We recently caught up with Kenny Hallaert, the Tournament Director that made the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event Final Table, while he was acting as the Tournament Director for the Copenhagen stop of the Unibet Open.
In part 1 of our interview, Kenny tells us about how his poker career got started, and he shares his thoughts on some of the topics faced by live tournament organizers.
In part 2, he talks about his preparation for the Final Table, the three month break in the tournament, his view about the role of Main Event Champion and more interesting tidbits that you won’t want to miss.
Tell us a little bit about your background as a poker player. How did you get started, and what are some of the things you have done throughout your poker career?
“I never considered myself a professional poker player. I do play a lot, and with the job that I have, I also have a lot of spare time to play a lot of poker. But, I always liked to have a job in addition to poker”I got to know poker back in 2004. While making some small sports bets on my favorite football team, I saw a banner for poker and I was like “oh that might be an interesting game.” I’d heard about the game before, but I never played it, even though I was already 23 years old at the time.
So I clicked on the banner, went to the rules and started playing. Obviously I wasn’t good at it, I was playing purely as a recreational player, but I had fun. I was playing small stakes and a lot of tournaments. After a while, I found out that there was some strategy behind the game, so I started reading some forums, bought some books, and started studying the game.
In early 2005 I actually stopped playing for a couple of months, and the only thing I did during that time was study. Then I said to myself, “ok I’m going to make one more deposit,” and I never looked back.
I put $50 on partypoker and started playing low stakes limit games. I grinded my way up in Limit games and later on switched over to No Limit Hold’em, again, grinding it up from the small stakes games.
In 2008 I became more interested in playing MTTs. I had more fun playing them, they were more challenging for me and the first place prize was very appealing. Cash games seemed like more like a grind, but I found the different stages throughout a tournament to be more interesting, and from time to time you make a final table which always very exciting.
“All of a sudden they see a green card and a blue card coming on the flop. People may wonder if they are playing Uno or poker!”So I switched over to MTTs, and today they are still my main game. From time to time I do play some cash games, sometimes online, sometimes live, but 90-95% of the poker I play is tournaments.
How did you get started as a tournament director?
In 2005, the first ever live tournament in Belgium took place at the Casino de Namur. I was there, and I even cashed. It’s not on Hendon Mob unfortunately because the results got lost and cannot be retrieved. Anyway, because there was a law in Belgium that you could only organize one tournament each year, and because at the time poker was more popular in Holland that it was in Belgium, I played a lot in Holland and got to know a lot of people there.
Then in late 2007, I invited many of them over to Belgium for a tournament, and at the time, Casino of Namur was looking for someone to do marketing for their poker room. They saw I knew a lot of players and offered me a job.
I started working there February 1, 2008, and throughout the years that job changed into more of a job running tournaments. In Easter 2009, I organized my first event as a Tournament Director.
I also worked as TD for the France Poker Series, and then Floor Manager at a couple of EPTs. This year I was offered the TD job for the Unibet Open.
Were you a little bit tempted to pass it up after making the November Nine?
“The moment they make the WSOP Main Event a re-entry event, I think that’s the end of poker!”No, not really. I never considered myself a professional poker player. I do play a lot, and with the job that I have, I also have a lot of spare time to play a lot of poker.
But, I always liked to have a job in addition to poker for a couple of reasons: It was an income that paid the bills, so I never had to worry about having to make money playing poker, and even if I would have gone broke, I wouldn’t have had to worry about it because I had a job that paid the bills. Plus, it was a good distraction from playing poker from time to time yet still in the poker industry, within the game that I have a big passion for. So for me it was an ideal combination playing a bit of poker and then from time to time organizing an event.
I never thought, even after making the Final Table, that I should decline the Unibet Tournament Director job. Especially this event [Unibet Open Copenhagen], with so much time before the Final Table. If it was two weeks before the Final Table, maybe I would have looked into some other options, but with so much time to prepare myself for the final table, I decided to still do the job.
Will you continue as a TD?
A lot of people ask me—what will do after the November Nine? Well first of all, there are tournaments. “There’s a big difference between finishing ninth for one million and finishing first for eight million dollars” The big yearly tournament in Namur, the Belgian Poker Challenge, starts November 25, and I’ve already accepted that job. I promised them no matter what happens in Vegas, I will be the TD for that event.
It’ll be like a victory lap!
Like a victory lap, indeed. But I’m not thinking about my future right now. The Main Event isn’t over yet, so I don’t know how much money I will receive in the end. I’m going to make a decision on the future of my career once the tournament is over, once the dust has settled a bit. Then I will start thinking about my future.
Maybe I will continue to TD tournaments, maybe I won’t, or maybe I will just work less. There’s still a big difference between finishing ninth for one million and finishing first for eight million dollars, so obviously the final result will have an impact on my decision.
As a Tournament Director, what are your thoughts on the “first card off the deck” rule and 4-color decks being introduced into the live game?
I was there at the two last TDA summits in 2013 and 2015, I voted in favor of the “first card off the deck” rule. I think it’s a good rule for poker in general. Unfortunately, in 2015, the rule was reverted back to the “last card off the deck” rule. If I had to choose, well, I voted again last year for the first card rule. All things considered, I think it’s better for poker, but I can live with it being last card, it’s not a very big deal.
Regarding four color decks, I’m not a fan of it. I think in live poker, we have red and black cards, that’s it. If I play online, I do use 4 color decks, I couldn’t play without it any more.
“Sometimes players get upset about structures and schedules. It’s not always easy as a TD to come up with a good schedule that works for everybody.”I’ve played with 4 color decks [live], I think it was last year at EPT Malta when they tested 4 color decks. I played one of those events, and I wasn’t a fan of it. I think for live poker, it looks weird. Imagine people are watching the World Series of Poker Main Event and all of a sudden they see a green card and a blue card coming on the flop. People may wonder if they are playing Uno or poker!
What do you think are some things that TDs in general could be doing to make poker more player friendly?
I think in general, most if not all of the tournaments that I am familiar with are already player friendly. One of the big advantages that I personally have is that I do play a lot of poker, and that helps me in my job as a TD. I do have a good feeling about what players at the table want. I feel what their emotions are, so because I talk to players as a player myself, when I have to make rulings on situations it’s definitely an advantage for me.
Sometimes players get upset about structures and schedules. It’s not always easy as a TD to come up with a good schedule that works for everybody. There are so many things you have to take into consideration which players aren’t always aware of: You have to have rooms and staff; you have to take into account operating hours of the casino; sometimes the staff can only work a limited amount of time; you have coordinate with catering.
There are so many things you have to take into consideration. If you have to work with live streams, sometimes those can only work a certain number of hours as well. So those are all things you have to take into consideration when you set up a festival.
Not all players understand. They might ask “why is registration already closed?” and “why have you stopped it so fast?” And it’s not always easy! We as Tournament Directors are always open to players. We want them to have our ear because we do it for them. We don’t do it to make rake. We don’t particularly want to make a “rakefest” out of tournaments. Definitely not at all. We want the players to enjoy their time, and we are open to input from players. Where possible, we will adjust things, but we are sometimes limited ourselves in making changes. I think players in general should be a little more understanding towards Tournaments Directors as well.
Last question. Rebuys and re-entries: Are they good or bad for poker?
I’m not a fan of re-entry tournaments in general. I do prefer freezeout events. Sometimes a re-entry event can be interesting if for a small buy-in you want to create a huge prizepool. but re-entry in general, I’m not a fan of it. It also depends a little bit on the whole schedule of the festival. For example, if you can jump from one tournament to another, there is no need to have a lot of re-entry events. If you’re limited for certain reasons, and you can only have one event per day, maybe re-entry could be a good option.
But the moment they make the WSOP Main Event a re-entry event, I think that’s the end of poker!