James Akenhead: The UK hero on why he left poker and what he’s doing in 2014

In 2009 James Akenhead was on top of the world. The south Londoner made the November Nine alongside Phil Ivey and Darvin Moon in one of the most memorable WSOP Main Event finales in recent history. He then followed that up by cruising to the WSOPE main event final in London and winning the prestigious Poker Million TV event to cap off a remarkable year, winning just under $2m. Suddenly the hottest player in UK poker, Akenhead was expected to start bagging bracelets and making millions more in the years to come. 

However, just over four years later Akenhead has left poker behind and  moved into the business world, investing in pub/restaurant The Reach Bar in London’s Docklands area. I travelled down to the docks to meet with Akenhead to find out what happened in those intervening years, why he quit the game and more details on his exciting new venture…  

PokerPlayer: What was it like to suddenly be in the poker spotlight in 2009?
James Akenhead: I felt I was on top of the world. Not just financially – even though it is a shock to have that much money – but I was so excited to go back to Vegas for the November Nine and not know what was to happen. Whatever I did I always knew that at the back of my mind I was going back to Vegas to play for a potential $9m. 

Did you feel that your success was deserved at that time?
I’m not sure. I think it’s hard for anyone to expect that much success, no matter how good you are. It all came at once, and that’s what poker is like. You can have years where you have two or three results and they can be back-to-back-to-back like that or you can have years where you don’t get a single result. I’ve had both and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get out of poker – to have some stability financially or even emotionally. Those bad years can hurt. But those good years are great. 

What was it like making the November Nine with Ivey?
It was an incredible opportunity.  To get a player like Ivey to the final table of an 8,000 runner tournament is incredible. We played together on a couple of days and it was good fun to play with him, and watch him fold a flush by mistake! He’s human after all!

Was late 2009 the best period of your life?
When you play professionally for ten years, from 20 years old to 30, poker is your life. So that was the best period of my life – it was an incredible year.

Do you think you’d change much if that run happened now?
Looking back I would change some things financially. You’d find it hard to find a poker player who wouldn’t. When you’re 26 and you win seven figures you go mental! I’d stop spending that money in that nightclub etc, but at the same time you’re having fun, you’re young and you learn a lot from those periods in your life. I’m so glad I have put the rest of my money into this place [The Reach Bar]. [Working] has woken me up a lot to the real world. For ten years I was my own boss; you wake up when you want and it sounds great but at the same time it’s almost like it’s not reality. There are no structure or foundations to your life. You’re always gambling, not just with money but what are you going to do every single day.

After 2009 was it really hard to live up to expectations in 2010? 
2010 was a crap year. I barely cashed. It was definitely a losing year. It was very frustrating not to go deeper in tournaments – I felt like I was running really bad but I didn’t want to moan about being unlucky ever. It was depressing at the end of the year for myself. To this day I still think I was playing well in 2010, 2011 and 2012 but I got very few results so the numbers suggest that you are not playing your best and not playing well.

Did it worry you?
After 18 months of this dry spell I thought that if this can happen this long how could I go through my 30s, 40s and 50s with this possibly happening? I still couldn’t cash to save my life. I was trying things just to make myself cash now. I was playing really tight to try and increase the chance of me cashing – and it still wasn’t happening. 

Do you think your barren spell was a blessing in disguise?
You can definitely take positives from any situation. It made me realise that poker wasn’t for me full time career-wise. I still love the game and want to go back to Vegas for the rest of my life. But playing out of a suitcase every single day – which I did for seven years – is no more. 

How did you decide to leave poker behind and open up a pub?
I’ve always loved eating and drinking – not drinking to get pi**ed but to go to new restaurants that are opening. I had this crazy idea about three years ago to open my own place. I was looking at ideas, areas and places. I had just hit 28 and thought, shall we just do it? I shut my eyes and jumped. 

How did you settle on The Reach Bar?
I originally wanted to open a Japanese upper-class style restaurant in Blackheath [where Akenhead is from]. It has nice restaurants and a lot of money there but not much Asian cuisine. I think that would do really well there but it didn’t work out. Then my idea was to do a healthy fast food restaurant, but eventually someone said to come and have a look at this place down on the docks! I spoke to the guy who owned the building and he said that he didn’t want to make much money out of it – but just wanted somewhere nice that he could take his clients to for lunch. That was a bonus.

What is the Docklands area like?
We’re very excited about it, and this building is so nice [it's a Grade II listed building]. It’s very up and coming. It’s a bit of a gamble in that there’s not much through traffic but at the same time there are currently 400 flats around this building and in two years there will be 1800. In four years’ time there will be a £1bn Chinese business park and then Cross Rail will be through here too. The whole area is moving this way up the dock.

How much work was it to convert The Reach Bar to what it looks like now?
It was a completely empty shell apart from the listed bar in the middle. It was a ridiculous shock to the system converting this place after being a poker player. I went from getting up when I wanted to not only having to get up at 6am but immediately having to respond to emails or making phone calls. If you want something doing you must do it now whereas before you’d put it off for a few days, and just reply when you felt like it, if ever. Now, if your phone provider breaks you must do it immediately. 

Is this a pub/gastropub or restaurant?
We fall in the middle somewhere. I hate to be labelled as such but I guess it is a gastropub where you can drink. We have some really good things on the menu.

Did you play any poker at all in 2013? 
I played a few WCOOP events but barely. I haven’t had time to think about poker so I haven’t missed it! At the same time I’d love to go back to Vegas for all of the key events. Once this place is settled down and hopefully successful I want to do that and see the boys as well.

Are your days of being a poker pro over?
It’s almost definitely never going to be my main source of income again. But ten years is ten years – it’s a big chapter of my life and I’ll never look back on any of it with any regret. I enjoyed it, met some great friends, and went through a lot of highs and lows. I’ve driven nice cars and created nice memories and a big learning curve for myself. 

You can visit James Akenhead at his excellent new pub The Reach Bar in London’s Docklands. Find out more at www.thereachbar.co.uk.

For more poker interviews and great content, get the latest issue of PokerPlayer magazine on iTunes here. 


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