A Legal Life

The Times, Law, 16 March 2006

My abiding love-hate relationship with the law prompted me to assume that a visit to Monaco – memorably described by W Somerset Maugham as “a sunny place for shady people” – would yield little by way of exposure to my quondam brethren. Surely, here in Prince Albert’s tiny principality, I would be free of the law, or, at least, able to forget about it for a while. All the more so, I felt, because I was in Monaco to cover the final of the European Poker Tour.

Lest the wrong impression be conveyed, I am far from suggesting that the world of poker is lawless. The game itself has a myriad of subtle rules, to which its devotees all adhere, and in recent years the most popular variation of poker – Texas Holdem – has swept the world in a manner that would not have been possible without the sterling efforts of a hidden phalanx of lawyers.

But for all that poker has acquired at least a quasi-legitimacy, it remains the outlaw pursuit par excellence. Successful poker players operate as if in a parallel universe to the rest of us. Theirs is a world of no tax, endless international travel, very fast cars and ludicrously liquid cash. Curiously, the glamorous women who adorn the covers of the burgeoning mass of dedicated poker magazines seem only to exist on the final nights of large tournaments, but that is another story. What is beyond dispute is that a journey to Monaco for the grand final of the EPT promised to be a week in which I would be blissfully undisturbed by the law.

Or so I thought. I now know that the law is ubiquitous, rather like Victoria Beckham. Just when you think you will manage to get through the day without seeing a glimpse of the co-owner of Beckingham Palace, there she is, sleek and lithe, peeking from the pages of yet another celebrity magazine, ready to pounce.

Take Greg “The Fossilman” Raymer. He may not look much like Ms Beckham, but the 2004 World Series of Poker winner turns out to have been… a patent attorney in a former life. It takes one to know one, and I had an inkling of his former incarnation the moment I saw him at the Monte Carlo Bay Resort hotel, the venue for the grand final. The man who won $5m in 2004, whose nickname derives from his habit of using fossils as card protectors, is, well, rather rotund and avuncular, more QC than Ace-King. His loquacity, too, is another giveaway: Raymer kept up an endless barrage of chat at the poker tables, as if to litigate his opponents into submission. It was terrifying to behold, and I had to move on.

As I made my way around the poker tables, watching the action, I bumped into a couple of American journalists. I ventured that Raymer had done well to escape the strictures of his former profession and become a world-famous professional poker player. “He’s not the only one,” said one of the two. “We have Mark Seif too. He is hot, really hot.” They then proceeded to regale me with tales of Seif’s $611,145 win at last year’s World Series in Las Vegas. It turns out that Seif, a former prosecuting lawyer, loves to bluff. He credits the law as having played a key educative role in his poker: “I am constantly assessing if the other person is bluffing. It was the same when I was negotiating contracts: the other person would invariably say, 'This is all we can afford to pay; this is all we can do.' I had to assess whether or not they were serious. I had to decide if I should call their bluff and continue the game.”

It was too much. I bade my farewells and found myself in the bar. There, beside me, was a petite female whose features I did not immediately recognize. However, she did not look happy. “Excuse me, are you alright?” I enquired, as politely as any English solicitor would. “No. It’s been the worst week of my life in poker.” And off went Isabelle ‘No Mercy’ Mercier, one of the world’s top female poker players. And former lawyer.

Back in my hotel bar, I opted for one last drink in a quiet seat overlooking the sea. It was inevitable that some lawyers should also be poker players, and where was the harm? Good luck to them. I looked out over the gentle waves, replete with what passes for equanimity, when my reverie was rudely disturbed. Five suited men had chosen to spurn the otherwise empty bar and sit next to me. They were all huge, sober and laden with laptops. Out they came, with anxious talk of the need to get the contract off before the end of the night. There is no escape, not even in Monaco, and still less in poker.