Getting my hand bitten off by the Snarler

The Sunday Times, January 07, 2007
Aruba is a beautiful island. Moored in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, fringed with palms, this former Dutch colony is blessed with a benign climate and a small, easy-going population. It is, you’d imagine, the perfect place to relax and let the knots in your nervous system unravel.

Unless, that is, you’re being systematically humiliated by one of the world’s great poker players.

“Say it! Say I’m right! Say Annie’s right!” howls Annie Duke, known in poker circles as “the Duchess”, as she drags yet another stack of my chips across the green baize table towards her own. “Look what’s happened when you haven’t listened to me! Come on, say it! Say Annie’s right!” I manage a weak smile, and hang my head in embarrassment. Duke is arguably the most successful female poker player of all time. Since 1991 she’s amassed live tournament winnings of more than of $3.1m: and by way of a loosener before the 2006 Aruba Classic — the poker tournament that’s about to be held on the island — she’s consented to play a quick one-on-one practice game with me. I’ve staked $5,200 on this tournament, so I’ve got to learn quickly.

Naturally, she’s won every hand.

But it’s the way she’s won them that’s really hurt. I’ve been so intimidated by her ruthlessly efficient play, I’ve succumbed to a feeble tic known as “limping in”. This describes the practice of merely matching (“calling”) the previous bet, rather than raising it. Often, it’s a sign that a player has marginal cards and hasn’t the conviction to go in hard.

Against Duke, I’ve started limping in on every hand. Each time, she’s then raised my bet, almost certainly with what poker players call “rags” — cards even worse than mine — and I’ve lost my nerve and folded, giving up the hand, and the few chips I’ve already bet on it. As a result, I’ve ended up short-stacked. I’ve so few chips left that I must win a hand to stay in the game, but don’t have enough of them left to buy time until a good hand comes along.

“Go all-in,” exhorts Duke. “It’s the only thing you can do when you’re so short-stacked.” So I do. And she beats me for the final time. What’s worse, as she does so, she gives me a look which is half pity, half disdain.

I had no idea it was going to be this hard. All right, so I’m no Cincinnati Kid. But I thought I was developing into a useful player. I’ve been at it almost every day for nine months: in games with friends, at London poker dens and — above all — online. I’ve even “cashed” in a few low-grade tournaments — meaning that I’ve finished in the top, paying places — and I thought by now I was ready for a big, live event such as the Aruba Classic. First prize is a cool $775,000 (£398,000) but there’ll be 49 runners-up. Perhaps, I imagined, I’d be one of them.

That delusion lasted until the moment I arrived at the welcome night festivities at the Radisson hotel, and met some of the other players. There were legends of the game, such as Phil “Poker Brat” Hellmuth, a World Series of Poker champion and arguably the finest (if also rudest) poker player in the world. Antonio “the Magician” Esfandiari, was there too — an intense man so lucky that his luggage reputedly always emerges first on an airport carousel.

But it was the other players who really unsettled me: 300 of them had won Aruba packages, including flights, buy-in and accommodation, through the event’s sponsor, or its affiliates. And in their quick, nervous smiles, their tight gestures and their wandering eyes — constantly trying to measure themselves against the other people in the room — I recognised myself. We hung together in shoals around the edges of the room. Most of us were, quite obviously, the bait.

“So what hope do I have against the sharks?” I ask Duke as we tidy away the chips from our one-on-one. The game over, she is charm itself and gives me a few tips about making the transition from online poker to live games. “You’ve got to disguise your emotions,” she says, pointing out that my sighing when dealt rags wasn’t exactly good play. “Never give anything away. Don’t even show your cards after a hand is over. People should always pay to see what you’ve got.”

But her main piece of advice is simpler and more fundamental. “You need to be a lot more aggressive,” she says. Then she wishes me luck, and like a great white, anxious to move on to bigger prey, disappears into the deeper waters of the casino.

Two days later comes the real test — when all 512 players sit down to begin the first day of the competition. The game we’re all playing is Texas hold ’em (see box, top right, for the rules) — and the idea is that over three or four days everyone will slug it out until the last 10 do battle on the final table.

I’m at seat 2 on table 11. Around me are nine other players. Opposite sits a man called Ian Money, from Poole, Dorset, who won his seat through a competition run by a British poker magazine. To my right is Tony, a games designer from Las Vegas in quintessential poker regalia: baseball cap, sunglasses concealing beady eyes. Tattoos on his biceps add to the hardcore image, but as the game gets under way, it turns out he is the table gentleman. This is just as well, because a snarling American to Money’s right is playing the most aggressive poker I have yet seen, delivered with a penetrating gaze that says: “I’m going to kill you.”

The thing is, with poker players you can’t really get a grip on their characters until you’ve played a few hands, and at the start it looks as though he might be all bluster. On the third hand, I triumph when I’m dealt a queen and a 6, which ultimately becomes three queens as the community cards are dealt. A few hands later I bluff the snarling American out of a pot. Duke would be proud.

The next hand, however, is a disaster — I bet heavily on a losing hand, and before I know it, I’m limping in again. Steadily my chip pile begins to disappear and I realise I’ve got to go all-in on one hand, or I’ll just fade away.

Then I’m dealt a king and an 8 of spades. Could they turn into a flush — five cards of the same suit? When the community cards are dealt they include both the 10 and 5 of spades. Suddenly, I’m only one card away from making that flush.

The trouble is, when I look across at the Snarler, he seems even more menacing than ever. I know he’s got something, but I’m short-stacked and I can’t afford to wait. There are two more cards to come, and I just need one of them to be a spade. There’s nothing for it but to go all in.

The Snarler smiles. “I call,” he says. Everyone else folds, so it’s time to show and tell. “Cards on their backs, please,” says the dealer.

The Snarler turns over a pair of aces. Oh God. That’s the best starting hand in poker. But there are two more community cards to be dealt, and if one of them is a spade, and I make my flush, he’s beaten.

The first is the turn card. It’s the 3 of hearts. No good. So. it’s all down to this last card — the “river”.

It’s the 2 of diamonds. After six hours, my dreams of making money at the Aruba Classic are over. But in a funny, heady way I don’t care. I’m Steve McQueen losing to Edward G Robinson on the last card in The Cincinnati Kid. Okay, I can’t stumble out of the hotel into the arms of Tuesday Weld but at least I’m in Aruba, one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. I live to fight another day and in the meantime I find a beach bar and order a drink — or three.

The rules of Texas hold ’em

In Texas hold ’em, each player is dealt two cards face down, known as the “hole” or “pocket” cards. A round of betting takes place before the dealer deals “the flop”, three community cards face up on the table.

After the flop, another round of betting takes place. Players can “check” (make a bet of nothing), “fold” (give up their cards), “call” (match existing bets), or “raise” (increase the bet). Two more community cards come after the flop — the “turn”, or fourth street, and finally the “river,” or fifth street.

The objective, once all the cards have been dealt, is to make the best possible hand by combining the hole, or pocket, cards with the five community cards. After the final betting round, the remaining players reveal their cards.

The ranking of hands is as follows (in ascending order):

1 A high card (eg, ace high)

2 One pair (two cards of the same denomination, eg, kings.

3 Two pairs (2x2 cards of the same denomination)

4 Three of a kind, or trips (eg, three queens) 5 A straight (five consecutive cards of different suits, eg, 2-3-4-5-6)

6 A flush (five cards of the same suit)

7 A full house (three of a kind and a pair, eg, three kings, two 8s)

8 Four of a kind (eg, four 8s)

9 A straight flush (five consecutive cards of the same suit, ranked according to the highest top card)

10 A royal flush (top five consecutive cards of the same suit, eg, ace, king, queen, jack and 10 of spades)

The big tournaments

The World Series of Poker
The biggest poker tournament, held each summer in Las Vegas. This year, the main event, a game of Texas hold ’em, had a first prize of $12m (£6.2m) — the richest prize in poker history — and made millionaires out of the 11 other highest-ranking players.  

European Poker Tour
Now in its third season, and featuring eight events in as many countries. The sensation of the season was the win by journalist (and poker columnist) Victoria Coren, who beat a field of 397 other players to win £500,000 on the London leg of the tour in September — the largest prize won by a woman in European poker.  

World Poker Tour
With only two events scheduled outside North America, this tour is less global than it sounds. But it doesn’t lack funding, with prize pools of several million dollars.