Battling Jesus and Poker Gods in WC2

RAISE 2,000,” I say, and toss my chips on to the table. My face is carved from granite, but my heart thumps so loudly it could start its own drum ‘n’ bass label. In any big poker tournament there’s always one Table of Death, the one table where all the top pros happen to be seated. And I’m on it.

This is Day One of the prestigious World Series of Poker Europe, which for two weeks takes over the Casino at the Empire in London’s own beating heart, right on Leicester Square. Gathered here today for poker glory and a prize pool of more than half a million pounds are the world’s very best players... and me.

The capital’s gone mad for Texas Hold ‘Em: your local pub probably runs a weekly tournament; most casinos now offer tournaments and cash games; and the new Fox poker club opens on Shaftesbury Avenue this Friday after a series of mildly farcical delays. But this tournament is on a completely different scale: 582 players spread across nearly 60 poker tables have have paid £1,000 each to enter.

Just the noise of riffled chips is deafening. The Casino at the Empire is part of the Harrah’s chain, which owns half a dozen Las Vegas landmarks including Caesar’s and the Rio, home of the massive World Series of Poker. And, hearteningly, it’s also my regular. I often descend, fortified by a few drinks, to the all-night poker room at this high-tech Aladdin’s Cave. But it’s one thing to pit your wits and nerve against a few late-night gamblers and wannabe pros, and quite another to take on a clutch of World Champions.
Especially when so many are sat at my table. To my left, five-times WSOP champ Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, so named because with his long black hair and beard he resembles Christ seated at the Last Supper -- that is, if He had worn a black Stetson in place of a halo. Opposite, Ramsey “the Ramsinator” Ajram, a fearless British player. To my right, Antonio Esfandiari, a former magician and WSOP champion, dressed in a lurid green shirt. “Whatever you do,” my friend and poker mentor “Casino” Steve had warned me earlier, “stay away from the guy in the green shirt.” Now he’s only gone and sat next to me.

But the scariest of the lot is a blond Scandinavian youth with the fluffy white cardigan of a school teacher, the tousled hair of a choirboy and the ice-cold stare of a serial killer. He pauses after my raise, fiddles with his towering chip stacks, deep in thought. Will he call me? For once, I wish he would.

Instead, this cherubic assassin does a clever thing: he scrutinises not my face, but my fingers. He notices a tell-tale tremor, more often the sign of a massive hand than of weakness... and folds. A big bald bully in shades is less cautious. “I’m all-in,” he growls, shoving his whole stack into the centre, hoping to force me off the pot.

“Then I’m snappin’,” I say calmly, and push in all my chips. I’ve only learned this slang word for “calling instantly” today, but I’m using it to convince the others I’m a globe-trotting poker veteran. The pros are like sharks: if they smell blood, if they think you’re “dead money” (a novice, easy to knock out), they’ll eat you alive. I turn over pocket Aces, the best of all starting hands, that comes along just once in every 221. Cursing, the bald bully hurls his humble King-Jack on to the felt.

I’m way ahead. Things get tense when the dealer turns up a second King, but my pair of Aces stays good. I’m up to 17,000 chips! Not bad considering we all started, six hours and a lifetime ago, with just 3,000.

After that, the Poker Gods smile on me. Even the world champs give me respect. I loosen up, shoot the breeze between hands. Poker’s a sociable game, after all, played by clever people with a lot of time on their hands. And so I learn that the “AYODHYA” tattoo on a player’s arm means “Undefeatable” in Sanskrit, and that his brother has one that’s an ambigram – ie it reads the same upside down. I learn the Finnish for “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”: it is, I am reliably informed, “superopsimopsitopsipangphenomenalis”. And I learn one of the many side-betting games that pros use to while away the hours, as if betting on their poker hands wasn’t quite enough.

Esfandiari plays it with Ramsey, at €100. It goes like this: while having his shoulders rubbed at the table, Esfandiari asks the massage girl a random question – “How many push-ups can President Obama do?”, or “How much money would it take to get Ramsey there to give up sex for six months?”, or “How much would you have to pay him to shave his head?” Whoever gets closest to her number wins. The results are funny, and strangely revealing.

And somehow, even on the Table of Death, I manage not just to stay alive, but to prosper. I catch some good hands, and pull off a bluff or two. And when finally, after 12 intense hours of play, the tournament director calls a halt, I’m up to 25,000 chips.

It’s now midnight. I savour a beer on the balcony of the Empire’s Icon bar, literally and figuratively on top of the world, as drunken clubbers lurch about Leicester Square below. I have made the top 15%. One of just 120 men left standing from Day One.

True, I didn’t play the Main Event. This has a nerve-shredding buy-in of £10,000, lasts five days, and is open to all-comers this Thursday – come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. But for me, it’s more than enough. I’ve held my nerve against the pros. And I have every chance still of making serious money.

Because on Monday, Day Two, I have to do it all over again...

Dominic made a valiant run yesterday, finally going out in 38th place, beating 95 per cent of the field and collecting £3,300 for his efforts. The WSOPE Main Event is at the Casino at the Empire, Leicester Square, from Sept 23-28. Free admission to spectators. www.thecasinolsq.com.