Broken Fairytale

The thing about fairytales, miracles and (to perpetuate an overused sporting adjective) ‘unbelievable’ events is that they don’t happen very often. The last time I wrote on this topic was in May 2016 just after Leicester City had secured their Premiership title. A year on and the inexorable pull of probability theory has asserted itself once more. The funny thing is that the season Leicester endured defending their title enhanced, if possible, the legend of the previous season – it really was the collision of a million strands of chance.

For the last two months poker players, professional and amateur, have made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker which culminated on Sunday with the finale of the Main Event. 7,221 hopefuls set out a fortnight before in search of their own fairytale ending. Think of that number – 7,221 competitors playing down to just one winner. It is a scale of attrition that makes other sports look genteel and elitist in comparison, and remains one of the enduring fascinations of poker in general and the Main Event in particular.

Ever the optimist, I decided I had to get involved, not by playing but by betting of course, and asked Bet365 to quote me a price on 23 year-old Charlie Carrel to beat a mere 7,220 opponents. Carrel had made a good start in his first World Series with finishes of 15th out of 130, 3rd out of 129, 15th out of 332 and 68th out of 1349 in earlier events, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Born in Jersey but uprooted to London at the age of 7, Carrel’s childhood was blighted by severe bullying which he now says allowed him to detach from his emotions, a useful attribute when he found online poker. He made a £10 deposit, won his first tournament for £30 and has never had to deposit again.

When he was 19, with some decent results and a bankroll of $2,500 accumulated, Carrel decided to move back to Jersey to live with his grandmother and not leave before he had made $100,000. About two-thirds of the way to his target he won $201,711 in the PokerStars Sunday Million. The live results followed. In 2014 he won the Grosvenor UK Final for over £100k, then in 2015 the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo for almost £1 million.

Strangely, he skipped the World Series last year to spend time with his family and take up Jiu-jitsu, cooking and creative writing, but the results kept on coming. He recently won the Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) for $1.2 million despite starting the final table as the short stack and suffering connection problems playing from (he claimed) a Starbucks in Mexico.

His record in the ultra-competitive, big-field world of poker is seriously impressive, and without connection problems to deal with in Las Vegas I fancied his chances. Bet365 replied to my request with odds of 400/1 which may not initially sound attractive in a field of over 7,000 but, considering many players would be amateurs who had won their entry with online satellites, I thought was very reasonable. The only snag was that I had to phone up to place the bet, and I just never got around to it.

The punters worst nightmare then, of course, began to unfold as I tracked Carrel’s progress through the tournament. In that first week, as the field size shrank and the average chip stack climbed, he lurked ominously near the top of the leaderboard and I began to agonise over the missed opportunity – 400/1 winners should happen slightly more often than 5,000/1 winners like Leicester City, but still not very often really. How could I have let this inspired bet, not to mention the thousands of pounds in winnings, slip through my fingers?

I breathed a huge sigh of relief (unlike Carrel, I would imagine) when late on Day 5 he ran KK into AA and went out in 88th place for $72,514. With the entry fee a cool $10,000 this was still not a bad profit for a week’s work (in the loosest sense of the word), but a long way shy of his near $6 million career winnings and the $8,150,000 John Blumstein would eventually go on to win as the last man standing on Sunday. It was only when Carrel had crashed out of the tournament that an interesting subplot began to emerge.

John Hesp, a 64 year-old from Bridlington who usually plays in a £10 tournament at Napolean’s Casino in Hull, persuaded his wife Mandy it was time to tick the Main Event off his bucket list, and had unaccountably outlasted Carrel and over seven thousand others. Bedecked in colourful attire and a Panama hat, Hesp played with feel rather than Maths and liked to chat to his opponents, something unusual in the clinical world of professional poker. If you’d asked any bookmaker for a price on him before the start of the tournament they’d have said “Who’s he?”

Charlie Carrel and John Hesp

However, the biggest stage in poker didn’t scare Hesp and his unorthodox style and unexpected moves confounded opponents. It was far from all luck, however, as his instincts were good – he was not afraid to make a move, but also made astute laydowns when necessary. He went into the final table second in chips and then became chip leader before losing a massive pot, for almost half the chips in play, to Blumstein. In the tournament-defining hand, Hesp held two-pair with AT on a dry board of A75T but he was drawing dead before the river to Blumstein’s AA.

After nursing a short stack through the rest of Day 8 and most of Day 9 he did well to finish fourth and takes home $2.6 million for his efforts, but claims that the money won’t change his life and he’ll keep playing poker recreationally. “I’ve absolutely loved it,” he said afterwards, “I’ve lived the dream!” And I think he meant it.

The differences between Charlie Carrel and John Hesp are enormous and obvious – their style of play, approach to the game, and journey to the World Series of Poker are like chalk and cheese. At 23, Charlie has the poker world at his feet and will almost certainly have further chances to win that elusive Main Event bracelet. At 64, John may ride the crest of the publicity wave for a few months or years, but will probably never again experience the thrill of a deep run in a major tournament.

What they have in common is that they both dared to dream, and that they both fell agonisingly short of the fairytale ending in the 2017 Main Event after exiting in extremely difficult situations to avoid. Miracles like Leicester City just don’t happen very often, you see. But they both gave it a go, and both stand testament, albeit in remarkably different ways, to the special allure of poker.