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Saturday 7th May 2005

I travelled down to Oxford this morning to host a poker event organised by pokerstars.com. It was a seminar by the World Poker Champion Greg Raymer and a couple of other professional poker players were also appearing, namely John Gale and Baard Dahl. It was held in a lecture theatre in the Museum of Natural History, and whilst it was nice to be returning to my alma mater to host a seminar, it is possibly slightly shameful that it was one on poker. But as I told the assembled student players, they were about to learn more useful information in the next hour and a half than they would in the entire three years of study at this place. It was good to see also that the lecture theatre was unusually well attended, moreso I would guess than say a lecture on the anatomy of fieldmice that the room would usually be hosting. Good to see students have their priorities right.
Greg Raymer is an exceptional poker player with an interesting life. He won 5 million dollars for winning the World Poker Championship against almost 3000 opponents. Any poker player would be excited to meet him, hoping some of the magic might rub off, or he might impart some piece of wisdom that will transform their game overnight. Though one imagines that successful players must be mean, damaged and mendacious, he turned out to be a thoroughly charming and friendly bear of a man. In his varied career he had done a stint as a stand up, so we talked about that a little when we met. All day long he had a lot of time for other people and didn't seem to mind being amongst flawed and foolish players.
Greg wears lizard eye sunglasses when he plays. This started off as a joke he'd come up with to lighten the mood during a tense game, but he discovered it freaked out his opponents so he stuck with them. Having read about this I sort of thought it was all a bit ridiculous and couldn't possibly freak anyone out, but later I played a couple of hands against him and it was surprising how intimidating they actually were. Luckily I only had a 4 and a 6 the one time I came up against him, so folding was the pretty easy option.
Obviously the event was partly to promote pokerstars.com and lure students into the parlour of the devil that is gambling (and imagine other poker sites, if you had only been generous enough to pay a tiny amount of money for an ad in my programme then it could be you getting this amazing publicity - yeah, smarting now, aren't you), it was still a great fun and informative day. I also got on very well with Baard who is a Norwegian professional, who used to play bridge and chess on a national level, but then correctly realised that poker is best. He makes $200 an hour playing four games at a time on-line. No wonder these students were interested in learning these people's secrets. Having played on-line quite a bit this week for practise I was able to tell Baard that most of that $200 an hour is mine. But you have to speculate to accumulate and I am learning all the time, though a day like today makes one realise how much there is to learn and how far off I am from calling myself a good player.
The main thing I learnt was to get a sense of perspective. One of the film clips that Greg showed from his world championship win showed two of the other players going all in. I think one of them had a pair of nines and one had a pair of aces. The flop came down and there was a 9 in it, which made the seemingly lower hand suddenly become the best one. The player went nuts and started dancing around and singing and celebrating - he was American in case you were wondering. I thought this might be a tad hasty and hubristic as there were still two cards to come. Sure enough the next card was an Ace, which rather pissed on his chips. It's best to wait til it's over before you celebrate.
After the talk we popped down to New College for a free tournament with about 60 people in it, including all the professionals. I wanted to do well, to impress the internet people in the hope that they might enter me into some proper tournaments some day. And I did OK, lasting longer than any of the professionals (though I suspect they might not have been taking the event all that seriously - the prize was a couple of hundred pounds and all of them were used to working for more. Who knows, maybe they didn't really fancy spending their whole afternoon competing against students and got out on purpose!)
Greg was knocked out by a young man taking a stupid chance, who had about a one in ten chance of beating the world champ with the cards he had, and who got lucky! I suspect the young man did not realise that this was probably the most amazing thing that will ever happen to him in his life. It's all down-hill from here. He took out the world champion of a sport and what other sport could you do that in? It must be sad to know that the most amazing thing you will ever do in your humdrum life has already happened, especially when you are only 21.
I got lucky and won a big pile of chips and just as I was thinking I might make the final table against these largely very competent student players, my luck turned. A guy went all in against me and I had AQ and called. He had A9 so I was the favourite, as only a 9 would really help him. He got it on the flop, but didn't leap around all excited. Consequently the Queen I needed did not appear (and this was fair as I'd had a very lucky split pot against him whilst all in in similar circumstances earlier). Then I went all in with a pair of sixes against something like Jack Queen. It's more or less a fifty fifty call, though the odds were slightly in my favour, but I was unlucky.
It's amazing how quickly a big pile of chips can disappear, but I wasn't too disappointed as I'd played well.
I joined in a cash game afterwards and was doing well. I was the big blind and had the 2 and 10 of hearts which is not a great hand, but there wasn't much of a raise, so I stayed in. The flop saw a 2 and 10 which gave me two pairs which is an excellent hand, that no-one was really going to expect was out there. Conrad who works for Pokerstars went all in against me and I called. It turned out he had a KA. I was by so far the winner that I could comfortably afford to jump up and down and dance around and taunt him (though I managed to resist the temptation luckily). I could only see that if he got two kings, two aces or a king and an ace on the last two cards that he would win. I think maybe two spades would have won it for him too. I was confident. The next card was a Jack. It seemed I'd done it.
Except that the next card was a queen, which gave him an unexpected straight and lost me about twenty pounds of real money.
I was so determined to get him back for this injustice that I went "on tilt" and allowed the injustice to cloud my decision making process. Which meant he got another twenty quid off me about a quarter of an hour later when I got a straight. I had such tunnel vision that I hadn't even noticed that there was a good chance of a flush hand which would beat me. But as it turned out Conrad had a full house which I'd also not spotted.
I learnt another valuable lesson about controlling your emotions and letting things go once they have happened (which was something Greg had talked about). There is an element where poker becomes a competition about how has the biggest balls, but actually to be a good player you have to step outside of this dumb masculine face-off and play each hand for what it is.
Was it worth forty pounds to be reminded of that? Well given Conrad was paying for an ad, was paying for me being there and getting me dinner, then yes, it probably was.
Although losing at poker still makes me feel physically sick and emasculated and though through spending time with the pros I realised just how big a gulf exists between my knowledge and theirs, I am getting quite tempted to see how well I can do at this game.
It would be easier to be Poker World Champion than Scrabble World Poker Champion. And the rewards are somewhat better. But can a hot-headed bluffer, who lacks the patience to wait for the good hands and who doesn't understand anything about odds or how much he should be betting on any given pair of cards turn his game around enough to sit at the same table as the real pros?
Obviously not. But it might be funny to find out.

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