Although he may not be a household name stateside yet, fans in the U.K. pumped triumphant fists in the air at the news that James Akenhead had worked his way to the WSOP Main Event Final Table. The 26-year-old had widely been touted as the U.K. player to watch in Las Vegas this year and if that wasn’t accolade enough, having Irish Open Champion and legendary backer Neil Channing staking you for 25% of your action is usually like printing money.
Akenhead is a member of the young U.K. poker outfit, The HitSquad, a group of players from London that includes bracelet-winner Praz Bansi and Grosvenor U.K. Poker Tour champions Sunny Chattha and Karl Mahrenholz. Together they have been tearing up the U.K. circuit for several years, in particular on the Grosvenor tour, the flagship poker tour in the U.K. This motley crew of poker pros has climbed the ranks of the low-stakes games in the gutshot card room all the way to the WSOP spotlight they are now enjoying.
Although Akenhead is regarded as perhaps the most naturally talented and aggressive member of the group and has the most tournament winnings with $2.2 million, he is also equally regarded as the "nearly man" with that first major title evading him. He has made a number of big final tables in his short career but never got the breaks when he needed them to lift the silverware. He has twice made main-event finals in the GUKPT, came in fourth in the 888 UK Open, and most notably came in second in Event 2 of the 2008 WSOP, the $1,500 no-limit hold’em event.
It was that event that really brought about the idea that he was a "nearly man" with a hand he would struggle to forget in a hurry. Heads up and almost even in chips, holding ace-king, he frustrated Grant Hinkle into reraising all-in with 10-4 offsuit that he quickly called. The flop brought not one but two tens, followed very slowly by a ten on the turn to give his opponent quads and the bracelet. By no means was it the statistically worst beat in the world, but the timing and the manner of it meant that Akenhead was known for a long time as the unlucky victim of "that hand" in the U.K., although he did end up $520,219 richer, so let’s not be too sympathetic.
But that day is far behind him and whatever happens in November, the future is bright for Akenhead. Shortly before making the final table, he penned a sponsorship deal with Full Tilt Poker, one which he vindicated almost instantly by making the final nine of the "big one." Since then, he has become the poster boy for poker in the U.K. and went on to make two more high-profile final tables. He repeated the feat of Ivan Demidov in 2008 by making the WSOPE final last month in London and last week he made the final table of the Full Tilt Poker Million, a televised shootout tournament in the U.K. that reconvenes in December with a million-dollar first prize.
The Path to the November Nine
Akenhead started on Day 1c of the Main Event and got off to one of the worst possible starts, bluffing his stack down to about 4,000 before the first dinner break. He regained his composure and somehow managed to find himself with a more-than-respectable 70,000 chips by the end of play, which put him firmly in the top half of the chip counts where he stayed for most of the tournament. By the end of Day 2b, that early blip was long forgotten and he continued to gain ground on the leaderswith 278,000 chips. By Day 5 he was among the top ten overall chip leaders with an impressive 2.7 million.
He enjoyed a long WSOP Main Event in which he both played well and ran well. It was not until the final day that he took a major hit when he lost a coinflip with ace-king versus pocket eights that crippled him. Fortunately, he was able to adjust to short-stack play quickly despite having a deep stack for most of the tournament. Apart from that major setback, he actually went on a bit of a heater on the final day to get himself to the final table, albeit not as much as he would have liked because he still returns as the short stack. The Rio did not know what hit it when he officially became one of the November Nine, such was the frenzied celebration from his loyal rail. He attributes his success in this tournament to the support he got from his HitSquad buddies and their pep talks at the end of each day.
What to Watch For
Akenhead is the short-stack at the final table, so he needs to double up early. Luckily for him, he won’t be short of action because in seat two he is sandwiched between overall chip leader Darvin Moon (Seat 1) and poker legend Phil Ivey (Seat 3). Always playing to win, Akenhead will not be looking to climb the pay ladder and expecting either an early double-up or a swift exit from the Englishman, who will no doubt have one of the loudest rails in Vegas no matter where he finishes.