Present on the circuit for almost fifteen years, Kenny Hallaert fulfilled his dream in 2016 by reaching the final table of the Main Event of the World Series Of Poker. The tournament director talks to Gaëlle Jaudon about this highlight, and the milestones of his career including the reasons for his longevity.
Somuchpoker: You have had quite an unusual path; many players discovered poker at university and quickly started playing, but you were actually working as an electrician. How did you come to play poker?
Kenny Hallaert: Yeah, I went to school until I was 18, then went to college to study to become an electrician. But college life wasn’t really for me. To be honest, I wasn’t much in class! So, I started working in about 2000. I learned the game of poker in 2004 when I saw a link online. I had already heard about it before, but I decided to give it a try. I had fun and quickly switched to PLO, because it was more exciting. The website doesn’t exist anymore, but they had many freerolls, and I finished second in a big one. I started going on poker forums and realized that you can actually study poker strategies!
At the time, I was a losing player, and I was playing like 20 to 40 euros a week. As I said, I had a job and a regular income, and I liked playing in my free time. I looked at 2+2 etc. At the time we didn’t have any solvers or programs. If you wanted to learn, you had to rely on forums and books. So, I bought a few books, like ‘The Theory of Poker’, ‘Winning Low-Limit Hold’em’ and ‘SuperSystem’, and I decided to just study the game for a few months and not play. I started playing an online cash game around March 2005. It’s on my Excel file. I decided to deposit one more time, but this time with the idea of really starting a poker career. I had a 4 table maximum in Limit Hold’em, which was still quite popular at that time. I started at 25ct/50ct and worked my way up. I was playing a lot on Everest Poker, many French players were in the field, and at that time it was still good value. I moved up quickly in stakes, also thanks to the fact that the money I was making was only for poker. I had a job, and I never cashed out. My life was really way too busy at that time, I had a 40-hour job, a secondary job, and I was playing football three times a week.
In 2005 I had to stay home for a couple of months because I tore my ligaments, and I took that opportunity to focus only on poker. I learned so much during that period, and earned some money, so I ended up quitting my secondary job. I only started playing tournaments in 2007. I also won a 15K package in the WSOP in 2008, thanks to a 1K satellite in Belgium, and I defeated Pierre Neuville in Heads-Up. It was my first experience at the WSOP, and it was really a dream to go there. I had zero results, but it was a great experience to able to play the same tournaments as my heroes back then, Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Erik Seidel, Chris Ferguson, etc.
Somuchpoker: When did your career really start?
Kenny Hallaert: It was a long process. I was frequently playing in the Holland Casino. I knew a lot of Dutch players and in 2008 the casino in Namur offered me a position to promote the poker market to non-French players. It was really different and interesting for me, and the great thing was that it gave me a lot of free time to play as well. I was free to travel and organize my own time to go on poker trips. I was trying to organize more tournaments, and I had some ideas as I had already travelled to many events. It was a great challenge, and combining two things I love, organizing things and poker. And that’s how I also started working as a tournament director.
I was playing more and my results were getting better too. I transitioned to playing more tournaments, because it’s more fun, and I love the competition. It’s more exciting than the cash game, actually. I won the $108K in the Sunday Warm-Up in 2008, which was also a big push for my career. I’ve been to the WSOP every year since, and my first cash was in 2010, which is always a memorable moment when you have your first cash in Vegas. My first cash in the main event came in 2012, my fifth attempt. And the next goal was to make a final table in the WSOP, which came only in 2015 in The Colossus, for 5th place. This was a real achievement for me. 2013 and 2014 were not really good years; I didn’t cash much and I had some tax issues in Belgium, so I didn’t play much. I studied my game more, and making the final table in WSOP gave me a lot more confidence for the future. And the next year, the final table of the Main was an unbelievable experience for sure. I don’t think that feeling will ever be beaten, even if I win a bracelet. I think that will always be the proudest moment of my career.
Somuchpoker: You are always very precise with dates. Have you recorded everything in Excel since you started?
Kenny Hallaert: Pretty much! I know it sounds nerdy, but I’ve tracked every tournament that I played, in Excel. There are actually 38,150 tournaments in there! And for a couple of years, I’ve also been tracking satellites. That’s another spreadsheet with 3,507 events. I like to include everything, live and online, sit and go, swaps, cash game, etc. So, I always have an exact view of how much profit I have made through the years.
Somuchpoker: Now that the November Nine doesn’t exist anymore, to what extent do you think playing the final table of the WSOP right away would have changed for you?
Kenny Hallaert: I think everybody was happy with November Nine, but actually everybody would have been okay to continue to play because you’re cruising to the final table. But I think the previous system to play the final table in November, benefited the least experienced players at the table the most. They have a much better learning curve and can add more skills to their game, while it’s more limited for a pro. Personally, I liked having that three-month break, I learned a lot at the time. It’s a different strategy as well. In November, it’s like you’re starting a completely new tournament; it’s like a sit and go. Everybody comes prepared and they’re different, there is no history anymore. Now the players have so much history, because they’ve just played for days and hours together. They don’t have much time to get ready, so there is far more street poker and interesting moves that can be played because of that. To promote poker, the November Nine was a very good marketing idea. Nowadays, with social media and the livestreams, they’ve had to adapt, and I think it’s really fun as well. The thing I regret most today, especially for us European people, is that we don’t really have time to bring family and friends in two days, whereas in 2016 I had three months to organize the travel. That’s also an important thing.
Somuchpoker: As you said, you’ve worked in the industry a long time. Pierre Neuville even said you’re the best Belgium floor manager. What did that experience on the other side bring you, as a player?
Kenny Hallaert: To be fair, organizing tournaments didn’t teach me much for my career as a player. However, on the other hand, being a player taught me a lot to be better at organizing events. I had a very good insight into what the players wanted. When you’re working in the industry, you obviously have conversations with players, but most of the time you just have feedback from angry players, and that’s not really constructive. Whereas, when you’re seated at the poker table all day and listen to what people say, it helps you understand other issues, such as the schedule, payouts, registration, etc. It also gives you a good insight into how players feel at the table, how they make their decisions. Without that experience, I think it’s much harder to completely understand what’s happening at a table.
Somuchpoker: In an interview in 2016, you said poker was still a hobby for you, and your main activity was still organizing tournaments. It seems it took you a long time to become a pro. What was the determining factor?
Kenny Hallaert: Like I said, I’ve always been very cautious with my bankroll. I had a job that paid the bills and I didn’t have to worry about losing my poker bankroll. I felt really secure and didn’t have any stress about money. So, I didn’t really want to stop working for that reason; it was taking away all the pressure, and also, I liked having another activity, apart from playing. Having something on the side is really good to avoid being bored, and for me, it was still in the poker world so it was the perfect combination. I tried to keep it as long as possible. After a few years I won much more money at poker than I earned at my job, but I was still keeping the poker money separate from the money from my job, which paid the bills. That allowed me to do more crazy stuff, like extra holidays, fancy restaurants, etc.
In 2016, I was investing a lot of time in poker, but I liked to keep working as a tournament director. I always tried to look to the future, in case I wanted to stop poker, and I kept my resume updated for that reason. It’s always easier to find another job if you don’t have a gap of 10 years without activity on your resume. We never know what the future can potentially bring, and I think in general that was my strength as a player too. Technically I’ll never be the best in the world, but I have other things, like more patience and better bankroll management, which explains why I’m still here after 15 years. I’ve seen many players come and go, and players who were far better than me technically, but who couldn’t handle the stress and the money, and were lacking in so many other things that you need to be a successful player.
Somuchpoker: You’re actually in third position on the Belgium all-time money list, with $4,324,000. Is that something that matters for you?
Kenny Hallaert: Not really. When I took that position at the Namur Casino, I had in mind to work there for like 4 or 5 years, enjoy a new experience, play some poker, have some fun traveling around, and then go back to work as an electrician. Now, 12 years later, I’m still here! So, for me, being in that position is an extreme privilege. I never thought I could make it here. I don’t know what the future will bring, but it’s nice to be in third place. I could make it to second place, but first place with Davidi Kitai seems so far! But the all-time money list is not very important because of all the high rollers today and the stackings. It doesn’t really mean anything. There are probably some losing players if you look at the top 100 players in the all-time money list. It’s not a representative list. Thanks to my Excel spreadsheets, because I’m an Excel nerd, each year I know exactly how much money I really made after all the swaps and everything. That’s most important.
Somuchpoker: What is one of your most important memories throughout your development?
Kenny Hallaert: My first EPT was in 2008, and I qualified for EPT Monte Carlo, which was 10K at the time. Daniel Negreanu sat at my table on day two. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was also a dream come true. I knocked him out, it was amazing! The min cash at the time was €20K, which was a lot of money, especially if you qualified online, and I managed to bubble. In 2010, in the same event, that’s when I got my first cash in an EPT Main Event. We were 37 players and I went all-in in a 5 times average pot against the chipleader, aces versus kings, and he hit the king. That was pretty brutal, because it was worth so much money, almost a house! But after some time, it actually helps to put things in perspective much more, and accept far better other bad losses. I learned so much from that one single hand, it actually gave me a lot of mental strength, and it was easier to move on after that. But it was really hard at the time!
Somuchpoker: You said in an interview, and Pierre Neuville said the same thing too, that having results in Vegas takes time, and that you needed to adapt your game to American players before you could make money? How is that?
Kenny Hallaert: Back in those days, yes, you needed to adapt, especially in Vegas, if you were used to playing on the European circuit only. Nowadays, as I have travelled so much on the circuit, it just takes a couple of hands to adapt to a table in Vegas, but in the past, it took me some time. After Black Friday in the US, people were not really improving anymore, while in Europe we were still playing a lot. So, the level of play in America slowed down, but today I would say they have caught up and the top American pros are really, really good players. I would say that seven years ago there was a gap between European and American players, but they definitely have closed it at the top. There are still some smaller casinos in America that have different types of play than in Europe.
Somuchpoker: Who are the players that helped you the most throughout your career?
Kenny Hallaert: Steven van Zadelhoff; I’ve been close to him for around 12 or 13 years now, growing up together basically as poker players. We went through different stages of our careers together. And Fedor Holz, who helped me a lot in 2016. In recent years he’s had a big influence on my game. And I think I learned a lot myself too, picking up stuff left and right. You adapt throughout your career, and you learn how to build different solutions, that may or may not be successful for you. How to be your own problem solver, actually.
Somuchpoker: Do you think your experience as an electrician and floor manager gave you a different perspective of the money in poker, in comparison to a lot of players who never had a job before becoming a poker pro?
Kenny Hallaert: When I was working as an electrician, I was making around €30K a year, by working 40 hours a week. So, I know how hard I needed to work to make €100K. That definitely gave me a very good idea of what normal working people have to do to make money. I’m happy I had that life experience, and that’s why I was very cautious with the money, in comparison to some players who start playing right after school and don’t know how the real world actually works. That is why I think a lot of them just come and go, and don’t become successful players.
Somuchpoker: How did you work on your game? And how do you work today?
Kenny Hallaert: 15 years ago, I had to study poker from books, but nowadays we have so many tools, videos, study groups etc. Now, I watch many videos, I work with solvers, talk with friends. You have to constantly work on your game if you want to keep playing at the same level, otherwise you will get behind at some point.
Somuchpoker: And apart from the play and the technique, what are the main things you’ve had to work on in recent years?
Kenny Hallaert: Getting myself motivated to study, actually. I’ve always been a bit of a lazy person! Finding the motivation to start studying has always been the toughest part. Once I start, it’s fine, but the process of starting is hard when you can just lie on the couch and watch TV.
Somuchpoker: You’re still playing a lot of 500 and 1K tournaments, but also a lot of 10K, and you also played a 25K in Australia and a 100K at the WSOP. How do you stay focused at every tournament when you play with such big gaps between the buy-ins?
Kenny Hallaert: Because I really have a passion for the game, that’s the key. When I enter a tournament, the buy-in doesn’t matter anymore, I want to win. I’m always very competitive and just want to be the guy with all the chips at the end! And obviously, if I play a super-high roller, I don’t have 100% for myself. So, the amount of the buy-in is quite relative. When I busted an EPT Main Event in 2012, for example, for 9K, I went back to my room and ended up second in a $1 tournament online with 8,000 players. So, I can switch quite easily and refocus, which is also why I’m still here after 15 years, some players can’t do that.
Somuchpoker: There is always quite a big Belgium poker community during the WSOP, and you seem very close to each other. How would you describe that Belgium poker group? What is the Belgium touch?
Kenny Hallaert: No, we’re not that many! But we are quite close; we all share the same goal and the same passion, and also, we’re such a small country. But, for a small country, we have very good results, actually, we have six bracelets. It’s only thanks to two players, Davidi Kitai and Michael Gathy, but still! We’re always friendly to each other, sometimes we like to tease each other on the GPI rankings and stuff like that. I would say we are good live players, sometimes we take poker to the streets. When you look at some moves by Bart Lybaert or Davidi Kitai on live tournaments, they are really good at exploiting weaknesses, even if technically it makes no real sense. So, I would say we’re good in general at adapting to situations, it’s something we have in common.
Somuchpoker: I know you’re a big fan of FC Bruges. Now that you live in London, how do you manage your passion for your football team?
Kenny Hallaert: Oh yes! Luckily there are streams, so I’m still able to see the games, and it’s a two-hour trip from where I live, so I try to go there whenever I can! But this season I went to see them in Manchester, Madrid, Istanbul and in Bruges multiple times. Not as much as I did before, I was going to like 30 games out of the 34 in the season, so considering that, poker was a big life changer. Throughout the years, I’ve stopped playing football, myself. I wasn’t able to go watch the games, going out less. You’re not really able to see your friends when they are free, which is on the weekends and Sunday. You are free when they’re not, so poker can have a big impact on your life. I’m getting old and I know there will be a time when I’ll look back at my career, which is a successful period of my life as well, but it also had a big impact on my social life. It takes a lot out on your personal life. Relationships are not as strong as they were before, because you have less time. Some friends are really supportive and happy for me, but others can become a bit jealous of that new life, thinking that you do nothing and still make money. You have to deal with that. You need to invest so much time in poker, it’s a full-time job, even more than full time. If you want to become successful at something in life, it always takes a lot of commitment.
Interview by Gaelle Jaudon