Poker player plays cards right to go pro - Sunday 5th of October 2008

An amateur who started playing two years ago joins the world’s elite after winning £81,000

Until recently, Chris Elliot delivered pizzas by night and played internet poker by day. But last week his life changed for ever when he won £81,000 after making the final table in Europe’s biggest tournament at the Empire casino in Leicester Square, London.

Elliot, 33, from Alloa, is living out the dream of the millions of hopefuls who play the game online. He started in a council flat bedroom and ended up a high roller playing against some of then biggest and most glamorous names in the game. Now he plans to go professional, travelling around the world’s top casinos with those elite players.

Elliot took up the card game two years ago to supplement his income. He was soon making more money playing poker than he had been delivering fast food to people in Clackmannanshire.

Then he put up £250 to enter an internet tournament that offered the chance to win a £10,000 ticket to the Betfair World Series of Poker Europe. From 1,200 entrants, he was one of 21 to end up, at 4am the next day, with a golden ticket.

In London he was one of 364 starters, including star players with the nicknames Kid Poker, The Devilfish and The Mouth. The casino was packed with players, spectators and the crew of the US sports broadcaster ESPN, which will televise edited coverage of the tournament later this year.

Elliot began playing last Sunday and had such low expectations of success in the five-day tournament that he failed to book accommodation in the capital beyond the following evening. So he found himself homeless on the streets of London at 4am on Tuesday, after his second 14-hour shift at the card tables and with his competitors falling by the wayside.

With his lone supporter, his cousin Scott Elliot, he jumped into a taxi and asked to be taken to a hotel for sleep before the game picked up at lunchtime the next day. “The driver was from another country and with that and my accent we didn’t really understand each other,” he recalls. “We ended up in the home of a Korean family who rented out their basement.”

After two hours’ sleep, he was back at the tables and with interest in the unknown Scot’s progress growing, Elliot battled through another day’s competition and found more comfortable lodgings.

By the end of Tuesday, the remaining players were guaranteed a cash prize of at least £34,000. By then he had played with some of the biggest names in poker and impressed them all. “This is my boy!” said Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, the three-times World Series of Poker champion, shaking Elliot by the shoulders. “I can’t win a hand against you,” said Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu, the leading money-winner on the world tour. Negreanu is famed for his ability to “read” his opponent’s behaviour at the table and decipher their cards from it. He was baffled by the Scotsman’s huge, tinted sunglasses.

“I bought them on the way to the casino on the first day,” said Elliot. “I thought if I looked at these guys during a hand I’d fall to pieces. With the glasses on they can’t see my eyes and they don’t know where I’m looking.”

By Wednesday the prize at stake was a place at the nine-man final table in front of a packed house and 14 cameras. Elliot was in danger of dropping out at the last. He bet all his chips in one hand and needed the dealer to show an ace or a king on the last card, or his tournament was over. The ace came, Elliot slammed his hand on the green felt table and yelled “That’s right! That’s right!” The casino erupted in support of a player they had adopted as the home favourite.

Elliot’s fortune was reversed at the final on Friday when he was knocked out in ninth position when his opponent got the card he needed at the last opportunity. “I had an 85% chance of winning the hand,” says Elliot. “That would have put me in a strong position to go even further and maybe even win it [the top prize with the tournament was more than £800,000]. They gave me a cheque for £81,000 though, a life-changing amount.”

In the world he is about to enter, leading players can earn millions. It’s as much a game of skill as luck. Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott, once a minor figure in the Hull underworld, has won more than £5m and is a former bracelet winner at the World Series in Las Vegas, the holy grail for professional players.

In the main event at the World Series, the winner gets £4.1m. Elliot plans to ring-fence some of his winnings so that he can go there next year. The event is a magnet for celebrities. He could well find himself playing with Hollywood stars such as Ben Affleck, Jennifer Tily or Toby Maguire in one of Las Vegas’s famously raffish hotels.

For the world’s leading professionals it is a glamorous existence, but for the average plodder, poker can mean long hours at a computer screen or at best a trip to the local casino. Elliot has moved into a different league. He returned to his council flat on Friday with more money than he has ever known. He has also earned a seat at the same tournament in London for the next three years.

Elliot plans to play in a tournament in Blackpool next month. Then there is only one place to go — Las Vegas.

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