In the years just before the Moneymaker Boom, a group of four pals from London proved that poker players had the potential to become stars.
Barny Boatman joined his brother Ross Boatman, along with friends Ram Vaswani and Joe Beevers, to form the Hendon Mob — a feared foursome who convened in a now famous private game before bringing the power of poker to the general public in fine fashion.
Boatman and his Hendon Mob cronies were among the motley crew of card sharps who helped make up the original cast of Late Night Poker, a British television series which aired between 1999 and 2002, foretelling the eventual popularity to come by utilizing hole card cameras and a colorful crew of characters.
Along with inimitable figures from the felt like Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott, Surindar Sunar, and Simon Trumper, Boatman and the Hendon Mob made poker cool for an entire generation of British fans of the series, and while the show ended in 2002, Boatman's love of poker never faded.
He began coming to the World Series of Poker in 1999, and after making a deep run in the Main Event the following year en route to a 16th-place finish, he's been back every year since. Despite recording 28 cashes over that span, including numerous close calls and a runner-up finish in a $2,000 pot-limit hold'em event, a gold bracelet had eluded Boatman's grasp until last year — when he won a $1,500 no-limit hold'em event for $546,080 and the biggest score of his career.
After finally making the bracelet breakthrough every veteran looks forward to, Boatman is back this year looking to win another — something he very nearly did in the Event #28: $10,000 Pot-Limit Hold'em Championship, where he made the final table before bowing out in ninth place.
Boatman took some time during the dinner break during his title defence in Event #55: $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em to talk with PokerNews about his first WSOP, the changes he's seen in the series since then, and the beauty of winning his first bracelet.
PokerNews: Tell us about your introduction to the World Series of Poker.
The first year I came to Vegas was actually… I don’t even know what year it was, but I came with my brother Ross, and what had happened was we were on a bit of a trip. We had started out by going to New Orleans, and we arrived but the place we were supposed to stay had been burned down. It was a squat, you know? We got there and they were all waiting with baseball bats, waiting for the people who guys who had gone and burned their place to come back. It was during Mardi Gras, so it was pretty hard to get a place. Finally we found a $5 room at a flophouse, but we had a great time.
Then we flew across to L.A. and we finished up in Vegas. The idea was we were going to spend like a day in Vegas and then drive down to Mexico. That was the plan, but we sat down in this game at the Plaza — sat down in this hi-low game — and they started comping us and everything. We didn’t know about that stuff back then, so we thought we were really something special. So we had the cheapest little room downtown, but we never used it. We just sat in this game for like three days. Which ate right into our Mexico time, but by the end of the three days we had lost what little we had. We had no money at all, and went back to the parking place to pick our car up, but there was a fee to pay. We said "listen we’ve got no money," so the guard phones whoever up and says "'I’ve got these two English guys here… OK, not worth the hassle, right (laughs).'" It was like we’d come in with all these dreams of riches, and we left broke and not worth the hassle.
But anyway, we’d had fun and we’d got a bit of a taste of it, yeah? I mean we did play poker but we weren’t tournament players, but I came back again, actually during the World Series in 1998, which would’ve been three years later. I used to play in my local card room and they had points for the people who done best in tournaments or whatever, and the one who had done best won this trip [to the World Series], and that was me. So I came out, but I didn’t really have any money so I just sort of scratched around in cash games, soaked in the atmosphere. I saw Telly Savalas sitting at the table, so I was really excited about that, and I sort of checked out the Main Event area. I couldn’t believe it when I saw a couple of people that I actually knew playing a $10,000 event, I didn’t understand where any of them had got $10,000 you know?
PokerNews: When did you get into the action yourself?
The following year I drove up, again I think Ross and I were in L.A., and I played the $200 super satellite. I got into the Main Event, and I remember being with my friend Pascal Perrault, who’s a French player, and we’d both won seats. We celebrated winning our seats to the Main Event as if we had won the $1 million... it was the most exciting thing to imagine that I was in it. The guy that knocked me out was someone I played with every night at Victoria Casino… I was like "Christ, I’ve come all this way and I get knocked out by a guy from down the road (laughs)." So that was kind of annoying.
PokerNews: Your first taste of success on the WSOP stage came back in 2000, when you cashed twice and made a deep run in the Main Event. What memories do you have of that experience?
The following year, again I came with very little money, a couple thousand dollars at most. So I played satellites and won enough to play one other event prior to the Main Event, which was the $3,000 no-limit. I actually got to the last two tables and got into the money, and got unlucky in fact. So sat down for the Main Event very, very confident, and on Day 1… you started with 10,000 chips in those days, so I was like "wow, 10,000 chips, what are you gonna do with 10,000 chips? Christ almighty!" You’ve just got all day to wait, but I played quite a few hands actually — it’s not my style to wait for aces (laughs). It was slog the first day and I finished with 14,000, but I picked up on Day 2 and started to motor along.
PokerNews: Was there a particular moment where the gravity of the situation occurred to you? Competing for a World Championship against the game's greatest players must have been a thrill, especially for your first time out.
I actually sat down next to Phil Hellmuth. He was sitting on my right, and I played a lot of hands with him. Finished up by knocking him out (laughs). Carlos Mortensen was at my table… [there were] a lot of people who are now well known. I had decent chips when we got to the bubble, but I really spanked the bubble. Talking to guys on the side of me, "oh, we just need to make the money, get a cash," so for about 45 minutes to an hour I was raising every pot. By the time we’d got into the money I was chip leader in the tournament. These bookies in London make me favourites to win, so it was really exciting.
PokerNews: Are there any critical hands from your Main Event run that still haunt you?
I continued to be one of the top two in chips for a long time, but I got moved to a table where I had Hasan Habib on my right. And Habib was opening a lot… he was doing what I’d been doing. Actually, it was a perfect position for me: I’ve got him on my right, I can play back at him when I want. So it was actually great, but I wasn’t that experienced then I guess. I kind of felt like I needed to play pots with him in position to try and get him under control sort of, and I got into a big pot with him where I knew he had nothing… but I only had ten-high. On the river I made a big bet, and actually I had him completely right. He’d raised in position with seven-four off, and I’m there with like five-ten.
To cut a long story short, on the river he’s caught a four, and he called the big bet because he’s worked out exactly what I’m doing. This was an extremely costly pot, and of course, [for] all the U.K. players it’s the only hand they talked about. It was all this "well if I had all them chips I wouldn’t have bluffed them off, right, I would’ve won blah, blah, blah." All these people that never had them kind of chips (laughs). But Habib still jokes about it now… he thinks it’s hilarious.
But I was obviously gutted to go from having been chip leader for a huge part of the tournament — from when we got into the money until it got down to the last two tables — and [then] I finished up like 16th or something. We actually went to the craps table, and my forty grand didn’t last five minutes because I’d gone to the Golden Nugget. The Golden Nugget probably made more money on the World Series than Binion’s ever did (laughs). I’d came with like $1,000 and left with $900 or something like that, but I’d been the chip leader, and by then I had a taste for it.
PokerNews: What was that time in WSOP history like for the players, with the close confines and old casinos of downtown Las Vegas setting a much different scene than the Rio and the nearby Strip?
I used to get lost in Binion’s because I was just so disoriented, and I wandered around. I actually got mugged one night coming back from the Strip. It was a bit rough, but it was always very exciting to be there. I didn’t go to sleep the whole time I was in that tournament. Everybody… at the end of each day, there was bar at Binion’s that we used to call the Irish Bar, because all the Irish players were always there. I kind of carried myself as Irish, I always have done that (laughs). We’d drink at the end of the day and talk about the hands, and I remember a really good Irish player, he was giving me tips because we’d be coming back to play into the money the next day. He said "use T.J. [Cloutier] as an anchor," and I just like nodded my head [thinking] "what does he mean use him as an anchor?" But I didn’t want to ask him what he meant, so I was just like "yeah, yeah… that’s right!" (laughs).
It was so different. Obviously the fields were much smaller in those days, and we knew all of the European players. We felt a real affinity, usually with the Brits and the Irish, but actually with the Germans and the French. It was like it was us against the Americans. I was very close with Pascal, a couple of the other French players… Bruno Fitoussi. Julian Gardner was a good mate. And of course, we were the Hendon Mob, you know? We had Ross and I, and Ram and Joe, so we had our little group when we went out.
They loved poker players back at Binion’s. There was this fantastic buffet, and my eyes used to pop out of my head. I’d never seen anything like it, piles of prawns and stuff like that, so it was worth the buy-ins just for that (laughs). We used to stay at Binion’s which was, you know… the rooms were like a pit. So we’ve got these tiny little rooms and this tiny little pool on the roof, so I used to go up there every day. There was nobody ever up there, and you’d do these laps that were like one stroke. When we went up a bit in the world we started staying at the Nugget, and I actually got comped there a lot off the back of losing all that money on the craps tables (laughs).
PokerNews: So you're prize for cashing in the Main Event was really just a free room at the Golden Nugget?
Well, basically, yeah... (laughs). That, and a permanent taste for the Main Event, which I've never missed since.
PokerNews: You made another deep run in the Main Event the following year, finishing 33rd in 2001 for a $30,000 score. What did the consecutive impressive performances mean to you, and how did that compare to your first crack at a World Championship?
The following year when I came back, I was highest finishing British player in the Main Event again, and again I only played satellites, [and] only played that event and focused on that. My first WSOP tournament was in 1999, the second was the $3,000 event I cashed in, and then the Main Events. By then I had a taste for it, and in 2002 I came and played more events, but mostly in those years before the Full Tilt deal, it was a really case of coming out to try and get into the Main Event. Specifically the Main Event. I’ve only cashed in the Main Event three times I think, but since I last cashed in it I’ve made so many deep runs. I always go into that event full of optimism. I still feel that way this year. I feel I’ve played well, and I’m excited you know? I’m always excited about the Main Event.
PokerNews: Does playing in the Main Event still feel the way it once did back at Binion's, as far as on the felt dynamics and strategic approach?
The old days at Binion’s were… like a lot of people my generation, really, I think that that’s been the real World Series in a way. It was all a bit rough around the edges, and more romantic somehow. It’s more corporate now I suppose, isn’t? But the truth is, every year you come here they get a little bit better at most things. To be really honest, it’s a better tournament now than it was then… a way better tournament. Certainly back then everyone who played was a player, and obviously the standard level of play now isn’t as high. And actually, my style was pretty different than to anybody’s style that I knew about, and much more like a lot people play now. That’s one of the reasons I kind of got criticized — sometimes I’d roll over like seven-eight suited or whatever in situations where people thought, because of the preflop action, that I must have kings or queens.
Now obviously the truth is all sorts of things can happen. You get pressured into making mistakes, you can lose flips, set over set, you can miss draws, people can make reads against you… but you get so long to play. It’s a long time — normally for me it’s a long time — in any tournament before I’m all in and on their backs. I try to avoid that, you know, unless I’ve got the guy right by the balls. It comes eventually, but you hope to be really deep by the time it does.
But it’s a better tournament now because [for one thing] it’s huge. There are all these people. You find these kind of “bucket list” players, and you can kind of recognize who the good players are at the table a few minutes in. That’s what this game’s all about though, isn’t it? Adjusting to the other players. And since they tripled the stack the edge that you have, if you are a relatively good player, is so much higher. Since they tripled the stack I think with the exception of last year I’ve been to Day 4 with big stacks, but I usually go out like 100 before the money, anyway (laughs).
PokerNews: One change the WSOP has seen in recent years is the willingness to tinker with the schedule, and additions like the Monster Stack tournament have proven quite popular with amateurs and pros alike. You played that event — how did your Monster Stack debut go?
I was kind of one hand away, one bad beat away from going back to Day 2 in this Monster Stack. Now see, that kind of felt a lot like the Main Event. It really has that feel to it. The way they handled the number of players they got in that Monster Stack — they adjusted and they accommodated… it was brilliant.
PokerNews: How did it feel to finally win that elusive first bracelet after first coming to the World Series 15 years ago?
If anything, I’m even more in love with the World Series now because of last year. For the first time in a long I’m playing more events this year, probably more than the previous four series put together. I think I’ve got a real chance. It’s like, wow… it can happen to me. I’ve had one of those poker careers, where people would always tell you how unlucky they are and this, that, and the other. I don’t think I’m unlucky. I think I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I’ve always been able to come here and play, I’ve had some great deals, made great friends… but I’ve certainly been unlucky in major events, and that kind of stuff happens to everyone. But it really did feel like it was always going to happen to me, like I was never going to run good through a major tournament. So it was a real monkey off my back with this one, now I really believe, I come here really believing and expecting.
I made a final table this year, and I really thought I was going to do it… it was great. One of the nicest things for me about that tournament actually was I was sat next to John Juanda all day for Day 2, and he’s one I really respect, and he told me "I thought you played awesome." And that was like a bracelet in itself wasn’t it?