You might think It’s only seasoned professionals who win big-money poker prizes. That’s not the case, though. Just ask John Hesp from Yorkshire because five years ago, his fourth place in the World Series of Poker Main Event won him $2.6 million.
John was 64 years old when winning that great prize and proving he was far more than just a caravan sales centre owner.
He didn’t win his money just playing some Texas Hold’em hands in Las Vegas – it was in the World Series of Poker main event, the best tournament in the world.
There were no online poker sites when John was growing up. His home didn’t even have a telly, so time was spent playing cards. It wasn’t long before he was playing in the local whist drive against local pensioners. You don’t get too far away from a multi-million poker tournament in Vegas than that.
As he reached adulthood, John began playing poker at a yacht club in Bridlington. Eventually, poker began to be shown on late-night television. That inspired him to begin playing tournaments held at the Napoleons Casino and Restaurant in Hull.
That experience saw his playing ability increase. It only cost him £10 to enter those tournaments, and John admits he loved the social side of it more than anything. “Playing poker has never been about the money for me,” he says.
Just how did he go from whist drives and £10 buy-in events to competing in Las Vegas? Early 2017 saw him telling his wife he’d love to play in the World Series. Winning a huge amount wasn’t the real aim; it was more “a bucket-list sort of thing.” His wife said, “Why not, go for it,” so he did.
There were over 7,000 players in the tournament, and it cost a lot more than a tenner to be able to compete. The buy-in (entry fee) for the World Series was $10,000.John, who ran a caravan sales business in Bridlington, didn’t have high expectations of success, and his return flight was booked well before the tournament’s final day.
To his surprise, though, he just kept on getting through to the next day. For him, just getting into the top thousand was good enough. “Anything else was a bonus,” he said, never imagining he’d go on to reach the final table.
John had to extend his stay in Vegas but suddenly found himself getting offers of sponsorship. That was the result of the media going crazy about this unknown player wearing a multi-coloured shirt and a hat.
He finished fourth and was now a millionaire but had a slight problem with his mobile phone. It just kept ringing, and he had no idea how to switch it off. He wrapped it up in a towel just so he could get some sleep.
The big winner adored the social side of the tournament. He couldn’t believe how his poker heroes now wanted to have their photos taken with him. His view is that experience alone was worth the $10,000 it cost him to enter the tournament.
How has life been since his big win? Well, there’s been talk of a Hollywood movie about his success. A script has been produced, but the pandemic has delayed filming. It’d make a great film, and a book about his life is also a possibility.
There was to be no big spending spree for John. Speaking in 2020, he revealed that the money was still in the bank. “We didn’t need fancy holidays, big expensive toys, or anything like that.”
Some treats were given to his family, but he admitted, “We haven’t really spent anything on ourselves.”
One aim John has is to show people that poker isn’t all about smoke-filled rooms. Rather than emphasising players winning and losing huge amounts, John wants to show how much fun playing poker can be.
He has been back to Vegas since his big win and played other events. He still doesn’t want to take it too seriously, though. John is still happily playing with his friends and says, “it’s not about the winning; it’s all about the ride.”
The pandemic affected us all in some way. For John, it meant that those nights playing poker and enjoying some refreshments came to an end. He just couldn’t wait to get back to going to his friend’s house or hosting events once the restrictions were lifted. May his days enjoying poker continue.