Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mixing it in Monaco

'Have you got everything?' my wife asked as I zipped up my suitcase.

'Not quite,' I replied, donning my sunglasses. 'I haven't got a decent

I had been invited to Monaco, to watch the world's top poker players do battle. And in poker, if you haven't got a decent moniker, you may as well fold before you're dealt in.

Famous for Rainier and Kelly, Grand Prix and Opera, our base camp was Monte Carlo, a six minute helicopter spin from Nice. I was entering a world where Dave 'The Devilfish' Ulliot sits down with Antonio 'The Magician' Esfandiari and Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson tries to outdraw Mel 'The Truth' Judah, with a cool EUR300,000 top prize on offer for the winner.

Poker, synonymous with grubby clientele, ash stained tables and marked
cards, is in the midst of a revolution with men and women queueing in their
droves to play, as this back alley pursuit transforms itself to front of
house. A staggering 60 million people play poker at least once a month in
the United States while 13 million adults in the UK play in one form or

The game has its own lingo which can take the unsuspecting by surprise. Talk of
'limping in after a bad beat on fifth street', might encourage the casual
observer to cash in their chips and order a taxi back to the airport.

Commercial casinos are currently illegal in Ireland, despite Michael Lowry's best efforts. The most high-profile attempt to build a casino, a proposed scheme for the Phoenix Park attracted no fewer than 20,000 objections, so Irish punters have to join a private member's club to accommodate their poker fix.

There's the Macau Sporting Club in Cork and there are several clubs in Dublin, the most famous of which the Merrion Casino Club, is just a hundred yards from Government Buildings. Not giving too much away in politics is part of the game. Poker is no different. Many of the top players hide their eyes behind dark sunglasses to stop their opponents 'getting a tell' or learning any information about their hands.

Ireland's most notorious poker representative in the Monte Carlo Millions,
32 year old Dublin born Phil 'the Unabomber' Laak, goes one step further.
He's called "the Unabomber" because he always wears a hooded sweatshirt
(hood up) at the table. When a big bet looms, his fingers wiggle like a
master pianist and he shoves his chips in the middle. Then comes his
signature move - he ties his sweatshirt up around his head peeping through
the merest glint of light to see what his opponent will do.

Strange? Not a bit of it, says Tournament Master of Ceremonies, Matt Savage
who claims one player turned up for an event wearing a motorcycle helmet
while another wore a Holloween mask. Sadly for Phil he didn't make it past
the first day of the three day event. He zipped up his hood for the final
time finishing out of the money in 56th place.

Many professionals divide their time between playing live tournaments and
playing poker on the internet. And it's not just the professionals who are migrating to the internet. Lee-Anne Smyth who began playing at Queen's University in Belfast
made so much money after graduating she decided against taking a
EUR60,000-a-year job. Now she is on the way to earning EUR330,000 a year.
Lee-Anne logs on each day and plays for five hours against other gamblers,
betting by credit card. She says her honours degree in pure and applied
mathematics helps her calculate the odds of what cards are left in the pack.

Day two in Monte Carlo saw the field narrow to a final table consisting of
the top four Americans, two Finnish, two Swedish players and one British
player. Four players who failed to make the final table (including the
Devilfish) got the jolt of a lifetime when their Amsterdam-bound flight was
intercepted by a bolt of lightening and was forced to return to Nice.

Sprinkled in amongst the pros are a whole raft of celebrities who have taken
to poker with gusto. Pop star Robbie Williams and movie idol Ben Affleck
have all been reported playing in regular card schools. Author Martin Amis,
comedian Stephen Fry and businessman Phillip Green are renowned enthusiasts.
Sportsmen like Sam Torrance, Steve Davis, Michael Owen and Jimmy White are
also regular players. The big attraction in Monte Carlo was French singing
sensation Patrick Bruel. He held his own against the top players but was
eventually knocked in 25th place.

Day three offered one surprise after another as play at the final table got
under way. Phil 'Tiger Woods' Ivey was in a commanding lead, having nearly
double the chips of his nearest rivals. Phil continued to dominate until
the table was down to the final three players but then an unwanted card
appeared and suddenly he was out leaving two Finns to battle for the top
prize. Ten minutes later it was all over and Jani Sointula was EUR300,000
richer. His secret? Not a nickname in sight.

After the tournament was over, some of the dealers decided to organise a
game for themselves back at the hotel. Prices in Monte Carlo are expensive -
a pint of beer is EUR12 and a Gin and Tonic is EUR20. So one of the enterprising
dealers slipped down to the local supermarket to buy 100 cans of beer.
Borrowing one of the supermarket trolleys and heaving it a full mile, all
uphill, back to the hotel, he was in the process of manouevring it into the
lift when the sharp-eyed concierge barked:

'What room are you in, sir?'

'628' he replied as the doors to the lift closed.

Imagine the surprise of World series of Poker champion, Scotty "the Prince"
Nguyen when he came down to settle his bill the following morning. He was
staggered to see a late night charge of EUR600 on his bill. 'What's that for?'
he asked incredulously.

'Corkage,' the concierge replied grimly.

Who said drink was expensive in Ireland!