My experience of poker is playing casual games with friends, where the buy-in is £10 and the emphasis is on fun. So, on Wednesday night, when I was bought-in to a hotly contestedPokerStarstournament, in a competition series with a prize pool of £1 million, I did seem a little out of my depth.
The match I played in was a satellite game for Nottingham’s “main event” in the UK & Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT). It’s like semi-pro football clubs trying to land a spot in the FA Cup. It starts at £110 a seat. The series travels through a few UK cities such as London, Nottingham, and Edinburgh, and there’s a holiday stop in Marbella, Spain.
In Nottingham, hailed the home of poker in the UK, there were about 80 players all hoping to get themselves into the last 20, which means access to the final stages of Nottingham’s competition — when the big money starts pouring in. Winners come away with hundreds of thousands of pounds.
My table was an interesting mix of people. Some were local; others had travelled from farther afield to play. We all started with £20,000 worth of chips.
The top prize at this stage was around £22,000, far beyond my biggest friendly win of £50. But the casino lights at Dusk Till Dawn, a couple of Amstel beers, and some chicken nuggets soon relaxed me. And as my chips started stacking up, I pondered glory.
Before the game I spoke to PokerStars Team Pro Jake Cody. He has won some serious cash. At the age of 21, he was anointed the “youngest triple crown winner” ever — the equivalent of a tennis player smashing Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open in a single year. Cody is an authentic high-roller. He told me to “play conservative and stay in the game.”
“Satellite games are about keeping pace and playing to a good hand. Don’t take too many risks until the the blinds start picking up,” he explained, and added that as long as you win a few hands and start building a bit of money, without being too brash or eager, there’s every chance of going into the red-roped area below.
Down there, the lights were more sparkly, tables a more inviting shade of blue, and a woman was massaging a man’s neck.
I was brash and eager.
To begin with, though, it paid off. I completely rinsed a big northern gentleman for all he was worth and made some sizable wins against some of the others round the table, too. At one point I bluffed my way to a pot of around £15,000, and was soon chip leader, with close to £50,000 — I began to imagine life on the high stakes floor. I thought about gold Apple Watches and reasonably priced cars.
Winning a big hand was like watching a rippling wave break upon a summer coastline — raking in the “5,000” and “1,000” chips, for a novice, it was difficult to shield the joy. I had done well tactically, bluffed with apparent success, and had drawn the luck of a few solid hands: A pair of Jacks, an Ace-King, and others.
But I soon got over confident: Jake’s advice rang true when the large gentleman called my bluff and took a fair whack of my stash. He had bought back in for a second time, a one-time allowance for any participant. Most players at my table did it.
I’d been at the table for a few hours, gently rebuilding my pot, when the guy next to me, who was wearing headphones and had just ordered a rather distracting sandwich, put me out of the game for good. I had checked a very good hand and let him take the initiative, and planned to raise big at the end to take him. I had a pair of Kings and believed in myself.
Believing in myself, it became startingly clear, was a dramatic oversight.
When the final card was drawn, known as the “river,” my opponent went all in. By that point I was fully committed, so had to match him. He had a pair of Aces. It was game over. Earning anything from the £1,000,000 prize pool remained a distinctly unobtainable premise. A pro later suggested that my timing was out — I was too brash in my decisions. Inexperience was telling.
It was a hardened introduction to the world of poker tournaments and money.
People were tentative, others quite flippant with their cash. UKIPT matches are a puzzling mix of regular guys, who ride their luck, and PokerStars stalwarts, who clearly have skill. And in the main event, there are the PokerStars Pros rolling into games that cost £1,100 upwards to buy into.
When I left the casino I passed the high-roller table in full swing, where a young man in a baseball cap was carefully watching an older guy with a beard and a furrowed brow. The tension, and excitement, was palpable.
Alas, as I exited the building, I realised that unless I somehow got another buy-in for a high roller poker tournament, and of course won, I would have to delay those gold Apple Watch purchases indefinitely.