Not A Matter Of Life And Death

Who will I choose to be tonight? Shall I be the aggressor, hoping that my actions will scare away rivals so I can dominate? Or shall I stand back and let the others kill each other, hoping to survive? Or shall it be the middle line of choosing my battles, not engaging until I know I am superior, waiting for the perfect shot? But even then, when I finally enter the fray, I can get knocked out by a sucker punch. This is The Hunger Games, without the weird make-up. This is Darwinian Theory at turbo speed. This is poker.

I started playing No Limit Texas Holdem on the Bet365 poker website in the middle of 2003 and amassed quite a large amount of cash in quite a short time. It was an easy game, I thought. One day I won over $1,000 in a $3 rebuy tournament, but it wasn’t about the money, it was about the winning. I had dreams of giving up my job and spending all day in my pants in front of a screen, casually winning millions at the click of a mouse.

Then the wins drifted away as easily as they came. The poker Gods balanced the scales. By the time the 2006 World Series Of Poker came along, my online bankroll had ebbed away, and with the remnants of my previous victories I tried and failed to qualify cheaply online for one of the many packages to the Las Vegas spectacular. So I bought in, full price. That’s the wonderful thing about poker – it doesn’t matter how good you are, as long as your cash is good. Anyone, and I mean literally anyone, can play in the World Series Of Poker. Imagine turning up at the Open golf and telling Rory McIlroy that you’d paid your green fee and would be his partner for the day.

Event 40, $1,000 No Limit Holdem. Table 17, Seat 6. 1,100 entrants. Who would I choose to be when I sat down? I found my spot, next to another young Brit. He was wearing a Hull KR shirt and said he was the nephew of the (now late) great Dave “The Devilfish” Ulliott. I had been practicing for months my cool table demeanour, but the first riffle of my chips sent them clumsily spewing all over the table. I collected them up nonchalantly, hoping nobody had noticed. I lasted about four hours and came about 480th after playing as close to perfect poker as I’ve ever managed. I can remember virtually everything about it: the hands I had, the faces at the table, the funny things that were said.

I was card dead – without doubt the worst run I’ve ever had. We were playing 11 handed with a starting stack of 1,500 chips – it was virtually a lottery. I stole where I could but mostly waited patiently, and managed to hover around starting stack. Jon Kalmer, an English pro who I had seen on TV finishing fifth in the Main Event the previous year, had just been moved to our table with a big stack and opened from early position. It folded around to me on the button and I looked down at pocket eights. It was the best hand I had seen in four hours, and with the blinds getting higher all the while it was time to make my move.

I went all in, hoping the blinds would fold, and that Kalmer would call and turn over something like Ace King. I would be a slight favourite to double up and could then really get something going. My patience would be rewarded and with a bigger stack I could stop walking the tightrope and start playing some proper poker. Then my poker world collapsed – the small blind next to me also went all in. This was not part of the plan, and almost certainly announced a very good hand. Kalmer called (he had to, with his big stack and pot odds) and turned over Ace King. The small blind turned over pocket Aces. I was crushed. All I could hope for was an eight on the board, which never came. The winner the next day claimed over $200,000. I left with nothing.

Since then I have chased the glory – on the big and brash poker websites with tournaments worth millions to the winner, in intimate casino venues and poker clubs across the UK and Ireland with a constantly changing cast of characters, and at raucous and chaotic home games with the usual suspects. And what I have found is that not only is poker a microcosm of real life, but that it actually transitions back to influence everyday interactions.

At work I would sometimes want to ‘fold’ early in an exchange that really wasn’t going anywhere, and although teaching is really one long continuous bluff, going all in with a weak position and getting called can be catastrophic. In social situations I would watch eyes, hands and even the heart rate in the neck, trying to pick up clues of what was lurking behind the facade that we all wear, to some extent, when amongst others.

But life gets in the way of poker, and over the years the online play has fizzled out and the memories of Vegas have become little more than folklore. Even the evenings with friends have become more difficult to arrange, and until last month I hadn’t won a home game for over a year – believe me, that was beginning to smart, considering the clowns that I play against. However, a beautifully slow-played flopped straight, and vengeance was mine. The poker Gods tend to even things out in the long run, if you are patient enough.

The nut flush can't beat quad eights

The nut flush can’t beat quad eights

I have played just three times in London casinos in the last year, cashing twice and exiting early in the other tournament when my pockets Aces lost out to King Ten offsuit. I’d put on my best Hollywood routine, a real Oscar-winning performance, to entice the other guy into calling my pre-flop all-in. Staring down at the table until I knew he was looking at my eyes, I gave the faintest of nervous flickers. It worked – he called. But be careful what you wish for. Somehow I knew his straight was coming on the river. I wasn’t even that surprised, or angry. That, as they say, is poker. If you play long enough you see most things. YouTube ‘unlucky poker hands’ and you will find that getting your Aces cracked is at the mild end of the kick-in-the-goolies spectrum.

That is both the inherent problem, and the eternal fascination of the game – luck. Chess is a great game, and even has a big online following, but you wouldn’t organise a chess evening with your mates – the best player would win every time and the others would soon lose interest. Whereas at the other extreme playing the lottery is pure gambling with no skill involved, and I want to feel as though I am taking in active part in a game, influencing the outcomes and shaping the play.

Poker combines those two intangible components of luck and skill in a tantalising package (the exact split between the two has been a contentious issue over the years and, indeed, has even formed the basis of legal proceedings in the US) and that heady mix has seen the game expand enormously over the last decade. Complete beginners at our home games really do stand a chance, as their results over the years have testified, not least because it’s very difficult to fathom out what someone is doing if they don’t know themselves.

The point is that, just like Leicester last week, the beauty of the story, of every story played out at every table in every tournament, lies in the possibility of a fairytale. There were some very good players in my WSOP field of 1,100 who departed much earlier than me. Men “The Master” Nguyen, in the all-time top ten of bracelets won, left after less than ten minutes. Was I ever likely to win? No. Was it possible I could have won? Yes (which is markedly different to if I teed it up with Rory McIlroy). Survive, make the right move at the right time, get lucky – it could be you.

Of course, if you’re new to the game you will need a lot of practice. For all my talk about luck in the short term, in the long term you will lose the shirt off your back, and perhaps a lot more, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Watch some poker on TV, but remember that they only show the big hands. Play some home games, but remember that your mates might not know what they’re doing either. Read some books, but remember that the game has probably moved on since publication.

The only real way to gain a proper education is to play lots of hands against decent opposition, and I would suggest that before you start playing live with the big boys in London or Las Vegas, Nottingham or wherever, you should play online. There really is no substitute for putting in the hours and gaining that experience. Most sites have tables where you can use play money before graduating to the real thing, and my favourite bookmaker has an excellent online poker room which is where I started my poker journey over a decade ago. I’m no longer naive enough to think it will be easy, but I am still drawn to the game for that exhilarating allure of possibility. Who will you choose to be tonight?

The 2016 World Series Of Poker runs from 31 May to 18 July, with 69 events offering buy-ins ranging from $565 up to over $100,000. The champion of the Main Event last year won $7,680,021. Bet365 offer to match your initial deposit up to 100 Euros, and will give you 5 Euros completely free just to try it out. Terms and conditions apply. Click the banner below to be redirected to their website.