Millionaire's Paradise

Flush Issue 7, May 2006

The 2005/06 European Poker Tour season fittingly drew to a close in Monte Carlo, playground of the rich and famous and temporary home to some of the world's best players. Alex Wade was on hand to soak up the atmosphere and some early spring sunshine.

It’s high noon. The is beating down on the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort, and out on the azure sea, three yachts potter back and forth. High in the sky, having launched from the cliffs above Monaco, are eight paragliders. They hover as if to descend upon the tiny principality - which today, Saturday 10 March, hosts the grand final of the European Poker Tour – only to manoeuvre themselves heavenwards. Not for them the worldly spoils of the EPT.

I squint up at the paragliders, wondering which is better: to be one of them, ostensibly without a care in the world, or to be one of the eight EPT grand finalists, who in the evening will fight it out for a 900,000EURO first prize? Even he (for on this final table, they are all male) who finishes eighth walks away with a guaranteed 84,000EURO. Enough for a few paragliding lessons, that’s for sure, and a lot of money by anyone’s standards, except maybe the 30,000 residents of Monaco. Prince Albert’s two-kilometre Riviera principality boasts 130,000 bank customers, whose accounts contain an estimated £42bn. This is a place where even those whose job is to look after the rich have a higher (and tax-free) income than virtually everyone in Britain.

As such, Monaco sits well with the Pokerstars-sponsored EPT final. Albeit that W Somerset Maugham described Monaco as “a sunny place full of shady people,” its glamour is inescapable and, indeed, a marked contrast from the unabashed kitsch of Las Vegas and the World Series. Returning from a run along the coast on the morning of the final, I happened upon the most beautiful woman in the world. Her job: taxi rank boss at the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel. There she stood - with poise, elegance and mesmerizing looks - commanding taxis, ushering guests. How and why is this possible? Only in Monaco, and only at the EPT.

Not that there was much evidence of glamour just after midday on the day of the final. I strolled over to the poker room – which, all week, had been teeming with people, from press and marketing folk to hundreds of poker professionals – to find it deserted. The final was due to start in just a few hours, and I expected at least the TV crew to be setting up, if not the usual sit and go games to be underway. Maybe everyone was soaking up the fine weather?

This was unlikely. Poker professionals contently bask not in the sun but in the artificial light of card-rooms and casinos. But it was an exquisite Mediterranean day, and for a moment I found myself thinking that if the final was cancelled, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. To be outdoors, on the water, or even paragliding. And then the action started, and poker worked its magic.

UK competitor Fraser Dunphy, a university graduate who has yet to feel the need to opt for conventional employment, moved all-in with Ac-Jh against Frenchman Thierry Cazals, chip-leader and chewing gum aficionado. The poker room was now packed, and Cazals happily called with Ah-Kd. An eight, a two, a three and a five later, and there was still all to play for. Dunphy hit a jack on the river, and doubled up to over 200,000. Nice work, but unfortunately for Dunphy he soon found himself in one battle too many with 19-year-old American Jeff Williams. Williams is tall, skinny and still a student, and woke up on the day of the final to find that his parents, Dave and Cindy, had flown over unexpectedly from Georgia to watch him. Some 19-year-olds might have seen their presence as somehow compromising their ability to make their own decisions, but not Williams. Each time Dunphy raised, Williams re-raised, as if he were the grand old man of poker. In fact, he is known online as yellowsub86, and was able to dispense with Dunphy’s all-in pocket aces with a pair of tens becoming trips on the flop.

So farewell, then, one of the UK’s three finalists. The two remaining Brits, Hendon mobster Ross Boatman and fast-car fanatic Arshad Hussain, took each other on with Boatman perilously short-stacked. His 10-6 of clubs was no match for Hussain’s pair of jacks, and Boatman was gone, with 140,000EUROS in his wallet. He was preceded by the legendary Marcel Luske, whose trademark upside-down sunglasses failed to disguise his disgust when he was beaten by Marc Karam’s trip sevens.

With five players left, the game encountered its fair share of what the French call longueurs. To the mere mortals among us whose command of the language of love is as advanced as our poker, this means that it became a little tedious. Blind-stealing and folds were understandable at this tense stage, but did not make for rousing spectator sport. There was only one thing for it. I’d nip away from the rail and go and play a quick sit & go.

Is this wise?, I wondered, as I parted with 100EUROS for the privilege of losing my money to the pros. At the beginning of the week I had played a couple of media tournaments. Neither had gone well. On my table for the first was Luca Pagano, the well-groomed Italian star, whose habit of saying “careful, careful!” when the action fell to me was not quite as disconcerting as the knowledge that I was hopelessly out my depth. But hope springs eternal. I paid my money and took my chances.

I enjoyed it, for the six minutes it lasted. It was nothing if not dramatic, losing almost my entire stack to a pair of kings on the second hand, only to claw my way back and then have my pair of nines beaten by two tens. Short and not so very sweet, so back to the rail. The action had picked up, and each time, it was Williams calling the shots. Before long he had sent Cazals off to chew gum elsewhere, leaving a final four all of whom were Pokerstars qualifiers. There was a tangible ripple of pride among the Pokerstars staff, to be eclipsed by Hussain who pointed out that, as a Pokerstars FPP qualifier, he had got to Monaco on a freeroll.

The four Pokerstars players thought about a deal, decided against it, and played on. World Series 2005 winner Joe Hachem had been taking turns with yet another Pokerstars world champion, Greg Raymer, to commentate, but if he was inwardly ruing his relatively early elimination he didn’t show it. As sure as there is money in Monaco, the field was whittled down, until it was Williams and Hussain heads-up.

History records that Hussain’s all-in A8 was no match for Williams’ AT. Television noted the dignity with which Williams celebrated his victory, matched by the grace with which Hussain accepted his second-place. But what needs to be written is that Jeff Williams looked like a winner from the first hand he played. He was the epitome of the cool and controlled poker player.

The preceding night Williams had been on a table that included the London EPT winner, Mark Teltscher. Teltscher is a fine player, but he is also someone who seems unable to help himself. Despite the constant attention of a masseuse, he was far from relaxed, and it became hard not to conclude that his constant and intense chuntering was anything other than a crude attempt to unsettle the players around him. He concentrated mainly on Aleksander Strandli, but also threw the odd comment in Williams’ direction. Many would have found it wearing, but Williams just looked at Teltscher as if at irksome teenager capable merely of the occasional illuminating comment.

Perhaps Teltscher, out in 13th place, will change his game. Williams has no need to change anything. This man is so good that if one of the paragliders lands in Monaco next year, it’ll be him, unruffled, calm - and about to take your money.