Played thirty four, lost thirty three
Before bad knees and Benson & Hedges got to me, I used to play a lot of football. But about ten years ago, I had to stop. I simply couldn’t compete with younger, keener opponents. They kept on coming, those kids, leaving me wheezing and red-faced in their wake. So I put my muddy Nikes in the back of the wardrobe and figured I’d never use them again.
Last year, however, I was at a poker game. As usual, there was a lot of talk about sport, Arsenal this, Flintoff that, Six Nations what-have-you. All very beefy and masculine, and no doubt our “insights” were being exactly replicated around a hundred circles of baize that very evening. (But not at Holden’s, of course; there the talk is of nothing less lofty than Ovid’s dactylic hexameters or Salieri’s concerto for the organ.) Anyway, after patiently listening to me expound on the subject of why Dimitar Berbatov is the greatest striker in world football, the one girl present at the table said, “If you know so much about the game, why don’t you come along one time and coach my ladies’ team?”
I was cornered, so I briskly agreed to do it, and we got on with the poker. Secretly. I hoped she’d forget, but she phoned a day later with directions to their next 5-a-side match. On the appointed evening, it was pouring with rain, the journey to Chalk Farm took me over an hour, and I watched glumly from the touchline as they conceded four goals in the first half. I gathered them round and gave a team talk that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Braveheart, and things immediately changed. In the second half, they let in five. My innermost thoughts? Thank Christ I don’t have to do this again.
Fortunately, she persuaded me to come along to another fixture. They lost again, 7-1, but within ten minutes of kick-off, I was enraptured. It wasn’t their bumbling performance that attracted me, but their spirit. Their record from the previous two seasons read P34 W1 D0 L33, with a goal difference of minus 238. I knew that any male team would have given up and never spoken of it again, but these girls kept on coming back, ever optimistic. They were insane. They were wonderful.
The upshot was that I started playing football again, at least with them on the coaching pitch. I’m pleased to say that this gradually had an effect on their results, but I kept doing it for purely selfish reasons. You see, even though I am tubby, asthmatic and pushing 50, when I’m with them I feel like I’m Cristiano Ronaldo. They are impressed when I can do simple things like trapping the ball, and if I execute a back-heel it has them almost fainting away with the vapours like the heroine of a Jane Austen novel. In short, I am suddenly a classy player again.
All of which brings me, no doubt to the relief of those who have had the patience to read this far, back to poker. Because this year I had also determined to “hang up my boots” when it came to gambling. It was all becoming such a grind – the long hours stooped in front of a computer screen; the bad beats and muppet calls; the realisation that I would never make it anyway near the top of the game; the yobs and dullards and crowing suck-out artists I always got seated next to. You know the score.
So I retired from my column in Poker Player magazine, stopped doing Sky Poker on TV, closed every single one of my internet sites, and turned down invitations to home games. Like a junkie quitting his fix, I steered clear of old associates and tried to blot out all thoughts of Hold’em.
After a couple of months, the monkey, if not completely off my back, was at least only hanging precariously to my trouser belt. I was almost free. But then I went into my local in Chiswick just as the “pub poker league” was about to start. There was a single table laid out, a buy-in of £5, and so many fish in the room that I could have been sipping my Kronenberg underwater. As soon as I heard one punter ask, “What’s a flush again?”, the banknote came out of my wallet like it was on springs.
One thing became clear as soon as we sat down. In terms of gambling skill, I had truly reached the bottom of the barrel. Of the seven other players present, five had a list of the hand rankings prominently placed in front of their chips, one had turned up hoping to be in a trivia quiz, only to discover that he had his dates mixed up, and one was extremely drunk. The first hand – predictably a family pot – took over nine minutes to complete. As the blinds were going up every ten minutes, I realised that, win or lose, this was going to be a morale-boosting evening.
Just as with my lady footballers, I felt deliciously omnicompetent. It was like being Phil Ivey at a normal game. I was picking up tells on every player, hoovering their chips up when they chased, and getting away cheaply when they hit their unlikely draws. Essentially, they would call with anything, but only bet if they had the nuts. To give you an idea of their subtlety, one guy hit quad jacks on the flop and immediately went all in for twenty times the pot.
That’s not to say I won, of course. In fact, I got marmalised heads up by a girl who won six straight hands. But I left the game feeling magnificent. I had sunk low, yes, but I had undeniably found a game I could dominate. And that meant more to me, in terms of happiness, than winning a few hundred quid here or there ever did.
If I learnt a truth from any of this, it’s that I should only gamble for fun. Even though I did okay as a “proper” player, making a profit of about £5000 a year, I never really felt comfortable. It was too often a job, not a pleasure. But down at the pub, with the novices, it was a walk in the park and – however pathetic it sounds – I enjoyed it a whole lot more. My new pond is a small pond, yes, but I have found a level that actually gives me – no, make that guarantees me – joy. Maybe that’s the secret to actually loving the game, instead of ceaselessly butting heads against the sharks. As I believe they used to say of Eric Drache, “He’s the seventh best stud player in the world. The trouble is, he only plays with the six people who are better than him.”