There are two friends I always check with when I want to know what’s going on in poker, elderly sage Al Alvarez and poker columnist, and a young woman about town, Victoria Coren.
Victoria first: “We’ve been saying for years that poker is the hot new thing, and now it is. There are so many contenders for the World Championships that they’ve had to extend it to a week. I’m seeing a fast-flowing stream of new players coming off the internet, via private games, into the casinos.”
Alvarez couldn’t agree more: “No question, poker has entered a booming age.” He thinks it’s partly because public attitudes changed after the Government endorsed gambling with the national lottery, but he also points the finger straight at the internet.“It’s not only great fun, but the internet has the ability to teach people… before you play for real, you can play with toy money.”
This is a revolutionary innovation. In the bad old days, the only way to get a lesson in poker was to sit down with people better than you and hand over the cash at the end of the game. You learned in the school of hard knocks and bad beats (a poker term for hard luck stories), in the University of Life, by staying up too late at night and fatally going head to head against taciturn men called “Doc”. From the Mississippi riverboats to the low-ante casino games and Friday night poker schools in commuter-land, there were no free lessons in the pre-internet days. Now there are.
The route for today’s new player is exactly as Victoria Coren describes, from the internet to private game to casino and then – who knows? – to the World Championships. The casinos look to be sitting pretty, with a supply of new customers pre-cooked, shrink-wrapped and delivered to the pit just gagging to spend their money. The Ritz Casino, for example, exists in two forms: an elegant, plush bricks and mortar affair beneath the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly, and an online casino in cyberspace. They launched their online poker game in the spring, are looking into the possibility of online tournaments, and are also planning to sponsor real-life (i.e. non-cyber) tournaments. They already sponsor the annual Omar Sharif backgammon charity tournament.
One way or another, there is virtually a non-stop tournament scene in London’s casinos, from cheap to expensive, from dress down to black-tie.
The clientele covers the waterfront, from occasionals looking for an hour’s amusement and determined to stop their losses at £50, the sort who’ll have a £5 “flutter”, as they call it, on the Derby, to Mayfair millionaires. You’ll find Sir Clive Sinclair, the inventor, and Zac Goldsmith, ecologist son and heir of one of the great gamblers. High society is represented by Tom Parker Bowles and Timmy Hanbury (father of what Tatler calls Britain’s prettiest sisters, Marina and Rose); from the serious world comes Michael Gove, senior editor at The Times and denizen of The Moral Maze. Nor do you have to have a Y-chromosome. There are plenty of women players: Coren herself, Cindy Blake, author and ex-wife of former professional poker player Anthony Holden, and many others. They may look like dolls, but they are just as sharp as the guys.
There is, perhaps, one thing the neophyte should know: when you enter the world of poker, you enter a parallel universe. Poker is everything. You need nothing more. Mutter “poker” to Google and you get 18 million replies. Get your poker accessories online: cards and chips, of course, but also books, movies, poker chocolate (whatever that is) and jewellery. (Well, you wouldn’t want to sit down without your lucky 14-carat poker charm, would you?)
Alvarez himself features high among player-authors.Two of his books – Poker: Betts, Bluffs and Bad Beats and Where Did It All Go Right? – are famous enough, but his earlier The Biggest Game in Town has been called the best book on poker ever written. Not for nothing is he consultant to one of the new poker websites. Not for nothing did he ask Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs for a poker-playing computer as his luxury. It is not at all difficult to imagine Al sitting on the sand and challenging the computer in an eternal battle of wits. As he says, “the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.”
The current surge, outburst, explosion – call it what you will – in poker is an interesting cultural phenomenon. The game has always held pride of place in its native land across the Atlantic, but had an uncertain hold and even more uncertain reputation in Britain. It was louche, sleazy, like the game in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. There is also an element of dot.com about the present boom – dozens of poker websites are jostling for position, and not all of them will survive.
But the public has clearly been hooked. Victoria Coren again: “Channel 4 definitely missed a trick by dropping Late Night Poker, and if they had any sense they’d bring it back. They were the first to make poker mainstream in this country by putting it on TV, and then they dropped it just as it became huge.
“Into the void stepped Poker Million on Sky Sports (internet players take on professionals in gripping one-table heats).Then there’s Celebrity Poker Club and the World Poker Tour (the greatest international players in major tournaments). All these shows get big audiences and where are Channel 4? Busy making Shattered.”
Zac Goldsmith has actually reached the final of Poker Million, which will air live in July. He learnt his poker the traditional way, i.e. in private games, but is gripped by the excitement of tournament play where you start with, say, ten people at a table and, one by one, they are busted out. This is where cruelty and humiliation live. Make the big mistake, and you’re out. No reprieve, just Out. Finished. Kaput. Extinct. History.Toast.The spectators have no further interest in you. You rise from the table and no one even says goodbye.
But a seat at the table is irresistible, so the risk is worth it. Alvarez today might modify what he once said: “Poker is to Americans what chess is to Russians, cricket to the English and motor-racing to the Italians.”Today, poker is clearly the game. It has elbowed bridge and backgammon aside. There are only three decent money bridge clubs left in London, and the last backgammon club closed a few months ago after struggling for years. Twenty-something James Vogel typifies the change in fashion. He is one of the best backgammon players in the country, but “I play much more poker now, on the net,” he says.
But that’s enough chat. If you want to read any more, go to the UK’s largest gambling bookstore, highstakes.co.uk. In the meantime, we’ve cut the deck, so, in the immortal final words from that classic movie The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine: “Shut up and deal.”