Among the many big names who won a Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) title this year was Kenny Hallaert, playing under the PokerStars screen name “SpaceyFCB”.
The casual poker fan might know Hallaert best from his sixth-place finish in the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event for $1.47M, but the Belgian (who sits third in his country’s all-time money list) is also a major force online, with $5.54M in online cashes at the time of writing.
Victory in this year’s 29-H: $2,100 No Limit Hold’em Turbo for $94,990 marked Hallaert’s second SCOOP title, his first coming back in 2017 when he took down a $1,050 8-Max event for $147K.
We caught up with Hallaert towards the end of SCOOP to discuss how it all went down, how he upped his study regime to compete with the best, and how he hopes to complete his poker puzzle at the 2019 WSOP.
PokerStars Blog: You were in Canada playing a live event during the SCOOP. Do you like being on that time schedule when playing a big tournament series?
Kenny Hallaert: I prefer to play at home [in London], just to have my own setting. I don’t mind playing at night at all. There was one year, roughly ten years ago, when I went to Hawaii to play WCOOP, but that was before Black Friday, when WCOOP was catered more towards US players. I just prefer my own set-up at home with a comfortable chair, a stable computer etc. I always feel more relaxed playing at night, the world has shut down, it’s dark outside, and there are less distractions. I’m just used to it.
Do you look forward to SCOOP every year?
If I wasn’t in Canada I would have been at home playing every day, with maybe one day off a week maximum. In previous years WCOOP buy-ins were more in the medium tier level, so SCOOP has always been way more interesting to high stakes players for higher buy-in tournaments. If I had to choose I’d take SCOOP over WCOOP, if I could only play one.
SCOOP always falls right before the WSOP. As someone who has had success at both, what do you make of that lead into the Vegas grind?
It’s definitely a good warm-up. The mixed-game specialists especially really like SCOOP as the WSOP is pretty much the only time of the year when they can play a wide variety of mixed game tournaments at high buy-ins ($10K, $3K, $1,500 etc) so during SCOOP they can test their skills and reactivate their skills leading up to the WSOP.
For me, I’m basically a pure No Limit Hold’em player. I play other events more for fun, but I don’t think I have an edge in those fields. If you have a good SCOOP like I had, it gives you a lot of confidence and winning my SCOOP title basically means I can freeroll the entire WSOP.
The last time I won a SCOOP in 2017 I also had a great WSOP, so if winning one this year could mean the same, I’m definitely up for it!
[In 2017 Hallaert enjoyed nine WSOP cashes, including two final tables and a deep run in the $10K Main Event]
How does this year’s title compare with your first one?
This one was a turbo, so it has less prestige. As the 2017 one was my first title and it had more players and a regular structure, I would say I value that one higher. The fields in both events were tough–the turbo field was probably tougher actually–but still, if you look at some of the names that made the 2017 final table, they are big online names [like Patrick Leonard, “girafganger7”, Anton Wigg]. This year, because of the buy-in level, you expect to have tough competition. There won’t be a lot of recreational players playing. So for me, I still value it quite high.
For a long time your biggest cash came from a 2009 Sunday Warm-up victory for $107K. Where were you in your life at that point?
I was working in Namur, Belgium in a casino. I remember winning that tournament. It was a really insane month for me. I managed to win the weekly leader board, with the second highest score ever at that time (I believe only Shaun Deeb had scored higher). I then also managed to win the monthly leader board, only behind Deeb again for highest score. It was an amazing month. Every time I had a coin flip it felt like an 80/20 for me, and every time I had a 20/80 it was like a coin flip. That’s how good I was running.
The Warm-up stayed with me as my biggest score for years, until SCOOP 2017. Hopefully I will break it again one day. My online poker career has been on the better side of variance for sure.
[Since this interview Hallaert has secured a new biggest online score, taking down an online event for $193K on May 27.]
What else would you like to achieve in your poker career?
I hope that this year I can achieve my poker dream, and that’s winning a WSOP bracelet. That’s one thing I’m missing on my resume, winning a big live event. A bracelet for me would be the biggest. It’s something I’ve been chasing for a very long time. I’ll be in Vegas for the 12th consecutive year. I’ve been close a couple of times.
Why is the WSOP so special to you?
The first time I went was in 2008, and back then it was a dream for me just to be able to play at the WSOP with the likes of Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey etc. Back then I only saw them on YouTube and all of a sudden your heroes are sitting next to you. It was a big dream come true. I was really in love with the WSOP from Day 1 so I kept going back every year.
It took me a while to get my first final table, but I finally managed to make one in the biggest event ever held. The Colossus in it’s first year (2015) had 22,374 entries [the 2019 Big 50 has now beaten it with more than 25,000 entries]. Then I made the final table of the Main Event in 2016 [Hallaert finished in sixth place for $1.46M.]
In 2017 I had a third place and a seventh place. But I’ve never managed to win an elusive bracelet. If I ever manage to win one I’d say the puzzle is complete for me. I’m still chasing that dream. I have aspirations and a lot of perseverance, so one day hopefully you’ll see me holding up a trophy or a bracelet.
Many people know you as a high stakes tournament pro, but what they might not know is how you got there, including your job as a tournament director. What’s your story?
I discovered poker in 2004 and was immediately sold to the game. I quickly bought some books, read them, was active on some poker forums, and kept working on my game. I grinded up from the micro stakes to the mid stakes, then in 2008 I quite my job as an electrician to work for a casino as a marketing manager for the poker room. Throughout the years that role transformed into a tournament director, and when I started that job I had more spare time so I could study poker more.
Poker was still quite easy back then, so I found I was studying less and less throughout 2010. There weren’t a lot of high-skilled players back then, not that I was a high-skilled player, but you didn’t need to be to be a winning player as the average level of play wasn’t high. But slowly all of those players were passing me by, and it took me a while to realise that. I saw the impact in my results, so in 2014 I started studying more.
That led to the Colossus final table in 2015, and topped off with the final table of the Main Event in 2016. There, I had coaching from some of the best players in the world–Fedor Holz, BenCB, Steffen Sontheimer, Rainer Kempe, Patrick Leonard–I had very good teachers, and that pushed my skill to an even higher level. Their coaching was really eye-opening for me. I think I improved a lot.
What do you think it takes to remain at the top?
You’re never going to hear me say I’m one of the best poker players, I’m simply not talented enough. But I do have other capacities as a poker player that you need to have, like patience, bankroll management, self-control, honesty with yourself. There are a lot better poker players than me that don’t have those skills, and if you’re going to survive in the poker world you need to be a complete player nowadays. I’ve seen players come up who are far better than me, but they’re already gone for various reasons.
In 2017 I took my foot off the gas once again and wasn’t studying as much as I should have been. Poker was just going so well, but I noticed the impact again on my results in 2018, because I was quite disappointed about that year. I asked myself what happened and quickly came to the conclusion that I had been playing more but not studying enough.
Poker is evolving so quickly, you really need to put the work in. The saying is ‘standing still is going backwards’, and that really applies to poker. If you want to compete at the same level you really need to work.
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