Sun, sand, poker - if only life was always this simple

Times Online October 13, 2006

The vagaries of freelance life recently took me to the Caribbean island of Aruba to play poker in the UltimateBet Poker Classic. Yes, it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it so why not me? I confess that I had never heard of Aruba before the trip, but mere ignorance did not stop me signing up, for this was a chance to win upwards of $750,000 — a sum that would surely, once and for all, catapult me beyond the confines of the law.

Before leaving I did some research and discovered that Aruba, which sits 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela, was formerly a Dutch colony, achieving independence in 1986. The island is tiny — a mere six miles at its widest point, and just under 20 miles long — and has a heterogeneous population of some 100,000 people. Dutch, English and Spanish are widely spoken, but the local language is Papiamento, a curious blend of all three, with elements of German and Portuguese thrown in for good measure. "Bonbini!" said the taxi driver at the airport, which means "welcome," and soon enough I was unpacking at the Radisson Hotel on the leeward side of the island, the venue for the tournament.

This is your chance, I said to myself, as I carefully placed seven pairs of shorts in the wardrobe. Concentrate, keep your nerve, play aggressively, and you will emerge from Aruba to live a different life. I caught sight of a poker magazine I’d brought with me and settled down to read some advice on tournament strategy. This was, it must be said, my first significant tournament, and I am little better than a mere beginner. Still, not being able to empathise with Walter Mitty has never been one of my problems. As I flicked through the magazine’s pages in search of illumination, I chanced upon an article about Jamie Gold, this year’s World Series of Poker winner.

Wouldn’t it be good to be like him? I thought.

Well, maybe not, as it happens. Mr Gold’s $12 million winnings remain locked in a vault in Las Vegas, frozen thanks to what we lawyers would term a Mareva injunction. Mr Gold had allegedly made an agreement with bodog.com, online gambling site that agreed to fund his $10,000 tournament buy-in provided that Mr Gold could convince celebrities to wear bodog regalia. Apparently, he was unable to deliver, but a man named Bruce Crispin Leyser agreed to help him out in return for a share of his winnings. But after winning the World Series, Mr Gold was discinclined to pay Mr Leyser, who promptly began legal proceedings. The first thing he did was secure a restraining order preventing the disposal of the $12 million.

Such deals, when a person funds a player’s buy-in in return for a stake in any winnings, are common in poker. Often, indeed, many factions will have stakes in any one player. But such agreements are never codified in writing, still less in anything resembling an agreement drafted by lawyers. Rather curiously, given its image as the outlaw pursuit par excellence, poker remains a sphere of life in which a man’s word is supposed to be his bond.

I felt a little uneasy having read of Mr Gold’s travails, but Mr Leyser’s is not the only lawsuit in town. Seven of the world’s top players, including UltimateBet’s Annie Duke, whom I had seen upon arriving at the Radisson, have brought proceedings against the World Poker Tour over, inter alia, image rights, alleged anti-competitive agreements among casinos and WPT tournament structures (which, say the pros, are TV-friendly rather than conducive to serious poker play at the highest level). The WPT litigation is complex, but, like that involving Mr Gold, it has already thrown up some dead-cert winners: namely, of course, the legal profession, whose costs are unlikely to be subject to anything other than cast-iron agreements.

All this law in the world of poker did not augur well. Not for me, anyway. When the tournament finally began I was a bag of nerves. The record will show that I departed in the region of 360th out of nearly 520 entrants, but the truth is that I managed to swim with the sharks for much longer than I had a right to expect. They were merciless, if, occasionally, full of smiles, and it was only a matter of time before I was devoured. Can I blame a psychological imbalance engendered by the dread spectre of litigation, even in the world of poker? Or simply a psychological imbalance, in toto?

I don’t know. But what I was able to witness, following my demise on the first day, was the tournament director, Jack McClelland, in action. Mr McClelland is a highly respected man who has been a tournament director for the past 17 years. He is currently the poker room host at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, where the notorious "big game" involving the top players — and more money than everyone, save for a few lawyers, sees in a year — takes place. He is a sturdy man in a tough world, and his word is law. UltimateBet have signed him to manage and co-ordinate its tournaments.

Towards the end of the second day of the Aruba Classic, a player called for Mr McClelland’s intervention. I was some way from the relevant table, but it was clear that the player was agitated. No surprise — having got this far, he was close to the money, but would he get there? Every decision, every act, every nuance is crucial. The player seemed to believe that one of his opponents had pulled a fast one in throwing a large denomination chip onto the felt after the community cards had been dealt, only to announce that a smaller amount was the intended bet. The crucial issue in such cases is whether the announcement was made before the chip hits the table.

Mr McClelland listened to the breathless declarations of the player and ruled against him. His ruling was accepted without demur. I returned to my room to don one of my seven pairs of shorts, went for a swim in the warm waters of Aruba and thought: if only life was always this simple.