Archive | May, 2015

How I became a superhero

30 May
Me at the UKIPT with my superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Me at the UKIPT, wearing my new superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Yesterday I became a superhero. Yes, with a superhero costume and a superpower and everything.

Let me explain how.

They say poker is all about probabilities and odds, and they are right, it is; but only up to a point. Live poker at least is more about masks and secret identities. In real life you might be a banker or a lawyer, a gangster or a millionaire, a cab driver or a student; but at the poker table you are whoever you choose to represent yourself as. It’s your job as a live player to see behind your opponents’ masks: to decide this person’s raise means AQ or better; that person’s raise includes low-to-medium pairs; that person’s includes any suited cards. The wider your own range, and the harder it is to read, the more formidable you are as a player.

That’s why nicknames in poker are so common: they are your opponents’ way of categorising what sort of a superhero (or super-villain) you are. I’ve had several given to me. Devilfish himself named me “No-Tells Wells” many years back. Since then I have been called the Professor, the Dom-inator, the Silent Assassin and Paul Smith (because of my sharp jackets), all facets of my different playing styles, my own inner superhero team of the poker felt.

And yesterday I was finally given an actual superhero costume to wear: the black, white and red arm-badge of a sponsored player for PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino, with a buy-in to the £275 two-day UKIPT tournament. It’s in that tournament that I discovered my superpower:

I can dodge bullets.

I had several unlucky hands early on that took me down from a 20k starting stack to just 4k, before I built it back up. Any one of them might have knocked out another player. Here’s how to survive in order to fight a better spot when the hand turns against you:

I flop a flush! But I don’t blow my stack.

I call a raise to 300 (BB is 100) with 6-8 of clubs. The blinds are tiny, I can afford a speculative hand I could chip up with. Baseball cap makes it 800, initial raiser calls with his pocket pair or high cards, I call too.

And the flop is all clubs, up to the 9.

Even better, baseball cap leads out 2k with his probable pocket over-pair. Initial raiser calls, either with a lower pocket pair, or a high club. I don’t want to slow-play and let one catch up with a high club if another club comes; so I play safe by raising to 6k, expecting folds. Baseball cap folds, the other guy calls. Hm. Strange. A high club, then?

The turn is a second 9. And the guy shoves all-in. Oh sh**. In a previous hand that was checked to the river, he’d been open-ended on the turn and didn’t raise. There is no way he is shoving all-in without the nuts. 100% he has a house. I don’t even dwell: I insta-fold, showing my flush. He shows pocket 2s for a set on the flop and a house on the turn.

7k down the drain already, but I could easily have been knocked out. Dodged a bullet there.

Finally a real hand! AK suited.

The flop is no help, sadly – 78Q – but there’s hardly any betting till the river so I stay in. Brilliant! The river brings an Ace: baseball cap shakes his head at it sadly.

My spider-senses tingle. He’s surely too experienced a player to let negative emotion show. Now I’m worried. The turn was a 4: could he have 56 for a straight? If I check, and he bets, I’ll feel I have to call even a pot-sized bet (now over 3k). Whereas if he checks, and really does have a lower pair as he’s pretending, I’ve lost money.

My best option therefore is to bet, but really small. I put in 1.5, less than half the pot. He sighs and shakes his head again. Then pushes in 7k. Ha! His blatant Hollywooding just made it easier for me. I fold, showing my AK to induce him to show in return, which he does: he did have a straight. Dodged another bullet there.

Pocket 10s

An easy bullet to dodge. Pocket 10s, A on flop, he bets, I fold. He shows the Ace, too.

Pocket 9s

A tricky one. I get pocket 9s. Despite winning or stealing a few small pots, including by repping a flush I don’t have when a fourth club comes, I’m down to 7k by this stage. There’s a raise to 600, but I’m in too early a position to go all-in, so I call to set-mine. Tight pro in glasses raises to 2k. Damn. That’s bad. AK perhaps, more probably a high pair. Initial raiser calls, though, so now I stand to triple up if I hit. It’s a big dent in my stack, but 1.4k to have an eighth chance of winning up to 21k is a good bet. I call.

The flop is as good as it could be, short of giving me a 9: 568, so I have an overpair and a gutshot. BUT glasses leads out 3k. I am certain now he has a high overpair, not AK. Even though the other guy calls, and I’m down to just 5k, I’m so sure of my read I fold. Glasses bets the turn of a 3, and the river of a 5, at which the other guy bows out, saying: “You got Kings?”

This makes him show: he does indeed have pocket Kings. Dodged another bullet there.

Double up!

Down to 5k. I’ve seen many players shove in desperation in those situations, but I’m still 20x BB. Doubling up is easy, I just need the right hand. I want a cigarette, but can’t afford to miss a single hand now, so I stay put. Good thing, too: I get pocket Qs. It’s an insta-all-in, hoping for one caller – which I get from BB with pocket 8s. Brilliant. I double up.

All-in

On this hand I do finally go all-in, inducing someone to fold the better hand:

I have AJ of spades in the BB. Three limps; I’m sure I have the highest hand, so I raise big, 1.5k on BB 300; big enough that I can rep an overpair if need be. One caller – it’s the guy who had a house on me before, the guy I folded a made flush to. That’s important for what follows:

The flop comes 9 high, with two spades. I don’t have to think too hard about my course of action. I’ve been cautious when need be: now is not the time for caution. I can’t check and call, or I may leak chips to the river. I can’t check-raise, as if I let him bet he’ll be committed to call at my stack size. I have to shove all-in to gain fold equity.

But first, I lay the groundwork for this particular superhero identity: the identity of a guy with a big over-pair. I look at him. He looks back at me quizzically. I can tell he’s got a little something – he’s either hit a pair on the board, or has a pocket pair. “Just trying to work out if you’ve hit a set again,” I say to him, as I look into his eyes. This reminds him that I’m the guy who was tight enough to lay down a flush. It also suggests that I have an overpair to the board.

Now I nod as though satisfied, and shove all-in. I’m pretty sure he’ll now fold any pair. And if he finds the balls to call, I still have my one-third chance of doubling up with the nut flush. He dwells, then folds, showing the 9 for top pair on the board. “Good fold,” I say, without showing. Dodged another bullet there, and now I’m back to a playable 12k.

Back in the game

I gradually build it back to 35k – average stack now it’s late in the day; not bad when I was down to 4k. Along the way, there’s a graphic reminder of what happens when you don’t even try to dodge bullets. A short-stack somehow ends up all-in with pocket deuces against a guy with AQ on a Q-high flop. As he leaves the table, he shrugs and says rhetorically, “What can you do?”

I have an answer for that. DON’T GO ALL-IN WITH DEUCES, YOU INCREDIBLE IDIOT. Another short-stack check-raises all-in when I hit my top pair on the flop. I have to put him on a flush draw, not two pair, or he’d have bet first, so I call. He had bottom pair, and goes out. Again, he just lost the will the find the right spot to fight.

A tight spot with AK

I have a strange hand with AK. I raise in the SB, and am called by the BB, a woman who’s recently been moved to my left. Flop is A-6-10, with two spades. Couldn’t be better. I bet 3k, and she shoves all-in for 11k. That’s bad. Very bad. Any other player I could put on a flush draw, or AJ or AQ. But I remember her from the last tournament. I think she’s stronger than that.

I dwell for ages. This is my one hand written up on the PokerStars blog, and it must seem strange that I dwelt so long after flopping an Ace with AK: surely an insta-call, when 8k stands to win me twice that, and it doesn’t even cripple my stack. But I know her enough to put her on A10 for two pair… maybe even a set. Finally, I make the call, and I’m relieved rather than disappointed when she has AK as well for a chop.

Going out fighting

In the end, I do go out after losing some key hands. It’s not because I stop being able to dodge bullets through my reads, but because I still lack the best super-power of all: the ability to hit.

For instance, I call an all-in button shove with A7 on the BB, knowing he has air: he has J5 – but somehow still gets a straight. Later I re-raise to 6k in late position with pocket 8s, but glasses re-re-raises to 16k: definitely a bigger pair, so I fold. I end up short-stacked again, and have to button-shove with K7 suited; called by pocket 8s; I don’t hit.

So I go out, nearly at the end of the day, in 45th place out of 119 runners. Disappointing, but not a bad result when at one stage I was down to just 4k within the first two hours. And I outlast another PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino pro at my table, who weirdly sat with his starting stack of 20k intact, not playing a single hand for two hours, then suddenly shoved all-in against a 1k raise. I say to myself, no one will possibly call him with anything less than Kings here, when this is the first hand he’s played since sitting down, and so it proves: the initial raiser calls him with Aces, he mournfully shows AK, and he’s out.

As a poker superhero, I’d rather die fighting.

I then take myself off upstairs to the PokerStars LIVE balcony, and positively crush the cash table until 3am.

Mad Max: Fury Road – the untold Tank Girl connection

25 May
Charlize Theron as Tank Girl – sorry, I mean as Imperator Furiosa – in Mad Max: Fury Road

Charlize Theron as Tank Girl — sorry, as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

I’ve been too busy till now editing a film supplement to comment on Mad Max: Fury Road, though I saw it on opening night ten days ago. But despite all the coverage (most of it ecstatic), one thing still hasn’t been said.

Fury Road is not actually a reboot of Mad Max at all. It’s a reboot of Tank Girl.

It’s obvious when you think about it. Mad Max scarcely has any role in his own film: he seldom speaks, and seldom acts unless prompted by the spirit of his dead daughter. Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is clearly the lead. [Incidentally, what kind of a name is that to give your daughter? “Furiosa”. Fine for a badass warrior woman, but when she meets up with family from whom she was separated as a child, they call her by that name, too.]

Theron has Tank Girl’s shaved head, that lost Emily Lloyd the role in the 1995 Tank Girl movie when she wouldn’t shave her locks (or so the director says; Lloyd disputes this version of events). She has, if not a tank, then a ‘War Rig’ on wheels. And if she has a grunting Tom Hardy for a sidekick instead of a priapic mutant kangaroo, and if she lacks Tank Girl’s gleeful anarchy (that’s passed on instead to “War Boy”, who cackles “What a lovely day!” as they ride into the mother of all sand storms which picks up a car full of people and blows it up above his head), and has instead a very Hollywood desire for “redemption”, these are small quibbles.

The whole world is like Tank Girl’s world: post-apocalyptic and full of crazies. You could argue Tank Girl borrowed from Mad Max in the first place, and you’d be right. But the tone and especially the look of Fury Road is very much more comic-book than the original films, and that is down to one key added ingredient: the marvellous Brendan McCarthy.

Brendan is a British comics illustrator who I recall propping up the bar with writer Pete MIlligan and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett at Comics Conventions in the ‘80s. He has worked as a concept designer and storyboard artist in Hollywood for nearly three decades now, and was encouraged to sue Kevin Costner’s Waterworld for its striking similarities with his comic Freakwave. In the end, Brendan “couldn’t be arsed” to launch lengthy legal action, but it led directly to his collaborating with Mad Max supremo George Miller.

TO-TankGirl-6718The original Tank Girl movie was a) not good, b) not funny, c) had little of anything that made the original comics so popular. It was so bad, in fact, that Jamie Hewlett disowned it. Check out the specially commissioned Time Out cover Jamie drew for us  when I was editor (right) as an example of how not to sell a movie!

I like to see Mad Max: Fury Road, which Brendan co-wrote as well as steering the concept designs, as seizing the chance to right these wrongs.

Fury Road is not so much Mad Max, as Mad Maxine. It’s Tank Girl in all but name.

Mac attack: Paul McCartney blows the roof off the O2

24 May
Paul McCartney and me. Outside the O2 Arena.

Paul McCartney and me. Outside the O2 Arena.

“I was round at George’s house,” says Paul, before breaking off, “let’s hear it for George!” It takes a while for the applause to die down enough for him to continue: “And we were playing these songs on ukuleles. I played this song then, and I’d like to play it for you now.”

The old man in the centre of the stage gets out a ukulele, and starts a solo acoustic performance of the sublime Something In The Way She Moves. He’s still lean, and still has those perfectly semi-circular eyebrows that give him an expression of permanent surprise; only the stoop of his shoulders betray his 72 years. The rendition is incongruous, but beautiful. You’d be happy to listen to the whole song like that, but then a third of the way through the drums kick in, the backing band step forward, Paul ditches the uke for a guitar, and the whole of the cavernous O2 Arena is bathed in a thrillingly huge, warm wave of sound.

I paid £125 to see Paul play last night . If this had been the only song, it would have been worth the price of admission, but there were nearly 40 others over the course of nearly three hours, almost every single one a gold-plated hit.

There was, I think, just one other song that was written by someone else. As the guitars started in on an instrumental, I thought, “What the —? That sounds like….” When the three stood in a circle, bending over their guitars as though circle-jerking over a biscuit, there could be no doubt: Paul McCartney was playing Purple Haze.

“I was lucky enough to know Jimi Hendrix in the ‘60s,” explained Paul afterwards. “We released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a Friday night, and he played it on Sunday – he’d learned it all overnight. But he’s playing it with all this vibration and feedback, it sounds awful, and he calls out, ‘Is Eric out there?’ Clapton, of course. And he was! ‘Will you tune this for me, man?’” Paul purses his lips and mimes Clapton’s head-shake: “‘No.’”

There were a couple of times, notably when introducing Here Today – “The next song is a song I wrote about John. Let’s hear it for John! I wrote it after he passed away, and you know there are things you need to say but never get to say” – when Paul was choked with emotion, eyes welling with tears. (It’s certainly a kinder tribute than the song John wrote for Paul, How Do You Sleep?)

“When I’m playing all these songs,” Paul reflects, after he’s just ripped through Lovely Rita, Eleanor Rigby and Mr Kite in one glorious trilogy, “all the memories come back. Fifty years! I’m surprised I don’t faint.”

And you realise that, as astonished and awed as the audience are to be in the presence of an ACTUAL FRIGGING BEATLE, Paul is too. The young teens who took speed to get them through back-to-back gigs in Hamburg, who then released 12 albums in just seven years that changed the course of music several times over before splitting up when Paul was not yet even 30, who were idolised not just in the West but also behind the Iron Curtain where they became symbols of freedom that helped topple the Berlin Wall (see Leslie Woodhead’s book How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin), whose joint leader (pun intended) John Lennon was shot dead by a lone gunman, whose peace-seeking guitarist George Harrison was stabbed multiple times in his home by a crazed intruder… how do you top all that? How do you live for the next 45 years in the shadow cast by your younger self?

You could become bitter. You could drink yourself into oblivion. You could play your own song, Yesterday, on repeat. Not Paul. He not only married happily, but went on to found Wings who broke the Beatles’ own record, unchallenged in 14 years, for best-selling single. Band On The Run still sounds new-minted when they play it at the O2, as does Let Me Roll It, with its huge choruses and lyrics that would be risible coming from any but Paul’s permanently puckered, heart-shaped lips: “My heart is like a wheel/Let me roll it to you.”

Paul’s family are in the audience, and he gives a shout-out to his grandchildren. While other grandparents are in the rocking chair, he’s rocking the O2. “Imagine you think your granddad’s just an ordinary guy,” he says, now behind a piano, “and then you come here, and see ‘Hey! Rockin’ grandpa!’ So, kids, this is what I’ve been telling you about!”

When the stage explodes with fireballs and pyrotechnics for a massive rendition of Live And Let Die, and the whole audience join in with the chorus on Hey Jude, many holding up signs that read “Na” for the “na-na-na-nas”, you can only imagine the grandkids have got the message.

But that’s not the end. Paul returns for the obligatory encore waving a Union Jack, and belts out disposable but up-tempo oldie Another Girl and Hi, Hi, Hi from Wings, before calling on stage a couple from the audience, as he often does. The man had been holding up a sign that reads, “Please sign my wife of 32 years.” Below the “32”, “30” and “31” are crossed out – he’s been trying to get Macca’s attention for three years. Paul dutifully signs Cynthia’s left shoulder. Apparently this is a thing: the devoted fan then has the autograph made into a tattoo.

And then Paul brings another surprise to the stage… and it’s only bleedin’ Dave Grohl! The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman joins in on I Saw Her Standing There, grinning from ear to ear, bouncing around like an eager puppy and hair flapping like a spaniel’s ears, squooching in so close to Paul on the harmonies that they could be about to kiss. You can tell Grohl knows he’s on stage with an ACTUAL FRIGGING BEATLE.

And that’s it… strange song to end with, so no wonder they had to get a special guest… 11pm, finish time.

But no.

The lights don’t come back up. The few who have left their seats to beat the Tube rush pause. And Paul’s back…

It’s got to be a slow one now, for the pace, I think. And there it is: Yesterday, a song written when Paul was in his early twenties, but which must have so much more resonance for him now. And then, totally unexpectedly, Helter Skelter, that demented wall of sound with its screeching vocals and throbbing guitar that sounds like an army of sinister electric crickets, whose title Charlie Manson scrawled on the fridge of the La Bianca residence in blood after slaughtering its inhabitants. Paul’s a bit scrappy now on the vocals, but it still blows the roof off.

And finally, and this really is the end, the most apt closing song imaginable: the aching Golden Slumbers. Time to go home, says Paul, before singing the opening, “Once there was a way/To get back homeward”.

On “Golden slumbers fill your eyes/Smiles awake you when you rise”, my own eyes fill with tears. I’ve been a Beatles fan literally since the crib – my babysitter was an original Beatlemaniac, and carried around with her a hallowed sod of earth upon which Beatlefeet had trod – and their albums were the only rock/pop in the house when I was growing up, a rare generational bond between father and son. I know not just every word of every song, but every bassline and every drumbeat. And before I even knew what love was, Golden Slumbers would fill me with an inchoate yearning for its future pleasures and pains.

The closing line drifts across the arena and lodges, one can only hope, into the hearts of the 20,000 there assembled:

“And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”

Why French flick Girlhood kicks Kidulthood’s arse

7 May
Bande de Filles: The young cast of Girlhood

Gang of four: the young cast of Girlhood

Girlhood, which has just finally opened in the UK, grabs you from the get-go. Over a fizzing electro-pop soundtrack, two teams of black girls clash in slow motion on an American football pitch. Their striped cheeks and outsized body armour set the tone for a film about urban warriors, but when the match ends and the helmets come off, it’s all broad grins and high fives. So this is a movie about the bonds between women, too. The girls walk home gossiping through the concrete night, splitting off one by one from the pack until we are left with just one: 16-year-old Marieme, who henceforth will appear in every scene.

It’s testament to Céline Sciamma’s skill as writer/director that she introduces the movie’s themes so effectively without words. And though the dialogue throughout feels real and street-fresh, heavily influenced and improvised by the astonishingly talented first-time actors who play the girls, it is the wordless scenes that linger long after the film has ended.

Oppressed at home by a violent older brother, denied access to high school by poor grades, Marieme falls in with a devil-may-care gang of three girls. It is while washing up that Marieme decides on her new life: she stops cleaning the sharp kitchen knife, folds it, and puts it in her pocket. Her hands clutch the edge of the sink. The camera moves behind her, and pulls back until she is small within the illuminated space of the sink. Then her shoulders straighten, and she lifts her head.

The pivotal scene that seals the girls’ bond is also wordless. They rent a hotel room with some ill-gotten gains. They knock back rum and coke, smoke a joint, and put on glamorous dresses with the anti-theft tags still attached. It’s as though they are getting dolled up to go out clubbing, but they are not dressing to attract men; they are dressing for themselves, testing out their power as women. The gang’s charismatic leader, Lady, begins to dance to Rihanna’s Shine Bright Like A Diamond, lip-synching perfectly. Marieme looks on for a few seconds, then joins in – setting a new style of dancing which foreshadows the way, later, she will take over as leader. It’s a beautiful, tender, exhilarating scene, which Sciamma rightly allows to play out for the whole length of the song.

You can even chart the girls’ emotional journey through their hair. When Marieme decides to join the gang, she unpicks her cornrows and lets her hair flow free, like theirs. When Lady is humiliated in a crucial fight with a rival, her hair is cut, Samson-like. When Marieme’s life choices narrow and she sinks further into the underworld, joining a hardened adult criminal gang, she adopts a short white wig.

Sciamma says she started with characters, and the plot grew from them. She herself came from the disadvantaged banlieues outside Paris, and was inspired by observing groups of black teenagers on the streets. “When you meet these girls,” she told Cineuropa recently, “they have such energy, such intelligence, such humour, such charisma, even though they don’t get to dream a lot and their country does not give them a vision of what they could become or do.”

Girlhood is Sciamma’s third coming-of-age movie, after Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011). Though a more direct translation of its French title, Bande de Filles, would be “Gang of Girls”, “Girlhood” evokes Kidulthood and Adulthood, the seminal British films about young black urban experience. But whereas Noel Clarke’s films were raw, hit-and-miss affairs, Girlhood is more than just a political statement about straitened opportunities or a moving female-centric relationship drama. Ravishingly shot in Cinemascope, it is pure cinematic art.

This review was first written for the Guardian website during the 2014 BFI London Film Festival.