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Barry Hearn: Making Things Happen

by Jesse May |  Published: Aug 01, 2005

Barry means to devour poker

I might as well be Moses on the mountaintop. I'm standing in a vestibule in Kent, looking out at the cold, wet countryside, and, with an English wind whipping through the door, it's a far-from-comfortable place to have an easy conversation. But there's not one chance in a million that I'll move an inch, because Barry Hearn is speaking. I might as well be Moses on the mountaintop, because when the Matchroom chairman and visionary sports promoter opens his mouth, you could swear that the Ten Commandments are about to fall out. Hearn is talking poker, and, though I've been in the business for umpteen years and like to believe that I've heard it all, when Barry Hearn starts talking about the future of poker, you'd have to be a stronger man than me not to want to lay down your plowshare and follow behind him.

Later on, we move our conversation to a television studio. Between heats of the European Open, Barry tells me his story in his expansive voice, spreading his hands, flashing his smile, fixing his gaze on me with those piercing eyes. Barry moves mountains with his words and backs them up with his actions, and he's done that all his life.

The first time that poker encountered Barry Hearn was in the autumn of 2000, when he did something so outrageous that no one believed it could succeed. He organized a poker tournament on the Isle of Man with a £1 million-guaranteed first prize, at that time the largest-ever winner's prize in tournament poker. Something else made the tournament really special, however, something that brought champions and chancers from all over the world, and had television audiences in Great Britain agog at the spectacle. The tournament's final table of six was played live on television – with holecard cameras so that the viewers could see the players' cards. John Duthie won that tournament and catapulted his form into poker lore, but it was Barry Hearn who made history by doing something bigger than anyone thought was possible.

Barry recounts the events that led to that tournament on the Isle of Man, the first Ladbrokes Poker Million, with no small amount of pride. "I was attending a fight in Atlantic City in 1999," he remembered, "and I read a magazine article by Donald Trump about the explosion of poker." Later on, when he was downstairs in the Taj Mahal casino, Hearn saw a large line forming just outside the poker room. "Being English, I have a preoccupation with queuing," he laughed, "and I found that I was witnessing my first-ever poker tournament." Barry was beside himself. "I had just discovered a sport where players pay the prize money!"

There was no way, however, that Barry was going to get involved in poker before trying it himself. "Matchroom only does events I play," is Hearn's golden rule. "You can't promote something that you don't have a passion for." Hearn started playing online, and he was immediately hooked. "Poker does so many different things for me," he said. "It's always a test, and though you can't conquer luck, you canalways improve." Improvements to his own game have happened quite quickly. When Matchroom started promoting poker tournaments, Hearn was welcome in the games as a celebrity, "a fish," dead money in the prize pool. But these days, after making three final tables intelevised events, including a third-place finish in Celebrity Poker Club and the runner-up spot in the European Open, Hearn has been shut out of Matchroom events. "They won't let me play in the events I'm promoting anymore," he said ruefully.

It was far from easy to turn the first Poker Million from an idea into reality. Back in 2000, live poker had never before been contemplated on TV, but Barry was insistent: "My view on sport is that it should always be live." Then there was a question about the prize money. One hundred and seventy-two players put up the £6,000 entry fee to play, and with five minutes to go before the tournament started, it appeared that there would be only one prize – a fact that had players grumbling and in near-revolt. In one smooth motion, Barry convinced Ladbrokes' Ian Payne to contribute an extra £250,000 to the prize pool, a move that has never received the credit it deserved. The amount was massive and legendary, and turned what could have been a debacle into an event that not only helped pave the way for a poker explosion, but also showed that Barry Hearn was going to be good for the players.

Hearn's initial success with the Poker Million was to take a while to reap rewards, as a "whole slate of legal problems" caused a two-year break in the Poker Million and Matchroom Sports' televised poker. But today, poker at Matchroom is on a roll, going from "zero to hero in three years," as Barry put it, and poker is now the biggest division in the company.

A mesmerizing speaker

Hearn believes that he has found the formula for televised poker. "It's just been a question of letting the sport mature," he explained, "and acceding to what the public demands." These days it's all about bigger purses and more live action, and that's where Matchroom is heading. In addition to regular televised events like the Ladbrokes Poker Million, the European Open, and the Pacific Poker Open, Matchroom is launching a new televised poker series this summer called Poker Den, which will feature live poker every Friday night, broadcast on television, and will award £50,000 on a weekly basis at a table made up of three online qualifiers and three invitees. As always, said Barry, players who have supported Matchroom through the years will have the first crack when it comes to playing with cash.

Despite his integral role in helping up-and-coming sports, Barry has had trouble with the way the public perceive him. When he took over Leyton Orient (Barry's football club), people asked him, "Are you an asset stripper?" Hearn replied, "What assets?" Whether it's snooker, darts, fishing, or poker, when Barry Hearn gets involved, sports have blossomed. "I'm making the cake bigger and bigger," stated Hearn. "Yes, I'm taking a slice, but look! After three years in poker, it's working!" Despite the fact that Matchroom now dominates the market, Hearn maintains that Matchroom is not anti-competition. "There's choice, but we're number one. And I want to stay there."

Barry with his able lieutenant, Andy Pyrah

Hearn already has done much to expand poker globally through Matchroom's distribution arm, which is sending poker television out around the world. Barry can see a professional poker tour, but in his mind it is still some years away. "Though the game is now played at an unsurpassed standard," he said, "there is still a danger of players getting above their station. Poker can evolve to that, but there's no Tiger Woods as of yet. Poker is too open. The players need television and television needs players."

What gets Barry Hearn excited right now is bigger and bigger prize pools. "In two years' time," he dreams, "we'll have an Internet tournament with a $100,000 buy-in, and when the field is reduced to 72 players, they'll be on television." A $100,000 buy-in tournament? Sounds like a pipe dream. But, after spending some time talking to Barry Hearn, you'd be a very sick man to bet against him making it happen.