There are not many people like Canadian born Andrew Pantling in the poker industry. Pantling is a rare specimen who has managed to make the switch from being a top poker professional at the highest level to being the CEO of one of the biggest and most popular sports betting websites, Matchbook.com. In an in-depth interview Pantling voices strong opinions about Daniel Negreanu, online poker tracking software and poker players with business aspirations. Pantling finished second in the EPT Grand Final for €800,000 and also gives us a view on his way to the highest stakes.
Last spring you finishing second in the EPT Grand Final Main Event. You’ve had live results before but nothing of this magnitude. How was it to experience and go through all of that?
It was great. I’ve put myself in a position like that a few times in a few big tournaments, but I’ve never really gotten all the way to the final table, or as deep as I went in Monte Carlo. It was great that things bounced my way, and I felt like I played the best I could.
The €800,000 score is not something many players can say they’ve had in their poker career. How was it to finally get a chance to play for those big amounts in the late stages of a tournament?
It was exciting, but for me it’s not only about the money. I get a limited amount of time to play poker tournaments these days and I play for fun. When I was offered a deal when we got three-handed and heads up, I declined right away. I wanted to play for first, don’t get me wrong, the €800,000 is great, I just wanted to win the tournament. That’s the reason I registered.
Turning down the deal was a big topic of discussion within the poker world, but the only reason for it was just that the money wasn’t that big of a deal to you? Was it maybe also because you thought having that financial pressure in the heads up battle would you give an edge?
There are two reasons. The first one is; it’s so rare to get to a final table that when it was all said and done I wanted to be able to look back on it fondly and remember that I tried my hardest and played for it all. No deals, I just wanted to win the tournament outright. The second one is, when I was a professional poker, short-handed was my specialty, so I didn’t feel I was at any disadvantage.
During the final table everyone could see the hole cards on a delay. Daniel Negreanu, who was also at the final table and finished fifth, later voiced his opinions about your game and he was not too impressed. What’s your take on that?
At first, and I didn’t get to watch the feed, I just heard that Daniel had some negative comments about my game. There was some chatter about his comments on forums and, at first; I was annoyed. The reason is, I played with Daniel for a few days even before the final table, and I really beat him up with some big bluffs. I felt, he was quite frustrated and irritated by this so after he was eliminated, he went on the live stream and vented by disrespecting my poker game. Since then, I had a chance to look at the final table footage and I didn’t think it was a big deal, I just kind of laughed and wished I had the opportunity to play against Daniel more often.
That being said, as a brand ambassador for PokerStars, I think he represented himself and the company quite poorly. If I was a true amateur, I wouldn’t be overly keen to play poker on TV if I felt that a well-known PokerStars ‘pro’ was going to publicly criticize my abilities in front of my friends and family, who were watching and know very little about poker. I know I wouldn’t want my brand, Matchbook, represented like that.
There’s always a lot of talk about having good fundamentals nowadays. Most players say that especially the old school players struggle with their fundamentals, but what you’re saying is that fundamentals aren’t necessary to get big results because your unconventional creative style is also a way to beat the big fields?
I believe so, but it depends on the type of players you play. If it was a cash game I wouldn’t be able to get away with nearly as much as I did throughout the entire tournament. Tournament players are generally quite good at playing preflop and on the flop, putting pressure on opponents and taking into account ICM. Generally though, they’ve rarely see a turn or river without the chips being all in. My style is designed to try to force them to play turn and river spots, make mistakes, big payoffs and folds. I tend to try to apply pressure later in a hand, and that’s what I tried to do in the Monte Carlo tournament.
Do you notice that when you’re playing big live events, even though it’s not frequent, that players get uncomfortable playing against you on later streets?
Absolutely. My style is extremely uncomfortable and unorthodox for people to play against. I notice people getting frustrated and I think you can see that a few times at the final table.
Was that the hand where he check-raised the turn with jack-four of diamonds on a queen-six-jack-six board?
Yes, and of course Daniel has a little pride and he’s the face of PokerStars so there’s a lot at stake. He can’t be seen making any big mistakes or foolish plays, but I think that his play during that hand didn’t make any sense. I didn’t play it as well as I possibly could either, but that hand was a bit unusual to say the least.
(Full hand courtesy of PokerNews.com: Eight handed action: Andrew Pantling raised to 88,000 at blinds 20k/40k a5k from the cutoff with ace-eight off suit and Daniel Negreanu called from the big blind with jack-four of diamonds. The flop brought out queen-six-jack and Negreanu check-called 100,000. On the turn the six of spades hit, putting out a flush draw. Negreanu checked, Pantling bet 290,000 and Negreanu check-raised to 620,000. Pantling folded. Pantling was now second in chips with 3.8 million after the hand, Negreanu was up to 2 million)
He later said that he would’ve called if you were to shove on him there on the turn, and that he had a read on you. What do you think of those kinds of comments?
I don’t believe that is true and that is the perfect example of how Daniel has to save face after making a questionable play. When he made that comment, a few guys at the table laughed at him which may have factored into why he came onto the live stream with a chip on his shoulder.
Even though you are no longer a poker professional, do you still invest time in working on your game?
Not particularly. I’m not involved in the poker community in that way anymore. However, many of our Matchbook customers are high stakes poker players, so I do spend a lot of time around excellent poker players and I don’t get too far behind the curve. To be fair, Daniel said something about me being a new school; old school player and I think that’s a fair comment. I don’t play online every day, nor do I play every big live tournament. The game has changed, but I don’t feel it has changed to a degree where I don’t have an edge. I’m quite confident in that.
Let’s go back in time; do you remember when and how you decided to take up poker as a profession?
I was at university at the time studying finance and I took an internship at a bank. This was around the time of the poker boom. I was a foreign exchange specialist, that was my job title, and I was doing quite well at that. I didn’t particularly enjoy it because of the long hours, but I felt like it was going to lead to a trading career and that was something I had always been interested in. What happened was; the internship wasn’t very well paid, as you would expect, and at the time, poker was booming and PartyPoker was in its prime. I was making ten times my wage just playing evenings and weekends so from a strictly financial perspective, it was an easy decision for me to not extend my internship into a career. When I graduated from university, instead of going back or finding a similar job, I decided to give it a few years and focus my time playing poker, predominately online. I played online for two or three years competitively and semi-professionally. After that I started my business.
You never considered yourself a full-time professional?
I guess I was a professional, but I never considered myself one. I always wanted to do something else as I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I did do quite well and it provided me a solid financial foundation when I was getting started.
“Quite well,” might be one of the biggest understatements as just your PokerTableRatings show an amazing graph. Was your edge in the Cap games that big, and was it as easy as it looks?
I think it was. It was quite a big edge because people hadn’t figured the game out yet. Like with anything where you are an early adopter, you are ahead of the curve for a period of time but, eventually, others catch up. You have to continuously innovate and experiment and for me that innovation led to a life outside of poker.
As for PokerTableRatings I don’t like that site because it killed my action and cost me a lot of equity. In fact, it got so bad that in 2009-2010 I would sit for hours, sometimes days, and not be able to get a game. In retrospect, this helped motivate me to do something outside of poker so in the end, even though I couldn’t see it at the time, it was a blessing in disguise.
Do you think that all software regarding information about the game like SharkScope, OPR, PTR, PokerTracker and HoldemManager are all bad for the game?
Absolutely. None of that stuff should be allowed. You should be able to track your own hands and results, but any sort of HUD or tracking website like PokerTableRatings should not be a part of online poker.
Are you saying online poker should be anonymous in a sense that only the player self would be able to know how much he either won or lost?
Isn’t it the case that everyone except for the biggest winners and biggest losers benefits from using that software?
I don’t think anyone particularly benefits from it. I don’t see any benefit except for the predatory bum hunters who game-select like crazy. They are heavily attritions to the customer base of whatever poker site they play on. They shouldn’t be aiding these players at all.
Have you ever tried to get yourself removed from those websites?
No, I’ve never really been bothered. I stopped playing online seriously somewhere in 2009 or 2010 and at that time you couldn’t remove yourself. I think that since then, PokerStars has tried to do some things about it. Now you can maybe even self-exclude, but back then you had no choice. So at the time, I was really annoyed, since it was public and it was killing my action. I worked really hard to build a game that was deceptive, but like I said; it was a blessing in disguise. It’s funny how things change, and time smooths things over.
Many big time professional players learn from others, videos, articles and what not. How did you learn to play a style unlike most others, and did you really try to be original?
I’ve never tried to be original. I’m a slight anomaly in the poker world, as I don’t surround myself with many other poker players. At least I didn’t at the time. My brother is probably the one who plays a style most similar to mine. He’s still quite active in High Stakes cash games in Macau. I just played from my basement, or living room, and I didn’t really conform to what people believe is the best cash game style, according to 2p2, for instance. Ultimately what happened was, by putting my head in the sand, I developed my own game. While I didn’t seek out in particular to be unique, it just kind of developed that way because I was, so to speak, on an island of my own.
How did you reach the level of play in order to be a professional?
When I was doing my internship, and maybe even before that, being able to beat the casino fascinated me. Back then I played Blackjack at a casino in Canada called Casino Rama and finding a mathematical edge on the casino fascinated me. I always practiced counting cards, until someone, one day, through a conversation at the Blackjack table, told me that you could play poker and have an edge. He set me up with Paradise Poker and I began to research strategies. I came across the 2p2 forums and a guy named David Ross, who happens to be Canadian. He had weekly blog style posts about his pursuit to make a living playing online poker. At the end I believe he ended up making around $90,000, which I thought was a lot of money at the time. Following his blog and seeing how truthful it was, I thought there was a genuine opportunity. At first I started following his strategy at Limit Hold’em until those games dried up at which point I moved to Sit and Go’s then No limit and PLO cash games. Eventually I found a niche in the Cap games on Full Tilt which I played frequently for 18 months.
Are you a gambler at heart as well, or are you purely analytical?
I did a little bit of soul searching to find the answer to that question. To be honest, I think that I am a bit of a gambler at heart. If I didn’t find poker, poker would’ve found me. Mainly because I enjoy the pursuit of profitable gambling and even if the poker boom hadn’t happened I probably would have tried poker or sports betting at some point. It’s not to say that I would have always been successful at either, I was very lucky in the beginning and throughout my entire journey to be in the position I am now. As I’ve gotten older, my willingness to take financial risk has been toned down significantly. I no longer do any gambling where I feel I don’t have an edge.
Cap games are a short-stacked way of playing cash games. Isn’t it in that case a lot harder to be deceptive and creative because there’s generally not a lot of play on the turn or river? That’s something you talked about earlier as being your edge in tournament, playing on the turn and river.
Tournaments typically don’t have deep stacks, but the final table I played was fairly deep. A normal tournament stack is easy to compare to a Cap game stack. We talked about my edge in Cap games back in 2009 and 2010 and that came from the exact same thing. A lot of people were trying to build the pot preflop in order to create a binary decision on the flop between folding and shoving. What I tried to do was, keep the pot as small as possible, just like I do in tournaments, preflop and on the flop. My Cap style therefore is very similar to my tournament style. It almost seems unfathomable to keep the pot small when you only have 30 big blinds, but you can do it with a lot of flatting and min-raising. When I first started playing cap games everyone opened 3x the big blind, I developed a strategy of opening for 2.1x and eventually due to multi-tabling laziness, just started min-raising. Within a few months, everyone in the cap games followed suit. Eventually, the tournament guys also evolved and started to open for significantly less than the common 3x.
Have players ever asked you for coaching of that particular style?
I used to get a lot of requests but I turned them down for the most part. It’s just that I didn’t really have time for it to be honest. I’ve coached my brother significantly and I’ve learned from him in the process. He’s bright and now has his own unique style, but besides that, I never really got into coaching.
When looking at your stats it’s clear that you played mostly $25/$50 Cap with a very high win rate. Were there just more games on those stakes or did you find your biggest edge there?
Yeah, they just ran more frequently because I would just play as high as I could get action. I got a little bit of action at the tail part of my career at the $500/$1,000 games, and the $25/$50 and the $10/$20 was about as low as I wanted to go.
On 2p2 I saw a post of you wanting to sell action for $500/$1,000, was that something you would regularly do, and was the community really there for you to help out?
All the way at the start of my career, back in 2006, I was reading a lot on the forums about fixed limit Hold’em. That was the most popular game at the time in the live casinos in Canada. I read the chatter from time to time on 2p2, but I was never really involved in the community. It’s funny that you mention selling action for the $500/$1,000 because most people would just have a network of players on Skype or MSN to sell action to within minutes. I don’t really have that network of players so I needed to go to 2p2 in order to sell my action for the games. It was not like I was comparing hands or sharing details about certain players on 2p2, I just needed it to sell action for playing in the biggest games sometimes.
On your 2p2 profile it says under “website” cashsportspools.com, but that website is no longer available. Was that your first big project?
Yes, in 2008 I started developing that business. It was an office pools business, something that is quite common in North America. Effectively you buy into a pool, with poker being one of the pools, as had for all different kinds of sports. You select a dream team of athletes, poker players or you could have a chance to pick all the teams you think are going to win on the Sunday NFL. Multiple people will buy in and the prize pool works the same as a multi-table poker tournament. My partner and I developed that back in 2008, and I moved to Malta to get the appropriate licensing and act on the board of directors. We were just beginning to have some fairly modest growth when I was introduced to the owner of MatchBook. Through that introduction, the owner made me an offer to buy cashsportspools and asked me to join and run Matchbook. Cashsportspools then became MatchBookMedia.com, which will be reactivated during the NFL season.
Andrew Pantling heads up for a WSOPE bracelet in 2010, ultimately he would lose to Phil Laak.(Photo courtesy of PokerNews.com)
How does the process work of starting up your own business from scratch, because many poker players talk about it?
It’s funny, I do hear that a lot. Many poker players that I’ve spoken to over the years have a desire to start their own business. What I would say is just, “You have to step out and do it. You have to put the time aside, take risks and be willing to fail.” I partnered with a friend, and we hired developers, did some research, got a gaming license and set up a board of directors. We started cashsportspools and to be honest, it wasn’t doing amazingly well. By all accounts it was more likely to end up as a failure then a success. However, one thing led to another, and with a little luck Cashsportspools has led to opportunities in Matchbook and now other areas. MatchBook has suddenly become a huge success and is something I am quite proud of.
What was your first thought when MatchBook offered to buy your company and to instate you as their CEO?
They came to me wanting to buy some equity into the company as an investment, and as we were struggling, we could have used the capital. Somewhere along the way, the offer changed and they wanted to absorb our company and have myself join Matchbook as the CEO. Initially I declined, but I was eventually persuaded. I am extremely happy I chose to join Matchbook It has been an incredible life journey, experience and I have been able to meet and work with some incredible people.
How does a professional poker player turn to switch to becoming CEO of a big company, is that an easy switch to make?
When we acquired MatchBook we weren’t very big, we only had 7 staff and a fairly small player pool as we immediately shut down all Matchook’s US clientele, which was the majority of the users. Over the last 2 years, we have grown to about 85 staff and more than replaced that clientele with European and Asian clients. At first, keeping up with the growth was a challenge, but like anything, you need a little luck. I was very fortunate to bring in a great management team who I respect very much. Recently, even our client and internal growth has become manageable and I have even had a chance to skip out and play a few poker tournaments, like EPT Monte Carlo.
What has been the key elements of MatchBook’s success?
We’re quite unique because we’re a betting exchange. We don’t take the bets ourselves, but we offer the clients and opportunity to match each other. Our niche, if there is one, is that we’re able to accommodate very high net worth individuals and high stakes individuals. Many of the biggest non-American poker players in the world are clients of MatchBook. We also have a large amount of very wealthy clients who we are able to service for very large wagers at razor thin commission rates. That’s our USP in the market place, and that is what we are specialized in, which is the reason for our incredible growth.
Was the point of view from the beginning since companies like Betfair and Unibet were already that big in the retail market?
I do have a few friends in the gambling industry, when it comes to operators, and I think the retail space is quite saturated. It’s very competitive, the margins are going down year on year and the costs are going up. Each country has different legislation, which is continually changing, and there are only a few markets left where you can actually advertise in legally. The retail space is something that doesn’t interest me and if the plan was to target retail, I would’ve never signed on the dotted line for MatchBook. From Day 1, we had the goal to go for the high-end bettors, and through the main owner of MatchBook and some of our friends and partners, we have contacts with the biggest sports bettors in the world, in Asia and Europe.
What is the difference between a betting exchange and a sports book? Are you not at risk at all with these huge bets, because you are finding people to bet the other side, or are there still big risks involved?
We take very little risk because we don’t take regular bets like a sports book. For some of our high net worth individuals, it’s not worth their time sitting on the exchange as they want to bet six or seven figures on a game instantly. For these clients, we quote them a price for their desired stake and then do our best to unwind the position in the market.. At times this can be slightly risky but is a profitable exercise for the business as a whole.
Are there certain things you are working on right now which we can look forward to, maybe regarding legislation or development?
We are working on a revolutionary new interface, which will be live by the time this interview gets published. As far as legislation, I don’t see too many positive things happening. Certain jurisdictions need to harmonize and come around to the benefit of betting, especially for a betting exchange, because we’re something that’s fair and legal to the punter. If America ever legalizes, that would be an incredible opportunity for us, however, I don’t see that coming any time soon. The Far East is an interesting market, Australia is an interesting market. Europe is hard because there are so many different countries with different laws. From a legislation standpoint, I’m not overly bullish on the market, but long-term there’s going to be some serious opportunity.
A few years ago MatchBook was also heavily involved in poker. Many players showed MatchBook logos on their shirts, but do you think that was a successful venture for the company?
It’s hard to say. It’s not a conventional marketing campaign where you can see dollar for dollar how it’s stacked up. At the time, there was another guy working at MatchBook and he was backing a lot of his friends, who were really good poker players. They were mostly British guys and I took over a role in making decisions related to the different backing endeavors. As a part of that, we asked them to wear a MatchBook patch and do some branding for us. They didn’t directly bring on many players, but the awareness of MatchBook grew because many credible and very good poker players were wearing the badge. When I met the high roller and big bettors, they had already been aware of MatchBook. It made the handshake that much warmer and bringing on customers that much easier. Directly, I don’t think it bring on any revenue but indirectly, in a fluffy way, it improved our brand. I’m glad we did it, it was fun, but back in the time it wasn’t fun to manage 25 poker players.
Was it the stress of managing 25 poker players that resulted in this endeavor ending?
It was generally that. You have to move money from this place to that place, book the hotels, flights and deal with 25 different personalities and all kinds of different make-up deals. I had people helping me with it, so directly my stress wasn’t huge, but for the marginal profitability and marginal branding it just wasn’t worth it. It became too much stress. Luckily we had some guys that played really big and they were successful so we came out ahead.
For the longest time James Bord was directly associated with MatchBook and I think many people in the poker community thought that he was the driving force behind the company. What happened to him and why do we not see him that much anymore?
James was one of the people that came to me originally and wanted to buy my company, alongside his partner, who is actually the real owner. His name is Matthew Benham and he’s one of the biggest sports bettors in the world. At the time, Matthew and James were partners, however, due to some unfortunate circumstances this is no longer the case.
Going back to your work at MatchBook, how much of your time goes into working for the company and do you have a lot of time to do other stuff on the side?
It’s changing, because in the beginning I was certainly putting in 100-hour weeks. Back then we only had a few staff members and I just took over while we were trying to grow the business. I hired some very good people to surround me and I no longer have to put in those 100-hour weeks. It’s more like a normal 50 to 60-hour week now, but I’m still always taking calls for work related things.
How has it been for your wife to be with someone who has had such a crazy lifestyle?
She’s amazing. I’m very blessed in a lot ways. Christina and I have been together for almost ten years now and married for three. We met before I started playing poker, so that was actually quite good in retrospect. She has been with me on the whole ride, as crazy as it has been. I think a lot of guys in the poker community who do well, become jaded and in many cases and absorbed in the lifestyle. They find it quite difficult to meet women and believe that those women are with them for the right reasons. With Christina, there is absolutely no doubt because she met me when I was broke and on my ass.
Did, or do you, ever need her specifically to put things back in perspective for you when handling a lot of money as a professional poker player or businessman?
Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I believe I have been successful; it’s because she’s been able to give me the constant reality checks I so badly need. I think this is extremely important as I see a lot of young guys on the circuit who are slowly losing their minds and health without realizing it. The best thing they can probably do, and what’s probably the last thing on their mind, is to go back and spend some quality time with real family and friends. People in the real world are much more genuine, because they’re not looking for an edge or an angle.
What kind of advise would you give poker players who are maybe trying to find different ways to make money, get into starting up their own business, but are not really sure how to start that?
You just have to step out and do it. You have to take a period of time off from poker, take some risks and go all in. If you’re going to do things halfway you might as well not do them. You’re never going to succeed if you don’t give it your all. In a lot of ways, business is tougher than poker, it’s more competitive, requires more work and discipline.
Is the mental reward of winning a poker hand because of a good decision the same, or greater, as making a good business decision while that’s something you’re not going to see the immediate effect of?
It’s not even close. Succeeding in business is far more rewarding, because in poker, it’s almost always just monetary gain. Poker and business are similar because you’re always going to have to be confident with your decisions. The result will not always be perfect, but you have to stand behind your decisions and be confident and be prepared for the emotional rollercoaster adversity will bring. For me, it’s much sweeter in business when you succeed.
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