John Hesp sells caravans in Yorkshire for a living and plays poker once a month at his local casino – so it was a huge shock when he went to Las Vegas and won a small fortune. But perhaps it’s just as surprising that his life hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still selling caravans, playing poker with a £10 ($14) stake, and going on holiday two hours’ drive from his home.
I’m at a poker festival in an east London casino and with more than 300 tournament players around 34 tables, the room is thrumming with the muttering of calls and raises. There is a victory whoop here, a groan of defeat there, and the constant clacking of chips riffled by players contemplating their next move.
There are lots of dark sunglasses and hoodies, sported by those striving for the textbook inscrutable “pokerface”. There are scarves and snoods to conceal neck-vein bulges when attempting a major bluff. With a £440 buy-in and five-figure prizes up to £43,000 for the top five finishers, for many participants this is serious business.
One player, though, is taking no such precautions. Clad in a loudly-coloured jacket and Panama hat, John Hesp, a 64-year-old caravan seller and grandfather from Bridlington, seems more interested in chatting to his neighbours and flashing smiles at the dealer. Compared with his younger, stiffer tablemates, he’s conspicuously relaxed.
An unknown figure this time last year, having only ever played in low-key games at pubs and his local casino in Hull, Hesp made history in July by entering the game’s most prestigious tournament – the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas – finishing fourth out of 7,220 entrants, and winning $2.6m (£2m).
The unorthodox Yorkshireman captivated the poker world with his colourful attire and jovial demeanour. Many of the game’s biggest names, having been pipped by the amateur to the final table, ended up rooting for him to win.
“I’d never have dreamed in my wildest dreams that it could happen,” Hesp says, during an interval at the 888Poker Live London Festival.
“It’s just something that was on my bucket-list for ages. My aim was to finish in the top 1,000 and have some fun.
“I’m not a seasoned player playing four or five times a week – it was once a month at my local casino in Hull on a £10 buy-in. So to progress to £2m and international poker superstardom almost overnight has been a proper fairy tale.”
While many in his shoes would immediately have chucked in the day-job and jetted off to the Caribbean, John returned to his Bridlington caravan business where he continues to work four days a week. He did allow himself a short break, but not on a tropical island – at his static caravan in Pateley Bridge in the Yorkshire Dales.
“I have to say I’m very boring,” he says. “I don’t spend large sums on flashy clothes or Rolexes. I’ve gifted a big chunk of the money to family and invested in another business as a sleeping partner. But I’m still driving the same car.”
The car is a silver Land Rover Discovery, with 25,000 miles on the clock – though he also owns a classic DeLorean sports car, the type made famous in the Back to the Future films.
More mystifyingly, for poker tournament organisers and the professionals he trounced in Vegas, John has returned to his local £10 buy-in games, £200 his biggest win since, and only appeared at the 888 Poker event at the express invitation of the organisers, who think his fun-loving image is good for the game.
It was that very carefree nature that unwittingly worked in John’s favour in Vegas, making him almost unreadable to pros accustomed to the expressionless poker faces of the game’s younger competitors.
“Youngsters who’ve grown up with videogames and the internet often don’t have a social side to their game,” he says. “They sit quietly with their shades and headphones, some looking like they’ve never seen daylight. They should enjoy it more, and not be afraid to socialise at the table.”
Another difference between them is that John has never bothered with cyber-poker.
“Online poker has never turned me on,” he says. “It’s just not the same when you can’t see the colour of your opponents’ eyes, or feel the atmosphere in the room.”