Mar 17, 2016
For two years straight James Akenhead – who’d been a poker professional for almost his entire adult life – didn’t play a single hand. The Londoner stepped away from the game to start his own restaurant, but to say that it didn’t go as expected would be an understatement.
Breaking Up With Poker
A gin & tonic, that’s what Akenhead ordered before he started talking about the break-up.
“The reason I left poker in the first place was because I wasn’t doing so well. My game had fallen into a robotic kind of same-day-different-crap decision-making. That isn’t good, and you can’t win like that.”
Winning is something Akenhead became quite familiar with over the years, raking in $3.2 million in live tournament earnings before his extended break from the game.
“When I had my results over a four-year span I was really, really eager to play and I had a big love for the game. Towards the end I had a really bad year where – and I didn’t think I cashed in a single event – I did £400,000 of my own money in buy-ins and travel, and I stopped at the end of that year.”
Akenhead explained that he probably wasn’t playing his best, and that he could’ve done better if he’d tried harder.
“I thought to myself ‘I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life if this can happen’. Everyone has good and bad runs in poker – we all get dealt the same hands over an entire poker career – but I knew at that point that it was the right time to get out.”
“I didn’t have a wife, kids or a mortgage and I owned my own house at the time, but I knew I did want to have those responsibilities at some point in my life. I just thought, ‘I don’t want to have this year with three kids, be married and have a mortgage on a nice house’.
“That’s when I decided to get out of the game,” Akenhead added sternly.
Reaching For The Stars
Akenhead had just turned 30 when, with a nice chunk of change at his disposal, he considered his options, “I figured I would try to do something more responsible and stable in my life,” Akenhead laughed loudly, as he decided to start his own restaurant.
“It was the complete opposite,” he chuckled.
The crazy lifestyle had Akenhead working 90 to 100 hours per week, and without a business partner to fall back on everything was on him. The gastro-pub Akenhead started named ‘The Reach Bar’ has almost perfect reviews to his day, lauding its fresh food and great drinks. But it’s no longer Akenhead’s.
“I went from having the easiest job in the world to having the hardest job in the world. I guess I didn’t appreciate the kind of life I had before. So many good things have come though, from having that business, even though I lost a lot of money. I learned so much about life; I had to take my first staff meeting, I had to hire and fire people, I had to deal with customers, complaints, supplies, haggling, all that kind of stuff. This involved life skills that I’d never had to use before, as I’d been playing poker since the age of 21.”
“It really taught me loads, especially about interacting with human beings since before I would just sit in my underpants playing online poker for days on end. The business taught me s*** loads, and to be honest with you, I didn’t even mind doing my own money if it meant learning all those life skills, and it really opened my eyes to certain things.”
“That break from poker – learning about life and growing up a bit – has made me more responsible with money. Learning the value of money, what a pound note really means. Compare that to a young 21-year old who had hundreds of thousands and wanted to buy big cars and go for fancy dinners. That’s all great and a kids’ dream, but at some point you have to realize that a pound note does have a value. You have to respect money, because otherwise you end up screwing yourself over.”
On little sleep and possibly his last legs, Akenhead caved under the pressure mentally, physically and financially.
“My body literally shut down from running the restaurant. I spent so much time there, I barely slept and I just couldn’t do it anymore. For the first year and a half I was there non stop – day in, day out – and you’re working so many hours a day that when you finally do get to bed you’re so wired that you can’t sleep.”
“In the end it consumes your whole life. So you have no life. You forget having a relationship; you can’t play poker, not even play a little on a Sunday. I was so tired that if I would’ve had played I would have sure fallen asleep by the time I went deep.”
The Glorious Return
The restaurant didn’t work out and was sold after two years, and Akenhead went looking for something else in life. Briefly he considered taking on a ‘normal’ job on Gibraltar at a gaming company, but a friend made him reconsider poker. After being convinced, he played a bit online and he had a big score fairly swiftly.
“That nice result gave me a boost of confidence. I played quite well and it felt like I still had a bit of fire and passion left for the game. I didn’t know if had fallen behind – and if I had lost some ability – so I did a bit a research, read some forums looking for some new possible trends.”
In November of 2015 Akenhead finished third in a £2,000 event at the Vic in London for £70,000, and his comeback to poker seemed to be a wise choice, all variance aside.
“It felt great getting back into it, people were even saying that it was like I’d never left. Obviously that involves you running at least okay, because you’re not running badly when things go well right away. To go far in tournaments you have to play excellently and run well.”
It didn’t go unnoticed that poker had gotten a bit tougher, but Akenhead said there’s still plenty of value to be found and in the few months since he’s been back, the number 14 on England’s all-time money list has already raked in $146,997 in live tournament earnings.
Earlier this week, Akenhead showed up out of nowhere in the World Poker Tour Vienna Warm Up. This €340 tournament drew a crowd of mostly local amateurs and while the WSOP Main Event finalist from 2009 felt a bit out of place, it turned out to be a great fit.
After battling for four days, Akenhead beat a field of 1,157 players to capture the €65,000 first-place prize.
Jokingly he said, “Eight years ago I would’ve predicted that poker would die in five years’ time with everyone getting so good.”
Poker hasn’t died while Akenhead was away, and the results show that neither has his knack for the game. A few years older and wiser, Akenhead looks to make the most of his second life as a poker pro and the biggest pressure right now might be from his parents to start settling down.
“Financially I’m on a bit of a freeroll after my results in November and December, which definitely helps but I’m getting a bit of pressure from my parents now,” Akenhead laughed, “I’m 33, not married, no kids, so the time’s ticking and the grey hairs are coming out.”