Why poker is playing to full houses - Saturday 12th of March 2005

I get a bigger kick out of playing poker than I did football, so the report in The Times yesterday that an internet poker company is planning a ?3 million flotation comes as no surprise. I?m probably better at poker than I was at football. At their core, perhaps the two games that dominate my life are not so different. Success demands discipline, bravery, instinct, experience. Study the opponent?s tactics.

Have your own plan but be prepared to adapt, to play fast and hard if you have to. You need focus, concentration, more than a little luck. It can get heated, abusive even, when the pressure?s on ? but don?t fall for the mind games. Poker, though, did mess with my mind. I was hopelessly addicted. After I retired from football in 2001, every day for two years I played from 6pm to 6am in a casino off the Champs Elys?es.

It nearly ended my marriage. I would sit at the table for hours on end, not getting up because I couldn?t bear to miss a hand. On nights when I?d lost money, I would punish myself by walking home. It took 45 minutes but I?d save the ?5 cab fare. So it doesn?t surprise me that online poker is huge. It?s so easy to get credit these days that people are taking out loans, then gambling in the hope of that one big payday. With online poker you can compete from the comfort of your sitting room and use the anonymity to reinvent yourself. The combination of pleasure and profit, escapism and reality, is hard to resist. The way gambling laws are changing in this country, poker?s popularity will rocket. Private clubs have sprung up all over London and, I imagine, the UK.

Three years ago, there were 750 entrants for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas; this year, there are about 8,000 ? and it costs $10,000 just to enter. Even if you don?t strike it rich, you can make a living if you?re good enough. My first year playing, I lost ?40,000. The next, I won ?80,000. I keep a record of how I do. On average I reckon to make about ?50,000 a year from gambling. I know one guy, The Cockroach, who hasn?t worked for 20 years. He?s had his tough times, but like a cockroach he?s resilient. Some guys play for ten hours a day online, aiming to win ?200 a day. It?s like a job to them. One Scandinavian man won more than ?1 million in a year from a well-known website. I played against him in a tournament and he went out before me.

He couldn?t even go to Vegas for the World Series because he?s under 21. I play online now and again but I?m not a big fan. I like the face-to-face interaction, the ambience, of a real poker room. Some of them are as dingy and back streetish as you imagine; the big casinos, especially in the States, are spectacular. On Wednesday night I faced off against Greg Raymer. He?s a 40-year-old American patent lawyer.

 He?s also a millionaire called Fossilman. He won the World Series last year, picking up $5 million in prize-money. He didn?t win on Wednesday, though. In poker, on any given night, you can beat the experts. Poker is wonderfully democratic. Just pay your entry fee and you?re in. Unless he gave me a 30-shot start, I couldn?t shoot a lower score than Tiger Woods in a round of golf. In what other game could you play against the best in the world and have a chance of winning?

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