What it’s like to play against champion poker stars

As the 2014 World Series of Poker begins, amateur poker player Oliver Pickup takes top tips from Jake Cody before pitting his wits against the pros

The World Series of Poker, held annually in Las Vegas, is the mecca for professional players – and those who have enough money and confidence to give it a shot at the big time. Legends are created and dreams destroyed as millions of dollars exchange hands during 10 unbelievably debauched weeks in Sin City. Forget The Hangover, this is the real thing.

The 45th edition begins this week. Jake Cody, a baseball-cap wearing 25-year-old multi-millionaire from Rochdale, will be in attendance, along with his two-month-old daughter Arianna and partner Alex. Vegas holds many great memories for Cody – and some he would rather forget.

Four years ago, Cody became only the third (and youngest, aged 22) person to complete poker’s holy grail: the ‘triple crown’. In January 2010 he won a European Poker Tour event in Normandy (€857,000, merci), before taking £273,783 in the main event of the World Poker Tour event in London that August. Then in Vegas he won his first WSOP Bracelet, and $851,192, to round off his remarkable trinity. It’s little wonder that he wears a sparkling, five-figure Hublot wristwatch.

“Yeah, it’s probably a little too flashy,” he concedes with a winsome grin when I point it out, as we enjoy a game of Heads-Up – playing for pride only, thankfully – ahead of a UK and Ireland Poker Tour event in Nottingham (at the suitably named casino Dusk Till Dawn) earlier in May. “It was one of the first things I bought when I won my first major.”

As we are dealt another hand each, Cody admits that he struggled to keep up with the hedonism on his first trip to Vegas in 2010. “Me and four guy friends – all professional poker players – shared a house for the 10 weeks, though I had to leave midway through as it was an actual nightmare,” he recalls.

I playfully suggest champagne, dwarfs and girls in the Jacuzzi. Cody’s eyes widen. “It really was not far away from that,” he admits. “It was our first year in Vegas, so there were a lot of distractions. There was a lot of partying and basically no one cleaned the house. Cockroaches started appearing but it was when I saw a rat in the pool I moved out. I needed to get out of there.”

Cody, now sponsored by PokerStars, serves a fascinating example of what can be achieved in the game, and also provides a frank and breezy assessment of its evolution. He folded his studies aged 17 when he realised he had a talent and had made £55,000 (tax free, of course) by the end of his first year. It was at that point when his mother stopped insisting he do low-level jobs to make ends meet.

“I was always into games and very competitive. I guess I have quite an addictive personality and when I got into poker I got obsessed with trying to be good,” he continues. “I would play day and night, waking up and logging on. There was a period when I would play for 16 hours straight. It was probably not great for other aspects of my life, but looking back now that dedication and practice has helped me no end.

“For the older generation, poker is viewed as something that happens in a smokey back room with dangerous people; a game in which you could lose your house. In reality it is really mainstream and well regulated. Anyone can play and there is no discrimination. In fact, it’s the only sport in the world in which you can play at the top tables against the world’s best, if you have the money. It’s not as if you can tee off with Tiger Woods, for instance.”

Good point, I suggest, as I steal a few chips off Cody with a successful bluff. Stories of occassional fist fights still do the rounds, as do tales of hotel rooms being broken into and booty swiped, though Cody insists all that seldom happens. Instead, poker is increasingly urbane and popular. When Victoria Coren Mitchell became the first ever two-time winner of the European Poker in April it gained the game even more exposure.

Like so many others, Cody fed his early poker curiosity online. “I’ve played an online game for about 24 hours,” he says. “I know some people who have played for three days straight – I’m not sure how you function after that, though.” Online poker has boomed in the last decade; according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, worldwide revenue from online poker grew from $82.7 million in 2001 to $2.4 billion in 2005.

“A lot of it is down to Chris Moneymaker,” suggests Cody. He’s referring to the aptly named 39-year-old former accountant from Atlanta who became an overnight star after winning the 2003 World Series of Poker main event – claiming the gold bracelet and prize money of $2,500,000 – a victory which is said to have revolutionised the game, as he was the first person to be crowned the best on the planet after qualifying through an online poker site’s $86 satellite.

Moneymaker single-handedly proved to fellow online poker players that there was no restriction to becoming the world champion. “Everyone was like: ‘Wow, I can do this.’ It exploded after that,” says my opponent. The avalanche of interest in the game that followed is what’s known as the ‘Moneymaker Effect’.

Consequently, that collective confidence has bred a species of more savvy poker players – online and at live tables – making it harder for people to catch an edge. Ironically enough, Moneymaker arrived the day after my conversation with Cody in Nottingham and crashed out of the tournament at the first hurdle, highlighting the point that to reach the final stages of these events Lady Luck needs to be cozy on your lap.

Cody, who starts to pay more attention after I win my fourth hand in a row, recalls how his fortunes flipped for the good en route to his first major final in Deauville in what proved to be a career-defining moment. “It was the first EPT I played,” he says with his eyes firmly locked on the three-card flop presented in our game. “It was a €5,000 buy in and it was huge for me. I’d been doing really well all tournament and I made it to the last 15 and things were getting tense. The payouts were starting to become the size of houses.

“There was a French player called Hugo Lamaire, and we had been warring all day. I made a huge bluff on him with a 10-4 off suit before the cards came out and he had a pair of kings and called. And I somehow made a straight, became the chip leader and went on to win it. If I had lost that hand I would have been out, and who knows what would have happened. It was a life-changing hand for me, for sure.”

As Cody begins to win chips back from me, I ask him for some advice that I can put into practice later on that evening, when playing for real with 125 others looking to be parachuted into the main UKIPT event in Nottingham towards the back end of the week.

“You have to be one step ahead of your opponents,” he starts. “If they are playing lots of hands and going crazy you should be doing the opposite, playing your hands selectively. And if everyone is playing really timidly then you can start raising and you will be able to steal a lot of hands. You have to go in to it open minded and adjust to your opponents.

“People who have less experience will act terribly. If they have a horrible decision they will let our a huge sigh. Sometimes you will give things away subconsciously. It’s like in films you might see someone scratch their nose, or it might be the nervous way they put their chips in.

“The more you break it down, the more layers there are to it. The more you play poker, the more you realise how complex it is.”

By now Cody has managed to claw back all of his own chips, and also a number of mine. I tell him that my own fears are of being overawed by superior players, and meekly limping in and out of hands.

“You want to be aggressive when you are entering the pot,” he says. “I won’t call too much, because it means the blinds get to see the flop for free if you check. And you want to make people pay. I would play quite selectively, but come in raising. Play tight and aggressive and give yourself a chance of winning the pot. The worst thing you can do is not be confident. Don’t worry about feeling stupid, just go with your gut. You have to trust your instincts. Go for it.”

The pep talk emboldens me, and with a rush of blood I go ‘all in’, shoving my chips across the blue baize towards the dealer, having struck two pair on the river. “It’s suddenly got serious,” says Cody, flashing an assassin’s smile. He produces a pair of aces, matching the two already overturned. “What a great hand: quads! That is pretty sick. That’s how you win, make quads!”

I feel sick, embarrassed and sucker-punch winded. It’s a feeling anyone who has played poker will be familiar with: the adrenaline-pumping excitement of calling ‘all in’, the thoughts of conquering and glory, which are then brutally swept away to leave you raw. It’s then your humiliating duty to stumble, while stunned, away from the table. “Hitting the rail,” the jargon has it.

On this occasion I’ve lost no money, only a little pride. I shake hands after our eye-opening and educating hour, and wish the affable Cody all the best for his tournament. From here on, we’re rivals. I have four hours to plot my strategy before the tournament begins.

From boom to bust in Dusk Till Dawn

In the taxi from my central Nottingham hotel to Dusk Till Dawn – an out-of-city casino hosting May’s UK and Ireland Poker Tour event with a record-breaking price pool of £1,223,000 – I rapidly remind myself of the order of winning hands, scrolling Wikipedia on my phone.

Wikipedia being what it is, I’m soon distracted by other information. Conventional wisdom, I learn, posits that poker is likely to have originated from a French game called poque and, in turn, that name may have descended from the German pochen – literally “to knock”, meaning to brag as a bluff. I ponder whether there might be scope for a George Gershwin gag at the table later (“I Loves you Poque …”). Maybe not.

Night has fallen and the casino has taken on a slightly sinister complexion, akin to the 1996 cult vampire-film staring a gun-wielding George Clooney, from which it surely takes its name. Outside From Dusk Till Dawn, there’s not a free space to be spied for vehicles. Mean-coloured cars with blacked-out windows dominate. My pulse begins to quicken as I spot a gold Porsche, and then a black Lamborghini that boasts the rather pugnacious numberplate PI0KER. I silently muse whether it might be missing the letter N in the middle.

Inside, the casino is a whirr of activity. Hundreds of people are crowded around dozens of blue-baize tables. The sounds of clinking glasses and card chatter fills the air.

Snapping out of a temporary paralysis, I make my way to my tournament place – only to find that someone is already plonked on seat number four, my allocated stool. Not the suave entrance I was hoping for. I apologise, as the game is already underway, and settle in to seat seven. The dealer hands me a cluster of chips of varying values. All in, they amount to 5,000 (the initial buy in is £50).

Taking a moment to calm myself, I eye my fellow eight competitors. All blokes, most unshaven, and some already nursing imposing stacks of chips. I try to remind myself of the knowledge and advice Cody had imparted on me earlier that day: “The worst thing you can do is not be confident … You want to be aggressive when you are entering the pot.”

Steeled, I call ‘all in’ on my third go. I have jack-king off suit, which is much better than the ‘computer hand’ (queen-seven off suit, representing the average winning set; in theory your chances of success diminish with less potent combinations). My sudden guilt of foolhardiness at the risk of going out so soon are assuaged when I conclude with a full house – three kings over jacks. I double up my chips and breathe a little easier. On the outside I’m cool; inside a flame is lit.

Next I am dealt a pair of sixes and, in a delightful twist, after hitting ‘quads’ – four sixes – I knock out the chap who is sitting in my rightful chair, number four. Delightful revenge. Only he’s not knocked out, because he reaches inside his deep pockets and shovels another £50 to the dealer for more chips. He’s buying back in – the cheat! As someone with no intention of purchasing more chips I’m suddenly filled with dread. It’s going to be a long night.

Indeed, by the time we reach the first break – two hours later – I’m pretty much the only person at the table who hasn’t bought back in, and rather proud of that fact. Cody’s words of wisdom have served me well, and as I keep making ignorant mistakes (like re-raising my bets in an ungentlemanly fashion, and missing my blinds) few view me as a serious threat; rather, a clueless chancer who has been lucky to be leading the table with 25,000 chips. Some have already thrown hundreds of pounds at the dealer, hoping to catch the cards that will take them to the latter stages of the tournament. They need their fix.

During the interval, I speak to my fellow competitors about their poker lives. A common theme begins to emerge: these people depend on poker, for competition, for comradeship, for vaguely attainable glory, if the cards are kind. It’s a heady prospect, and as with all things intoxicating, it can be addictive. Here, and on the other fifty or more tables, the players are settling in for the evening. All things being well, they won’t depart until the fag end, around 4am.

With a train to catch at 7am and little genuine chance of reaching the final 20 (which is rewarded with a place at the main UKIPT event later in the week), I begin to play recklessly. For an hour it works wonders, forcing everyone else at the table to buy back in. Then, as the clock ticks to midnight I call ‘all in’ with a pair of eights, heart thumping. I lose to triple aces. The sense of competitive failure is overwhelming. “Rush of blood,” says Alan, a cheery medical consultant to my right.

Extinguished, chastened and shaking, I resist the huge urge to buy back in, hop down from my stool, and awkwardly make my way past the throng of whispering watchers surrounding the table. No longer warmed by the jocular badinage of the poker table, I now feel cold and lonely.

Outside, I notice that the gold Porsche and PI0KER are unmoved. I wait for my taxi, and think about the long train ride home.

All of poker’s world had been on show at the Dusk Till Dawn theatre: its late nights, its characters, its esculating sums of money, its fix. In the face of such a circus of addiction, moderation is key. You can’t win a top event without selfishly sacrificing everyone and everything else, I theorize pompously later that morning as I sit on the train back to London, before dozing off to dream about driving a gold Porsche to a Gershwin score.

The next day I drop Alan a line to see how he had progressed. Neither he nor the rest of our group had made it to the final 20. Out of the 1,223 who entered – including most of the top professional poker players, such as Victoria Coren Mitchell and my mentor Jake Cody – the winner of the whole competition, trousering £202,372, was a 50-year-old bricklayer from Corby.

While the top 183 earned a payout (with Cody just finishing inside that number, and gaining £1,770, tax free) Duncan McLellan, after six days of poker, blew away the final table, scorching to victory in the fastest UKIPT finish so far in three hours and 49 minutes.

In his victory speech he perfectly and beautifully disproved my neat theory. “I want to go out to Vegas and play the main event,” he starts with a grin, “but I’ll be back on the scaffold tomorrow.”

This article was first published in The Telegraph in May 2014

Published by

Oliver Pickup

Multi-award-winning writer, content editor, ghostwriter, and TV and radio commentator (and occasional illustrator), specialising in technology, blockchain, startups, business, sport and culture. Founder of Pickup Media Limited. Interviewer of death row prisoners, legendary athletes, influential leaders, tech trendsetters, and cultural pioneers. By-lined in every English newspaper. Contributor to dozens of multinational publications.

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