Alex “Kanu7” Millar is a 26 year old online NLHE specialist who has kept himself under the radar and has risen through the cash game ranks in just a few years to become one of the most feared players at the high stakes no-limit tables on Pokerstars. He is one of only a few top pros who has not transitioned to playing PLO, and will be challenging Isildur1 in the SuperStar Showdown this Sunday. They will be playing four tables of $100/$200 heads-up no-limit over 2,500 hands with each player risking $300,000 of their bankroll, just like the previous Showdown between Isildur and Isaac "Ike" Haxton.
I have had the opportunity of speaking to the challenger prior to the match, and I must say that he is an extremely nice guy. Kanu discusses a wide range of topics including the reason behind his name, the showdown, HUNL, starting the game, rising through the stakes, and the world cash game championship proposal.
Hey Alex. Thanks a lot for allowing me to interview you as I believe that this is your first public interview. You have become more active within the high stakes community over the past couple of years or so, but most people do not know too much about you. Could you please explain when you were introduced to the game and how you have risen through the ranks to become where you are today?
Hi, sure. I was studying engineering at Warwick University and during the summer after my second year I started watching a small amount of poker on TV, and thought it looked pretty fun. I remember really liking a series called Poker Superstars and after watching quite a lot of that, I started playing with my brothers for fake money despite not really knowing the rules. When I got back to university for my third year, I came back a while before the term started and one of my housemates was back too, and he'd also been watching poker over the summer. We both started playing for play money on Victor Chandler and a couple of days later, my housemate said that he’d deposited some money and won $50 in just half an hour. He was terrible so I thought that if this clown could win money then surely I could too so I deposited $20 and started to play! He came in a couple of hours later to say that he'd lost it all but luckily it went a bit better for me. I deposited small amounts of money onto a few sites and re-deposited a bit more if I needed to at the beginning and probably hovered between up a bit and down a bit overall for a while but after a few months of playing, I believe that I was in clear profit overall, and have never looked back since.
Did you start playing cash games or sit-n-goes, and was it no-limit at which you started?
I started with sit-n-goes and MTTs with buy-ins of up to $5, and I played a few freerolls at the very beginning. I was playing only one table at a time and was constantly trying to improve. I won a couple of $5 tournaments for a few hundred dollars each time during my third year but I was mainly just enjoying it while learning the game and I wasn't trying to move up in stakes or anything. I signed up to the poker society at university in my fourth year and finished either second or third out of just over 100 in the first event of the year which was a freeroll with some added prize money. I decided to continue going with some of my friends from my football team and this is where my screen name “Kanu” comes from. They used to call me Kanu because they thought I played football like Nwankwo Kanu. A couple of people in the society were beating mid-stakes cash games and I guess that inspired me to start playing more towards the end of my fourth year, and by this time I had already won a few low buy-in tournaments so had a bankroll of $2-3k.
I started playing some NL50 at the beginning when starting cash games and was playing a couple of tables at a time, but decided to move to NL100 very quickly. I applied for only one job vacancy during my final year of uni to work as a business analyst and during the final assessment day, I messed up one of the four interviews but did well in the tests and other interviews so they said that if I reapplied I would stand a very good chance of being accepted. I decided to take a year off and play poker full-time and re-apply the following year. I was only playing NL100 at this time and had a roll of $5k or so. After an indifferent first couple of months, I started playing on PartyPoker at the end of September 2007 and moved up through the stakes pretty quickly. By April 2008 I was playing $10/$20 and my bankroll was over $100k so even though I was accepted for the job when I reapplied, I decided to turn it down and stick with poker. I kept a 50 buy-in bankroll rule when moving up limits and I didn't really play much HU until long after I was regularly playing $25/$50 6max (started in July 2008). At some point though I decided to try out the Party $5/$10 HU tables and eventually I realised that I was achieving better win rates at HU as well as enjoying it more. Its only really within the last couple of years that I started to consider myself a heads-up no-limit specialist though.
What was your parents’ reaction when you decided to play poker full-time?
It actually worked out quite well in that regard as they were happy with me doing it for a year when I was getting a job at the end of it and then by the end of that year, it had gone well enough that it wasn't too hard for them to see that it was probably a better idea for me to keep playing poker rather than take the job.
It seems that failing that interview changed your life and that you are earning more money now than you would have had you taken the job. Have you had any major downswings during your career thus far?
I am very fortunate with how it all turned out because by the time of finishing university I had only played about 10k cash game hands in total, had run at about 10 PTBB/100 and didn’t fully understand the variance of the game. If I'd started out running badly then it's unlikely I'd have thought I could have played full-time for a year and made a living and would probably not be where I am today. In regards to a major percentage downswing in terms of my bankroll, I was starting to move up to $25/$50 when I had my first huge downswing, I went back to $10/$20 and was half a buy-in away from moving down to $5/$10 before I started upswinging again. My roll was over $250k when I was moving to $25/$50 and at the end of the downswing, it was just over $100k. Since then I have had swings bigger than that in terms of amount lost which have been as high as mid six figures but that was my biggest downswing in terms of how much percentage of my bankroll I had lost from playing; losing over 50% doesn’t feel too great. I will have lost considerably more money on Full Tilt in terms of how much is stuck there if I don't get it back though than I have in any downswing I have ever had.
Losing that big a percentage of your bankroll must significantly reduce your confidence but its good to know that everything went upwards again after. You mentioned that Black Friday had a significant effect on you as you have a lot of money stuck on Full Tilt. I understand that you are willing to discuss the matter even though many professionals have kept silent about how much they have on the site. Furthermore, are you optimistic as to receiving your money back?
I had a big upswing on Full Tilt playing as IReadYrSoul in the few months before Black Friday which wasn't tracked by any of the tracking sites and I actually had over $1million on there when Black Friday hit. I then had a large downswing and managed to cash some out, but I still have $835k on there. I don’t really think about the situation too much because there's not much that I can do about it, but I am still hopeful that one day I will get the money back.
Wow, that’s a huge amount stuck on the site. It must obviously have an effect on the stakes you can play at the moment but I will not discuss that any more. I hope that players get their money back as soon as possible. Who have been the toughest opponents that you’ve faced and is there anyone that you will not play HUNL?
I think the best guys that I have played are probably Ike and Sauce. I've played some other very good players but I won't spoil their action by naming them in that company. I should also give a special mention to Isildur and takechip as I am down the most to those two. Takechip especially seems to beat me every time we play. At the moment I am happy to play anyone at HUNL, but that could always change if I decide that someone has too much of an edge on me. I have been playing primarily on Pokerstars for a while now instead of Party, and there aren't all that many players who will play me heads-up aside from the four I have mentioned and a few other very good players. RaiseOnce has a bit in the last few days but he only plays for extremely short sessions. It seems very likely that he’s Phil Ivey and even though most people would be shocked if they saw someone willing to play him heads-up and although I think he could well be the best poker player across all the different disciplines, I think it's likely that I will have an edge against him HUNL. I guess we'll see if he decides to play more HUNL in the future.
You said that you find it hard to get action nowadays especially playing heads-up. What do you think about this bumhunting situation which online poker currently faces: what steps have been taken and what should be done in the future? I know that you have been discussing this issue in the forums, and along with Phil Galfond, have been most active in trying to resolve the problem.
I think Phil has written about it very well in his blog and hopefully we can get the sites to sort the issue out as soon as possible. There are actually a few guys around at the moment who will play almost anyone so it's not as bad as it has been but in general I think the bumhunting situation is out of hand and although Stars have taken some steps to combat the worst of it which is more than you can say for most other sites, there is still a long way to go. I don't think that you should try to force anyone to play a match that they don't want to, but to have a situation where such a high percentage of the players will only play against a very weak player is not really a positive environment to have for online poker. Stars have so far made it against the rules to sit at a six-max table sitting out unless there is one sitting in and you want three handed but not HU in which case you can sit and wait for a third person, and they enforce it quite well.
I think that poker should be a competitive game where you rise to the top through beating the players in the way so I'm in favour of anything that makes it more that way, and at the moment you can just sit at all stakes and only ever play if someone really bad sits with you. I think that they should encourage competition at HU tables by capping the number of tables that are allowed which only have one player sitting at them; that way if you want to sit and wait for fish you at least have to be prepared to sometimes play regulars. For six-max games, some variation of must-move games or a global lobby would be good so that it's not just a case of who can jump on the table quickest when a fish sits.
An issue that does annoy me a bit is that I'll log on willing to play anyone at HU or six-max, nobody will play either so I sit at HU tables and six-max tables, but then all the guys that won't play me are also sitting at six-max tables hoping for a fish to join, then I either have to sit there watching the lobby or do something else and miss most of the games that start. I think they should cap the number of tables with 1 player sitting allowed at 6max as well.
You share some really good views and thoughts about the situation and the measures that need to be put in place. Its especially annoying for a player like you as you said, who is willing to play anyone, but only gets action in a six-max game when a fish sits there and as soon as he leaves the game breaks. You have not transitioned to playing PLO like most other top pros; why is this the case as most of the big action seems to be there nowadays?
I've thought about it but for a long time my goal has been to get better and better at NLHE and I just feel like when I've finally got to the stage where I can begin to challenge to be one of the best in the world at it, it would be annoying to then abandon the goal before I've achieved what I want to. Additionally, it would take a lot of time to get to the level at PLO that I am at for NL and for now I'd rather work on improving my NL game further. I think that there's still a fair amount of action in no-limit if you're prepared to play anyone. When, and if the action dries up too much I'll probably start spending some time learning PLO.
Ok I understand; there’s no point stopping to become the best when you are on the right track. Have you considered playing more live tournaments or live cash games such as those in Macau?
Not really. I'm not that interested in playing more live tournaments than I do (at the moment I go to Vegas for the WSOP in the summer and play EPT London) because I really like the setup and life I have at the moment. I live with my girlfriend, have my best friends in poker living nearby, play my 5-a-side football, go to the gym etc, hence it's just not that appealing to me to be going off to tournaments everywhere and leaving all of that behind all the time. Additionally, my expectation is higher staying at home and playing online so there's not much of a temptation.
I have thought about going to Macau but I don’t think it will happen too soon. I only play NLHE and there are probably a lot of PLO and mixed games etc there and I have no idea how difficult it is to get into the games as a random English guy who shows up and wants to play. I may go there with some friends to check it out at some point but no plans for that yet.
Its probably hard for you to find live poker too enjoyable when multi-tabling heads-up online. You recently played a big pot with someone whose screen name is based in Macau (whether they are from there or not is a different question) in which you tripled barreled bluff for a pot which he won for over $200k (See hand). Would you be able to explain your reasoning behind the play?
Sure, we were playing three handed at $200/$400 and I three-bet with 74s which is definitely a reasonable three-bet. He could four-bet in that spot with pocket tens but flatting there is a good option as well as we are playing pretty deep. On the flop it is a pretty standard continuation bet and the turn bet is standard as well when I pick up a straight and flush draw. On the river I figure his range is actually pretty weak, as he’s unlikely to have the queen very often at all given that he called flop and turn, a lot of the possible two pairs aren't really hands that he's likely to call pre-flop (he's not going to have 83 or 82 etc), and then there's a good chance that he'd have raised a set on an earlier street this deep to try to get the money in. Given that I'm going to have over-pairs, straights and two pairs a fair bit I think it's a good spot to put his weak range in a really tough spot both when I have strong hands and with some bluffs. If he has 8x, 77, 55, 44, A3 etc which he will have a lot of the time, he is going to have a very tough decision on his hands. I think that TT is towards the top of his range on the river so I wasn't at all surprised to see him call with that; I think the call is definitely correct. I was still happy with the bluff, he tanked for quite a while with TT which hopefully means he would have folded a lot of the worse hands so I think my bluff was good and his call was good.
You’ve explained the hand very well and it seems that it was a well played hand by both players. I understand that it was you who proposed the idea of the World Cash Game HU Championship on twoplustwo; why did you decide to do so and how has the progress been about getting it started?
I actually had the initial idea for it a long time ago, before I would have been in a position to play it. I just thought that it would be really cool to have the top HU players facing off against each other in an epic event where everyone is playing each other as it would be the best test of poker skill that there has ever been, and it would have been a really cool thing to either play in or rail. I decided that I kind of wanted to play in it though, so I didn't suggest it when I first thought of it, and at the point where I was just getting to the stage where I thought maybe I could start to compete with the guys who would play it, Black Friday hit. That obviously scuppered any chance of it going on then and then with my roll being decimated by a downswing and Full Tilt shutting down, I had to rebuild before I could think about it seriously again; having done that, I decided recently that maybe it was time to see what people thought.
I also think it's a great time to have it because nobody really knows who the best is. It used to be durrrr and Phil Galfond, but then they stopped playing NLHE and Isildur came along, and then jungleman etc and there was usually a somewhat clear hierarchy. Black Friday, however, messed it all up: jungleman took time off, as did Sauce and Ike, which gave guys like me a chance to catch up a bit, then there are other guys coming through as well who are really good and would be up for challenging the guys who were the best prior to Black Friday, so I think it would be really interesting to get all these guys together in one event. You've also got people like takechip and ZeeJustin who have played a lot of the other guys and done well so it's really hard to tell who would come out on top.
There has been significant interest from top HUNL players but as a lot of the best HU players are not household names as they don't tend to play loads of live tournaments or televised events it's a question of whether it will be enough of a draw for a site to host that they provide it rake-free or add money to the prizepool which will attract the number of players needed to play. I'm hopeful that we can get something going but we'll have to see.
I hope so too as it sounds a really good idea and there would be some great heads-up matches. There should be a top HUNL match as well this Sunday when you will be facing Isildur in the SuperStar Showdown. Why did you decide to take up this challenge? Have you played Isildur1 a lot before and do you think that you have an edge over him?
I haven’t played Isildur in a long time but every time I come to play him I think I’m going to have an edge, and then he crushes me and I realise that I don’t have an edge haha. This time I think I will have an edge so we'll see if the same happens again! Previously, I finished about even with him when he played on Party prior to him playing on Full Tilt, and after his exploits on Full Tilt, played him again at $25/$50 at which he owned me for $150k. After he signed to Pokerstars, we played some $50/$100 and he won $160k from me there as well. I haven’t been able to play him recently as he's been playing almost exclusively PLO so the showdown gives us a pre-arranged match that is rake-free which is also nice! I feel that his game may not have improved as much as mine since he is out of practice as such at HUNL and I've improved a lot since we last played. I hope that everything goes well for me this time and that I can beat him but he's obviously an excellent player so it will be very tough.
It should be a great match and hope it all goes well for you. Good luck. Its been great talking to you and thank you very much for spending your time to talk to me.
No problem. Thank you and I hope the readers enjoy the interview. I often check out HighstakesDB to see how the games are going at Stars so it was my pleasure.
A preview of this week's showdown between Isildur1 and Kanu7 can be found here.