Tag Archives: casino

17 writers on poker: He Played for His Wife and Other Stories

11 Dec

he-played-for-his-wife-and-other-stories-9781471162299_hrThere can’t be many poker players, at least of a certain age, who haven’t read Anthony Holden’s 2002 classic Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player. It’s a rare pleasure to read about poker from one who is not merely a skilled player, but a skilled writer, too. At least I thought it was rare, until I went to the recent launch evening for He Played for his Wife and Other Stories at the Hippodrome Casino.

The book, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, features a preface by Al Alvarez and stories by 17 different writers – all of them good, some of them great. One is Barny Boatman, who was at the launch. I told him I hadn’t realised he was a writer as well as a player, and that I’d greatly enjoyed his story, a character study of a born loser with a supernatural twist, which had just been serialised in Bluff magazine.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve written quite a few things, actually. This one took me bloody ages. I rewrote it and rewrote it. So I’m glad it hit the spot. Someone did change a couple of words, but…” Barny smiled. Anyone who’s seen him play will know he wouldn’t fold easily. “…I got it changed back again.”

Anthony Holden sadly could not be at the Hippodrome launch, for health reasons. But there was a bevy of poker-playing actors, including Neil Pearson (who contributed a story), Dougie Henshall and the wildly entertaining Naoko Mori, as well as the playwright Patrick Marber.

I have some history with Marber – he was Time Out’s columnist for a while when I was Editor, so we reminisced about that rather than poker. But it was poker that put him on the road to success that would take him to Hollywood and an Oscar nomination: his first play, which opened at the National Theatre in 1995 and won an Evening Standard award, was Dealer’s Choice, the second part of which takes place entirely around a poker table. Marber’s slice-of-life story in the book, The Old Card Room, is a paean to a vanished era of poker where men with nicknames like The Doc or The Chauffeur played in smoky back rooms and the chosen game was seven-card stud rather than Hold ‘Em.

There are so many strong stories in He Played for his Wife… that it feels invidious to pick out any individual ones. Nevertheless, I did particularly love David Flusfeder’s Heads Up, which imagines a game of heads-up poker in which the antes never go up, between two players so evenly matched that they end up playing forever; a sinister high-stakes story by Michael Craig, author of one of my favourite poker books, The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King; and Jennifer Tilly’s Once More Into the Abyss!, which, as the title suggests, is clear-eyed and mildly self-loathing about the dark side of the game.

But the real high-wire writing comes from D.B.C. Pierre in Five Tables. Take this on how he got hooked on poker as a kid, in a family home game:

“Then the table sloughed its salt and pepper and cloth to become a vortex, a court of miracles where the laws of maths spun dust-devils through our hands. I didn’t know at the time how unlikely it is in the history of the world that a deck of cards has ever shuffled into the same order twice, nor how remote the chance is that it ever will; but you could feel the maths swirling. It was a voltage. And there was violence in it.”

After rather too many drinks at the launch to be thinking straight, we all played a tournament, organised by Shelley Rubenstein, who contributes another of the better stories in the book. Shelley’s not afraid to think big. Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe”, but in Shelley’s story, He does play poker.

Who won the tournament? I know only that my Aces got cracked by 10-J and I took my leave early. My fault for trying to be too clever: with the blinds high, I let the button in by flat-calling Natalie Galustian’s raise. I figured she and everyone behind me would fold to a 3-bet as I’d been playing tight; also I’d need two players’ chips to stand a chance of winning the tournament. The flop, naturally, had a 10 and a Jack in it to give the button a lucky two pair. Ah, that court of miracles, that violent vortex of maths.

He Played for his Wife and Other Stories, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99

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Verdict just in: top poker player Phil Ivey “cleared” of cheating casino out of £7.7m

22 Oct
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Phil Ivey, the man you least want to sit to the right of at a poker tournament

Last night, Phil Ivey, commonly regarded as the world’s best poker player, was sensationally cleared of cheating a London casino out of £7.7 million by a court – of public opinion. After hearing arguments for and against by a distinguished panel that included a casino security expert and a barrister specialising in gaming law, the hundred-strong audience of LSE students voted overwhelmingly to acquit Ivey of the charge, overturning a “verdict” set last year in a civil court, and due to be formally challenged later this year at appeal.

The story of how Ivey won £7.7m in just two days could come straight out of Oceans 11, and the case is a fascinating one, in that both Ivey and the casino told the same story: the facts are not in dispute, merely the interpretation of whether they constituted cheating.

In August 2012, Phil turned up at Crockfords casino in Mayfair, asking to play punto banco at high stakes. Nothing so unusual about that: Ivey is known to bet millions of his considerable poker winnings at casino table games.

A little stranger was that he was accompanied by a Chinese woman called Miss Sun, and that he insisted on a variety of conditions he claimed were “lucky” for him: he wore his baseball cap backwards; demanded to keep a particular deck of cards, and that they were shuffled by machine and not human hand; and occasionally Miss Sun would declare a particular card lucky and ask the croupier to rotate it 180 degrees before returning it to the deck.

“The casino went along with all of this,” says barrister Zubair Ahmed, “thinking he was just a superstitious fool and they were going to take his money. They even let him keep the same cards the next day, after he’d already won millions.”

In fact, Ivey was using a technique called “edge-sorting”. “It is almost impossible to print entirely symmetrical decks of cards,” explains David Mills, MD of Casa Security, who acted as an expert witness for Crockfords in the real trial last year. “These cards weren’t actually defective, they were within the manufacturing tolerance for error of 0.3mm, and to the naked eye a normal person would not notice anything different about them.”

Miss Sun, however, had particularly acute vision: she, unusually, could spot the difference between one edge of the card and another when it was sitting in the “shoe” waiting to be dealt. When she came across favourable cards, she would ask for them to be rotated. Because, at Ivey’s insistence, they were shuffled mechanically, they remained that way round throughout the game; thus Miss Sun could tell when they were about to come up again. This was enough to turn the usual house edge into an edge in Ivey’s favour of between 6 and 20 per cent – enough to win £7.7 million in two days, betting up to £100,000 per hand.

Is that illegal? Ivey clearly felt himself that he was not cheating: “It’s not in my nature to cheat,” he said in court, “and I would never do anything to risk my reputation.” The judge also ruled that Ivey was a truthful witness who truly believed he had not cheated. The legal definition of cheating in this case rests on a single line: that there should be no actual or attempted deception or interference with the game. The judge last year ruled that there was deception – Ivey pretended to make his peculiar demands to get “lucky”, rather than because he was edge-sorting the cards – and that he interfered with the normal course of the game by asking the dealer to rotate certain cards. The LSE students disagreed: as one pointed out in the Q&A, footballers dive and poker players bluff, but that’s just part of the game; as to interference, he asked the casino to rotate the cards and they agreed – he didn’t do it when the croupier’s back was turned.

The panel was organised by Dan Cullen of the LSESU Poker Society, under the question, “Is it possible to beat a casino?”, so talk span off into other areas. Card-counting in blackjack (and “shuffle tracking”, which is keeping an eye on which cards get shuffled to where) will get you banned from a casino if they spot it, but it’s not actually illegal per se, as the judge in the Ivey case specifically ruled, unless deception and collusion are used. Another way to win is to wait until a slot machine is “ready” to pay out a huge prize and play it non-stop till it does. Poker raconteur Neil Channing, also in the panel, knew of some people who had made a fortune from online roulette, by writing an algorithm to spot imperfections in particular machines. These are all ways to subtly adjust the house edge in your favour.

To me, Ivey’s edge-sorting move is just an advantage play, exploiting the casino’s gullibility and greed at the prospect of landing a big “whale”, and Crockfords should have manned up and paid out. After all, it’s well known that if a famously canny gambler comes to you with a “prop bet”, that is a wager on something apparently stupid and random such as which snail can go faster, you don’t take the bet: they’ve probably fixed it somehow.

Channing told a great example connected with Ivey: “I had these friends who played golf against him many times, when he was still learning the game, gambling for hundreds of thousands, and he basically did his nuts. They were boasting about how he was an idiot, he was their money tree. They didn’t see him for six months, played him again, and he beat them for a million. In the meantime he had got lessons, a great caddie, learned the course and practised every day.”

What Ivey did to Crockfords seems little different. He exploited a weakness, without revealing his own strength. Casinos always have the odds stacked in their favour. If someone manages to turn the tables, temporarily, then good on them.

Either way, the debate is set to run and run. As well as the pending appeal in the Crockfords case, Phil Ivey and the Borgata casino in the US are counter-suing each other over a similar incident in which Ivey won $9.6 million at baccarat.

Playing poker at the Hippodrome: Six Things I Learned About Gus Hansen

20 Mar

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How often do you get the chance to play against one of the world’s top poker pros – in a humble 60-person, £80 tournament? I know; never. But last night the impossible happened. Thanks to its tie-in with PokerStars and Full Tilt, London’s Hippodrome casino brought Gus Hansen down to play with us mere mortals.

Gus Hansen!! This is how big a deal that is:

Two years ago, for an article in Conde Nast Traveller, I flew to Macau and tracked down the legendary “Big Game”. Here, in the Starworld casino, Chinese billionaires are locked nightly in mortal combat with the best poker players the West can throw at them – the whales against the sharks. The pros that night were John Juanda, Sam Trickett, Tom Dwan and, yes, Gus Hansen.

Gus had “only” about 40 orange chip plaques – each is worth HK$100,000, or about  £10,000, so that’s nearly half a million quid. The businessmen’s plaques, on the other hand, rose in front of them like the Great Wall of China.

From my lowly 1-2 table nearby, I crane my head to see Gus push half his stack into the centre of the table — £200,000 in a single hand! His opponent picks up some chips, seems about to call; reconsiders… and folds. Chalk one up to Gus.

I am hoping to sneak a quick interview with Gus, having played on his table at the World Series of Poker Europe (I outlasted him, too), but the pit boss says simply, “No break.” “I’ll catch him when he goes to the toilet, then,” I say. The pit boss just laughs: “That won’t happen. Sometimes they play for 20 hours straight.”

Even so, I hang around, playing 1-2, watching as much of the game as I can see beyond the protective screens. I pack it in at 8am; they’re still going strong. By this time Gus has tripled up – that’s £800,000 profit in six hours. And now I see why he hasn’t stood up from the table, not even once. At that rate, I calculate that a five-minute break to “spend a penny” would cost him, on average, £10,000.

And now we few, we lucky 60 who have braved no more than a Tube journey to sit at the PokerStars Live Lounge’s fourth-floor balcony tables, have the chance to pit our wits against this Poker Master for a measly £80.

So what is it like to play against a man whose live tournament earnings alone surpass $11million? Here’s Six Things I Learned About Gus Hansen…

1. He’s generous. He’s nice to everyone on the table, trading small talk and jokes. When the waitress hands him some water, he slips her a £5 note. “What’s that for?” she asks. “For you,” says Gus.  She still looks baffled. “A tip,” explains Gus. The waitress grins like a schoolgirl. She’s not used to seeing anything bigger than a £1 chip tossed on to her tray.

2. Then again, he can afford to be. I tell Gus I saw him at the Big Game in Starworld a while back. He grins. “I’m doing gooood in that one,” he says, elongating the ‘o’ for emphasis. “Doing real good.”

3. He knows when to fold ‘em. Early in the tournament, with the big blind still at 100 on a starting stack of 5,000, Gus raises to 350. Fellow Full Tilt pro Sin Menis Melin shoves all-in. She even gets another caller – now Gus has value. He dwells… and folds Ace-King. Dead right. Sin had pocket Aces.

4. And he knows when to hold ‘em. “I’ve just got this weird feeling I’m ahead,” he says, calling an all-in shove of 2,800 by a previously tight player on the button, with the big blind still at 200. The other guy shows J6, more commonly known as “Jack-sh**”. Gus has A8. Good call! Even so, Gus is just 64% to win… which plunges to 13% when the Jack comes on the flop… until Gus catches an Ace on the river. That’s poker.

5. Even Gus Hansen is still learning. “How’s it going?” asks a passing friend. “Pretty good,” says Gus, “I’ve introduced a new element to my game.” “What’s that?” “Folding!” he laughs.

6. But apparently not fast enough! I twice saw Gus make smallish river bets on a dangerous board, presumably to test the water and dampen down any potential bluffs, as well as maybe squeezing out a little value. One board had three sixes showing; Gus had pocket Aces. The second time, I myself called his river bet with just a pair of fives, on a board with four cards to the straight, just because it would have been cool to say that I had caught Gus bluffing. No chance. He’d actually made trips on the flop with pocket sevens. Later in the tournament, however, the new-found love of folding Gus had joked about deserted him: he was knocked out with what he later called a “ridiculous” river bluff.

What a great night. Daniel Taylor was the guy who knocked Gus out: the bounty on the pro’s head was a seat at the PokerStars UKIPT series here on April 11-13. The first prize of £1490 was won by Sarah Berry. And, I console myself after I bust out against Sin’s second pocket Aces of the night, in a very real sense we’re all winners: the Hippodrome has just introduced a leaderboard, with points for every player – eventual grand prize, a PokerStars sponsorship to all weekend multi-day tournaments including the UKIPT.

Tournaments at the Hippodrome’s PokerStars Live Lounge run Sunday-Wednesday; cash games daily. For my guide to playing in Vegas, click here

Las Vegas poker: my guide to the top 12 places, part 2

10 Jun

In honour of the premiere on Wednesday of the poker doc Bet Raise Fold at Palm’s, I’ve compiled my insider’s guide to Vegas’s finest poker rooms. This is part two. Click here for part one

MGM Grand (south-centre Strip): The spacious, elegant 22-table room is situated next to the Centrifuge Bar, good for landing the odd oversauced fish on your table. And now that the vast new Hakkasan restaurant/club has opened at the MGM, you can expect even more action. There’s a good range of games, including a weekly H.O.R.S.E. tournament. Tournaments: daily 11.05pm ($80), 7.05pm (Sun-Thur $80, Fri-Sat $125); Tues 7.15pm H.O.R.S.E. $120.

Mirage (centre Strip): This is one of the first places I ever played in, ten years back, and still a favourite for cash as it’s so easy to make money. There seem to be no pros, just a lot of happy holiday-makers used to friendly games back home who call off big raises in the hope of improving later. Nice atmosphere, though the dealers are infuriatingly lethargic. The tournaments and Sit ‘n’ Gos, however, are underattended and have terrible structures. Tournaments: daily 11am ($60 except Sat $110), 2pm and 10pm ($50).

Orleans (west, near Strip): This sprawling, somewhat down-at-heel casino has the largest poker room off the Strip with 35 tables, as well as the cheapest rake (capped at $3 rather than the usual $5). The players are mostly old-timers and locals, and they offer a wide selection of games and tournaments with an excellent structure given the relatively modest buy-ins. Years ago I came first equal in an Omaha tournament here, despite it being the first time I’d played (I looked up good starting hands on the internet and stuck to that), so the standard is not that hot. For a real adventure, try the H.O.R.S.E. tourney. Tournaments: daily at 12.05pm (Omaha Hi-Lo Mon-Wed $60; NL Hold ‘Em other days $60-80), and 7.05pm (Omaha Hi-Lo Mon $100, Thur $80; NL Hold ‘Em Tue $80, Wed $100, Fri $125, Sat $100; H.O.R.S.E. Sun $100).

Planet Hollywood (centre Strip): The new poker area is a great improvement on the old, which was sandwiched in between noisy slot machines. This is not a place for serious play, but it is a good place to have fun and to make money at cash. You get a lot of Brits here, and more women than in most rooms. The tournaments have a terrible structure and are best avoided. Tournaments: daily $70 at 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm.

Rio (west, near Strip): I’m including this as a nod to their hosting the WSOP, but outside that period there is little reason to venture out here, other than the chance to eat steak in the Voodoo Lounge after playing, which (top tip!) gives you free access to their terrific rooftop club. The poker room is small and cramped at just ten tables, the tournament structures are poor, the players random, but the staff are very efficient. Notable for the Mega Beat jackpot, one of the world’s largest, which starts at $200,000. Tournaments: daily $65 at 12noon, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm.

Venetian (centre Strip): This is the biggest of all Vegas poker rooms at 59 tables, and my favourite for tournaments, due to the size of fields, but less so for cash as it’s noisy, overly bright and you can run into some decent players. Experienced players may enjoy the variety of games on offer, with the currently trendy Open-Faced Chinese on offer as well as Omaha variants. Tournaments: daily at 12noon ($150 Mon-Thur, $200 Fri and Sun, $500 Sat), and at 7pm ($120 daily except $150 Tue and $200 Fri).

Wynn (north-centre Strip): A lovely 26-table room in one of the most relaxed and elegant casinos, this makes most people’s top three, along with the Venetian and the Aria. You get all sorts here, from sharks to money-no-object fish, with good action at mid-levels, and the staff are highly professional. Tournaments: daily at 12pm ($140 Mon-Thur, $200 Fri and Sun with $10,000 guarantee), plus 7pm Thur ($140 with $25 bounties).

For my pre-WSOP interview with Victoria Coren on her life in poker and marriage to comedian David Mitchell, click here.