it just coincidence you three made it into poker’s big time or did the poker community there aid your progression?

It definitely helped to have other people around who played at a reasonable level. I got advice about bankroll management as well as being able to post hands that I played on the Warwick poker soc forums and getting feedback on how to improve so that gave me a nice start to my career. I don't know what it's like these days, but I think when I was there it was the best university poker soc around (nothing to do with me, I was terrible back then!).

You started playing low stakes SNG and switched to cash games and then grinded your way up to the high stakes games. What was the main reason for the change? Time constraints? Did you enjoy cash more?

Mainly taking inspiration from the guys beating mid-stakes cash. It seemed that cash was the best way to make good money. Also I probably just enjoyed it more once I started playing, I ran good to start with which always helps.

Did you manage to finish your studies? When did you decide to turn pro in this crazy game?

Yeah I did a 4 year undergraduate masters and got a 2:1, I was planning to take a fairly normal route afterwards. I still only had a bankroll of $3k or something when I finished uni so poker as a full time job wasn't really what I expected to do. I didn't really know what I did want to do though, I saw a job as a business analyst at Capital One which looked pretty good, very nice starting salary, seemed to be a good balance between working and actually having time outside of work etc so I applied to that and got to the final interview day, but then messed up 1 of the 4 interviews that day. They said that since I passed all the tests, if I was to reapply and do that interview better I would very likely get the job so I decided to take a year out to play poker and then reapply for the job for the next year. I did that and got the job second time round but by the time it came to accept the job, I had moved up from $0.5/1 to $10/20 and had made 6 figures from poker in less than a year starting from a few thousand so it seemed pretty clear that I could make a lot more money playing poker than I would in the job so I turned it down and kept playing.

Which players or non-players has had the biggest positive influence on your career so far?

There are a lot who have had an influence. Back when I was still at uni, the poker soc veterans were really good in offering advice to anyone who wanted it so I learned a lot there. After uni I started watching CardRunners videos and that really gave me the basics of a good 6max game which I built on as I moved up through the stakes so I would have to credit a lot of that to Taylor Caby, Cole South and the other guys making videos at the time. Then I spoke about poker a lot with some other guys from Warwick uni who I am still good friends with who were playing similar or higher stakes to me at the time. My old house mate Simon Pearson introduced me to game theory and a different way to think about poker and that helped to set me on the path to the style that I play today.

How does a typical day pan out like for you? Do you have a set routine you like to adhere to?

A standard day will be to get up, have a shower, open up the sites while I eat breakfast and then play poker all day when I can get action/work on my game when I can't until I go to bed. I'll break that up by playing football once or twice a week, the odd trip to the gym and going out with friends etc. I tend to go through phases in terms of how hard I am working. If the games are good or I have some work that I can do on my game that I think will help me to improve a lot then I will go through periods of working 60 hour+ weeks but if action isn't great and things are just plodding along a bit then I might go through a week or 2 of not working all that much at all.

These days my work ethic is pretty good, there are lots of challenges out there at the moment. Recently I have been playing in some $400/800 deep ante 6max games where the minimum buy-in is $120k and before that I hadn't really played all that much 6max in a couple of years so I had to do a lot of thinking about 6max and the differences between that and HU as well as playing quite a lot whenever I got the chance to practice so I have been busy.

Being one of the best in the world, is it hard to get a game in the world of high stakes heads-up cash games?

It was very difficult for a period of time. There were only maybe 2 or 3 people in the world who would give me regular HUNL action which was pretty much all I was playing and those 2 or 3 guys were probably better than me so that doesn't lead to very good results! Right now I could probably actually get more action than I could have done a few months ago. There's a few guys who have been doing well and would be up for playing against me but I have switched my focus to 6max entirely for the last couple of months because the action there has been so good so I don't feel very motivated to play HU at the moment. I always like to give my best and I don't really see the point in playing some guy for a few hours when I know that I've not been working on my HU game for a while and I'm not going to be in the next few weeks. It just feels like a waste of time when I could have spent the time improving my 6max game for the big games that are often running. I'm sure I'll be back to playing more HU before too long though so hopefully I will have a few people willing to play me when that happens.

Phil Galfond has been outspoken about the bumhunting (only playing weaker players and avoiding solid ones) situation in high stakes games. What measures would you put in place to help rectify the situation.

Actually, PokerStars have done a great job with dealing with it in 6max games. Now there is only 1 non-running table per limit which 2 players can sit at to wait for a 6max game to start. If someone else joins then the game either has to start or someone has to leave. This has made playing 6max a much better option than it used to be for someone who just wants to play. A big part of the reason I stopped playing much 6max for a long time was that there would just be a load of players sitting at loads of tables, sitting out waiting for someone they perceive to be a fish to sit and then the game instantly starts and there are 10 people on the wait list. Unless you had some auto seating software or were prepared to sit there staring at the lobby all day then you would just miss most of the games that started.

PokerStars have recently been polling opinion about a solution for bumhunting in HU games as well and they hope to introduce a solution for that before too long which I am also looking forward to. I think it's really important to have an online poker site be a friendly environment for everybody to play. If the vast majority of people are all playing each other and trying to beat everyone then that gives a much better experience for a recreational player who wants to join in and test themselves against the pros than having them login to find 100 people all waiting separately specifically for someone like them to sit and then having a mad scramble from those 100 people to be the one to take your money. That's no fun for the recreational player and no fun for any pros who just want to play poker. Luckily on the major sites things are moving in the right direction these days in terms of getting rid of these guys who don't play except when they are aggressively hunting recreational players.

Bankroll management is very important to a poker player. What bankroll strategy would you advise up and coming poker players to use?

When I was coming up I used a 50 buy-in bankroll so when I had $10k I would take a 10 buy-in shot at 200nl and then move back down if my roll went below $8k and grind back up to $10k at 100nl. That was probably OK given that I had a big edge on the games back then. A lot of people these days are much tighter with their bankroll management and maybe 100 buy-ins might be a better idea? It varies case by case though based on winrate, risk tolerance and ability to move down when your shot doesn't work without getting too tilted etc.

I also used to go through a moving up stage between some limits where I would start by playing my normal stake and then if I couldn't find enough good tables I would start to look for the odd good table at the limit above and then gradually move more and more towards playing more of the higher limit and less of the lower one. That helped make the transitions smoother I think. It depends what stakes you are at though, at low stakes it may be the case that you can always find enough good action at whatever limit you play so a straight up 10-20 buy-in shot when you reach a certain bankroll may be best.

Variance is something budding poker players struggle to deal with. What’s your biggest upswing/downswing (feel free to mention BB instead of $).

That's ok, it feels kind of pointless to try to hide the size of upswings/downswings etc these days since you can just look on HSDB and get a pretty good idea anyway. I actually just had a protracted $2m downswing at the tables going from near the end of last year to the end of June this year. I didn't play a huge amount of hands over that period and a lot of it was at 300/600+ so in terms of buy-ins and number of hands it lasted it was a very standard downswing but obviously it doesn't feel so great when you are not getting much action at all and then losing that much when you do. I've just had a great run from the end of June till now (4th Sept) though and won it all back plus some more which is very nice (although give it another couple of days of 400/800 games and who knows where the total will be!).

The swings are actually not quite as crazy as they sound there from a personal point of view because I sell a lot of action for the highest stakes games so a decent amount of the $2m downswing was other peoples money as was a lot of the upswing I have had after it. It doesn't feel great at all losing other people's money though and it was still a lot of my own money so I'm very pleased that the upswing arrived! Other big downswings include well over half my roll being trapped on Full Tilt when it got shut down, which happened right after a big downswing at the tables so I lost a huge % of my net worth in a short space of time and had to move down a lot to grind it back up. By the time Full Tilt came back I had got my roll back up to more than it was before Black Friday and with the Full Tilt money coming back to me as well that was a pretty nice upswing. Then I promptly lost most of my Full Tilt money I got back playing Isildur at 300/600 HU lol. I think the biggest downswing I have had in terms of buy-ins is about 80 buy-ins.

How do you deal with the swings of high stakes cash? When you’re losing do you go over hand histories and things like that? What about when winning, how do you keep your feet on the ground?

I've been doing it for years now so you do get used to it to an extent. These 400/800 games recently have been another step up in terms of the silly money that changes hands though. It's pretty crazy when the difference between winning and losing a pot can be an amount of money with which you could buy a house.

When I'm losing I'll try to do stuff to remind myself that overall things are looking good so I'll look at my graph for the year (not much comfort there for most of this year lol) or my lifetime graph and then you see other downswings that were massive at the time and see how insignificant they look over the span of an entire career and that helps to give you a better overall perspective. Also thinking about other good things in your life or even just sitting down with some food after a bad session and watching something good can help to snap you out of that "everything's against me" type mindset that it can be very easy to get into when you have just sat there for 10 hours concentrating intensely on playing as well as you possibly can and you have just been absolutely shat on at every opportunity for the 5th day in a row.

I don't really have much problem with keeping my feet on the ground when I win. If I have a big win I usually feel pretty happy (although often pretty tired too if I've just played a long day) but then still sit there with some food and watch something good and then head to bed. So I'm not really finishing up a good session and then going crazy about it, I know that the next day I could lose a load so I just keep trying to work hard and hope the good run continues. I do find it hard to put in long hours to improve my game when I'm winning though. I'm pretty competitive so if I am losing I will be very determined to find out why and turn it around but if I am already winning, I'm not very good at squeezing out every bit of edge I can. It's something I try to work on although I think as a general attitude in life it works pretty well for me.

Yourself aside, who would your rank as the top 3 players you regularly come across.

For NLHE HU, off the top of my head I guess I might rate Douglas "WCGRider" Polk, Ben "sauce123" Sulsky and Isaac Haxton as the three best players in the world right now (not sure in what order). I also haven't played a ton of HU recently so I could be wrong and there are definitely guys like Daniel "Jungleman" Cates who could very reasonably argue for a place in the top 3. I also could be forgetting someone. I think Ben and Doug might be playing a grudge match of sorts with a six-figure side bet some time soon so that might provide more insight as to who is the best.

I believe you’re a Manchester United supporter, is David Moyes the right man for the job? What do you think about the signing of Marouane Fellaini?

I was actually pleased to see him get the job, I think what Utd need is some stability for the future so I was happy he got the job rather than someone with a track record of frequently moving clubs. Hopefully Moyes will develop the club for the long term like Fergie did rather than just focus on instant success like most clubs do. I find it interesting how there is so much money in football yet in general clubs are run so awfully with the boards constantly hiring and firing managers, often having to pay them millions to leave despite the fact that their next manager will probably just be someone who is about as good as the last guy they had and who recently got fired by some other club the first time he hit a bad run. We should get the football chairmen to play some poker to understand variance a bit and then maybe they could go through some standard runs of running below expectation without firing the manager every time!

I'm really unsure on Fellaini, interested to see how he does. I'm not overly excited about it but he might prove a decent addition to the team. It's Moyes' first transfer window though so I'm OK with it, it must be tempting to just go and blow through a load of money buying random players to make his own mark on the squad but I think it is probably better to make the transition as smooth as possible and then to have him start to take things in his own direction once he really gets a feel for what the club needs once he has been in the job a bit longer. This season might not be the best but hopefully the fans and board give him some time to settle in and keep the long-term success going.

Keep your eye out for Millar at the high stakes cash games and for that Sulsky versus Polk grudge match that Millar mentioned. That should be epic!

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