The West End’s smart new club for card sharps

Timothy Barber
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FOR poker enthusiasts who don’t want to play for thousands of pounds, finding a comfortable environment to get stuck into a live game of poker isn’t easy. You can dabble in piddling pub tournaments (maximum buy-in: £5), try your luck in the rather daunting atmospherve of the few lower-stakes casinos offering poker, or in the hardly-less intimidating private gaming clubs offering poker tournaments alongside games like kalooki and backgammon (it’s illegal for poker to be their primary offering).

That unsatisfactory landscape is set to change. The Fox Poker Club, which opened last week on Shaftesbury Avenue in the heart of the West End, is the new kid in town. Unlike theaforementioned members’ clubs, it has a full casino license, meaning it doesn’t have to offer other games to justify the poker. Instead, a never-ending stream of tournaments with buy-ins ranging from £20 to £300, and cash games with blinds (minimum betting stakes) of £1 upwards are taking place in a plush room with seating for up to 180 players.

“We’re creating a good environment for people who have played at home or have only played online and want to try it live,” says founder and managing director Chris North, a businessman with a background in the online gaming industry.

The space was formerly occupied by the swanky private members’ club Teatro, and affords the possibility of sitting by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the buzz of theatreland while playing poker. Its large, smart bar area can be hired out for corporate poker events, while single tables can be hired for stags and birthday parties [see box].

It’s a neat, highly professional place – the fact that there are trained dealers for every table will make a huge difference to anyone who’s ever felt the stress of having to self-deal in a card club while playing – but it hasn’t been plain sailing for North. With backers including British poker legend Barney Boatman and US star player Phil “Unabomber” Laak, and an official sponsor in poker website PKR, it’s nevertheless taken him five years to get the club off the ground, navigating tricky licensing and planning areas. However, with packed tournaments over the first week – London Calling, a PKR-backed tournament festival, is running for the first month – North is confident about the future.

“It’s never been about having just one club,” he says, “it’s about building a brand and expanding on that – hopefully, internationally.”

Kalooki’s loss is undoubedly poker’s gain.