PokerStars Festival London: Box office Kassouf tops the Friday night bill
This time last year, not a lot of people knew about William Kassouf.
Although the self-styled "king of speech play" had been a vocal presence in London card-rooms for quite some time (and he flickered on to the global stage in a memorable televised encounter with Vanessa Selbst at EPT London) it wasn't until his explosive deep run at the World Series last summer that he found wider fame.
Of course, "infamy" would be closer to the truth, or "notoriety" at least. Kassouf attracted admirers and detractors in roughly equal measure as his run to 17th dominated the summer phase of the biggest tournament in the world.
Even the most ardent anti-Kassouf propagandist must be forced to admit that he offers something that few other poker players manage: box office interest. If Kassouf's name is involved, people watch the clips, they click on the links, they leave comments on forums and social media. Whether that is good for the game or bad for the game is open to debate. But it is a real fact, and the mainstream talked about poker a whole lot more last year than it had for a long, long time.
Last night, as Day 1C of this PokerStars Festival Main Event approached its conclusion, the Kassouf spectacle found a natural audience. They were playing the last five hands of the evening before bagging and tagging took place and Kassouf's table was in the Cocktail Bar area of the Hippodrome, where the music had already been cranked to full volume and Friday night revellers were out in force. People were in town for entertainment, and Kassouf's stage was thereby set.
As I approached, Kassouf was involved in a hand, deeply involved in a hand. For him, that often means standing up, or at least kneeling on his chair, bent precipitously over the table. It means a smile, part joyful, part impudent, like a 9-year-old caught with a contraband cookie in his hand, but gleefully stuffing it in his maw nonetheless, punishment be damned. It also, of course, means talking. He calls it "speech play", plenty of other commentators call it babble. But here's something else that increasingly seems to be true: it works in a whole lot of circumstances. And in this instance it not only won him a huge pot, but it meant that all those spectators had something worth watching.
I only have incomplete information on what had occurred to this point, but Kassouf and Alexandra O'Brien were the players with cards, while barflies bent their midriffs over the rails to get a closer look at the action. The board was out all the way: 9♦7♦Q♦K♠4♥ and all of Kassouf's chips were either in the middle already, or just over the line in front of him as an all-in shove on the river. This was a big pot. There was nearly 200,000 out there.
O'Brien was now faced with a decision, but had to make it while faced with the usual Kassouf verbal barrage. She asked him if he had a set or a flush. Then she said, "Are you lying to me?" Again it was like a parent might grill a child with chocolate smeared around his chops.
"No!" Kassouf insisted, about as innocently as the Artful Dodger. Then in a flash, O'Brien dumped chips over the line, calling him, and Kassouf turned over his cards. "The coconuts," he said.
In this instance, "the coconuts" was A♦2♦ for the flopped nut flush. O'Brien had K♠J♦; she had turned top pair and a flush draw and later admitted to reporters that Kassouf had got into her head. She reportedly said that Kassouf was the one player she had been dreading facing in the tournament, then lo and behold he showed up.
The subsequent chatter among the rail-birds was the most fascinating part of the whole piece. "How does he do it?" one of them said. "How did he get her to call?"
Another friend came around the rail to talk to Kassouf and said, "We all knew what you had, but..." And then he tailed off.
Kassouf sat on his knees, his foot shaking in excitement over the edge of his chair. He was silent and offered neither a faux apology nor a rub-down. He smiled still, but reading it would have been poker anthropomorphism: it might have been guilt, sympathy or plain old wicked glee. There was no way really to tell. Kassouf simply stacked up close to 185,000 chips as O'Brien counted only about 20,000 in front of her. About three minutes earlier, it had been into six figures.
Two hands later, the very last of the night, O'Brien shoved the last of her chips all-in, a four bet after Kassouf opened under the gun to 5,200 and faced a three-bet to 12,300. Kassouf folded to the four bet, but the other player called with 9♠9♦ and beat O'Brien's 8♥4♥.
(O'Brien made the move to allow her either a double or a shot at the Day 1D turbo starting immediately after. She played it but was knocked out.)
Kassouf, meanwhile, finished the day with 178,200 and brought them back to Day 2 today. He settled into a table adjacent to where his friend (and Vegas policeman) Andrew Christoforou was seated. "One day, your luck's going to run out," Christoforou said as they traded early verbal barbs across the room.
As it happened, it was Christoforou whose luck ran out first. He got all his chips in--32,500 to be precise--on a flop of 8♣2♣4♦. "No reads here," he said to his solitary opponent, Constantin Erhan. "I'm desperate for a call."
Erhan did call with A♦2♠. Christoforou's Q♣K♣ was mathematically marginally ahead, but needed to hit. It missed, and Christoforou was out. "Jesus Christ," he said.
But Kassouf is still in the room with a stack to push forward towards the money, most of it gained in that pot against O'Brien. Sooner or later the poker world will either catch on or grow tired. But for the time being, Kassouf is as Kassouf does and tickets are still being sold.
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