hard way to make an easy living 2 poker novel by dominic wellsCardspiel

A hard way (part 2)

A hard way to make an easy living (part 2 of 8) by Dominic Wells


> First Part Here

My own conversion came rather later in life.

It started innocently enough, when I was invited to a fellow journalist’s home game ten years ago in a genteel part of North London. Problem was, the journo in question was Victoria Coren, the Guardian and Observer columnist now better known, after winning half a million pounds at the European Poker Tour, as one of Britain’s top three female players.

I soon discovered that Texas Hold ‘Em wasn’t the simple five-card draw of my youth, where you are dealt five cards, discard the lousy ones, and then bet on the resulting hand. In Texas Hold ‘Em you are dealt two secret hole cards, then you bet. The dealer then turns over “the flop”: three cards, face up. You bet again. A fourth “turn” card is dealt, and you bet again. A fifth and final “river” card is dealt, and you bet yet again. The person with the best five-card hand, made up from any combination of their two hole cards and the five cards now face up on the table, wins the pot. Which, by now, can be huge.

Two things soon dawned on me. One, the several rounds of betting make it punishingly expensive to stay in every hand, as I naively did, hoping to catch good cards later. Two, I had absolutely not the slightest scintilla of a clue what I was doing. As Vicky dispensed tips from my right-hand side, I realised that this game was like an onion. It had layers within layers of complexity. And it was bound to make you cry.

There was so much to learn. What the precise odds are of the right cards coming up to match yours. How much you should bet if you want people to call you, and how much you should bet if you want people to fold. What advantage you get from position, in other words if it’s your turn to bet last, having watched how other people act, rather than first. It truly is a game that takes minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.

So I’ve spent the last ten years trying.

My odyssey took me first to Las Vegas. Just landing there is a thrill, especially at night. It’s a bit like being in that early James Cameron film, The Abyss. You’re hurtling through hundreds of miles of nameless void, and then, that eerie glow: a network of neon, a lattice of fairy-lights strung out across the blasted Arizona desert like all your Christmases come at once. From the jet-black pyramid of the Luxor casino, one central beam shoots skyward, powerful enough to be visible from space, as if calling aliens to land.

Not, amid the madness of Vegas, that anyone would notice if they did.

On my first trip, I met a fellow journalist on the flight, and he lent me a book: “How to Play Poker Like the Professionals”. Straight off the plane, he dragged me to a $150 tournament at Binion’s casino, then home to the World Series of Poker. Jet-lagged, way out of my depth, I played it literally by the book – and stood up at 2am, 10am on British time, in fourth place with $1,500.

Since then the journalist, ‘Poker Dave’, has become a great mate. Together with three other poker buddies, we’ve hit Sin City half a dozen times since. Dave has even applied poker as a salve for a broken heart, turning the honeymoon that never happened into a lads’ week away. Years later, after he fell in love again, we all went on his stag do. It was held, not entirely coincidentally, in Dublin – which had just been voted by Bluff magazine as Europe’s best city for poker.

The game has also taken me to the Caribbean, to compete in a $10,000 tournament thronging with celebrities but overshadowed by the Haiti earthquake. I’ve entered the World Series of Poker Europe four times, for which I was coached by the Devilfish, a colourful ex-con from Hull with personalized diamond knuckle-dusters who can win or lose a million bucks in a single week. I’ve played in Atlantic City, whose mobster roots have now been immortalised by the TV series Boardwalk Empire. In a tiny Indian reservation that houses America’s largest casino. In an oak-panelled club in Paris a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. In a semi-legal basement in Rome. I’ve even played swinging from a crane 45 metres up in the air, above London’s City Hall, with the aforementioned Annette Obrestad. And I’ve played in the now undisputed gambling capital of the world: Macau, off the coast of China, whose gaming revenue has just leapfrogged to more than twice that of Vegas.

> Part 3 here

Image ‘Risk – Onyx Edition (Ghosts of board games past)’ by Derek Gavey

> Photographer Website

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