A tale of drama, high stakes and spreadsheets set in a west London casino

To succeed in the contracting business, you’ve got to be a bit of a gambler. So when Stef Stefanou, chairman of John Doyle, decided hold a charity poker tournament, it wasn’t hard to find players. Three tables worth of eager gamblers descended on London’s Grosvenor Victoria casino last Thursday for Poker Kings 2007, the inaugural construction industry poker event, organised by Building.

The crowd was a tense mix of people who’d travelled suspiciously long distances to take part – Suffolk, Leeds, New York – and those who claimed they’d never played before. But as the night progressed, it was the novices who were taking charge. Tony McWalter, the former Labour MP for Hemel Hempstead, had calmly amassed most of the 36,000 chips in play, so it was a shock when he admitted his first love was bridge and his only training consisted of buying a book on poker the day before.

McWalter was joined in the final three by John Doyle’s Eric Roberts, who certainly looked the part, with the black clothes and deadpan demeanour of a man who bets his house on a nightly basis. But he too was new to the live game, honing his skills on the internet with his son. Facing them across the table was Stephen Harvey, also of John Doyle, who earned himself the nickname “Lazarus”, so often did he come back from the dead with one solitary chip.

Nobody was surprised when McWalter took the £6,000 prize, presented by poker legend and Stefanou’s friend of 40 years, Willie Tann (pictured opposite, advising Paris Moayedi). His secret, it turned out, was being a professor of mathematics and working out the odds of different hands on an Excel spreadsheet.

McWalter may have pulled off a triumph for research and detached rationality, but it turned out he was far from immune from gamblers’ superstitions. “Stef asked me if I felt like I was going to win, but I thought that would be bad luck. When he said that, I thought of Devon Lock – in the 1956 Grand National he fell 50 yards from the post.”

This was too much for Stefanou: “Can you get the violinists from outside?” he exploded to much laughter from the crowd. And with that, the Poker Kings retired to the bar, having raised £5,000 for charity Build a School.