Ike Haxton talks to FlushDraw
If you were asked to start listing the best poker players in the world today, you wouldn’t have to go too far down most people’s lists to find the name Ike Haxton. He’s a high-stakes, heads-up cash-game monster, but his skills aren’t limited to the cash-game arena. He’s got a more-than-decent tournament pedigree to his name. Away from the table, Ike also may be the only member of the high stakes community who is able to articulate the strategies he uses in a way that makes the rest of us have a chance of understanding them without a supercomputer or a master’s degree in probability and statistics.
I was lucky enough to arrange some time with Ike during my trip to the London stop of the PokerStars European Poker Tour, which was being held in association with the Hippodrome Casino London.
FlushDraw: WCOOP finished a little while ago. How did this year’s series go for you?
Haxton: I played only a medium amount of tournaments and didn’t do well in any of them. I played a lot of zoom PLO all month. $25/$50 was running all the time during the WCOOP, so that was mostly what I did after I busted. That went really well; I made a bunch in cash games that month.
FlushDraw: How is the online grind going at the moment?
Haxton: Good, good. The main thing I’m playing this year is Zoom PLO. I’m really happy with that, its easy to get a lot of hands in. I’m almost on pace for Supernova Elite. It’s going to take a bit of a push in the last couple of months, I think, either a lot of volume or a couple of weeks of playing more heads-up sit & gos and less cash. But yes, online is good.
FlushDraw: Do you think Zoom is the future of the cash game or is it just going to vie with traditional cash?
Haxton: I doubt it will entirely replace traditional cash but I think it will be an increasingly big part of the mid- to high-stakes volume online going forward. I think it’s a good format for a lot of reasons but I think it also has some drawbacks from the traditional game, but it has more benefits, especially for high stakes PLO in today’s online climate. I think it’s pretty clearly better than 6-max tables.
FlushDraw: With you living in Malta are you looking forward to the EPT’s new stop?
Haxton: I am! I’m really looking forward to it. It is almost literally across the street from my apartment. It’s certainly less than a three-minute walk, so that will be really nice. Getting to just stay at home, get up and just walk two minutes to the tournament site every morning will be pretty sweet, and I think it will be a great EPT. It’s a really fun neighbourhood, a lot of good food around, pretty reasonably priced relative to other places the EPT takes us, at least some of them. I think people are going to have a really good time in Malta, I think it’s a good venue for a tournament.
FlushDraw: Do you think you’ll have an advantage with it being so close to home?
Haxton: Probably not a big one. Getting to sleep in my own bed at night between the days at the tournament is pretty cool.
FlushDraw: With all the traveling you do on the EPT circuit, do you miss home? Not just for Malta, but the States as well?
Haxton: I can’t say I get homesick for the States very much. Maybe very abstractly sort of homesick for a situation in which I’m a citizen of the country in which I live, and there are annoying visa restrictions and stuff like that hanging over me every day, but can’t say there’s any one place in the US that I would think of as the place I’m homesick for. Obviously I miss my family but my hometown of Syracuse, it doesn’t have a lot other than that to recommend it, and I wouldn’t say I’m homesick for Vegas which is the closest thing I’ve had to a home since graduating high school. I wouldn’t say homesick; sometimes the traveling gets a little bit old. I guess sometimes I wish I could go back to the situation I had in Vegas, pretty much living in Panorama Towers with a lot of my friends around, that was pretty nice.
FlushDraw: Are you waiting for the return of online poker for the US? Do you see it happening?
Haxton: I’m not very optimistic that there will be [a widespread return]. There’s going to be online poker in the US, [in fact] there already is online poker in the US. There’s going to be more every year going forward.
I would be shocked to see that trend reversed, but I don’t see it progressing rapidly enough. I mean, not that I’m any sort of expert on this, but right after Black Friday I thought, ‘Aw, this will all probably be sorted out in like eighteen months or something, they’re not going to just leave all this money on the floor!’ However, it seems they are content to leave the money on the floor and I wouldn’t be real surprised if it’s five years or more before there’s the sort of online poker in the US that would make it good enough for me to move back there.
I pretty much need international player pools to consider going back. Maybe if there were a nationwide, US-only player pool, that would be good enough to maybe spend part of the year there; California only would be about as big as dot-fr (France) or dot-es (Spain). I think that wouldn’t be terrible, but I would still probably prefer to stay outside the US and play on international sites. Naturally, I would like to continue playing on PokerStars specifically so it would be good to see PokerStars with an international player pool in the US before I went back.
FlushDraw: So you’re living in Malta; you’re obviously quite happy right now. How is the life of Isaac Haxton? Are you enjoying yourself? Do you have a good work/life balance?
Haxton: I am pretty happy in the way I am, but I’m not sure I would say I have a good work/life balance. I think if you ask my wife, she would say I should work a bit less, and I think she probably has more objectivity about that than I do! I feel like there’s just always more to be doing, more hours of poker to play, more studying, I’m permanently behind on all my accounting and record keeping, travel planning which my wife handles 90-percent-plus of. I’d say I’m very busy — I’m bad at relaxing, anyway; I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not working!
FlushDraw: I can empathise with you there, actually. I seem to spend most of my life reading about poker or writing about poker or something else in the general field — it’s one of those things that grabs people and doesn’t let you go.
Haxton: Yeah, when I’m done for the day I’ll relax; I’ll watch a strategy video or I fall asleep.
FlushDraw: You still watch other people’s strategy videos?
Haxton: Yes. It’s good to know what’s out there, what other people are talking about. I wouldn’t say its one of my primary forms of studying at this point, but yeah, I still watch strategy videos from time to time. Mainly I watch Phil Galfond and Ben Sulsky.
FlushDraw: Have you ever thought about doing more strategy work?
Haxton: I have, and every time I’ve reached the conclusion that there’s just not a way for me to do it that I’m really very happy with.
FlushDraw: You’d be giving up your edge?
Haxton: I’d have to choose between making much more basic content than I could make and giving up information I don’t want to give up. I don’t like either of those options; I wouldn’t really feel good about putting out deliberately second-rate material.
FlushDraw: You wouldn’t feel comfortable pitching it at a mid-stakes level, for example? Something that wouldn’t erode your edge?
Haxton: I have thought about it. I’ve come close to doing it a couple of times. I made videos for Pokersavvy.com five years ago. I found that it took up a lot more of my time than I was expecting. I think I’ve gotten better at speaking to a microphone than I was five years ago. The practice from doing EPT Live has been great for that.
FlushDraw: Do you have any goals you’ve set yourself? Is there anything on your to-do list before the end of the year?
Haxton: Not really, not in terms of broad goals. In terms of what specifically I’m doing before the end of the year, I’m doing the EPT London right now. I’ll be home in Malta for like ten days, then I’m going to Macau for the tournaments there, and then staying in Hong Kong for a few weeks after tournaments, in part to build up some days outside the EU so I can come back, (visa restrictions) and in part because I love Hong Kong and look forward to spending some time there.
FlushDraw: Is that going to be a vacation or a working trip?
Haxton: Pretty much a working trip. I don’t have that long between now and the end of the year; I’m less than 75% of the way to Supernova so I can’t really be taking time off but I hope I’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the city. I don’t do vacations so much as extended visits to different cities that I like where I can enjoy the city for an hour or two at a time and still work every day. This year I spent six weeks in Kuala Lumpur, six weeks in Vancouver, in between traveling to tournaments and spending as much time as I can in Malta as well.
FlushDraw: You say you try to experience a city a couple of hours at a time. What do you do in those hours?
Haxton: Mainly eat!
FlushDraw: There’s no better way to learn a city than by its food!
Haxton: No way I’m more interested in, in any case!
FlushDraw: You played EPT London Day 1a. How’d you do? Anything interesting happen at your table or was it just standard grind?
Haxton: I finished around sixty-five (65th). Mainly just a typical day… a crotchety old guy slow-rolled another guy with aces for absolutely no reason. That was kind of funny; it was really out of nowhere and uncalled for. This guy had been doing well all day. He had a lot of chips, deemed to be in perfectly good spirits. He opens and some younger pro jams like twenty big blinds over the open. It folds back to the older guy who isn’t covered by a lot, who like sits there, stroking his chin for about thirty seconds. He reluctantly puts out a call, the kid tables ace-king, the guy shakes his head and sits there a little while longer and then like picks his cards up over his head and like windmill slams aces onto the table!
FlushDraw: I take it that’s not something you see too often when you play!
Haxton: Not much. Cash games with Macau guys may be the exception; the Macau guys are big fans of slow rolling.
FlushDraw: But they’re there for fun. They’re not really there for the money; they’re really there just to enjoy themselves.
Haxton: Right, and in a cash game, where people know each other and its the right kind of vibe? Then, slow-rolling is hilarious, actually. I’m totally on board with people who know each other slow-rolling each other, even if it’s for huge sums of money. In a cash game where everybody knows each other or slow-rolling someone you don’t know when you’re about to bust them from a tournament. I mean, the way you can tell the difference between whether it’s appropriate or inappropriate slow-rolling is that no one laughed when this happened! No one said anything; everyone just sat there looking like, ‘That just happened, right?’
Ike isn’t the only one with talent in his family. His dad has just had a book published on Ike’s life and career in poker.
Haxton: It is called “Fading Hearts on the River,” which is a slightly embarrassing title, but it’s really good. He is a serious writer, a poet, [and] this is his first work of full-length prose.
FlushDraw: He’s a professor as well, isn’t he?
Haxton: Yeah, he’s a professor and writes poetry and has published on the order of ten books before this, either of original poetry or of translations. This is his first prose and it’s sort of a family memoir talking about interesting stories from our family going back several generations, all sort of focused around the theme of games and what do games mean to people, what it’s all about to play a game for a living.
FlushDraw: Was there anything you’d have edited out, or didn’t want in there, or something that your dad didn’t quite get?
Haxton: No, I think he definitely got it, certainly with respect to poker, completely.
FlushDraw: Does he play?
Haxton: A little bit; he hosts a home game with other people from the English department from time to time and has played in casinos a couple of times.
FlushDraw: Obviously you’re not invited to his home games! Was there ever a time when it was the family around the table with a pack of cards?
Haxton: Absolutely, yeah. The first poker I played was heads up against my dad, I was like five or something!
It seems we have Ike’s dad to thank for his love of poker, and I know what I’m going to be asking to get for Christmas this year, so I can say I had a successful trip to the EPT.
Ike was the last interview of my time in London, and I think it may have been the most insightful. Talking to Victoria Coren, Jason Mercier and Marc Convey was great, and I certainly enjoyed every second of talking to them. Ike, however, just seemed to be a living avatar for poker. We ended up talking for way over the twenty minutes the PokerStars press team had allocated for my interview, and it took us both seeing the next guy in the queue before we realised we should stop talking!
(Photos of Ike Haxton courtesy of Danny Maxwell and the PokerStars blog)