Building's features editor struggles with her tactics at the Poker Kings 2007 tournament
“That is a very difficult hand,” Willie “The Dice Man” Tann muses. A frown of concentration creases the poker legend’s face, as he peels back the corners of my cards again. “Very difficult…” The other seven players and the dealer wait with baited breath – will he advise me to go all in or fold?
It is only three hands into Building’s first Poker Kings tournament and I’ve bottled it on the first decent hand I’ve been dealt. The cards look quite promising – unfortunately I have no idea what to do with them. Each player can ask Willie to help them make their move once during the evening and, with my hands already shaking from the beginners training rounds, this seems as good a time as any.
Tonight, we’re playing the wildly popular Texas Hold ‘Em. I’ve been dealt a king and a jack, the dealer has produced a king, jack and a six on the flop, and a three on the turn. Everyone else has folded apart from Eric Roberts, construction director at John Doyle Group, who’s raised me 500, more than half of my remaining chips.
Eventually, Willie decides to fold. It's good advice – there was an ace on the river and Roberts would have won with a pair of aces and a pair of threes. But the other players are amazed. “I couldn’t go out on a pair of Kings and jacks if you hung me!” explodes Stef Stefanou, chair of John Doyle Group. “It’s against my religion
Stef’s the driving force behind Poker Kings, and he arranged for it to be held in his favourite casino, the London Grosvenor Victoria on Edgware Road. A poker-playing friend describes it as the “grimy home of London poker”, but it’s disappointingly non-intimidating in the flesh – it’s got more in common with a bingo hall or bowling alley than anything I’ve seen in the films.
The crowd sipping champagne in our roped-off enclave eye each other warily but the atmosphere’s pretty friendly. The players seem to be divided between people who’ve travelled suspiciously long distances to take part – Suffolk, Leeds, New York – and those who claim they’ve never played before. But it’s the serious players who are nervous of the novices – “when you’ve got people who don’t know what they’re doing, anything can happen,” notes one, casting a hawklike eye over the beginners training sessions.
Stef has a different concern: “The thing I worry about, that everyone worries about, is being the first one out,” he confides. Within minutes, someone is out – but it’s Stelio, Stef’s brother. He went all in on his first hand, a pair of Aces and a pair of Sevens – only to find ex-MP Tony McWalter has two aces and two tens.
Poker isn’t a natural spectator sport – players keep their cards close to their chests and try to betray as little emotion as possible – but as the tables thin out and the losers crowd round, the atmosphere builds. Stef’s exuberant heckling helps. “Don’t you feel GUILTY?” he accuses Eric as he cleans out another opponent. “Do you feel guilty when you sign a final account?” Eric retorts.
My suspicion that I do not have the big match temperament is soon amply confirmed, so I seek Willie out for some advice. He must be a formidable opponent across a poker table, because he’s pretty inscrutable in general chit-chat. “Poker’s a game you can learn to play in one day,” he finally says, “but it takes a lifetime to master. Remember the five Ps. That’s patience, psychology, position – being the dealer is best as you’re the last to declare your intentions in a hand – perseverance and practice.” If you want to buy a book on poker, he rates anything by Dan Harrington.
The second calmest person in the room is Tony, who has been steadily amassing most of the 36,000 chips in play with a cool, detached serenity – he looks more like a local vicar daydreaming through a parish committee meeting than a man systematically destroying his rivals. With the blinds – the forced bets players must make each go - rising to 600 and 1200, it’s not a massive surprise when Tony takes the £6,000 prize.
Afterwards, he makes an extraordinary admission: he has never played poker before and his only training consisted of buying a book on it the day before. Perhaps this game isn't as hard as I made it seem...