Thursday 24 May 2018

The gamblers

Someone once said the beautiful thing about poker is that everyone thinks they can play it. The truth about poker, as John Greene found out, is very different because ultimately who dares, wins

Photography by Neil Stoddart

Liv Boeree, one of the top female poker players in the world, and girlfriend of Igor Kurganov
Liv Boeree, one of the top female poker players in the world, and girlfriend of Igor Kurganov
British 23-year-old multi-millionaire Charlie Carrel
Croupiers Kate Badurek and Dubliner Glenn Doyle
Russian Igor Kurganov (middle) won €1.1m in the PokerStars Championship Barcelona

The last card is turned. Ten of spades. There's a pause, then a gasp and a murmur of excitement. The long-haired Russian's hands are on his head but he has yet to smile. The younger Polish man looks bewildered and stands awkwardly at the table. He doesn't know what to do next.

A few people have gathered in this corner of the giant ballroom, surrounding the table, and a few more in the immediate vicinity are aware of what is going on but remain consumed by their own circumstances. Otherwise, it's business as usual for the other thousand or so in the room - they are either oblivious to what has just happened, or simply don't care. They care only for what's happening at their table, with their cards, with their opponents' cards. The sound of thousands of chips being idly flicked through fingers fills the room, a sound one French man had earlier likened to that of the cigales, an insect known for its clicking noise. Click, click, click.

The Russian is Igor Kurganov, and he has just won a game of poker. His reward is almost €1.1m. The Pole is Bartlomiej Machon, who looks a lot younger than his 26 years. He has finished second, and his reward is just over €850,000. He doesn't know where to look.

A few feet away, Liv Boeree can't contain her delight any longer. She had been jumpy for a while, hands to her face, body shifting from side to side, her poker brain telling her the end was near - telling her that her partner was closing in on his prey. But still he has displayed no emotion; she has shown plenty. She rushes to him, her excitement is infectious, and for the first time his face registers some satisfaction.

Have you ever thought about winning a million? Have you ever rehearsed in your head how you will react? What will you do? What will you say? Kurganov has been deadpan for so long, sitting through 30 hours of poker against some of the best players in the world, knowing that he cannot afford to let his guard down, but now he allows himself a smile.

You wonder if the magnitude of the windfall has registered yet. Cameras close in and a microphone appears. "It's easy. It was easy." But it wasn't easy. Boeree flashes him a quizzical look. It was anything but easy. And then it dawns on you - he is drained and exhausted.

For three days he has been in the spotlight. For three days he has been picking them off, one by one. Some were friends, some were foes, others he has not come across before - all wanted what he now has. And yet as he picks up the trophy and flashes his winning cards, a pair of queens, he says, almost absentmindedly, that it feels as good as his first win in Villamoura for a buy-in of €300. The 29-year-old's live tournament winnings now exceed $14m.

Alien world

Casino Barcelona is a wondrous place. Even now, just three nights after the terrorist atrocity in the city, it is alive. Poker, blackjack, roulette, slot machines... it's an alien world for a first-timer. It's the sounds you notice the most. The clicking of the chips, the chirping of the machines, the whirring of the wheel... there is very little talk.

Outside, the armed police presence on the streets serves as a cold reminder to what happened a few days earlier. Otherwise, locals and tourists alike go about their business. That is the way of it - getting back to normal as quickly as possible, whatever normal is now.

The day before, 67 professional poker players put up €50,000 each to take part in a high-stakes game. It is the feature event of a two-week festival, the PokerStars Championship Barcelona, organised by the largest online poker site in the world. These are the super high-rollers, the players who travel the world in pursuit of fortunes, and Barcelona is as good as it gets. But they are by no means the only show in town. Over the two weeks of PokerStars Championship Barcelona, around 6,000 players from all over the world will come and go, buying into games for anywhere between €300 and €50,000. Barcelona is a poker hotbed, and it is no coincidence that it is here that PokerStars opt to stage one of Europe's largest festivals of poker.

Poker is an online phenomenon played by tens of millions of people, but live events such as this offer a chance to gather in one place and play the game as it was originally intended: face to face. "It's good for them to meet other players, to touch and feel the game, to get the good live experience, because online poker is different from live poker," says Cedric Billot of PokerStars.

There's also the added bonus that for relatively small buy-ins there are vast sums to be won. Before a card is even dealt, there's a guaranteed prize pool of over €13m, but as the days go by and more people join in, the fund swells to around €40m across the 51 separate tournaments taking place - and this attracts amateurs of all levels to Barcelona. There's also a chance to mix it up with celebrities enamoured with the game, such as Barcelona defender Gerard Pique and Grammy-winning DJ Zedd.

As one experienced observer notes: "If you're not a good enough footballer, you're never going to play with Lionel Messi; if you're not a good enough golfer, you're never going to play with Rory McIlroy. But if you're willing to put up the money, you can play against the best in the world in this game."

Some will even have won a package to the event by qualifying online. These packages will vary from having your entry into a tournament covered, all the way up to an all-expenses paid trip. As Billot says: "They win an experience."

For some, it is their first time to play a live tournament. Previously, they have existed in an online cocoon, shielded from the glare of other players. Here, they can hone their skills, or hide their deepest fears behind a moniker. Here, too, they can learn a lot about themselves. They can succeed. Or they can fail.

Too much at stake

Machon isn't the only Pole at the final table - croupier Kate Badurek has been keeping watch over the super high-rollers from the moment they began three days earlier. Her face is a study in concentration, always looking to anticipate where she will be needed next, sometimes even before the players know. Her days are long, punctuated with short breaks. She cannot afford to allow her mind to drift while play is under way, because there is too much at stake.

Badurek speaks in excellent English, and if you listen for closely, there is a trace of an Irish accent which she picked up during a two-year stint living in Dublin and working in a casino in the city.

She moves seamlessly between the tables, looking as focussed late at night as she did when play began, and you wonder how she keeps going. "I live the lifestyle of Grace Kelly," she laughs at one stage, saying when she's at home she rarely stirs out. "Then I come here and it is 15-hour shifts."

Over the first two days, she works alongside Glenn Doyle, a young Dubliner, and the pair clearly have an excellent understanding when they work the floor together. It's a long shift, and they are constantly on their feet, but just like Badurek, Doyle's expression is, for the most part, one of concentration.

"The tournaments that we run here pretty much run like clockwork," he says, downplaying their role. "So really all we're doing is breaking tables, so when we lose a certain amount of players we have enough to fill the rest of the seats. If there's any disputes, we come along and we resolve them. We make sure everybody is happy, we make sure everybody gets paid out; anything that's needed to keep the tournament civilised and run on a professional level."

Doyle, 25, is still based in Ireland, living with his parents simply because he is out of the country so much he can't justify paying rent. He travels the world, working at all the big-money poker events and while it can seem a glamorous lifestyle, the long days punctures that illusion a little. "When we go to work, we work; we put the head down. You're doing long days, long consecutive days. Personally, I'd rather that. A normal guy back home will work a 40-hour week, Monday to Friday, whereas I'll do 70 hours in the one week and then I'll take a week off. I love the long consecutive days. It doesn't suit a lot of people but it suits me down to the ground."

Watching him over the course of three long days, his energy for the job is unwavering. He loves every minute of it. "It's constant travel, but my favourite part is in every different area we are we generally have different players, different customers, different staff members, so it's always a change. It's not monotonous, working with the same people every time. I like the difference... so when we do meet every two or three months, we catch up with each other. I like to say variety is the spice of life; not working in the same place with the same people. And you get to all these cool, exotic places. For two weeks in November I go to Bahamas; there's Barcelona, Monaco..."

He discovered poker at school, playing with friends, and quickly became enthusiastic about it. He managed to talk himself into a pub game locally. He was 17 at the time and through this game he met some people and learned to deal. Soon, he was being offered jobs at various small events around the city, and it grew from there. "I met the right people at the right time and worked really hard, and I'm going pretty well now, thank God."

Scent of blood

On the second day of play, the rate of attrition continues at a steady pace. There's very little room for sentiment, and when a player has lost all their chips, he or she just walks away. Often, the others at the table will barely lift their head. The game goes on.

Doyle and Badurek are constantly on their feet, reducing the number of tables over the course of the afternoon. As the evening moves into night there are just 19 super high-rollers remaining, just three tables left. With 11 players guaranteed a minimum pay-out of €103,200, the scent of blood is in the air.

The atmosphere is in contrast to a game that has been going on at adjacent tables - the championship for seniors, where the banter is good and the laughs are sometimes the only human sounds echoing through the room. Most of these guys know only too well that life is too short. When a young man approaches, thinking this is where he is due to play next, he is waved away to loud laughter and told to come back when he's 20 years older.

The remaining super high-rollers are all men. They are mostly young, in their 30s or less. It is frightening to see such fresh-faced youngsters, seemingly fearless about what they are doing. Doyle agrees: "In Monaco this year a guy who didn't look anything older than 18 or 19 came up to me and handed me €200,000 in cash and said: 'Can you change that?' I'm looking at him thinking, 'You should be in sixth year in school, I could be your teacher'. It's crazy. But it's fantastic."

It's not that there are no women playing poker, far from it, just that they are still playing catch-up. Vanessa Selbst is one of the most successful poker players of all time, having won millions of dollars around the world, and she has seen the landscape gradually change during her time in the game.

"There are a lot of reasons why women don't play poker in the same numbers as men," says the 33-year-old. "Part of it is societal conditioning, where the kind of qualities that poker players have and need to be successful, like being aggressive and being conniving and things like that, are things women are taught are bad qualities, whereas men are taught that that's what makes you successful.

"It's the same thing in business, so that's why I think women just don't naturally flock to that kind of thing. In addition, it's such a male, guy's club environment that I think that also puts women off. That's the reason that, online, you see a lot more women playing, because it's a lot more of a friendly environment.

"But people are doing good things - like the women's tournaments at various tournament series are growing in numbers, and you can see there's a lot more interest in women playing poker. There's a lot more pros now than there were even five years ago and there's a lot more recreational players. It used to be that five years ago I would be the only woman sitting at my table. Now, most of the time, it's me and someone else. It's improving."

Certainly, there are plenty of women scattered across the other events in the casino, including Selbst and Liv Boeree. "Without running a strict controls test we'll never scientifically know why it is that there are fewer women players," says Boeree. "I think it's a combination of personality differences - poker is definitely more suited to someone who is highly competitive, is OK bluffing and in high-pressure situations and so on, so I think whether it's social or biological reasons women, on a whole, tend to not prefer that. That said, there are always overlaps and there's many women who do love that kind of thing."

Consolation prize

By just after 10pm, there are two tables left; 15 players still vying - four will leave this game empty-handed, the rest will at least double their money. Ninety minutes later, it's down to the last 12. The next man out is Mikhail Rudoy, who went all in with a pair of kings against an ace-queen, and the last card turned (known in Texas Hold'em as the river) was an ace. Sometimes it's that simple. Sometimes your luck is out. Before time is called, shortly before 1am, another two have gone by the wayside, but unlike Rudoy, they have the consolation of pocketing €103,200 each.

Two of the nine left are part of the PokerStars stable of professionals - Kurganov and Canadian Daniel Negreanu - and their presence on the final table with a fortune in the frame is a coup for the organisers.

They resume at lunchtime on Monday. The game clock shows they have been playing for over 24 hours. Glenn Doyle has moved to a new tournament in another part of the casino, but Kate Badurek is as attentive as ever with the remaining nine super high-rollers.

When the axe falls on Negreanu, it's his old pal Kurganov who is the executioner. "Good luck, guys," he says walking away. "That's three for three Igor," he adds. It's the third time in a row he has reached this stage of a tournament only for Kurganov to get the better of him. His prize of €117,700 might soften the blow. Through the afternoon, they fall one by one. Kurganov's stack is growing all the time and Boeree arrives to see how it plays out, anxious but confident he is nearly there.

Boeree is one of poker's breakout stars, having numerous high-profile tv appearances. Her path to modern-day poker stardom is not a typical one, in that it did not start in the online world. She has a stellar academic background in physics behind her, and as she prepared to graduate with first-class honours the road ahead seemed set to go in only one direction. Yes, she had harboured fanciful notions of being a rock star and of travelling the world... but of course they were just fanciful.

In 2005, she was parachuted into a reality-tv programme in Britain and coached by top poker players. This was her first time to ever play the game, and it was to change her life forever.

"When poker came along and I was like, 'Oh wait, you get to also travel the world, play this amazing fun game, win a ton of money potentially and also live like a rock star?'. I thought, 'This ticks a lot of boxes too, and I really really like this game.' I still did some other things for a while... I didn't get into playing poker fully until a few years. I remember making the decision to myself, 'I think I could become one of the best female players in the world'. I felt I had the potential to be one of the best."

And she did, enough that she now lives comfortably on the back of her poker career. "I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. I really do. I like having the freedom to choose my own hours and go where I want and focus on the things that I want. Right now, I'm on this big drive learning about philosophy and I want to get back into physics again, I want to delve back into that more and spend some time on science, and poker has given me the financial freedom to put some time into that."

Her background in physics has been central to her success. "Physics in particular teaches you to be very analytical. It's all about scientific method and removing any biases or motivated reasoning. When you think through a problem, and if you have motivations to have a certain outcome, then that's going to affect the way you think through something. Physics doesn't care about what you want the outcome to be, it's only about what is reality, the same as with poker; you care about the reality of the situation, and not what you want it to be.

"So it taught me a lot, about trying to eliminate these biases and to think in a very analytical and quantitative way, because physics is all about maths and numbers and, ultimately, so is poker. So I think it gave me a headstart in that respect."

Poker, you see, is not a game of chance. At least, it's not just a game of chance. "It's a game of skill and chance," says Boeree. "There's a ton of chance involved, because obviously the shuffle of the cards can affect how the game plays out, but like in anything where you're dealing with uncertainty, there's still better decisions that you can make and worse decisions, so that's where the skill factor comes in; it's that understanding, and how to work with these uncertainties."

At the highest level of the game, a lot of factors more important than intelligence come into play. "One thing I love with this game is the different profile of the players around the same table," says Cedric Billot. "There will be some genius mathematicians who will make the correct decision based on the mathematics, incredibly difficult mathematics. It's like, half a second, and boom, they will know what to do. There will be some who are not so good at mathematics, but who have much better physical reads of people. And it's fascinating to see these profiles competing together."

One of bestselling crime writer Jeffrey Deaver's characters is Special Agent Kathryn Dance, who uses her expertise in kinesics to great effect. The body's behaviour - through gestures, glances, breathing, posture, mannerisms - has the potential to tell a story, and some poker players can use this to their advantage. Which is why, despite the fact that outside Casino Barcelona it's almost 30 degrees during the day, inside there are players everywhere wearing hoodies, raincoats, snoods, scarfs, sunglasses... anything to cover up a telltale giveaway sign.

And there's more. "A large part of it is logic, problem solving, which is obviously co-related," says professional Charlie Carrel, a 23-year-old millionaire on a mission. "Then there's the risk aversion; there's also got to be a sense of controlled competitiveness, so if you're like super-competitive and way too egotistical, you're basically just going to fail whatever happens, because you're just going to try to win everything. You have to be able to think about situations."

Carrel's story is well known in the poker community - he started out with a tenner in an online account, which he eventually turned into a six-figure sum. That's the short version.

The longer version is that he locked himself away for the best part of a year when he was 19, studied the game and played it relentlessly. He thought long and hard before doing so, and about what he would be missing out on - university, friends - and came to the conclusion it was worth the risk. So he went to Jersey to live with his grandmother, promising only to leave when he was rich, at least in relative terms, and he achieved this not long after - winning $200,000 in an online PokerStars tournament.

He loves poker, but he is as wary of the game, and of himself, as he has always been. "I feel like that what happens a lot of the time is that it's almost like an addiction of one's identity, because poker becomes not just your job, not just your career, it's like your actual self.

"You get a poker player that identifies themselves, 'Hey I'm Sean and I'm a poker player' and they'll get so much self-worth from that and so much ego and so much validation from other people, they spend so much time playing poker and not doing any of the other things that they used to enjoy. If they suddenly stopped playing poker, it would be like a rug just went out from under their feet and they just have nothing to fall into. I saw that when I first came on to the high-stakes poker scene and I was very cautious of that happening to me because I don't want that."

Carrel, who lasted well into the second day of the super high-roller event, fetches up at the same tournament the next day that Glenn Doyle is watching over. "I don't have too much attachment to winning or losing," he says.

Back with the super high-rollers, Kurganov moves in for the kill, and sees off Machon in two devastating hands. And as he does so, Boeree acknowledges even more fundamental truths about the game, and her partner's success: "He's still got the hunger a little bit more than I do. He's also better than me. The game is tougher than it used to be. His edge is greater than my edge."

PokerStars Festival Dublin begins tomorrow in the Regency Hotel, Drumcondra, D9, and runs until next Sunday

Sunday Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life