Hands across the ocean - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Philosopher and poker obsessive Nicholas Fearn sails off on a cruise with Europe's most feared players, Dave the Devilfish and Il Capitano among them, as 200 competitors chase a $250,000 pot. But it's not the money that attracts him - it's the chance to prove that high-stakes gambling on this floating card school is the best way to test just where his moral compass is pointing.

Few cruise itineraries begin each day's schedule with '8.00am: Poker Room closes'. The ship would be visiting ports in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Croatia, but I knew I would be sleeping through most of them. What the operators lost on excursions, they certainly made back in the casino and at the all-night bar. I was one of 210 players on board for the Ladbrokes Poker Cruise 2004, a Texas hold'em tournament with a first prize of $250,000.

Most players had made their $7,000 entry fee after qualifying from internet games. On the Ladbrokes site there are up to 5,000 players online at any one time and more than $7 million is staked each day (dollars are the game's universal online currency). Poker is going through an unprecedented period of growth prompted by the popularity of gaming websites and televised tournaments. Pokerpulse, the industry monitor, estimates that as many as two million people played online in February. Yet for many on board this will be their first experience of live poker. Unfortunately for them, the same cannot be said for the roster of professionals there by invitation, including Dave 'Devilfish' Ulliott ??? the most feared player in Europe and winner of numerous high-stakes championships around the world ??? and the retired footballer Tony Cascarino.

At least the top players from the United States, such as Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth, were absent. Ladbrokes will not accept Americans for legal reasons. The company is part of the Hilton Group based in the US, where the legality of American citizens gambling over the internet is currently in question. Making up the numbers are young Scandinavians, who have been having the same impact on internet poker as Texans did on the traditional version in the 1970s. One of my Swedish opponents explained their success as being characteristic of a cool-headed, analytical people; but it must also help that while British schoolchildren spend their lunch breaks giving each other Chinese burns, their Scandinavian counterparts are apparently playing no-limit Texas hold'em with their pocket money.

The tournament began with a draw for the first-round heats and a chance for regular online players to put faces to familiar names. Perhaps only jury service brings together people from so many walks of life as does poker. So here we were, career gamblers of several nationalities and investment bankers in pinstripe suits sharing cocktails and recounting online battles with housewives, tattooed working men and students. 'Would Per Werner-Svensson please stand up,' asked the compere for the second time. 'Oh, you already are standing up,' he apologised as he noticed the diminutive figure waving an arm above a shock of black spiky hair. The 23-year-old from Dalarna in Sweden is better known to the rest of the auditorium as 'Dared' ??? his alias as one of the most respected high-stakes players online. In another era he would have been called 'The Kid', but these days one would have to be in primary school to qualify for that title.

Dared is a former video games champion who started playing poker online two years ago after completing a college degree in computer science. He began with $50 and within six months had turned his seed money into $50,000. He is now a millionaire and plays on up to eight tables simultaneously that he arranges over two adjacent 21-inch screens.

Dared is so dedicated to the game that he has given little thought to spending his winnings. He drives no car, wears no jewellery and, though he plans to buy a house, properties sell for a mere ???8,000 in his hometown. What he wants most of all is to break out of his online domain and make a name for himself in live poker by winning a major championship.

Towering above Dared in height and advanced years if not, as far as anyone knows, card-playing success is Eric Dalby, a 74-year-old whose usual game is a friendly ??10 tournament at his local casino in Brighton. What this gentle veteran with a heart condition wants most from the trip, he tells me in a cracked voice, is a nice holiday in his 'little time left on this earth'. I look at Eric, the oldest player here, and dismiss him instantly as a contender.

In poker anyone can beat anyone on the day, but the already large element of luck involved is magnified in knockout tournaments where one piece of bad fortune can send the world's best player home with nothing. Professionals like to play against amateurs, but are wary of facing too many at once. As 'Devilfish' Ulliott complained: 'Individually they're not a problem, but collectively they become a threat.' From the other side of a card table, the Devilfish was such a mass of jerks and tics that I wondered whether he might suffer from Tourette's syndrome before I realised that he was merely winking at the women in the room. Whatever effect this has on its intended audience, it so terrifies one young player that he declines to risk any more chips on the final betting round despite holding an almost unbeatable full house. The effect does not last and Ulliott makes a full house of his own only to lose to a young Englishman wearing a Southampton FC cap who has four of a kind.

Minutes later Devilfish faces a large raise and studies his opponent for a full two minutes before folding. Onlookers mutter that the football fan has 'stared the Devilfish down', but the fan shows that nothing of the sort happened by revealing aces in the hole. Amazingly, the Devilfish became the second player to be knocked out when he was called by 19-year-old Ian Pendlebury sitting to his left. The hour and a half it had taken to get this far was Pendlebury's sole experience of live poker. As soon as he saw the flop of three low cards his hands stopped trembling for the first time that night. The rest of the chips went in and Pendlebury called confidently with two queens.

The Devilfish, who had a pair of jacks, scarcely had time to shake his young opponent's hand before leaving the room as if propelled by two invisible doormen. He would have his revenge by winning ???6,000 in two sessions in the side games. He was soon joined there by the greatest of the Swedes ??? Erik Sagstrom, known as 'The Salmon' ??? who won more than ???20,000 during the week. The Salmon, who is 21 but looks much younger, is pale and slender with ruby lips, kiss curls and large, watery eyes. The features of a startled cherub hide six years' experience of online poker. He learnt the game by obsessively reading every book on the subject that he could find after dropping out of school at 17. He had once considered being a professional golfer, because, he told me: 'I'm good at getting good at things.' His winnings of more than $3m have made him a local celebrity in Link??ping, a town identified in a recent letter to the Spectator as a place where it is almost impossible to buy a beer.

If some are making millions, then others must be losing. The classic high-stakes loser has had success at lower limits and moves up too soon, or else believes that he has the skill to take on the best following a lucky win in a tournament. Then there are the casino gamblers, who treat poker as an elaborate version of roulette. But most losers eventually wise up and become winners themselves. Poker resembles a pyramid scheme and, as with such arrangements, they can go bust when they are no longer able to attract new members. However, there is little chance of a collapse in the near future, with several online poker sites reporting a growth in their player base of up to 10 per cent a month.

Many veteran 'live' players regard their internet counterparts with condescension, if not contempt. Some cannot accept that one can learn to play well by sitting alone in front of a computer. Others regard the new bloods as upstarts ignorant of card-table etiquette. When poker was played only in casinos and back rooms, those following a largely solitary male pursuit could at least enjoy the mystique attached to the game. But today seedy glamour is being replaced by the dim light of computer screens and the unhealthy pallor of those who stare into them for most of their waking hours. To the horror of some, the game has lost its dissolute image only to gain a nerdish one. When one ageing, overweight player on the cruise was asked by a young Swede whether he played online, he said: 'The internet's for geeks who sit in front of their computers in their bedrooms all day. Is no one interested in girls in Sweden?'

Perhaps his eyesight was going the way of his hair, as he failed to register the Nordic glamour parade supporting their partners from the sidelines. Or perhaps he could not see properly in the shade cast by the unfeasibly augmented breasts of one young Swedish bystander. The Devilfish appeared and cleared his view by hooking the girl in a headlock and dragging her to the bar.

The chip leader at the time was 21-year-old William Thorssen from Varberg. Playing under the alias 'Il Capitano', Thorssen once won $350,000 in the biggest online tournament. If that was not enough to make us jealous, he was also the subject of a debate among the female audience as to whether he just looked like Leonardo DiCaprio or was far more handsome. Il Capitano finished top of his heat having accumulated all the low-denomination chips, meaning that he had won a great many small pots uncontested. His bets were large enough to make a weak opponent fold, but small enough to minimise his losses. After watching the first few days' play, this seemed the best way to proceed. Poker is often called a game of 'timed aggression', but in its tournament variation it is also one of timed surrender. One must not go so far that one cannot retreat.

With so much at stake, play was very cagey in the early stages. The first few to fall invariably went down holding a pair of kings in the hand against an opponent's aces, or vice versa, having committed all their chips right away. Many players were only too aware of their limitations, especially in an unfamiliar live setting, and resolved to play only the best starting hands. Most were not dealt enough of these premium holdings before the antes ate away their chip stacks and their chances. However, a lucky few were able to ride to the final on a steady stream of good cards. Without such luck, it seemed that the trick was to resist the fear of weakness and fold often in the early rounds and then, later on, resist the fear of stupidity and call or raise more when players would be forced to bluff more often as the antes increased.

In poker you have to ask yourself what you fear the most: calling with the worst hand and feeling like a fool, or folding the best hand and feeling like a coward. With each choice between weakness and stupidity you are gambling with your character as much as your money. However, unlike everyday life where we must live with our mistakes, poker gives us the opportunity to reverse our moral failures on the very next hand ??? and this is what makes this great game so addictive. If you can gauge the moral priorities of your opponents, you are halfway to winning. The problem when facing experienced players is that they will have long ago conquered their insecurities at the table. They succumb neither to weakness nor idiocy. But what the fearless fear above all is that they cannot win in a style befitting a champion. The best players do not want simply to keep their heads and play well. They want to defeat their rivals by exposing them as fools; by outwitting and bullying them. A fear of the pedestrian play has sent many a professional crashing out of a tournament. This one was to be no different. Against everyone's expectations, the overall chip leader after the first round was none other than the pensioner Eric Dalby, looking fresher in a suit and tie at 5am in the morning than several of his far younger opponents. After his final hand of the night, he croaked: 'I fear no player.'

I mulled over the heats on a brief stopover in Istanbul. The smart guests had arranged guided tours, avoiding the depredations of the locals. The less canny were ripped off by taxi drivers and harassed by street vendors. As I entered the Blue Mosque, two baton-wielding policemen were beating a group of youths down the steps. 'They are gypsies,' explained a bystander. Well, that's all right, then. 'They trick the old people out of their money'. His friend then sold me a fake pashmina for ???25. The same product in identical packaging sells for ??5 outside Holborn tube station in London. I am reminded that there is no language barrier on earth that can hide weakness. One guest remarked that he would return to Istanbul 'only to mine the harbour'. On the other hand, Tony Cascarino reported a wonderful time. The competitive atmosphere of the poker table had nothing to teach the former footballer, who played at the highest level for club and for the Republic of Ireland. After reaching superstar status in France at the end of his career as a striker at Marseille, he spent a year on the Paris cards circuit, putting to use the skills he had learnt cleaning out team-mates during coach journeys to away fixtures. He is now a respected poker player and regularly reaches the final stages of tournaments.

Before my turn at the card table, Cascarino and Kevin O'Connell, the star of Channel 4's Late Night Poker, offered me some advice. O'Connell counselled me to be unpredictable: raising with weak cards and then throwing all the chips at any hint of weakness from one's opponent. This strategy had won him a great deal of money in the past although, he said, it had seriously upset one opponent, the Hollywood star James Woods. Cascarino urged a more cautious approach. 'Never overrate ace-king,' he said.

An ace with a king is one of the strongest starting hands in hold'em. If the board brings another king or ace, then it will usually be the best hand at the table. However, without this help it can end up worthless. I knew from my own experience that ace-king was the most common holding on which players are knocked out of tournaments. I also knew not to underrate it, as the hand's curse recalls the old argument over why the most common score for a batsman in cricket is zero. It is not that batsmen need to get their eye in before they begin to hit runs, nor that bowlers make a special effort with their first few deliveries against a new player. Both mysteries come down to simple maths: zero is the score on which most deliveries are faced on average, while ace-king is the hand with which poker players push all their chips in the middle most often. In the event, when I was eventually dealt ace-king I had my best chance of building a decent position.

Research reveals that the best poker players in the UK live in Northern Ireland (the worst live in Yorkshire). And so, playing to my left is Barry Craig, from Belfast no less. Only two weeks previously he had won $50,000 to become 2004 Northern Ireland Open champion. It soon becomes obvious that he is the best live player at the table. Without any attractive cards in the early rounds, I try to steal a few pots to maintain my chip stack. But each and every time, Barry raises and I fold. To start fights that one cannot finish is to display both stupidity and weakness at once. My moral stock is falling with my chips. Then I pick up ace-king. I know that Barry is a better player than me and he knows it, too. But I also know that he knows I know this, which gives me a chance. I make a small raise, as if I expect him to come back at me once more, at which point I would move all my chips into the middle. But this time he simply calls the bet. The flop comes king-10-three, giving me a pair of kings and an ace. I make a small, timid bet that I hope Barry will pounce on. As pleased as I am that he takes the bait, I am disturbed that feigning a limp wrist comes so easily to me.

I call, and the turn is another 10. He thinks for a moment and puts me all in. I call again and he turns over king-jack. On the last card he needs a jack to win, but a 10 or king would give us both a full house and the pot would be shared. Of the 44 cards remaining in the deck, 38 double me up, three leave me as I am and three send me out of the competition and off the ship. It's a king. We both take our money back, but my chance has passed. From there on, Barry plays perfectly. Bad luck hurts, but in a game of pride nothing is worse than being outplayed fair and square by a superior opponent.

From here I do no better than merely cling on for another eight hours in a drought of cards that make the problem one less of fear than of managing frustration as I watch millionaires throw away giant stacks by calling with ace high against opponents who are clearly betting with a decent hand. Or so it seems to me. Others with greater ambitions are able to convince themselves that they can see something more. These players have come not to win money but to show what good players they are. They certainly display the courage of their convictions, if not their accuracy.

At around midnight I am forced to go all-in with the uninspiring king-seven. Pushing forward all one's chips with cards to come brings the welcome sensation of freefall. There are no further decisions to make and the future is out of my hands. Surprisingly, I am called by queen-four and double through to a sum that is less than what I began the night with. Twice more I win the same way. Unfortunately, each victory still leaves me with a small chip stack and I am knocked out six positions from the prize money. Barry went on to a well earned fourth place overall.

While the finalists sipped water, smoked cigarettes and munched apples to relieve the tension, the eventual winner was popping pills for his heart. Eric Dalby had gone unnoticed as a 125-1 outsider. Most of us assumed he merely played the odd game in his retirement. This was partly true ??? his hold'em experience was limited to small-stakes events ??? but his experience of other forms of poker extends over half a century. He reveals that he once raked in the largest ever pot in the ??1,000 buy-in cash game at London's Victoria Casino ??? ??54,000. 'Some of the youngsters are tremendous players,' Dalby conceded. 'They have it worked out far better than me. I play on instinct. I may not be around with them for much longer, but I fear no one.'

He may not outlive his opponents, but he has certainly outlived his own ego and mastered his weaknesses at the table. He fears no one, including himself.

?? Nicholas Fearn is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: how to Think Like a Philosopher (Atlantic Books)

Jargon buster:

Texas Hold???em: Three to 10 players are dealt two cards, face down, and five cards are dealt face down on the table ??? these are community cards. Each player must construct the best hand possible by using the two cards dealt to him and the community cards. A round of betting is held after the deal. Then three of the table cards are turned up. Another round of betting follows. One more card is flipped, followed by another round of betting. The last card is flipped, a final round of betting ensues. The highest hand wins (unless someone has lost their nerve and folded).

Ante: The minimum stake in order to take part in the hand.

Big slick: Holding AK (ace and king) cards with your first two cards (pocket or hole cards).

Boat: A full house.

Community cards: The cards that are dealt to the table. All players can use these cards.

Flop: The first three cards dealt to the table.

Hole or pocket cards: The two cards dealt to each player face down before the first round of betting.

Flush draw: When a player holds four cards of the same suit and is hoping to be dealt a fifth.

River: The final card dealt.

Turn: The fourth community card, dealt face up before the third round of betting.

Poker books

Positively Fifth Street - James McManus

McManus wagered his entire advance from Harper???s magazine to enter the World Series in Las Vegas. Instead of producing the objective article Harper???s hoped for, he wrote this memoir of how he won a spot in the competition, getting closer to winning than anyone expected.

The Biggest Game In Town - Al Alvarez

Alvarez, formerly The Observer???s poetry editor, investigates Vegas poker, capturing the eccentricities of all its characters.

Big Deal - Anthony Holden

A year in the life of a professional player. This is the best account of the subculture, its history and what it is like to play for high stakes.

Theory of Poker - David Sklansky

A detailed guide by the foremost ???academic??? authority on the game. This is an essential purchase for any serious player.

You've got to be in it to win it ... tournaments

Five-Star World Poker Classic

Bellagio, Las Vegas - 18-25 April

Sometimes referred to as the ???real??? world championship, the Bellagio has the world???s highest buy-in at $25,000 and a smaller field than the World Series. First prize is expected to be in excess of $2m this year.

The Ladbrokes Poker Million

Sky Sports Studios - Tuesday 10 May, shown on Sky Sports 1

With the sponsors adding $1,250,000 to the prize pool, this year???s Poker Million presents the best value ever offered in a poker tournament. The winner of Europe???s richest event will take away $1,000,000 in August.

The World Series of Poker

Rio Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas - 3 June-15 July

The $10,000 entry no-limit hold???em main tournament is the world???s richest sporting event and the ???Big One??? for poker players. It is now so oversubscribed that it has had to move from its ancestral home, Binion???s Horseshoe, to a larger venue. First prize is expected to be more than $6m this year. The only British winner to date was Mansour Matloubi in 1990, who collected $835,000 and also triumphed over the Inland Revenue???s bid to tax his prize money.

Grand Prix de Paris

Aviation Club de France, Paris - 25-29 July

Europe???s premier poker competition is held at this historic club, off the Champs-Elysees. Last year, the tournament was interrupted by armed men wearing ski masks who robbed the casino. That clearly didn???t affect Britain???s Surinder Sunar, who won the first place prize of $900,000.

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