CC: I'm here with Ben Roberts in the back of a cab on the way to Johnny Chan's party, which I am a bad date for. Ben, you must obviously have a lot of relationship problems if you're calling me. First, tell me a little about what you were doing before you moved to London, growing up and what your life was like.
Ben: I moved to London in my teens, and this goes back thirty-three years ago, and it became my home ever since. Prior to reaching London, I had learned the game of poker and I loved it. As soon as the opportunity was there to play in a game or start a game in college with my friends, we were there. In fact, it developed into a strong poker game where we had Division I, Division II; everyone was playing it. It was a draw game at the time, but it was a labor of love then, as it is now. At the time in my teens, I would play for two or three days without sleeping, and it was good fun, great fun.
CC: What did you study in school?
Ben: I did mathematics physics then went on to do computer studies in the university, but it was around that time that poker became more serious for me. I drifted away from everything else.
CC: I read previously that you also played snooker. I grew up in Mississippi, and our home was built in the late 1800's, and I think I had the only home snooker table in Mississippi growing up. Very difficult game snooker.
Ben: It sure is. I used to love that game too; poker and snooker were going along with me equally for awhile. I did believe at the time I could become a professional snooker player, so I practiced a great deal. At one point, I realized that I didn't have quite enough talent to make me the world champion. As soon as I realized that, poker became more prominent in my life, and it took over. For the last thirty years, I've been playing serious poker.
CC: It seems to me that there are some lessons that can be learned from snooker that can be applied to poker. Snooker seems to be a game of patience, a game where position is very important.
Ben: Sure, it's choice of shots that dictate a big part of the game, as well as handling your emotional stability and is the same in snooker as it is in poker. At times, it is more difficult in snooker as it is physical to a degree, so the mental effect on you can cripple you physically, and it's hard to produce a good performance. Sometimes you have to simply walk away, just to stop if the emotions get to be too much, which I did often. I still do every now and again if things run bad and it's just not your day, then leave the scene and come back to it later.
CC: When you started playing poker more and more, tell me where you played and what you played as you were moving up.
Ben: It was around England, in my hometown called Peterborough near Cambridge. We used to play, but that was only twice a week, so I was always in search of playing more often. I did, I used to travel around from town to town looking for games, but eventually I discovered a place called Victoria Casino in London where they had a game there every day. So I got a room nearby and started playing there.
CC: What were the most popular games then?
Ben: The only available game in the casino was seven card stud pot limit. In private games, five card stud with strip deck, sevens upward, that was the most popular game in London in all the private clubs. I kind of grew up with those games in London.
CC: I'm not familiar with that game, can you describe it?
Ben: Well, you get your first card down and the next four up, and there is a round of betting on each show, and it's pot limit. Quite an interesting game.
CC: Your first cash outside of the UK came in the 1998 World Series of Poker in the Main Event. Tell me about leading up to the Final Table, how the tournament ran for you and what it was like.
Ben: It was a great experience, the whole three or four weeks out there was great for me. I played no limit all the time. I used to wake up and get to the game, make sure I got a seat, and play and play. In fact, I won over $100,000 in the relatively small games of $25/25 and $25/50 games. So I was very much practiced when I went into the tournament. I'm sure that helped me along with some of the decisions I had to make. And of course I got lucky along the way, you need to get lucky to make it to the Final Table, but I was very happy with my performance. I was happy with my performance prior to that in the cash games, so that trip was great before the tournament. And when I got knocked out by Scotty (Nguyen) with his A-Q vs. my Aces, and although it was a bad beat, on the face of it, it seemed disappointing, I was really proud inside. I was so happy with my performance over the last two or three weeks, that I knew now I had a game, this weapon of no limit Holdem, that I could take anywhere and be making money. That meant more to me than actually winning the tournament. It truly was worth more than the tournament.
CC: For most Americans, when they hear the name Ben Roberts or especially when you see your face since you're not as much of a household name as other players, everyone came to know you in the WPT tourney in Paris. Tell me about that tournament, leading up to it, and then we'll talk about the final table.
Ben: That was another tournament where I got lucky to reach the final table of course, but six days before that I won the Pot Limit European Omaha championship. I was doing well in the cash games, so going into the tournament I was filled with confidence yet again. That made it easier to play well. I didn't make many mistakes in that tournament up until the final table where I made a mistake in one pot. They didn't show it on TV, but I still believe it was a mistake. A guy raised and somebody called it, and I came over the top with my A-K behind. There was a chance of someone getting knocked out if I hadn't interfered. Maybe I made two or three mistakes in the whole tournament, so I was happy with that.
CC: People remember the Final Table for the dynamic that both Surindar Sunar, as well as yourself carried, you both have very different personalities than Tony G who was at the table as well. You've probably had a chance to meet Tony G following this. Could you talk a little about the dynamics going on then?
Ben: I've known Tony G prior to that tournament really well. We knew what he was like, and it wasn't a surprise. It was a laughing matter for us, we were enjoying it. If you notice, Surindar didn't react much to Tony's behavior that was because Tony is one of the boys, we've played in the games with him, and we've laughed at him. It's not serious for us, but for TV it made a great impact. People are not used to seeing that kind of behavior. Tony may have been drinking a bit as well.
CC: You've been involved in poker since the beginning of televised poker. When you watch the ESPN Final Table as it is being played, good television is to see things like bad behavior, and you see players that you now play against, especially younger ones that learn behavior based on what they see, which may be either borderline or unacceptable behavior. Do you think this is simply part of it, helps the sport grow by being better television, or do you think it is becoming a problem?
Ben: To a large degree, the entertainment side of the game is selling the game; otherwise it wouldn't be as attractive to the public. Nevertheless, at the end of it all, you need to pay attention to the actual core of the game. I believe eventually that will rule. If other people are there for the entertainment part of the game, they may be involved only in those games designed for entertainment. The serious games go on, and those are the games I am playing in all the time. That's where the love of the game keeps me going, and that's where the serious stuff is happening.
CC: And behavioral problems that happen at that level, clearly at that level of the game they get taken care of.
Ben: Yeah, the behavior problems at that level do exist, really at every level. This is due to the weakness of the player since he's not in touch with reality in a sense. If you can't envisage what is happening ahead of you a little bit down the line in a poker game, the possibilities ahead of you are fairly simple. It is not the first game you've ever played and it won't be the last game you're going to be in, so embracing the whole event and the way it should be embraced, for your own sake, is key. Good behavior at the table on one hand is very good, is nice to see. If can't bring yourself to congratulate your opponent after he's beaten you, and this congratulation doesn't come from the bottom of your heart, this is purely a selfish act. This will enable you to play your very next hand well, and that's what the whole thing is all about.
CC: You come to Las Vegas quite a bit, as well as play across Europe and elsewhere in the US. Do you think that is a burden for people based in Europe, or do you think that actually it is a benefit for you to be able to travel more and see other places?
Ben: For a few years, it didn't make much difference where you lived because you could just travel to the game. I feel over the last five years especially, Vegas was the place to be. I actually wished I lived in Vegas for the last five or six years because not only would you benefit from all the big games going on, finding loose players in a game or a big player, is a good opportunity to make money. But there have also been so many opportunities away from the table - business ventures to make money. Had I been living in Vegas, it would have been much easier to grab those opportunities than someone living in Europe.
CC: When you play cash games now in Europe, have you gone to any of the new places like the Gutshot Poker Club or any of the smaller clubs like that?
Ben: I've never been to the Gutshot actually. The London scene hasn't died down, but they are very small and doesn't really warrant me putting my time there. I haven't been playing much in London, really just traveling around the scene as well.
CC: Your son has started playing now. Tell me about that, how he's been involved and how you are working with him.
Ben: Yes, that has been really very interesting for my own game as well as Jamie's game. When he turned eighteen, we went to a casino again; you're allowed to do that at eighteen in England. Before that, he had played only very low stakes online or even play money games. So he had become familiar with the value of the hands, so he had become ready to a degree to play, but of course a mountain to climb yet. I don't know, Craig, what your belief is regarding improvement in poker, but I believe that you improve at poker until the day you die. That's what makes it so beautiful to play.
CC: So what have you learned as you've taught Jamie?
Ben: Every area that I've taught him has actually sharpened me in that area to a degree too. It's also reassured me that taking the game on correctly from the beginning is a sure way of becoming rich, but you need to follow the rules and you need to know how to take each step. And you need to know which steps to take.
CC: You're known as Gentleman Ben. Does Jamie share the same behavioral characteristics?
Ben: He's kind of copied me in every way. His game is very similar to mine, and his behavior at the table is very similar to mine. I think he's tried to copy me, and in some areas that's not a bad thing.
CC: Having been through poker during this whole explosion, as a professional poker player, what are the two or three things you see that have changed significantly, besides just the size of it all?
Ben: The most obvious change for me is the plentifulness of the game. I now don't have to struggle to look for cash games, they are there. Not only live games but the huge growth in internet games allows me to play in my own home, so the games are plentiful. There is no shortage of play, which is a big thing for me.
CC: Because when you started, finding a game and the game selection, even your ability to compete in a specific game against specific people that was a big part of being able to make a living or lose money, right?
Ben: Absolutely. You need to be realistic, you may be a winning player, but like a friend of mine, Doyle Brunson said, "A friend of ours is the seventh best player in the world, but every time he plays he plays with the top six!"
CC: Working with Jamie, have you talked with someone like Doyle or Barry Greenstein how they worked with their sons in poker?
Ben: You know, I haven't and maybe I should, but being a winner player each year for thirty-three years has given me the level of confidence to teach him by myself.
CC: Barry told me that early on, he really pushed Joe (Sebok) to avoid poker, he really wanted Joe to come to a conclusion for himself, probably like Jamie has, to decide, you know what? I really want to do this.
Ben: We're still not clear whether Jamie is going to continue this. He's going through the testing time right now, and his next mission is to produce between 200-300 hours of one size game and show a positive result. If he fails to do that, we have no game. He will continue his studies at university and pursue his passion for music. You have to be realistic, and in poker you don't have to rely on someone's opinion, you can produce a record and that record is speaking the truth.
*A footnote to this interview* Ben and I spent an hour or so at Johnny Chan 's party, then he asked me to join him at another party that Bluff Magazine was holding. We greeted a couple of his friends, I introduced him to a few of the people I knew, and we found a quiet table to stand next to, chatting like a couple of old chums who enjoy living and watching the scenery of life. After chatting for another thirty minutes or so, we grabbed a cab and headed back to the Rio, where I headed back to work and Ben went to see if he could find a juicy cash game before returning to the Bellagio.