WSOP 2017: John Hesp’s Vegas vacation continues; or, “When I’m Sixty-Four”

July 19, 2017

In the Beatles’ song “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a young man light-heartedly imagines what the future holds for himself and the woman he loves. Specifically he wonders whether she’ll stay with him as they grow old together, and continue to care for him and love him as they ease into retirement.

Paul McCartney wasn’t even 25 when he wrote the song, which means he — like the young man — had to imagine the domestic scenes of gardening, home repair, Sunday rides, summer vacations, and visits from grandchildren the lyrics describe.

The fact that the song sounds like an old vaudeville tune — i.e., nostalgic, not new — makes it seem just a little incongruous on the 1967 album on which it appears, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It stands out as sounding “old” (and perhaps out of place) amid a collection of innovative, modern or “young”-seeming music.

It was around 1:30 a.m. Monday night when the nine players who made this year’s final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event gathered together to pose for photographs commemorating their achievement. While all nine bring unique personalities and stories to final, one in particular stands out — and not just because of his Panama hat and psychedelic crazy-quilt jacket.

I refer, of course, to the oldest of the nine, 64-year-old Englishman John Hesp.

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John Hesp (left), part of the “July Nine”

Monday was the day the last 27 players — survivors from the 7,221 original entrants — played down to the final nine. Mistaken about the starting time that day, I arrived to the Brasilia room around 10:45 a.m., a full hour earlier than needed. After realizing my mistake, I unloaded my bag and stepped back out into the hall, mostly thinking about coffee but also just looking for a way to pass the time.

There was John Hesp, also having arrived early, although whether by design or mistake I cannot say. I’d spoken with Hesp the night before, and so recognizing me the gregarious and friendly gentleman immediately engaged me in conversation once more. Soon we were back on the subject of his magical run through thousands of opponents.

“I started out thinking of making it to 1,000,” he said to me, a goal which would have placed him inside the top 1,084 finishers to guarantee at least a $15,000 payday. He was quick to add, though, that making the money wasn’t such an important threshold to cross.

“It wasn’t about the money at all,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to be financially secure and so that wasn’t it. I just wanted to get to 1,000. Then when I did, I thought about getting to 500… then 100….”

He trailed off, shaking his head as if trying to convince himself of the reality that he’d gotten further than that to the last 27. And that now making the final nine had become another reasonable goal for which to shoot.

Hesp hails from Bridlington in Yorkshire, a coastal town on the North Sea a bit over 200 miles north of London. The owner of a company that rents caravans to would-be vacationers, he describes himself as “semi-retired.” He also describes himself as a part-time, recreational poker player, another aspect of his background that sets him apart from the other eight with whom he’ll be returning tomorrow.

“Just 10-pound tournaments at my local casino, perhaps once a month” he explained, referring to his stakes and frequency of play. He added he’d played a bit more frequently in the weeks leading up to his Main Event trip, though it still sounded like an extremely modest amount of preparation.

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Hesp on Day 7

Hesp’s Hendon Mob page backs up the story, listing a grand total of seven cashes, all coming in the “£10 No-Limit Hold’em – Sunday Rebuy” at the Napoleans Casino & Restaurant in Hull. It’s a remarkable résumé, highlighted by a single victory for £785.

Now he’s locked up at least a million dollars, with a chance at the top prize of $8.15 million.

We had discussed the night before about his decision to play in the Main Event being a “bucket list” adventure for him. Just something fun to do later in life, not unlike the vacations some of those buying caravans over the years might have been planning. Or the singer in the Beatles song who imagines renting a summer cottage on the Isle of Wight.

He again reiterated to me how amazed he’d been at the outpouring of support directed his way, and how it had kept increasing each day the tournament had progressed.

“I have all these Facebook followers now,” he said, again shaking his head. “From all over the world… you wouldn’t believe it. It’s like I’m some kind of… I don’t know… international poker player.”

He chuckled as he spoke, as if not convinced at the truth of what he was saying.

We talked a little about his business, and he pulled back the lapel of his multi-colored jacket to reveal a green Bridlington Caravan Centre patch. The jacket (and similar shirts he’s been sporting) he told me the night before had been loaned to him by a friend prior to the trip. Proving lucky for him so far, he’ll continue with the colorful and conspicuous uniform going forward.

Hesp continued with more about the recent history of Yorkshire, the discussion covering the coal mines closing there decades ago and his desire to bring something positive back home from his experience this summer — specifically some kind of poker tournament or series to help bring some life and energy to his home county.

Not unlike the life and energy he’s brought to the game over recent days thanks to his frequent and friendly table chat.

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“I’m having a ball,” says Hesp

In 2008, a 53-year-old truck driver named Dennis Phillips carried the chip lead to the WSOP Main Event final table. I spoke with Phillips a week or so before that table played out, asking him about being the oldest player left among a group of opponents mostly in their 20s.

“When you’ve seen the world a few times, it’s easier to keep emotions in check and not let things bother you,” Phillips told me. “These guys are going to have a real real hard time putting me on tilt out there. They haven’t had the experience or the relationships those of us with a little gray on top have had.”

In 2015, the Belgian Pierre Neuville made the November Nine aged 72, and I also had a chance to talk to him prior to his final table appearance.

He, too, discussed competing with men much younger than he, describing a hand in which he’d successfully bluffed young Fedor Holz holding but ace-high, then showed his hand to earn a big laugh from the table. Like Phillips, Neuville’s life experience obviously helped him as much as more than his poker knowledge during his deep run, enabling him to keep calm amid the high-rising tension of late-stage tournament poker.

“It’s just a paradise,” said Neuville, describing his enjoyment of the game and being able to compete with others whose age could make them his grandchildren.

Phillips finished third in 2008, while Neuville would go on to take seventh in 2015. A 61-year-old Neil Blumenfield also made the final table in 2015, finishing third.

Hesp will have the second-largest stack heading into tomorrow’s final with 85.7 million, and like leader Scott Blumstein with 97.25 million is way ahead of the remaining seven, all of whom are presently in the 18-36 million-chip range. Like both Phillips and Neuville, Hesp seems especially content with how far he’s come and not overly worried about what awaits him.

Before we parted Monday morning, Hesp noted how his wife would be flying out if he were to survive that Day 7 and make the final table.

“She’s just about to press the button on a ticket,” he grinned, holding up his fingers to show how close.

Some 14 hours after that Hesp had punched his own final table ticket, and we trust his wife made that purchase soon afterwards.

After they finished Monday night, Hesp stuck around a good while longer, posing for numerous photos and giving at least a dozen more interviews. He and I also chatted again one more time not far from where we’d had our talk that morning. Our conversation was briefer this time, covering the same themes as before with Hesp equally elated at having survived another day and at all of the attention he was drawing.

“They were from China!” he said pointing at the last pair of media members with whom he’d spoken. “It’s truly unbelievable.”

Eventually he left, likely not getting back to bed until 2:30 a.m. or later. A day in the life.

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The John Hesp Experience

“If I’d been out till quarter to three, would you lock the door?” asks McCartney in “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

Something tells us no one much minded Hesp’s late night on Monday, least of all Hesp himself. Nor will he mind if more lengthy nights of poker are required of him.

For those of us not yet 64, it’s hard to picture what life will be like when we get there. Few of us probably can imagine playing at the final table of the most prestigious poker tournament in the world when we do.

Before a couple of weeks ago, John Hesp certainly didn’t, either. It’s turned out to be a pretty great summer vacation so far for him, though. And it will be fun for all of us — all over the world — to experience the rest of it along him starting tomorrow.

WSOP photos by


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