Wednesday, January 30, 2008


If there’s one reason to get up early in Vegas (and let’s be honest, early morning aren’t exactly what Vegas is about) it’s to beat the morning tournament registration queues that have become a regular occurrence since everyone else became interested in poker. The sods.

One particular morning I even went down to the MGM poker room in my pajamas and complimentary dressing gown as a dirty protest against not being able to register remotely. The fact that no one raised an eyebrow or mentioned my choice of dress just confirmed that I was indeed in Vegas.

On the morning of this particular tale I was fortunate enough to bump into a rarity at the poker tables: a genuine psychic. No, really… Having organised my registration (and then danced gaily along the massive queue, waving my slip like a Willy Wonka golden ticket) I headed off for some hang-over breakfast action.

Returning 35 minutes later from a ludicrously large egg-based breakfast at the New York New York, my guts were fit to burst and gurgling like a dishwasher as an epic battle took place between three embittered factions: Sunny-Side-Ups, Scrambled, and Over-Easy. Happy in my egg-bound way (no toilet break would be required for at least 16 hours) I sat down at a limit cash game to kill some time before the tourney started.

For an impromptu time-filling game I did pretty well; with a couple of players on my table being kind enough to keep pumping their chips into losing pots like hemorrhaging Hungry Hippos. The rest of the cash session was actually reasonably dull until the poker room manager started calling for the tournament to begin and I played one last hand in a "getting-up-ready-to-leave" fashion.

78 offsuit would be my last hand of the game, kindly transforming into two pair on the flop. Now I've not mentioned any of my table chums yet, but hats off to the Vietnamese guy to my left who had attained the ranking of shit-faced before the clock even struck eleven. He was also ‘gifted’ with mystic psychic powers; magically able to tell you exactly what cards you had… (once you'd shown them to him, obviously).

It was pretty hard to take him seriously and also a tad tedious to be sat next to him. However, as his mind-bending powers hadn’t prevented him from financing my own personal rampage I’d been more than happy to let him dazzle himself with Derren Brown flights of fancy while I siphoned off his beer money.

Anyway, back to the 78 hand, which had developed into a surprisingly large affair thanks to my psychic chum and a solid player opposite raising and re-raising everything I threw at them. The board had become, frankly, fucking scary; with both flush and straight possibilities that had started to make my two pairs look somewhat wobbly… but I stuck with it, praying in turn to each of the many poker gods I worship (well, you have to hedge your bets) for a little act of kindness. Miracle of miracles, the river sent another 7 my way for a full house, and I knew for a fact that Mystic Mong hadn’t vaguely got a read on me despite his apparent Jedi mind-powers. Anyway, I went for maximum pay-off, pushing as much in front of me as the limit allowed. The smart guy opposite finally got out of the way allowing me and Brainiac to get on with it; handbags practically on the table at this point.

Now clearly I’m a particularly petty, self-centered man, so I couldn’t help but smile my absolute arse off when he flipped over his nothing of a hand and I dropped the bomb, only to hear him issue forth: "I knew you had the straight".

"Look again Mesmo!" I spat, finally reaching the point of no return, “I’ve got the house!”

"Yes,” he said, “I knew you had that".

“So why did you say you knew I had a straight just three seconds ago, you muppet?”

As I heard myself, I realised I was doing little for the game or people’s opinions of how Brits behave at the poker table. So I took a deep breath and gathered up my chips - spending an ENORMOUS amount of time lovingly arranging them into a rack while my ‘friend’ watched - before heading off to the tournament.

Behind me all I could hear was some mumbling and yet another bottle of Corona being ordered - no doubt to be opened using only the power of his awesome mind. Shazam.

Monday, January 21, 2008

We are the champions

Picture the scene: Tiger Woods has won yet another golf tournament. He’s been followed round the entire course by cheering fans and well-wishers for the entire time. His opponents have played valiantly - nay brilliantly - and given him a real run for his money, but ultimately he has triumphed.

He steps up to receive his trophy in front of the assembled press, turns to the cameras and says: “You are nothing to me. You are all losers and turds. I am the best in the world, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I get bored playing on my own I wouldn’t even acknowledge you exist.” He then throws his clubs to the ground and strops off muttering to himself about how totally rubbish everyone is apart from him.

Then we turn over to BBC2 and find six-time snooker World Champion, Steve Davis, watching his opponent pot the final black against him in a frame. He turns to the camera and mouths the word “CUNT” before spitting at the lens; his fat lugie slowly sliding down millions of screens nationwide…

Now let me make it perfectly clear that neither of these events actually took place – nor do I imagine they ever would – and that’s the point about REAL champions. They aren’t just champions in their chosen discipline; they are champions in life. It’s easy for us to see this because of how they behave outside their arenas; i.e. how they respect their contemporaries and how they carry themselves day to day.

Oh, and then there is Phil Hellmuth. Yes, Phil ‘Poker Brat’ Hellmuth. A man who appears to derive no joy from the millions of dollars he’s made both on and off the table. A man who is never content enough to simply sit and ‘be’. A man who has to berate and insult ordinary decent folk during a GAME OF CARDS to feel like a real man.

I recently watched a WSOP show in disbelief as Hellmuth proceeded to blast anyone who appeared to be able to even vaguely play back at him; spitting insults, criticising every move, and referring to anyone with less than 11 bracelets as mere “internet players”. After being patronised twenty times (and being continually called “kid” by Hellmuth) one player on the table - Ben Fineman - ventured, “Phil, we’ve been playing each other for days now. Do you even know my name?”

Every time Hellmuth was all-in (or up against an all-in) he would parade for the cameras; showboating and negotiating insurance with a spectating Phil Ivey, regardless of the poor schmuck sitting waiting for the circus to end so that he could find out if he was still in the tournament or not. Imagine what Phil would do if you made him wait five minutes while you dicked about before the flop was dealt? He’d explode!

At one point Ben Fineman called an all-in with A-K against Dustin Holmes’ K-10 only to watch as Dustin rivered trip tens. If that had been Hellmuth just imagine how much of the level would have been wasted while he blarted curses into the sky like some angry poker trumpet. All Ben did was turn to a sheepish-looking Dustin and say “Don’t sweat it buddie”, before sitting down and carrying on with the game. Amazing composure - truly.

And then there’s Phil’s exit hand. He raises with Ac-10c and Beth Shak calls with Kh-Qh. The flop comes 10-Q-x and Beth shoves all-in. Phil calls and when he sees that he has the worst hand, does he acknowledge that he has made a mistake? Oh no – it’s HER fault!! “I can’t believe she called!” he bleats. “How can she call!?” Well Phil, maybe it’s the fact that she was in the big blind, was getting 2.5-1 on her money, and then flopped top pair! And the thing is, we KNOW that Hellmuth knows this, so his wining is even more pitiful to behold.

I’d love to think that it’s all just for the cameras, but it clearly isn’t – he really is that much of a moron! Hellmuth is the kind of person that I pray no one watches on TV and wants to be like.

Do I want his success? Of course. Do I want his personality? Christ no. Personally, I want to be like Ben Fineman, who proved to me that just because you have to sit next to a total imbecile like Hellmuth doesn’t mean you have to act like him.

I go back to my very first thoughts in this entry. Go on: chose any sport and think of a champion from that sport. Now try to imagine them behaving the way Hellmuth does.

Roger Federer smashing some kid in the face with his racket? Alex Furguson calling Wenger an 'utter wanker' live on Match of the Day? Johny Wilkinson drop-kicking a toddler into touch if he loses? It’s just not going to happen is it…

So why, then, is Phil Hellmuth allowed to act in such a rude, insulting, pathetic way without penalty? Burn him - I say - and burn his face first (metaphorically-speaking of course - I have to add for legal reasons). Anyway, thanks for listening. I feel much better now.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Don't stand still

About three years ago the most common question I got asked as a TV pundit was ‘what starting hands should I play with?’ We, the presenters, just looked at each other, sighed, and replied ‘pocket pairs from 9-9 upwards and A-K’ (while probably mumbling something sarcastic under our breath incorporating the words “Christ” and “Muppet”). It was – suffice to say - an unsophisticated answer for an unsophisticated question.

Jump forward in time to present day and I’m now more likely to be asked (by a beginner I hasten to add) how to trap a tight-aggressive early-positioned opponent in light of a raise and a re-raise while holding the nut straight with a second-nut flush draw. There’s a very good chance that this query will be accompanied by a full hand history and Poker Tracker data. Times – my friends - they are a’ changing.

The interesting thing for me is identifying those people within the world of poker who move with the times and those that sit, quiet and smug - entirely self-assured that they are the real-deal - while the rest of the world accelerates off into the distance waving ‘ta-ta’ back over their shoulders.

Curiously, the development of industries is not a subject new to me. A large part of my training to be a marketeer (don’t worry – this was during my old life!) was looking at case studies for various companies in various markets. If there’s one thing that holds true across all of them, it’s that change is inevitable, and if you chose to stand still you must be prepared to watch your competitors sprinting past you for the finish line, no matter how far ahead you were when last you checked your rear-view mirror, so to speak.

This entire train of thought/rambling/BS (feel free to delete as you find applicable) was kicked off by two strategy pieces sitting back-to-back in Poker Player Magazine.

The first piece was from online marvel Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend. It contained the kind of deep, analytical thinking that has become synonymous with today’s online professional. For example: “…unless my opponent has a pocket pair larger than Jacks, a bigger flush draw or a set, I am at worst even-money from this point forward. If he has A-9 without the flush draw I’m still a 52% favourite. He could be holding Jacks or better, but it’s unlikely as I viewed the player as loose and one who’s willing to gamble with marginal hands.” Wow – is this guy’s opponent screwed or what!

Then we turn the page and bump into the familiar grinning mug of Phil Hellmuth. Ah Phil… bless him: the only man on Earth who can tell you story where he gets the crap kicked out of him but he still emerges (somehow) victorious. It’s like Alan Partridge ending every painful anecdote with, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh.”

So, on the back of Brian Townsend’s thoughtful insight, what kind of tactical analysis can we expect from ever-humble Hellmuth? Well, Phil kicks off with: “Imagine this: I’m playing poorly in the $5,000 No-Limit Short-Handed event at the WSOP.” What!? You’re playing poorly? How am I meant to imagine that, Phil! I mean, I like to think I have a pretty vivid imagination, but that’s simply too much to ask of me!

Anyway, in a beautiful Hellmuth-shaped turnaround (totally unexpected, obviously *ahem*) Phil suddenly turns on the heat and becomes brilliant again. Phew - thank god for that!

He talks us through one hand, ending with: “I love the fact that I stayed so aggressive in this hand.” Do you Phil? Do you really love it? Do you love it so much that you went home and pleasured yourself? I do hope so…

Other classic story-ending statements of self-congratulations include: “Player A folds and I feel like a superhero”, “Wow, what a beautiful three hands!” and my personal favourite: “One theme common to all of the above hands is this: I was either reading my opponents well or throwing them off the scent by giving out false tells”. Remember kids: Phil Hellmuth is remarkable. Just ask him. Or his mum.

I guess my point (that’s right folks, I have a point!) is that Phil is old school and starting to sound like a poker-parody joke. Indeed, as ludicrous as it may seem this early in their careers, to a degree even the likes of Esfandiari, Laak and Hanson are ‘old school’. Today’s poker players are younger, fitter, healthier, and less worried about TV time and selling DVDs than they are about playing good poker. They’re hungry poker machines that want to eat chips and poo pound coins (or wads of dollar bills depending upon relative nationality, aspirations and anus size).

Right now the spotlight still moves to highlight the dancing clowns first, but more and more it seems the majority of the audience are turning to watch the clever young jugglers over in the corner. So, you just have to ask yourself; do you want to be entertained or educated? Well, whichever you chose, please enjoy the circus.