PokerStars Festival London: Snooker great Hendry trades pots for pots
The PokerStars Festival London this week has in its midst a player who is accustomed to performing wonders in a theatrical location, but who is not by profession an actor.
Throughout the 1990s, Stephen Hendry made a second home of the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, where he won a record seven World Snooker titles and, in the process, changed the game forever. The Hippodrome Casino, which is hosting this £990 poker tournament, is also repurposed theatre. Now Hendry is chancing his legendarily smooth arm in this new high-pressure environment.
Hendry isn't under any illusions as to his chances in this event--"I find it very difficult to play the same way at poker as I do at snooker, I must admit," he says--but he also sees obvious similarities between the discipline that made him a household name in the UK and the pursuit that has brought more than 700 people to the casino this week.
"At the top level, dedication is imperative in both," the 48-year-old says. "They're individual sports, both of them. You have to spend hours, in snooker, honing your technique so it's repetitive, so it's automatic, so when you come under pressure you can just rely on it. What I would translate to poker is that when you get to massive hands in a competition--when you're under pressure, maybe you're bluffing or you're being bluffed--you've got to do something that looks natural."
Although it is often tempting to strain analogies between poker and top-level sport, the comparisons with snooker come more easily. The first World Snooker Championship took place in 1927 and versions of snooker or billiards have been played in British homes and bars for more than a century, much as home-game or saloon-bar poker prevailed in the United States.
But both pursuits underwent huge booms in popularity when they became television spectacles, snooker in the 1980s and poker in the post-Moneymaker era of the mid-2000s. The boom years also ushered in new approaches and strategies, with young, aggressive players taking standards of play to dizzying new heights.
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The World Snooker final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor in 1985 set television history in the UK when more than 18 million people stayed up past midnight to watch its conclusion. One of those was a 16-year-old Hendry, who idolised Davis (himself a six-times World Champion) and his extraordinary dedication to the sport.
"Steve Davis changed the approach to being a top player," Hendry says. "He was sort of the opposite to Alex Higgins. He was a sort of robot who practiced hours and hours and hours, had the perfect technique, the perfect temperament, and was a winning machine. That changed snooker really."
Higgins, who was the world champion in 1972 and 1982, was a maverick talent: an extraordinarily gifted player but prone to indiscipline and more likely to be seen in the bars of Belfast than around the practice tables. It would be very easy to liken Higgins to Stu Ungar, poker's own renegade genius, blighted by his off-table demons.
Hendry, like the whizz-kids of the internet poker era, managed to draw inspiration from all the talents he watched on television, but knew that only through complete application to his task could he scale even more lofty heights. Poker's brightest young talents similarly recognise the innate abilities of some of the game's historical greats, but are dedicated professionals with analytical minds, committed to coming out on top.
"When I came into it, although I liked watching Higgins and Jimmy White and flair players, when I wanted to be the best, there was only one person to look at and that was Steve Davis because he was a winner," Hendry says. "And I wanted to be a winner. He changed the way to do it. He would just play snooker for hours and hours a day."
Hendry made his debut in the World Championships in 1986, when he was 17, and made an immediate impact. Four years later, he won his first world title and had shaken the game with a destructive new playing style, much as poker's fresh talents jolted the establishment with their relentless approach.
"I think I changed the way it was played because I played more aggressive snooker, where I would just go for shots, trying to win frames at one visit, as quickly as possible," Hendry says. "I suppose poker changed in that way as well. You get more aggressive players, players who will try and put you under pressure. There's usually always one at the table who'll try and bully everyone."
Hendry won everything it was possible to win in the game, including five consecutive world titles between 1992 and 96. He finished his career with 36 ranking titles and having scored 775 century breaks and 11 maximums. And as his snooker career was winding down, Hendry found the time to indulge a new passion.
"I did play poker a lot in the boom time, when Moneymaker won and everyone was playing poker, online was everywhere and it was on every TV channel at night," he says. "I got the bug. I was no different. I was playing online a lot, a lot of the snooker players would have games, I played a couple of celebrity things on TV, I played a lot."
Although he says he expects 99 percent of the PokerStars Festival field to be better poker players than him, Hendry is a man in form. Last night, he outlasted the likes of Jake Cody, Liv Boeree and Felipe Ramos in an invitational media tournament, and has settled into proceedings on Day 1C very comfortably. He has built his starting stack of 30,000 up to about 39,000 at the first break in play, and the odds on him progressing are tumbling.
"It's hard to bluff aggression when you've got nothing to back it up with," he says. "But I'll tend to play in my own comfort zone...[While playing snooker] I always didn't want to show any emotion because I felt that not only would it give my opponent an advantage, because he would be able to see that I was under pressure, but you play your best if you can keep yourself on that even keel."
And he's nothing if not a natural. "I think to some extent you've either got it or you haven't, that ability to stay calm under pressure," he says.
Watch Hendry beat the pros at their own game:
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