Jamie Burland: Giving Poker a Big Bear Hug

Lee Davy talks to former United Kingdom and Ireland Poker Tour champion, Jamie Burland, about his new business venture: Bear Hug Poker.

Jamie Burland was the third poker player that I ever interviewed, after The Devilfish and Liv Boeree. He had just won the UKIPT Main Event in Brighton for around $100k. He dressed quite dapper when he played. And he was a part of Neil Channing’s stable at Black Belt Poker.

Jamie Burland: Giving Poker a Big Bear HugThat was five years ago.

A lot has changed since then.

So does Jamie Burland still dress dapper at the tables?

Let’s find out shall we?

Are you still dressed to kill, or are you dressed like a bum?

“I like to think I dress to kill. I put in a lot of effort. My problem is finding time to play live.”

Reading through a recent interview you did for BLUFF you said you haven’t played live poker for 12-months. We will talk about Bear Hug Poker in a moment, but before we get on to that, what else have you been up to?

“I got married and moved from Sidcup to Brighton – I really feel at home here in Brighton. That all happened in the first half of the year. I did manage a few weeks in Vegas. Then in the back end of the year I got involved with the Bear Hug business.”

Where did the idea for Bear Hug Poker come from?

“Bear Hug Poker originally launched in September, 2013. It was a company created by my partner Henry Jacobson, and his partner at the time, David Pomroy. It did really well from the start.

“Henry contacted me around August time, explained that he was looking for a new partner and asked if I would come on board.”

Who is Henry Jacobson?

“He is an American who lives in California. He was a successful fashion designer who sold his two companies, Henry Jacobson LLC and Mulberry Inc. to fashion giant Phillips-Van Heusen in 2008. He then became a professional working in the poker industry while continuing to be active in the fashion industry as a member of the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America. Before that he was a professional tennis player who played at Wimbledon before being sidelined by a back injury.”

“He learned to play at a high level online and then had to change tact after Black Friday. He moved to Las Vegas and grinded high stakes cash games for a few years, before moving back to San Francisco, where he continues to play cash games and tournaments. He’s been in the staking business for several years, staking live players in addition to online players. He has a strong head for business having built large and successful companies in a competitive industry and gives most of his time to Bear Hug at this point. It’s been a fun partnership because we bring complimentary skill sets to the venture.”

In my interviews with people I always got the distinct impression that backing people was not a +EV decision. Why do you differ from this view?

“I have done a lot of research, spoken to a lot of people and let’s not forget I have been backed my entire professional career by Neil Channing. I have a lot of experience in and around backing. Bear Hug Poker backs online players exclusively which is a specialized area, which, like any business, has its pros and cons.

“On the downside, if you are staking a player on PokerStars and they final table the Sunday Million, they could wake up the next morning with $100,000 in their account. Now it’s on the staker to sweat the player sending him his share of the money. That can be very stressful.

“Staked players can also be less than optimal game selectors because they’re not playing with their own money. While you want to trust that your players will game select responsibly and have respect for the stake, in reality that’s very hard to govern on a site like Stars. There are so many games available that it’s difficult to manage variance or implement a disciplined playing schedule.

“A staked poker player may be a great player, but there are some games online that he won’t have an edge in. If the player decides to play in these games, it can contribute to a situation where he can run up a lot of make-up, which under most arrangements, means he is responsible for paying back his loss position before he can get into profit again. This can result in unpaid losses if the player doesn’t have the skill or the work ethic to grind his way back to profitability.

“Bear Hug doesn’t stake on Stars. We stake on the Ongame and iPoker networks. That gives us greater control over our business. We have arrangements with our Skins that provide security, and that just isn’t possible on Stars. Skins on the different networks are battling to get as many players as possible, so we have more leverage than individual players because we can put a large group of players into action on a Skin which generates more action and more rake for the Skin. We can negotiate favorable rake back deals, which is sort of like getting a volume discount.”

There is a lot of press on online poker rooms and their search for recreational players. That doesn’t bode well for a grinding stable. Have you met any resistance with poker rooms?

“During the time Bear Hug has been in business there have been some changes to the way that rake back is distributed on iPoker. They have created a new system called Source Based Rake Back. Up until now all the iPoker rooms have been competing with gross rake back deals. If you were a high volume player, it didn’t matter if you were winning or losing, if you shopped around, you could get a 40-50% rake back deal.

“iPoker has come to the realization that recreational and casual players are important to their business model. If there are too many net withdrawers it puts stress on the eco-system. Source Based Rake Back works like this: Let’s say me and you deposit £100 each on an iPoker skin and in the first hand we play, I win £100 and you lose £100. I now have £200 and you have nothing. The £100 you lost is still tagged to you, and you earn rake back on that money as it’s played through the system. It’s a system we are in favor of. We think it’s good to look at the poker eco-system holistically instead of as an opportunity to grab what we can off the top.”

Selecting your horses must be so important for you?

“It’s very important. The players you select have to be a good match for your business model and culture. Generally speaking, there are certain areas on staking application forms that really stand out to a staker. Stakers want to see a player who has been active and has a large sample size over the past 2-3 years. If someone applies with a good record from 4-5 years ago, but with a gap in between, that’s a bit of a red flag to be honest.

“The ability and willingness to play 4-5 nights per week is what stakers want to see. There’s nothing worse than taking on a stake, making sure their accounts are topped up daily, and then seeing the money sit there because the player isn’t playing the stake. It amounts to an unused asset, which makes a staker unhappy. A strong work ethic on the part of the player is very important.

“Then there is character and personality. Is your work ethic as strong when you are losing as when you are winning? Do you play as well when you are winning as when you are losing?

Do you have a cap on how big your team will get?

“Our business model calls for organic growth of the business. We are growing the company profitably by using company profits to fund growth. The stable is a mix of Bear Hug veterans and new players that have been recruited by Henry and me. They are doing a lot of work away from the tables, as well as on them. Our business model is scalable and we feel we will be able to profitably grow our player group beyond the size of what you would normally expect for a staking company.”

My friend is 60 years old today. He loves playing poker and wants to get a backer, not for the financial reasons, but to receive more help and tuition. Is that something you offer at Bear Hug?

“When a player goes for a staking deal he needs to make sure it’s for the right reasons. While the player won’t be risking any of their own money, they will be paying 50% of their winnings to their staker. On the flip side, a player who joins the Bear Hug team will be joining a culture of learning, respect and camaraderie and there’s a ton of value in that. We have a great group. Every day they are posting hands for analysis and supporting each other with a lot of positive energy. Our in-house coaches stay very busy. The individuals in the group are definitely stronger because of the unity of the group. Poker can be a solitary game. Being part of a group of like-minded players, who adhere to a standard of conduct and enjoy each other, can make playing poker more fun and rewarding for all.”

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