A stiff upper lip and onto the next game
The Set Up.
I’m not here to talk about the great moments of poker we’ve all seen on television, the Gus Hansen bluffs, the Sammy Farha reraises, the spectacular eruptions of Mount Hellmuth. No, I want to focus on the worst bits of play that have been broadcast to the nation.
First up, let me draw your attention to Teri Dwyer, an actress from the soap opera Hollyoaks, who was playing in one of those cable channel celebrity tournaments. Having called big bets all the way to the river, she announced that she had the nuts and proudly fanned her hole cards out onto the baize. There was a moment of embarrassed hush from the commentators, and only when Thomas Kremser politely pointed out to her that three hearts and two spades don’t actually add up to a full house did she realise that she had lost.
Next up is an American show I saw a couple of months ago, featuring the final table of a tournament from Tunica. There were several familiar pros around the table and a couple of amateurs who had battled their way through the field. One was a middle-aged woman. First to act in a hand, she tripled the big blind. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But then she sought out the cameras and announced, in a quavering voice, "I dedicate this raise to my children, Josh and Marie." For Christ’s sake, I groaned from the sofa, it’s a poker tournament not a phone-in radio show! This sort of mawkish behaviour has to be stamped on at once, before it spreads. Ten minute bans must be ruthlessly enforced, as for the "F bomb".
And the last outrage? Well, that happened to me. I was invited to be a guest on the new Sky Poker channel. It’s essentially an internet game which gets shown live on TV, with a first prize of about £1000. I fancied my chances because the producer told me that most of the participants were beginners. Perfect! Not only was I going to earn some very useful scratch, but I was going to get all the glory of doing it on television.
However, right from the start, the omens weren’t good. The studio is located in Feltham, and my cab driver got lost on the way there, at one point driving up to the gates of the Young Offenders Institute. Having seen the movie Scum, I had a terrible mental image of being dragged into the potting sheds for a violent introduction to Greek love. Luckily, the guard at the gate gave us directions, but when I finally made it to the green room, I was confronted by an enormous four foot square photograph of my ex-girlfriend Simone. After chewing my heart to pieces and spitting out the lumps, she had obviously thrown herself into a television career, and was now a presenter on Sky Vegas, a bingo show cunningly designed to separate bored Epsilons from their social security money. (And then give it to Rupert Murdoch.) Her image glared down at me, and all the arguments and misery of our year together flooded back. And let me assure you, it’s one thing to have the Mona Lisa’s gaze following you around a room, but quite another to be tracked by eyes that have laughed at you naked and blazed with anger at your perceived emotional shortcomings. Not good preparation for a tourney…
And so to work. 300 runners, many of them novices. Easy pickings? Well, not at all. As soon as I made an attempt to steal the first pot, I realised I was in for a tough night. Even though there were only six people at my table, my hefty raise to a flop of QQ6 got four callers. And then – even more astonishly – the hand got checked down to the river, only to be won by a guy with pocket threes. I was in calling station hell.
You’ll recognise my dilemma. In a freezeout tourney, with no rebuys and rapidly rising blinds, you have to make moves. To bluff. To steal. But now those weapons had been taken away from me. For all their weaknesses, the fish had ruined my best strategy. All I could do now was sit and wait for a monster, knowing I’d be able to milk them for extra chips when it came. Which would have been fine if the deck hadn’t been as cold as a Siberian sorbet. So I got remorselessly chiselled away until we arrive at…
Still six handed, and with blinds at 200/400, I move all in for 1875 chips under the gun. I am holding KJ off suit. The player to my left – who is presumably holding the 2 of diamonds and the Rules of Bridge – passes, but three of the others call. The board comes K634K, and I am about to congratulate myself on quadrupling up when I see that the button has 57 for the straight. As he was only holding 2300 chips at the start of the hand, this strikes me as an optimistic call, and I spend the rest of the programme bleating about it live on air. It’s not the badness of the beat that appals me, but the loose-passive way most of the hands have been played. Why, for instance, did he not bet the turn or river? I shake my head a lot. I try to justify my defeat. But the world has already moved on…
The next day, I watch the show on video. And I realise that the real difference between internet and "bricks and mortar" poker is not about spotting tells or betting patterns. It’s about how you behave as a human being. Because if you start spitting feathers online, nobody can actually see your angry little tomato face or hear you spout bile. But if you do it in front of other people – and especially in front of a TV audience – it makes you look like a whining, impotent loser. At life, as well as poker.
So, no more excuses. Ever. Just a stiff upper lip and onto the next game. If you ever see me complaining about a beat again, you have my permission to punch me on the nose. As the great 19th century courtesan Lola Montez used to say, "Courage! And shuffle the cards!"
Now, that’s the spirit.