Monday, April 21, 2014

Victoria Coren: From Tomboy Schoolgirl to $1 Million Poker Queen

by Victoria Coren)

Victoria Coren at the poker table. Photograph: Suki Dhanda

The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday 20 September 2009

At the end of the article below we described Roland de Wolfe as "the first player in the world to win a hat-trick of titles on the European Poker Tour, the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas" but he is actually one of two people with this considerable achievement. American Gavin Griffin was the first, completing the hat-trick in January 2008.

I am 12 years old, in Portobello market with my father. He thinks it's time for me to start collecting something. So we are rummaging around the antique shops and the bric-a-brac stalls, looking at ornaments and knick-knacks and pictures and hats and stuffed animals and silver trinkets, deciding what I am going to start collecting.

It's a beautiful day. The air is soft and warm, smelling of jasmine and hot-dog stands. All the stall-holders are chatty and ready to haggle. I've got a toffee apple. In the back of a dusty little shop near the Ladbroke Grove end of the market, my father picks up a china boat. It has a funnel at each end, also made of china, and if you lift them out they are salt-and-pepper shakers. The boat is a creamy-pearly colour, with blue piping, and on the side is printed "A Present from Southend-on-Sea".

"How about that?" my father says.

I think it is the cleverest, prettiest thing I have ever seen. It is a lovely shiny object anyway, but it's also a salt-and-pepper set and it's also a boat!

"And it's a present from Southend-on-Sea," my father says. "You could collect china seaside souvenirs. You could look for ones that said Bournemouth and Weymouth and Margate and Clacton. That's about right for a collection: bit difficult to find, but not too difficult."

We buy it for £12. "Just enough to make it a significant purchase," my father says, "but not enough to cripple you." The man from the shop wraps it up in newspaper and gives it to me. And as we walk back down the street, me gingerly clutching what at this point constitutes my entire collection, my father says, "One day, when you're all grown up and I'm not here any more, you'll remember the sunny day we went to the market together and bought a boat."

My throat feels tight because, as soon as he says it, I am already there. Standing on another street, without my father, trying to get back.

I try to soak up every aspect of the moment, to help me get back when I need to. I feel the weight of the chunky parcel under my arm, and the warmth of the sun, and my father's hand in mine. I smell the flowers with their sharp undertang of cheap hot-dog, and taste the slick of toffee on my teeth. I feel the joy of an adventurous Saturday with my father and no school, and I feel the sadness of looking back when it is all gone. When he is gone.

I'm 15 years old. My brother's game is on the other side of that wall. It makes the whole house smell of smoke. It sounds like a murmur and a clatter at once. Clop-clop go the clay chips. Clink-burble go the ice cubes and the whisky in the glasses. The conversation is low, male, rumbly, burst sometimes by laughter or howls of injustice. It is a rebellious, beckoning sound. I want to be there.

We're doing Twelfth Night this term. I'm enjoying it. But right now, I can't read it. I've been staring at the same page for an hour. Don't want to study Shakespeare. Don't want to solve equations, Don't want to go to bed. Clink-burble-clatter go the chips and the drinks in the other room. The smoke floats and the boys laugh. I want to be there.

The boys speak a weird language of "trips", "bullets", "cowboys" for kings and "a nugget" for a pound. One of them, Matt, wears a T-shirt that says NOT ALL TRAPPERS WEAR FUR HATS. He is going out with Al Alvarez's daughter. That's why the boys play this funny game that nobody else does, because Alvarez led the way. Al Alvarez has climbed mountains and written poetry, and he's been to the World Series of Poker, which might as well be the moon, and he has written a book about it. Al Alvarez is God.

And God knows why but they are suddenly letting me play. What do they think? Maybe it's funny. Giles's kid sister – short, chubby, bookish, growing up slowly – putting her pocket money on the table and trying to fit in with the boys. I don't want to flirt with them. I want to be them. Big, brash, confident, 18-year-old boys.

Other girls at school have boyfriends. Other girls at school are willowy and graceful, flirty and coquettish, flawlessly bred and perfectly dressed and confident. I still like climbing trees and visiting my grandma. I'm from different stock. My bus home goes north, through Kilburn and up towards Golders Green, instead of west to elegant Richmond and Putney. I'm not glamorous. And I don't want a boyfriend. I love boys but I don't think of them that way, not yet. When we were 11 years old, we did an exchange programme with our "brother school" and had mixed lessons for a week. It was brilliant. The boys mucked around in class, played practical jokes, spent break-time kicking footballs around instead of putting nail varnish on. It was the most fun I've ever had at school. Then the exchange programme finished and all the boys went away again. I miss them.

My brother's a poker player but he isn't a gambler, not really. That's no thanks to Grandpa Sam. When we were little, Sam gave us a comprehensive education in blackjack, which he called pontoon. Here was the lesson: he was always the dealer, and we always lost. Sometimes we lost enough to buy him a Fry's Peppermint Cream. If he was really in form, enough to buy him a packet of Park Lane. But at the first sound of our parents' key in the front door, he'd move like a panther. By the time my mother and father had walked the three steps to the kitchen, the money had vanished and he was sitting there in all innocence, "showing us a card trick".

My parents only gamble once a year; £5 each way on four horses in the Grand National. That's unless you count their bridge games with Roger and Fiona, every Friday or Sunday night, 10p a hundred. But I don't think that counts. At the end of every bridge night, they put the losers' £2 or £3 or £5 into a jar, and at the end of the year they all go out for a big dinner with the money. So it's not gambling, really, it's more like saving.

My father is not going to get sick on the dogs and the football, go skint and lose everything, like his uncles did. My father is not like them. He is a self-made man. He went to university and learned to speak "properly". He became editor of Punch magazine. He sent his children to private school. My father's damned if his children aren't going to benefit from his hard work. They're not going to be poor. They're not going to live and die in Southgate. And they're certainly not going to be crooks, or gamblers.

We don't see much of the extended Corens. But we hear tales of Uncle Sid who nicked the silver at Dunkirk, Great-Grandpa Dave who went away for GBH on his own son-in-law, Fat Sam's spat with Ginger Phil, the Wet Fish Corens of Southgate, and the ones who threw their lives away in betting shops. It's close enough for my father to be glad he has left it behind. But I'm not. Whenever we do see the relatives, gathered together for weddings or funerals, I love them all. I loved sitting at the kitchen table with Grandpa while he smoked and dealt and chuckled, "It'd take a lot of this to kill ya." I didn't care that I lost. I just liked playing.

I hate being at school and I love being at home. Especially when the house is full of Giles's friends. Boys show off and tell jokes, and shout when they're angry. They don't smile and ask personal questions, then bitch behind your back and share your secrets with the class. They don't write diaries, all sweetly floral and girlish on the outside, for you to be unable to resist flicking through at break-time, which say things like, "I hope Vicky leaves school soon, we all hate her, the fat cow," and then smile at you across the tuck shop and ask if you want a Highland Toffee.

Boys say what they think to your face. Bit harsh, sometimes, but straightforward. This room feels, for all its billowing smoke and whisky fumes, safe and healthy. And they are playing this game … you get two cards face-down and one face-up, and you put chips in the pot if you like your cards, and more get dealt. Or sometimes you only have two cards, and three are dealt face-up in the middle, and you hope that the three in the middle will chime somehow with your secret two. But even if they don't, you can pretend that they do. And if you pretend right, you can double your pocket money. It is a serious game. I don't know if they play well or not, since I barely understand the rules myself, but they play seriously. Lots of macho stuff and poker jargon that one of them, Matt, has picked up from books and his trip to Vegas. It's really cool. One time, we played all night and whoever won the most money took us all up to the Coffee Cup in Hampstead and bought us breakfast.

My entire poker strategy is based on one of Matt's phrases, "Don't disgrace an ace." I never pass any hand with an ace in it. I sit waiting for aces to come.

It is 15 years on and I am playing poker at the Victoria Sporting Club – the Vic – in west London, comfortably in front, when the phone rings and I can see my brother's name on the screen. You are not supposed to answer the phone in a game. I never do. And yet I know, somehow, at this moment, although my brother and I speak often, that I must take this particular call. I know it the way you know sometimes at the roulette table that you must bet a certain number. So I get up and walk slowly away from the table to pick up the phone and I don't say, "Hello", I say, "What's happened?"

Freddie comes up to me at the cash desk where I am numbly counting out chips, and he says, "What's happened?" I tell him that I don't quite know what has happened, but my parents are on holiday in France and my father has been taken away in an ambulance. And my mother is alone in a waiting room in a French hospital. Fred gives me a solid, gentle hug and I look into his crinkled eyes and he tells me it will be all right.

The cab stops outside my house and I run in to get a change of clothes and a toothbrush and all the cash I have locked up in my desk. And I close the door and go back up the steps and out to the cab where Giles is waiting, and then I go back in the house, very quickly, and take Jesse May's Shut Up and Deal off the bookshelf. And I shut the door again and go back up the steps and out to the cab and we carry on to Heathrow.

I am not ready for my father to die. That is what I tell God, over the weeks in France. I have been frightened of this for my entire life and I hoped I would be ready when it happened, but I am not. I cannot bear this to be now. I have never been so scared or so sad.

My brother phones his girlfriend in London every day, several times a day. Part of the fear is being distant from everything normal. He yearns for her. I yearn for the Vic. I need to play poker. I am aching with desire to get lost in the game. There is no internet connection here. There is no card room. I need to look at cards, to face bets, to think about maths. I need to hide there. I can't cope with full consciousness of what is happening. I have finished Shut Up and Deal and started it again.

I believe in God. I have always believed in God. I tried not to, but I do. To some people that is as crazy as believing that green is unlucky, that a seven will come if you say its name near a dice table. It is as impossible to explain faith to someone who does not feel it, as it is to explain being in love to someone who is not. I tell God, every day, that I am not ready for this.

My brother flies home for 24 hours. He needs to fetch clothes, pay bills and spend a night with his girlfriend. When he comes back, I fly home for 24 hours. I have no luggage. I go straight to the Vic. Everybody asks about my father but I can't talk about it. I don't know why, but I can't. I take £750 from my deposit slip and sit down in the £100 game. The cards are large and bright. The chips are perfect mirrored discs. Fred makes it £15 to go. I call. I feel like I am breathing for the first time in 21 days.

My father is starting to wake up! His eyes are open, beautiful and blue as £25 chips. He is starting to talk, but he is talking about cards. He asks, "Where is the queen of clubs?" And he says, "I think I can make four hearts."

It's funny. Everything is funny because I can hug him and kiss him. But the doctors are worried by this card talk. They tell us it is probably the morphine. But we know they are frightened about his brain. I am not frightened any more. When he asks if the diamond king will fall under his ace, I tell him that it will. When he asks about the queen of clubs, I remind him that it is in his own hand. I understand why my father's mind has gone to bridge, the game he has played for 40 years. He just wants to control this baffling situation, that's all. He wants it ordered into 13 clean tricks, 52 structured cards, four sorted suits, 40 neat points. And he wants to be reassured that he holds the master card. I could talk to him like this for ever.

My father is well enough to have flown back to a London hospital by air ambulance. There are no "visiting hours" and I can sit there with him all afternoon. He is not talking about cards any more. He is talking about how much he hates doing the exercises, how bored he is waiting for Countdown to come on and how cleverly he thinks – he truly thinks – he is hiding his cigarettes from the nurses. He actually keeps a secret ashtray in his bedside drawer. He thinks it's secret, anyway.

At the Vic a few weeks later, the room is packed, the bar is buzzing, the money flows, the waitresses run back and forth with cups of dark-orange tea. It's the 2006 European Championship. The big British names are all here, bolstered by American and Scandinavian stars. The first day goes like any other tournament. Play pretty solid. Keep it fairly tight because you can't win the tournament in these early levels, you can only lose it. There's a bad phase in the afternoon, when I lose a couple of nasty pots and go down to 5,000. But I feel a bravery and a determination that I have never felt before. I am not going to be pushed around. I am in control of the situation. I am ready to craft my comebacks. I stand my ground, push when I sense the time is right, and force my stack up to 35,000 by the end of the day.

A hundred and three of us return for day two, from an opening field of 400. My table is a little startling. Phil Ivey is in seat one, Tom Parker Bowles is in seat six and Frank Pini is the short stack in seat five. So we have a Vic regular, an international super-pro and a royal. This is 21st-century poker. Within 90 minutes, we are down to 80 players. I feel unruffled, unrufflable.

I am making the right decisions today. I am concentrating on making smart calls and well-timed raises. I am thinking about my brother. He is at home, watching this final play out on the internet. I wonder if he is remembering the days when he taught me the game. None of this would be happening without him. By the dinner break, there are 55 of us left, 32 will cash, and the chip leader is American film star turned poker pro Chad Brown. With 12 players left, at 3am we stop for the night.

I can't sleep. I try reading, but the words turn into clubs and diamonds on the page. At 4am, I find myself standing in the back garden, watering the roses. I'm prepared to bet that the other 11 remaining players are not doing this right now. I hope the neighbours aren't watching. They think I'm quite peculiar already.

At last, the clock crawls round to midday on Sunday and I set off back to the Vic, taking my seat, ordering tea, shaking my chips out of their zipped-up polythene bag and counting them through. Shuffle up and deal. I knock out Michel Ab├ęcassis, the Frenchman. At 5pm, Oscar Schweinberg is knocked out in ninth place and we have a final. I am in the final of the London European Poker Tour, the European Championship! In my own home casino, wearing the professional PokerStars logo for the first time, I have made the final!

I don't care what happens after this, it is my greatest result ever. I go for a cup of tea and phone my parents. And then I go back to play.

I find a pair of jacks and knock out lovely Sid Harris in eighth place. Michael Muldoon races against me and is out in fourth place. Jan Sjavic makes a good call with 33 but I am in form and he is out in third place. They put the money and the trophy on the table. I make a good call against Emad Tahtou to pick up a lot of chips. And then, at three minutes before 11pm, I look down and find 6 of clubs♣7 of diamonds.

I feel like playing this hand. So I call and Emad doesn't raise.

The flop comes 5 of clubs♣3 of clubs♣4 of diamonds.

Oh my God. Oh my God. I think I am about to win this tournament. I just have to play it right. Emad checks. I must make it look like I'm trying to nick it with nothing. I bet 100,000. Emad raises to 450,000. Oh my God. I have got him. He has something. He is on the hook and I must not let him off it. I call. The turn is 10 of diamonds. Emad says "all in" and I say "call" and turn my cards over and stand up so fast I almost knock my chair over and Emad puts his head in his hands and he rolls over 6 of hearts♥ 8 of clubs♣.

He can still hit a seven to win the pot. But I know that is not going to happen. The crowd is already cheering, making so much noise. Normally, I would hate the early cheer but I know the seven is not coming. Emad stands up and I give him a hug. Then Deano, who is dealing, slides the next burn card off the top of the deck and he reaches for the river card and everything goes very, very quiet … No seven … And the river is J of spades.

The crowd goes wild like the last scene in a baseball movie. I have won the London EPT. I am the European Champion. The prize is £500,000. Just under $1m. I can't speak. Natalie Pinkham, the TV and Radio 5 Live presenter, tries to interview me but I can't speak. Brian the manager comes over with one of those giant comedy cheques. Cameras flash. Then I am handed the trophy, the huge heavy glass trophy that I can hardly hold. And it feels like the moment when Alice has worked out how to get her hands on the little golden key, she has bitten into the magic mushroom and grown larger and smaller and larger and smaller but finally found her balance and taken the key and unlocked the door and she finds herself at last in the beautiful garden, among the bright flower beds and the cool fountains.

They are pulling at my sleeve for interviews. But I break away and go into the ladies' room and I phone my parents and I speak to my dad and he says, "How much?" and I can hear my mother in the background, all proud and tearful. Up in Kentish Town, my brother is getting out of bed and pulling on whatever he remembers is supposed to comply with the Vic's dress code and he is driving to the Vic.

I can't take £500,000 away tonight, it is crazy, so I sign a slip to leave it on deposit, but I take about £80,000 and give some money to old friends in the cash games who look like they might need it, and I throw some more at the waitresses and ask them to bring drinks for everyone in the card room. And I am here with my Tuesday players and the Vic players and my brother and it is madness, everyone is clinking glasses and hugging me, and I love them all so much, it's so right to see my brother among them. Eventually the casino closes and we move on to the Gutshot Card Club in Clerkenwell and we drink till late and go home when it is light and I sit in my study staring out of the window and waiting for people to wake up.

It is in the newspapers and it is on the news, my phone rings all day, and I get hundreds of emails and one of them is from Al Alvarez. I think back to those days when I knew only his name, playing in my brother's cash game with my brother's friends who long since gave up poker, and Al Alvarez was a god and still is.

I reach back and tap my little self on the shoulder, tell her that she has won a million dollars and Al Alvarez has written to congratulate her. She looks satisfied enough, asks a few questions about how soon she can leave school, then shrugs me off and goes back to folding a pair of tens. Can't be too careful.

At 5pm, I go to the special wine shop in St John's Wood and buy a bottle of champagne for £500 even though every glass of fizzy wine tastes exactly the same as every other, and I take it to my parents' house and pour it into glasses and I still can't speak for joy and pride, and 3% of that is because I won a poker tournament and 97% is because my father is here to drink this champagne with me.

I always suspected that poker was not about money for me. Now I know. I have won a £500,000 tournament, but it has not made me happy because my father has come back and I am so happy already that there is no room for any more.

I know he will not be here for long. I know he has come back to say goodbye. We have all wandered into It's a Wonderful Life or A Matter of Life and Death. The angels met my father, irascible and restless and asking difficult questions about the queen of clubs; they peered down and they said, "Ah, send him back for a last scene."

He is not ill any more. He is cured. But I know there will not be 20 more years, or 10, or even five. I know it like you know, sometimes, on the roulette, that you must bet a certain number. But this is neither a winning feeling, like the roulette, nor a bad feeling like my brother's phone call. It is a gentle feeling. I have to lose my father and I know it is going to be soon. But I will be ready. I will be so ready. I will be grateful that he came back to us even for five minutes, grateful that he was ever here at all.

Sometimes you cannot think about the whole game. It is too big, too difficult. So you have to play it hand by hand. You play as well as you are able to play. You make the mistakes you cannot avoid making. The game has its own momentum. Sometimes, it is enough just to hang on. Sometimes, hanging on is the toughest challenge and the greatest triumph.

Nine months later, I am standing in my room at the Wynn, Las Vegas, during the World Series of 2007. I am looking through the window at the surreal lines of the landscape, the only one in the world with a pyramid and an Eiffel Tower, the rollercoasters and the castles and towers and water-slides like mirages in the July heat with the desert stretching weirdly behind. And my mobile rings and it is my brother's name on the screen. And once again I know that I must take this call, so I click the green button and it is time, now. Time to go home.

• For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker, by Victoria Coren, is published on Thursday by Canongate, at £16.99. Order a copy of For Richer, For Poorer at the Observer bookshop

About the author

She writes a weekly topical column in the Observer, and a weekly poker column in the Guardian

Her writing career began as a schoolgirl when she wrote a column about teenage life for the Daily Telegraph

She currently hosts the BBC4 quiz programme Only Connect.

She is a member of the Team PokerStars Pro, sponsored by an internet poker site.

Britain's best players


Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott was the first winner of Channel 4's iconic TV series Late Night Poker, back in 1999, becoming the first British poker celebrity. A jeweller and former jailbird from Hull, he overcame a tough background to become one of the world's most feared and respected poker players. He is memorable for his red-tinted sunglasses and his knuckledusters, which spell DEVILFISH in gold across his hands.

The Hendon Mob

The Hendon Mob is a foursome of north London poker players who signed the first million-dollar sponsorship deal in poker history. Individually they are Joe Beevers (an entrepreneurial father of two), Ram Vaswani (a snooker hustler turned poker pro) and the Boatman brothers, Ross (an actor who appeared for nine years on London's Burning) and Barny (a regular commentator on Channel 4 poker). Their website,, is the most successful non-gaming poker site in Britain.

John Duthie

John Duthie, a softly spoken TV director from Leeds, was the first player to take £1m in a televised tournament when he won the Poker Million on the Isle of Man in November 2000. He went on to devise and launch the European Poker Tour, the biggest series of international poker tournaments in the world.

Roland de Wolfe

London boy Roland de Wolfe, 30, was the first player in the world to win a hat-trick of titles on the European Poker Tour, the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. He started out as a poker journalist for Inside Edge gambling magazine, but soon gave it up to "turn pro" and has never had another job since. He acquired his triple crown at the 2009 World Series and has accrued lifetime tournament winnings of $4.5m.

Mansour Matloubi

In 1990, Mansour Matloubi became the first non-American to win the main event at the World Series of Poker. Born in Iran, he had taken Welsh citizenship so, in true sporting tradition, the Brits can claim him as one of our own. He remains the only British player to have won that championship title, though is rarely seen on the tournament circuit these days. He is also a hero to all UK poker players after winning a case with the Inland Revenue to prevent them taxing his winnings.


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