Poker, a little bit like sex and car mechanics, is something us gents claim or want to be good at - but in reality, don't fully understand what we’re doing.
That's why I jumped at the chance to go behind the scenes at Stratford's Aspers Casino, which was playing host to WPT National UK London - the first in a series of low buy-in World Poker Tour tournaments held in the UK and sponsored by partypoker.com.
My prior knowledge of poker comes in four forms; firstly, it is what happens on television just before the channels switch to teleshopping. Secondly, it is never to be played with a cheating super villain - be you a double-0 agent or the loveable rogues from Lock Stock. Thirdly, it's a good thing to do in the third year of Uni when trying to prove that there's more to a lad's get together than FIFA and finally, the online version of the game is responsible for buses and bedrooms replacing Las Vegas casinos as the most populated poker venues.
It's the final bit of knowledge that I'm introduced to first. Jeffrey Haas, Head of Poker at partypoker (and possessor of the best job title since the Pied Piper of Hamlin), is demonstrating the end result of a partypoker rebrand.
Having entered the online poker market in 2001, partypoker was one of the early pioneers of the industry and remains one of the most recognisable names in a hugely crowded sector. However, being one of the first on the scene was not without its problems. The likes of pokerstars, PKR and 888poker rose in prominence and as Mr Haas confessed, the PartyPoker rebrand is, to some extent, a case of catching up with the competition, rather than bulldozing them.
The pure poker elements have been improved. Visually there is a better looking table with a new theme and clearer menus, while the cashier and account features have also been touched up. However, the bit which Jeffrey Haas really wants to focus on is partypoker’s efforts to fully integrate social elements – something that hasn’t really happened in the real money market before.
The end result is a kind of “xbox live-ing” of the poker offering, with the idea that missions and achievements can give the winning feeling as much as a cash win. For example, knockout five of your opponents around the table and you will earn the enjoyable title of “Musket Man”. I’m not sure if this was the desired effect, but this instantly puts me into “gloat mode”. I head to the in game chat feature and demand that my remaining opponents address me as my new moniker. Perhaps inevitably, I then lose the next hand and am renamed the “Muffin Man”.
Haas explains that this move is aimed at making the game more accessible. “I think people instantly associate poker with money and we wanted to change that. We’re looking to build a wider base of players and the social features allow for that and work well for mobile gaming too.”
Considering one is more likely to play a little more cavalier on mobile devices, it is perhaps surprising that a move to mobile hasn’t been a big focus for the industry. Mobile gaming sees users play around three times as many hands as someone playing on a desktop. In effect, this means mobile players are less likely to fold when they’ve been dealt utter garbage and more likely to go all in on something like a pair of twos. Despite this, Haas - who has been working in poker for nearly 10 years - thinks mobile is what the customer is demanding. “It wouldn’t surprise me if around half of our userbase were mobile by 2014 – it currently accounts for about 4%”.
Back to the live table tournament and it’s interesting to see how the relationship between online poker and “real poker” develops. All of the guys playing here have played online, but have different views on how it impacts their live performance. Norbert Berent, who qualified for this tournament by winning a partypoker.com online tournament, sees online poker as a kind of finishing school before playing in live tournaments;
“If you want to try and win big money, you’ve got to work on your game away from the table.”
A visit to the Aspers Casino smoking area unveils a different point of view. A gentleman who did not wish to be named (his girlfriend was not informed of his decision to enter the £200 buy-in tournament) believes that online poker can sometimes make you “insensitive” to human elements on the table;
“Sometimes when you get a terrible hand on online poker you can bet big and scare your opponents into folding – but they can’t see your face. If you try that on a live table and a player spots something - like a shaky hand or a bulging Adam’s apple – you can get rumbled. Nothing is more embarrassing than getting shot off a table on a bluff when you should have just folded.”
The smoking area (perhaps unsurprisingly) becomes a pretty good place to hang out and overhear some stories of success and woe. The accessibility of the tournament (£200 buy-in isn’t that intimidating when weighed up against potential winnings) mean that people from all walks of life and with varying levels of poker expertise are in competition. “I got Anna Kournikova’d”, explains one Estate Agent/Card Sharp. I ask what this means. “AK, Ace King – looks great, plays ugly.”
The eventual winner of the tournament is aptly employed as a fund manager. Canadian-born, Londoner John “Ace” Ventre is now £20,000 richer after just three days of poker. Mohammed Suhail, who was beaten into second has £14,000 deposited into his bank account and even the chap who finished ninth, Pia Jeppesen is two grand better off.
I work out that with 335 people entered, this means one has about a 1 in 37 chance of making ten-times what one pays to enter. Considering there is skill involved and not just luck, this suddenly looks a very attractive income opportunity…and it can be. The UK’s most successful player, Sam Trickett, just paid £100,000 for a seat at the Alpha8 tournament in Mayfair this week and has live earnings of just under $20,000,000 – not bad going for a man that used to be a plumber.
It seems so appealing, but you have to remember – these guys are good and if you’re not, you lose. Despite earning the title of “Musket Man” with Jeffrey just a few hours earlier, I’m acutely aware of my limitations. Even when playing the online version, I felt a rush of blood hit my cheeks when I was trying to convince username ShadowHunter that I was packing the equivalent of a poker sawn-off shotgun, when in fact it was just a banana in my pocket.
“Start slow” is the advice from Jeffrey Haas. “Play for fun and then if you think you’re good enough, play for an amount that you’re comfortable with, be it 5p or £5.”
For me, this visit reinforced my belief that poker is a sport. Yes there is luck in of the cards you get dealt, but there’s also luck in winning a cricket toss. There is also a great deal of skill – be it memorising cards or not punching the air when the croupier’s work suddenly makes your mediocre hand a sensational one. The only problem is the losing. Lose on Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning and all will be forgotten after a post-match beer. Lose at poker and the likelihood is your wallet has also lost something.
So if you are going to set your mind to becoming a prince of poker, treat it as if you were becoming a football player. Practice, learn and if all else fails, blame the person holding the cards.