Snooker legend Stephen Hendry on poker ambitions, O'Sullivan's tilt, and "the subtle art of not giving a f**k"
There's only one pool table tucked away in a corner room of the H10 Marbella hotel lobby, and it's usually unattended. This is Marbella after all; when the sun goes down, the eating, drinking, and partying usually begins. Staying inside to shoot spots and stripes isn't normally on the agenda.
But on this particular warm Thursday evening, it was a struggle to even get into the pool room. It must have been a strange sight for anyone unaware of what was going on, but there's a very good reason that crowds have gathered:
One of the best snooker players to ever pick up a cue was playing.
Stephen Hendry, the seven-time snooker World Champion and one of the GOATs of the game (that's Greatest Of All Time), is here in Marbella to take part in the PokerStars Festival Marbella. He's now a PokerStars Brand Ambassador, but on this night the retired Scot picked up a cue once again, letting fans challenge him to a frame.
After he'd sunk the black ball, Hendry took a break (pun intended) and joined me for a chat in a quieter part of the lobby. Needless to say, the pool crowds quickly dispersed thereafter.
Changing the game
Back in 1990, at the of age 21, Hendry became the youngest ever snooker World Champion. It signalled a changing in the snooker tides, as the old guard of the game realised these young whippersnappers were here to stir things up. The similarities between snooker and poker start there.
"They didn't like it when I first turned professional," Hendry tells me. "At first they thought I had turned professional too young and that I was going to get destroyed, so they felt it was a bad decision.
"But obviously I proved them wrong, and I think I changed the way that snooker is played. I was playing in a more aggressive way, and similar things happened in poker where the young guys completely changed the way poker is played. You watch the older guys like Hellmuth and Brunson, that's a different kind of poker. Hopefully I did a similar thing in snooker."
Throughout a storied career that saw him win 74 tournaments (including a record-breaking seven World Championships, five of which were consecutive), be ranked the world no.1 for nine years, and win £9 million in prizes, Hendry retired from the game in 2012. He turned his attention to snooker commentary, golf, the odd exhibition performance, and more recently, poker.
"Around 2001 or 2002 at a snooker event, Steve Davis was playing online," Hendry says, recalling how he discovered the game. "I looked over his shoulder and wasn't sure what he was doing on his computer, but he was playing poker. I got a bit fixed on what he was doing and it all started from there really."
Poker games among snooker players started to become commonplace. Last year we saw 1997 World Champion Ken Doherty turn up to play at EPT12 Dublin, but I wondered who Hendry considered to be the best poker player among the snooker elite.
"The best poker player I think is Mark Williams," he says, referring to the Welsh two-time champion. "He's very good. He used to play a lot of cash games - all sorts of wild games like six or eight card Omaha. I think he understands the game very well, and he can read players. I think he's probably the most talented, but Ken Doherty is also very good as he plays a lot."
Victory in London
It turns out that Hendry is pretty good at poker himself. Back in January, he turned to play at the PokerStars Festival London, and prior to the Main Event he ended up taking down a media event for his first silver PokerStars trophy.
"I would love to think it was a major poker event, but it was a very very fast turbo," he laughs. "I took down [Team PokerStars Pros] Jake Cody and Liv Boeree though, so that was an event in itself! But yeah, just to have a PokerStars spade trophy is amazing. It was great fun."
Now, after a few practice cash games sessions at The Hippodrome in London, Hendry is in Marbella with his girlfriend attending his second PokerStars Festival. Unfortunately though, he was unable to progress through Day 1A of the €1,100 Main Event.
"I was about half an hour away from making Day 2 when I called all-in with ace-queen and was up against ace-king. I had about 32,000 at 800/1,600, so with 20 big blinds I thought if I was going to get to Day 2 I wanted to have some more chips. He shoved and I thought he could be doing it with a lot of aces, but in the end it didn't work out.
"The tournament was great, but it was frustrating too because for two or three hours I had no cards whatsoever. I was basically short-stacked and just surviving, so for someone like me who's not as talented as the other proper poker players, I need cards! And if I'm going to play smaller hands, I need to get lucky."
Still, if you're going to bust out of a tournament, there aren't many better places to be than on the sunny south coast of Spain.
"Oh my God, I've loved it here," Hendry says. "To get half an hour away from making it [to Day 2], I absolutely loved it. Even when you get rubbish cards, the game is such a buzz."
Ronnie O'Sullivan and 'snooker tilt'
Anyone who ever watched Hendry play snooker during his career knows he was always very calm and composed. This got me thinking about tilt, and reminded me of a particular 2006 match Hendry had played against five-time World Champion and fellow snooker GOAT, Ronnie O'Sullivan, in which O'Sullivan conceded a best-of-17 match just five frames in.
Down 4-1, O'Sullivan plays a few bad shots by his high standards, and decides to give up, throwing the match away in frustration. This is about as close to poker tilt as you can get in another solo-played sport. You can watch it below.
Snooker tilt was never anything Hendry had to worry about, and he doesn't plan on tilting at the poker table anytime soon either.
"I think it definitely helps having the temperament I had in snooker," he says. "The ability to put the memories of a bad shot away, and the next time you come to the table and play a shot you've forgotten about the bad ones. In poker obviously you're taking bad beats all the time and unlucky breaks, so you've got to be able to block that out and on the next one start afresh again.
"It's not so easy for me to do in poker as it was in snooker, but it's something I have inside me which definitely helps when I'm playing poker."
And how does Hendry think O'Sullivan would get on at the poker felt?
"I'm not sure he'd have the patience to sit and play a ten hour session, so I think he would struggle in that aspect!"
Who gives a f**k?
When Hendry and his girlfriend were waiting at the airport to fly out to Marbella, he realised he needed something new to read.
My reading material this week pic.twitter.com/o3qpu644t9— stephen hendry (@SHendry775) June 20, 2017
It might seem like he chose it just for the title, but according to Hendry, it's actually helped him with his poker game.
"I've read two or three - I wouldn't say 'self help' books - but books like that, and I saw this one and thought it looked interesting. And it is; a lot of it's common sense that you should have in poker. Like, if you lose a hand, you just say, "OK, I lost a hand, who gives a f**k?" and you learn and move onto the next one."
Speaking of moving onto the next one, the 48-year-old's next stop is an exhibition snooker game in Hong Kong in July with another snooker legend, Jimmy White.
"Hong Kong is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the handover from the UK, so it should be a great event with me and Jimmy playing. But mostly the summer is quiet for snooker. I do a lot of commentating now on the TV, but those tournaments are during the winter season. So yeah, I'll just be playing a bit of golf, maybe playing a wee bit of online poker, just chilling really."
"If you lose a hand, you just say,
"OK, I lost a hand, who gives a f**k?"
and you learn and move onto the next one."
In fact, though, it turns out Hendry does have something on after all. The day after I spoke to Hendry (Friday) it was announced that he'll be one of 20 contestants taking part in the BBC's Celebrity Masterchef later this year. But when he's done with cooking, when can we expect to see him back on the poker felt?
"I think my next poker event will be the PokerStars Festival Dublin in September. My real ambition is just to make a final table really. That would be incredible. But at the moment my ambition is just to make the second day of a tournament!"
Jack Stanton is a freelance contributor to the PokerStars Blog.