To Ram Vaswani, it’s not the size of the bet that counts. “It’s proper play,” he insists, “and with that, the money doesn’t affect me at all.”
Actually, there’s nothing that seems to affect Ram Vaswani, least of all the trappings that accompany his role as a poker celebrity. I caught up with Ram at the Four Queens, between tournaments and promotional gigs for The Hendon Mob, where he was candid and optimistic about life and the game of tournament poker. Although Ram’s poker accomplishments already read like a decent career, he quietly talks as if he’s just getting started. And you can believe him.
Ram didn’t start out as a professional poker player, but he was never that far away. Growing up in Finchley, London, he tells the story of a card game he played in at school from which he would use the money he won to buy sweets. One day the boys were banned from playing for money, so Ram had all the players go out and buy sweets to bring to the game, and after that, they played cards for the sweets. The school couldn’t ban a game for sweets.
Vaswani played snooker from an early age, bunking off school when he was 14 and 15 to make money playing for tenners and twenties. He turned professional at 19, when, he said, he was “good enough to make a living, but not good enough to be at the very top of the game.” When asked if he’d ever hit a century, though, Ram was incredulous, modest about his talent until pressed. “One forty-seven, mate! I once had three centuries in a match!”
And if it all comes down to skill and talent, you have to like Ram’s position. Long considered one of the most naturally talented tournament players in the game, he also has put the work in. “I tell you where I got my work experience — in the £100 seven-card stud game (at London’s Victoria Club). The Vic was work experience, lots of good players.” Ram, by the way, considers pot-limit seven-card stud the most skillful tournament poker game, and thinks it’s a disgrace that the game isn’t played more often. He has made nine pot-limit stud final tables, according to The Hendon Mob’s poker database (pokerdb.thehendonmob.com), in a specialty for which major tournaments are few and far between.
During his years on the snooker circuit, Ram bounced around playing in some private poker games and casino tournaments. But it was on his first trip to Amsterdam in November 1999 that he exploded into poker’s big time. And to hear Ram tell it, it almost didn’t happen. “The night before the 1,500 guilder tournament,” he said, “I was skint. I took 200 guilders from Joe Beevers, turned it into 1,500 guilders, and then won the tournament! I’d never won a tournament before that.” And what a poker tournament it was to win; back in 1999, the final of the Amsterdam Masterclassics was the largest and most prestigious tournament in Europe, paying first-place prize money of some 276,000 guilders ($130,000).
Ram’s poker career took off, and five years later, 15 major tournament wins and more than $1.5 million in tournament earnings have left him hungry for more. Although Ram has yet to win one of poker’s most coveted prizes, a World Series of Poker bracelet, he has come agonizingly close. He’s had five WSOP final-table finishes, including three this past May, when he picked up a total of $250,000 in prize money but still left Las Vegas a bit deflated. “This year at the World Series, I went there to get a bracelet,” Ram said, but he cut talk of bad luck at final tables short. “I don’t believe in any of that. Anybody who says they are unlucky doesn’t know what they are talking about. There’s a golden rule when you’re around me — no poker stories!”
Those around Ram most often are the three other members of British Poker Online Pkv most famous foursome, The Hendon Mob. They are brothers Barny and Ross Boatman, and Joe Beevers. As for the group’s origins, Ram stated, “Barny and Joe really started it off, it was their thing. It was a laugh in the beginning; we used to play in some private games, and when we came in they’d say, ‘Here comes The Hendon Mob.’” What “it” has become is one of the hottest brands in European poker. The Hendon Mob rocked the poker world last year in announcing a $1 million sponsorship deal from Prima Poker, an endorsement that sees them traveling the world on a feast of high-profile tournaments and publicity engagements.
The Hendon Mob poses outside Binion’s Horseshoe during the 2004 World Series of Poker. From left to right: Ross Boatman, Barny Boatman, Ram Vaswani, and Joe Beevers
Behind us in the poker room of the Four Queens, fellow mobster Joe Beevers sat at the final table of the main event (he won, picking up $72,000). Ram was there to cheer Joe on, having been knocked out on the previous day. The four are good friends, but when they play against each other, they play hard. “I never talk tactics with anyone,” said Ram. “I think it’s ridiculous. I just want to put on my sunglasses and get on with it.” With his dark shades, his silence, and his relaxed indifference, Ram is a “Mr. Cool” at the poker table. But opponents would be remiss to assume he is unaware. “The way I see it,” he explained, “with bad players, you allow for what they’re thinking. With good players, you allow for what they think you think. And with great players, you better get some good hands.”
Ram does play on the Internet, but he prefers live tournaments, where, he said, “You look into their eyes and you can smell the fear.” And read their faces, presumably, which is a talent Ram seems to come by unconsciously. “I’m not so good with names, only faces. I can remember a face forever from a poker table. Five years later, I can play a pot with a guy and remember what he did.”
Vaswani plays a high-risk, high-reward style of poker that has earned him the nickname “Crazy Horse.” But you have to be a little crazy to be good, he laughed. “The top players all have some sort of sickness, so they can understand what goes through someone’s mind when they do something silly. If you’re a rock, you don’t understand what goes through some people’s minds. You gotta get with the times. All these rocks, they can’t make it anymore.”
If Ram has any craziness, maybe it’s a fondness for big wagers. He doesn’t bet, he lumps. He might not advise this for everyone, certainly not his younger brother, Sunit, who is “the opposite of me; he used to sit and watch, and he’s learned from my mistakes.” Sunit followed Ram into snooker, and was the runner-up in the 2001 English Amateur, and Ram says Sunit’s a good gambler, as well. “He’s brilliant. He does everything properly. He’s Steady Horse and I’m Crazy Horse.”
Well, maybe he’s not so crazy anymore. Now 34 years of age, Ram recently married his longtime girlfriend, Jackie, who accompanies him on the road, and he acknowledges that life “might change if I have a couple of little ones.” For now, Ram has exchanged a 20-year smoking habit for golf and frequent visits to the gym. His immediate future is about focusing on poker, a challenge he clearly relishes. Put him in a big-money tournament with cameras all around, and he will be quietly happy to let his cards do the talking. He possesses that rare ability to execute better, the higher the stakes.
But Ram doesn’t look at it as pressure. With him, it’s the ability to make the proper play, an ability he’s always been able to keep up his sleeve. “Like when you’re playing snooker,” he smiled, “and you need the black, the last three reds, and all the colors to win the game by one point, and you haven’t got any money in your pocket to pay if you lose, as you’ve come into the snooker club that day with a packed lunch.” He shrugged. “You just have to have a coldness. You can’t afford to get emotional about it.”