EPT12 Malta: Benjamin Lebor, living the dream after winning the biggest gamble of his life
For most people in this poker tournament hitting a 1% shot means they've got incredibly lucky and have a few more chips. For Benjamin Lebor winning his 1% shot meant he could speak fluently.
The 48-year-old Brit was born with a severe nerve injury in his ears, and 99 percent of people who share his severity of deafness never learn to speak. He's part of the 1%.
"I was born deaf, I overcame my problem with a lot of speech therapy a lot of stamina and a lot of work," he told the PokerStars Blog during a break in play. "I was thrown out of deaf school at the age of five. I was very bright and they said if you really want to make it get yourself out of the 'deaf world'. If I hadn't I wouldn't be speaking. Ninety-nine percent of people with my hearing loss don't learn to speak."
There were naturally some setbacks along the way, but nothing that Lebor wasn't determined to overcome. "When I was 11 I couldn't read or write. Then I went to a private school and from 12 onwards I started to learn. I learnt to read and write, I got my O-levels, my A-levels and a got a degree, then I went into property. I bought flats in London which I renovated and let out and then in the year 2000 I went to Budapest and the same story.
He still resides in Hungary, is married to Geda and they have a five year old daughter. It's no exaggeration that Lebor's wife has changed his life in more ways than one. Seven years ago she suggested he look into getting what's called a cochlear implant. As stated in this article, the implant is an electronic device that provides direct electrical stimulation to the auditory (hearing) nerve in the inner ear. It would effectively allow Lebor to hear without the use of a hearing aid. "I give credit to my wife Geda, she pushed me. I wasn't' sure if I wanted to take the gamble as I was doing quite well with the hearing aid. But I took the gamble, biggest gamble of my life."
So Lebor embarked on a five year process, and says it was his future relationship with his daughter that finally persuaded him to have surgery. "The breaking point was the birth of my daughter and when she was struggling to have a conversation with me. That was the straw the broke the camel's back. I had the implant in February 2014 (a day before my birthday), she was three then."
The operation is not exactly trivial though and there was a chance, albeit a slim one, that it could've been unsuccessful. "The operation could've failed if my brain hadn't become responsive to the implant," he says. "I was worried that it would've damaged the nerve endings, so when they put back my hearing aid it would've been worse. The risk of that was a few percent, but it was still a risk."
But the surgery was, thankfully, a success. "Before the operation I could hear, with a hearing aid, but not very well. I did a lot of lip reading, guessing and hearing. Now my hearing is much better," says Lebor. "I don't have to focus so much on lip reading or guessing. I can have a conversation without asking people to repeat. Conversation flows much easier than it did a year ago."
After the operation Lebor could hear about 45-50% of what a normal hearing person can, a figure that was expected to improve, and has. Now he can hear 85% to 90% of what's considered normal.
What's normal for Lebor is playing poker. He first started playing aged seven, with his parents. It was seven-card stud back then, but now his preferred game is Omaha. He was a regular in The Vic in London but his property business interests took him to Hungary at the turn of the century. At one point he had to make a choice between poker and his business and chose the latter.
So that begs the question of how the operation has changed not only his life but his poker experience, one which is rich with sounds. From the riffling of chips, to cursing the Poker Gods, to the swish of a card as the dealer pitches it onto the felt.
"For me poker is a social game," states Lebor who's known as 'Benji' in poker circles. "The operation hasn't really made that much difference (at the poker table). Before it was looking at the person and understanding the flow. I've only had the implant for around two years and the big difference is with stress. All my life I was very stressed to hear people, it was very intense. Now I'm much more relaxed, happier and trying to prove myself less, which Andy Black noticed."
The two were drawn together at the feature table and have played against each other before. "In the old days I would try and prove myself too much. If I lost a pot I would get upset," explains Lebor. "Today I'm a bit more relaxed. I hear the clicking of the chips, the people talking and the clarity of everything. I can have conversations at the table more easily without struggling, without asking people to repeat."
This is actually Lebor's first ever EPT. "It's been a dream that I've had to come to an EPT for ten years. I thought I'm going to take a week off and enjoy myself."
Despite being low on chips in the Main Event Lebor looks to be having the time of his life. With the odds he's overcome in his life, overcoming a short stack won't faze him at all.
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