The New Deal

Independent on Sunday,Review, 1 May 2005

It’s midway through the first day of play in the Vienna leg of the European Poker Tour, and Isabelle ‘No Mercy’ Mercier is gently tapping a modest stack of chips on the card table.; She has a curious half-smile, eschews the sunglasses favoured by many of the poker professionals and does not, at least during play, smoke.; She stares disarmingly into the eyes of a male competitor to her left, whose only response is to bury his face in his hands.;

Across the casino floor, Xugen ‘Bad Girl’ Pham has, once again, walked away from her seat at the table to have a chat.; She has found John Gale, a 51-year-old management consultant who recently scooped $865,000 in an event sponsored – as is the EPT – by online operator www.PokerStars.com.; Gale and Bad Girl are good friends, swapping smiles and anecdotes, perhaps of Gale’s win in the Bahamas in PokerStars’ ‘Caribbean Adventure,’ or possibly of Xugen’s own EURO 250,000 triumph in the World Poker Championship in Dublin, 2004.; Gale lights up a cigarette and smokes with relish, as does virtually everyone gathered at the Concord Card Casino, itself in a rather unattractive part of Vienna and next to a brothel.
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Some 300 people have bought in to the event or won the right to compete thanks to online qualifying tournaments.; Few seem as relaxed as Bad Girl Pham, who hails from Vietnam and whose fiancée is English poker professional ‘Smokin’’ Steve Vladar, whom she met five years ago in Luton.; She slinks around the casino floor like a benign panther, chatting to all and sundry, seeming only to sit down and play when it suits her.; Of course, it is all a pose, and once at the table, the sunglasses come on, the classic tells are disguised, and Bad Girl cleans up.

“I enjoy beating men,” says Xugen, whose nickname derives from beating her fiancée, the man who taught her how to play poker in the first place.; “He couldn’t believe what I did, the way that I won with the turn of a card on the river, and told me I was a ‘bad girl.’; Sometimes I feel sad when I beat people, but not when they’re lousy and horrible.; Not all men are like that, but some are, and I love to beat them.”; Poker – or, more precisely, Texas no limit hold ‘em, as played on the EPT and, indeed, at the Las Vegas World Series – is a game of almost incomprehensible jargon, but if what a card is doing ‘on the river’ is mystifying to the uninitiated, there is no doubting Xugen’s love of winning.; Especially when the vanquished are men.

It’s a joy shared by Isabelle Mercier.; The 29-year-old former lawyer may look pretty and petite, and she may also harbour ambitions to be a fashion designer, but that is as far as stereotypical notions of femininity go.;

“Poker is a game of risk and rewards,” she tells me, as we talk in the dining room of her hotel in central Vienna. “You have to be ready to die before you start the tournament.; Poker is war with different warriors each time.”

Such bellicose imagery is usually heard among corporate types, relaxing on the golf course and plotting their next buy-out.; Mercier explains that her biggest win to date the World Poker Tour Ladies Night Out invitational in Los Angeles, in 2004.;

“Winning meant that I have a $25,000 seat in the $5million Bellagio World Poker Tour tournament.; I was also sponsored by PokerStars after that win, which frees me up to travel the world playing poker.; It’s a life that I love.; I don’t even have a fixed abode any more.”

It’s a far cry from her time as a lawyer at the Canadian bar.; Does she have time for a man in her life, I wonder?

“No, I don’t have time for love.; I travel from one hotel to the next.; When I meet guys, the ones I like don’t seem to like me.; Or I don’t like the ones who like me.; But it’s OK.; Marriage is a joke, anyway.”

She says, too, that she doesn’t get on with children, and can barely restrain her mirth at the idea of having any of her own.; I ask how she spends her free time.

“Reading about poker, thinking about poker, playing online poker.”

If Mercier is a high-profile professional poker player – the official ‘roving ambassador’ for PokerStars, complete with public image and expense account – her love of the online game is shared by a growing number of women. According to market researchers YouGov, women account for up to a third of online poker players, making them by far the fastest-growing group of competitors.; The market as a whole is booming, with some 300 poker websites worldwide and an estimated 350,000 people playing the game online every hour – a staggering 100 per cent increase in the past year.;

PokerStars.com can brandish some mind-blowing figures.; Before the Vienna event Marketing Manager Conrad Brunner hosted a press conference at which attendees marvelled over the statistics: a growth of 64% in the last six months, over 40,000 simultaneous players and 1,600,000 registered users, with the first season of the EPT generating an estimated EURO 5,000,000 in prize money.; It is, according to Brunner, “all about living the dream.”;

So far, the dream has been largely the preserve of male high rollers, men like American pro Amarillo Slim Preston, who once said that he approved of women in poker because “it’s the only time you can beat a woman and not go to jail.”; But the dream articulated by Brunner – which no doubt only incidentally includes PokersStars’ 3% take on all winning pots – is becoming an awful lot more politically correct.; The brave new world of online poker has even seen one operator, 888.com, launch the first women-only online poker tables to keep up with demand.

One regular online player is Mel Lofthouse, who describes herself as a “working mum from Slough.”; Lofthouse works in sales and started playing online poker four years ago.; “I saw the game on Channel 4, and thought it looked great.; I couldn’t wait to get into it.; It’s just a fantastic game,” she says, with an enthusiasm bordering on the evangelical.; She now plays between two and three hours a day – “it depends on when the kids get to sleep” – and her partner, Eugene, is an online professional.; “I usually win at least $1,000 a month,” she says, “but Eugene makes a lot more than that.”;

Lofthouse qualified online to compete in the French leg of the EPT, in Deauville, the seaside town beloved of Marcel Proust.; The hyper-sensitive, asthmatic French novelist would probably appreciate the reasons for Lofthouse’s love of the online game.; “Casinos are very male-dominated. They can be quite intimidating, uncomfortable places for women, and the smoke gets everywhere.; Playing online means that gender is totally irrelevant.; You play from home, which is comfortable and convenient.”; Lofthouse’s online identity is Jessica Rabbit; she says, though, that the player masquerading as ‘London Poker Girl’ is a man.;

Back in the Concord Card Casino, gender has yet to become irrelevant.; The overwhelming majority of people in the casino – either playing cash games on the side or competing in the EPT – are men.; They range from Pascal ‘The Bandit’ Perrault, the chip leader on the second day of the tournament, to other stalwarts of the scene such as Englishman Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliot (so named because a Chinese card player once likened the threat he poses to that of a poisonous fish, edible only when meticulously prepared – otherwise it will kill you), Andreas Harnemo, from Sweden, Italian heart-throb Luca Pagano and Finland’s Mika Puro.; Not all are large and rotund, and not all look as if they could benefit from a spell on the beach in the Bahamas, but the overall impression is that this is one of the most unhealthy, unreconstructed male gatherings imaginable.;

If there are non-smokers, they will need to declare their nicotine intake to their insurers.; It is tempting to conjecture that the more myopic players must have trouble seeing their cards through the thick haze of cigarette smoke.; The food is cheap, cheerful and very fast, though few of the players drink alcohol.; This is in contrast to the infamous Bill Smith, memorably immortalised in Al Alvarez’s classic account of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, 1982, The Biggest Game in Town. ;Smith would sit at the table for as long as it took, downing drink after drink, as if on a strange gonzo quest, much to the chagrin of the poker moguls. As Alvarez writes, when Smith was broken by Stu Ungar in the final, “he finished his drink, pocketed $37,500 in crisp hundred-dollar bills, and weaved his way out.; The crowd applauded him loudly but with a certain sense of relief.; The new, clean-living image of poker had been spared for another year.”

Poker’s image is now cut from a slicker, PR-conscious cloth.; While continued female involvement may not be integral to the ongoing success of the online game, it is certainly very handy.; Women are finding the same thrills that the game has offered men, from writers such as Alvarez to boxing promoter Barry Hearn, who plays every two months in Las Vegas cash games as well online each day, and who has spent recent years as involved in the promotion of www.PokerMillion.com events as boxing shows.; As Hearn says: “I play the game for recreation more than anything else, but it provides an amazing adrenaline rush.; It’s like boxing in that the more aggressive players do better.”

Perhaps Mercier was in too merciful a mood in Vienna, or possibly she suffered what the pros call a ‘bad beat’ – an outrageously poor turn of luck, despite holding apparently promising cards.; She was out of the tournament some way before the final table of eight sat down.; An American called Les McMullen, also knocked out early on, had some doubts about women playing at the highest level.; “They tend not to be aggressive enough.; If you’re aggressive you give yourself a shooter’s chance.”; For his part, McMullen was not minded to make any excuses.; “I’m the only player you’ll meet here who’s out because he lost,” he said.

McMullen’s realism about his own form was refreshing.; So, too, were the words of John Gale, on women in poker:; “Poker is a blend of skill and chance.; There’s no reason why women can’t play as well as men.; Isabelle and Bad Girl are top class players in any card room. There are an awful lot of men I’d rather face than them.”; Bad Girl Pham – at home in Hemel Hempstead the mother of three girls, the eldest of whom wants to be a professional poker player – finished highest of the women in Vienna, placing 24th.;

After three days of competition, the final was won by the early chip leader Pascal Perrault.; A pharmacist from Paris, Perrault was back on the poker circuit after taking a break following the birth of his daughter, Vegas.; He was Europe’s top poker pro in 2000, and his return to winning ways saw him walk away with EURO 184,500.

Meanwhile, back in her hotel, Isabelle Mercier was playing online poker.; She had the same slightly quizzical expression, almost deadpan but not quite, that she wore regularly in the Concord Card Casino.; Perhaps she was recalling the first time she played poker, with her father, aged four.; “He taught me, and I used to play in social games with him and his friends,” she says.; “He was a really strong player, who won a lot because he could bluff and knew how to be aggressive.; That’s what I want to be like.”;

I said my farewells and two old poker sayings jostled in my mind.; “Sometimes, nothing is a good hand,” and other times, “The cards you have are irrelevant.”

The PokerStars World Cup of Poker 2005, a round robin tournament featuring competition among players from 33 countries, will see the final four countries face off live in London from May 16th to 19th for the World Cup prize pool of $125,000.  See www.pokerstars.com  for more information