Tell me about your first poker book.
Shut Up And Deal is a sort of autobiographical novel by Jesse May, who most people know as a poker commentator. He’s so breathy and excitable and funny as a commentator, he doesn’t necessarily sound like he’d be a brilliant, controlled novelist but he really is. He used to be a professional poker player before there was any such thing. His character is an alter ego called Mickey Dane. Jesse’s wife is called Mickey and she’s Danish, so it’s sweet. It’s very Runyonesque, colloquial and in the present tense.
It really brings alive that last phase in poker before the internet came along and caused a revolution – it’s all strange people gambling and bickering in funny little clubs, wearing weird clothes, having odd conversations. There’s a great section where they all get snowed in at some poker club on the East Coast and are stuck there for days. It sounds great; whenever I read it (and I’ve read this book three or four times) I wish I’d been there.
Why weren’t there professional poker players until 20 years ago?
Well, my book, For Richer, For Poorer, about my 20 years playing poker, covers that period when poker changed. Because it used to be this kind of underground game that nobody really played; it was in saloon scenes in films, and there were people who made a living out of it, but not very many. Then two things happened. In Britain at the end of the 1990s Channel 4 put on Late Night Poker and it was cool and cultish and people thought: “Oooh, what a trendy thing to do.” And then internet poker came along and this fusion of fashion and technology created a huge explosion.
“I won half a million pounds but it wasn’t about the money. That night I was basically the only girl, I was local and I was no threat to anyone and they were genuinely delighted.”
When it first started on Channel 4 the players were professional poker players but they didn’t admit that. They said they were businessmen or in import-export because it wasn’t respectable. Now there are millions of 22-year-old men making a living as poker players and proud of it. It used to sound seedy and wasn’t really a term that meant anything. People played cards and either they had a job or they didn’t. Now most people, like me, have sponsorship and wear logos. It’s like what’s happened in tennis or football. Once you were a fireman or a teacher or a butcher and you also played football. The only thing that has really changed is the money, so that these days you don’t need to have another job as well. Being a professional poker player is admirable now rather than silly.
Another big thing that happened was the World Championship in 2003. There had always been a World Championship but it cost $10,000 to enter so it was limited to a few very rich people. In 2003 Chris Moneymaker – that really was his name – played on PokerStars.com, the biggest poker website in the world, for $40 and won a place in the World Series. At the end of the World Series he won the Championship and turned $40 into $5 million. In 2000 there were 300 players in the World Series, in 2003, when Moneymaker won, there were 800 and in 2004 there were 3,000. Suddenly everybody was playing on PokerStars. And I mean everybody. Years ago if I told someone I played poker they’d say: “Oooh, poker. Is it dangerous? ” Now I tell people and they say: “Yes, I was playing this morning with three old ladies from Chicago.”
Your next book?
Most people know The Cincinnati Kid from the film but it was an original novel. It has a mistake in it. By which I mean it has this preposterous poker hand at the end like the hand in Casino Royale. Everyone has this enormous hand and it’s statistically impossible. A poker player watching Casino Royale assumes there’s going to be a plot twist about cheating because the cards are so unlikely, but it’s just to make it more exciting, of course. But if you can overlook that in The Cincinnati Kid the rest is incredibly authentic. The bitterness and fear of the players, the screwed-upness of the life, the difficulty of having normal relationships. And the fantastic thing is – I don’t want to ruin it for people who haven’t read it, but everyone’s seen the film – that he doesn’t win. It’s so sophisticated and complicated for an American novel. And the last chapter is philosophical, about people all over the world who are second best at something. It’s incredibly brave. He couldn’t resist giving everyone a straight flush at the end, but he did resist letting his hero win. And you have to remember that about poker – that even the best players in the world fail and go wrong, give money away, are often losing. It’s an important thing about the game.
Why can’t you have a relationship and be a poker player?
Well, now you can because of the internet, because of PokerStars. You can have a domestic life, friends, lovers, a job. The main difference is for women. It used to be you’d have to go out on your own to a casino in the middle of the night and it would be full of men.
But you love that, don’t you?
I do, but I’m a bit of a mad tomboy, I suppose. For most women though, the internet revolution is incredible. You can have a newborn baby and just sit down for 40 minutes in the middle of the day while the baby is asleep and win $100.
Or lose $100.
Or lose $100. That’s the thing. I am happy to endorse poker but I also bang the drum of caution. Because of what I do I’m always being asked on to debates and they expect me to be pro-gambling, and then they have someone from Gamblers’ Anonymous who’s anti. But I’m not pro-gambling. I don’t want to see increased jackpots on slot machines and I think the National Lottery is evil and wrong. I wouldn’t tell someone to go out and play roulette. But poker is like bridge really. I’d say: “Now listen, it’s a game of cards. Don’t play for more than you can afford.” You need to know how to play the game and how to use your judgment.
What about the Al Alvarez book?
Well, Al Alvarez and Tony Holden were absolutely in the vanguard. They are writers, authors, poker players. They were playing regular house games and going to Vegas in the 80s before anyone, before the internet. They wrote the kind of books that don’t get written any more, about the characters, the late-night venues. Alvarez is an inspirational figure. I always tell the young men who want to play about Al. Nowadays you can just play and not do anything else, but Al climbed mountains, wrote poetry and played poker. It was part of being a renaissance man.
Isn’t it still about finding a sort of machismo in a less macho world?
It isn’t any more. The live game is still pretty male, but it’s not about finding the Marlboro Man in you. You can be an accountant about it. There are all these mathematical strategic guys, game theorists who are trying to solve the game. It’s not about a mid-Western saloon with guns on the table.
Is that a shame?
It’s less romantic and less poetic, but it’s safer and there’s more money to be made, more people to meet. You can play all day long for $5 if you like. Al and the older generation were drawn to poker by the seedy romance – men with nicknames and big hats. So, I say to the younger generation that you should go out and see the world, seduce beautiful women, read books, have a job and play poker as well.
Tony’s book is an experiment. He goes out to try to spend a year as a professional poker player. In a way it’s a modern book, but when he did it there was really no such thing as a professional player. He hangs around for a year playing and imagining a parallel life. It was an oddity really, a fantasy, a bit like the books you get about moving to Italy or whatever. You would never really do it yourself but you read it and think, wistfully: “What if I did that too.”
But it’s not any sort of manual?
No, but the next book is. This is a technical strategy book from a while ago. Now there are millions of these but most of them are boring and just have sexy new terms for things poker players have been doing for 200 years. If you were going to study the game now you’d need to go to university and have a syllabus and a reading list. I don’t read them any more. I’ve done school and I figure it out at the table. But I used to think it was all human and about narrowing your eyes, and, of course, a lot of it is. The idea of grouping hands into when you play and when you fold was so exciting when I read this. I was just moving on from being a poker hobbyist to a professional and it was the first one of the type that I read. I thought: “Look at me! I’m studying poker mathematically!”
What was your best poker moment?
Winning the European Championship. I won half a million pounds but it wasn’t about the money. It was about winning the big tournament. It was the first match I’d played for PokerStars and it was in London and not only in London but at my local casino, the Victoria in Marble Arch. It was just so magical that my big moment was there. If I had a time machine that’s the moment I’d go back to because everyone there was genuinely happy for me. You have to understand that poker players are bitter, grudging, struggling people who are on the live circuit and are solitary and ruthless. Schadenfreude is the biggest thing in poker. But that night I was basically the only girl, I was local and I was no threat to anyone and they were genuinely delighted. Everyone was drinking champagne and hugging me and the Vic was this warm cocoon of happiness. The Vic is never like that. I didn’t even collect the money. I just left it there and went home. I came back for it the next day. I mean, obviously, with money like that you can pay off a mortgage, but at the time it was the mood. These people I’d once been scared of were suddenly like a family. It felt like a very special night.
Interview by Anna Blundy
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