Unibet Open Tournament Director Kenny Hallaert Has a Passion for Poker

Kenny Hallaert
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  • Unibet Open Tournament Director Kenny Hallaert talks to PokerNews about recent changes on the tour.

Unibet Open Tournament Director Kenny Hallaert has always had a job ever since he started playing poker in 2004. For the last decade, that job has been in the poker industry.

"I have a lot of passion for the game in general; whether it is me playing, or me running events. I enjoy both sides of the table."

"In 2016, I decided to work for the Unibet Open," said Hallaert. "I had an agreement with Unibet the day before I started playing the Main Event. Unibet Open’s Head of Live Events Nataly Sopacuaperu was in Las Vegas during that summer, and we had a final meeting just before I started playing the WSOP Main Event. Then all of a sudden, one week later, I made the final table of the Main Event.

"I never thought about quitting the job," said Hallaert. "I have a lot of passion for the game in general; whether it is me playing, or me running events. I enjoy both sides of the table.

"I have always had a job next to playing poker. For me, I found a good balance in there in life and just in general. Every time I am playing poker I am looking forward to running the next event and every time I am running an event I look forward to playing. Also financially, I have a job and an income that pays the bills and separately I have a poker bankroll ... That also reduces the stress while playing poker."

Passion on the Felt Still Strong

Hallaert’s passion for playing poker hasn’t slowed down since becoming the Unibet Open tournament director.

"I still do find a lot of time to play myself," said Hallaert. "I am currently working exclusively for Unibet, and that means I am running the Unibet Open, which has four stops per year, and a fifth event, which is a regional event in Belgium that will take place next month. So, next to that there is still plenty of time for me to play a little bit of poker myself. Whether that is online or live, I still do find enough time."

For many, it would be easy to quit working a day job after winning seven-figures in the WSOP Main Event, though the thought never crossed Hallaert’s mind. That said, he is now treated differently when battling it out on the felt.

"It happens sometimes where players are looking at me and asking me what the ruling is in a certain spot," Hallaert shared. "When that comes up I tell them that today I am here as a player and not as a tournament director. That I have to respect the rulings that the floor people make. I might not agree on it, but I still have to respect it."

Tournament director Kenny Hallaert at the Unibet Open Bucharest

Hallaert elaborated that tournament directors can look at the same situation differently.

"My experience as a poker player has helped me a lot in my job as a tournament director."

"Sometimes players ask me what I would have ruled, and I will let them know if I might have ruled it differently," Hallaert continued. "It is like any sport with a referee. It is not different than in a basketball game, and one referee might rule a play a foul and another referee might not. We are all still human beings, and not everyone will think exactly the same. Of course, we always try to keep the game integrity as high as possible and take fair play into consideration of every decision."

Hallaert feels his experience on the felt has also helped him as a tournament director.

"My experience as a poker player has helped me a lot in my job as a tournament director because I do play a lot and have spent a lot of time in between poker players," said Hallaert. "So, I kind of know how the players are thinking and when I have to make a ruling my experience as a player helps a lot."

Three Main Event Opening Flights and a Single Reentry

As the Unibet Open Tournament Director, Hallaert has instituted some recent changes including the addition of a third Main Event opening flight and a big blind ante structure in some side events. He also introduced the #QueenRules to the schedule this year.

"We added an extra opening flight to the Main Event with a shorter clock with 20-minute blind levels," Hallaert said. "Players also had the opportunity to reenter but only into that specific flight. So, it’s a maximum of two bullets allowed and the second bullet has to be taken on Day 1c for all players wanting to re-enter the tournament."

The Unibet Open Main Event has historically been a freezeout through its 10-year history. We asked Hallaert whether allowing one reentry for the first time was a step in allowing unlimited reentries in the future.

Luca Vivaldi and Kenny Hallaert
Luca Vivaldi and Kenny Hallaert

"That’s not the plan, but sometimes you adapt to the local market and what the local players want," said Hallaert. "For example, we worked together here with PokerFest, and we have different organizations we work with at different stops. We always try to come to an agreement with what we want and what players want."

Hallaert further elaborated that permitting one reentry is thought of as a compromise to cater to more of its players.

"This is the first time we offer reentry," said Hallaert. "As a player and as an organizer myself I am not a big fan of reentries, but I think this is a good compromise we found. We will always listen to the players and what the players want, but it’s not always what players want that is best for the game. Sometimes the players that are the most vocal are a different group of players that you don’t always hear from on social media and various other channels. We want to protect all players. We want to make sure all players are involved."

Big Blind Ante Structure Introduced at Side Events

Another change to take place at the Unibet Open Bucharest was the introduction of the big blind ante to some events, including the Unibet Open Bucharest High Roller.

"I think in a year from now, all major tournaments will have a single ante structure."

"I’ve played button antes, and I’ve played big blind antes," said Hallaert. "I've talked to other players as well about the differences between the two and comparing them to the regular ante. I think the big blind ante is the best thing to do and the easiest. There is always a big blind, and it is always a different person. For example, when you go to a single ante structure and go to a button ante structure, there is not always a button, and in the rare occasion, there might be someone on the button twice. So, with the big blind ante structure, there is always an ante to play for."

Hallaert also explained that the big blind ante could change the strategy of players, especially in cases when a player is low on chips.

"If you have a button ante and the player on the button has less than one big blind left because he just lost a big pot, the next hand he is forced all in, and he can’t win more than the ante he invested," Hallaert shared. "With the big blind ante, there is a discussion about whether the big blind should be posted first or if the ante should be posted first. Some people think the ante should be posted first, but at this point, I am more of a believer that the big blind should be posted first. So that is still a thing that still might cause debate."

Hallaert strongly believes that in the near future, all major tournaments will adapt to a single ante structure.

"I think in a year from now, all major tournaments will have a single ante structure," he said. "As far as whether it will be a big blind or button ante structure, I think most will adopt a big blind ante structure. I even see the World Series of Poker Main Event next year with a big blind ante structure."

Tournament director Kenny Hallaert
Kenny Hallaert

DeepStack Open and #QueenRules Return

Another change this season was integrating the DeepStack Open into the Unibet Open schedule. This began at the last festival in Malta and continued in Bucharest.

"We want to focus on the quality and not necessarily the quantity of our events."

"We did it the first time in Malta, and we were happy how things went," Hallaert explained. "That is why we immediately decided to do it again for this event. No plans have been made for future Unibet Opens yet. However, it is definitely possible we will continue to integrate the DSO, that is sponsored by Unibet, more into the tour."

Also new this year was the introduction of the #QueenRules event in London. To add to the excitement, poker princess Molly Bloom hosted the tournament. Hallaert shared that its initial success led to expansion.

"We have hosted ladies events before but not with the Queen Rules concept," said Hallaert. "From what I see, the ladies that are playing those events seem happy with the concept. We always plan to create a good atmosphere around it as well. We want to focus on the quality and not necessarily the quantity of our events."

For more on Hallaert be sure to follow him on Twitter @SpaceyFCB.

Tournament director Kenny Hallaert
Kenny Hallaert

*Photos courtesy of Tambet Kask/Unibet Open

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