The biggest card game on Earth is almost exclusively aimed at men. Ralph Jones goes to a major poker tournament to find out what’s going on
I take another look at my cards. Everyone’s fallen by the wayside but me and a guy who looks like Tom Hardy. Each time I’ve raised the stakes, he’s raised them with me. I’m in deep. This far in, there is no turning back. I look at my opponent. He smiles at me across the table. This hand is going to clean me out. Lose this and I go home. I know one thing for certain: I didn’t come to partypoker’s Millions UK tournament only to bow out with a whimper.
I push my remaining chips past the line and look at the dealer. “All in,” I say. There is an audible frisson as the stand-off reaches boiling point. The dealer asks us to show our cards. My Tom Hardy doppelgänger turns his over. He was right to be confident. Two kings in his hand makes three of a kind. Those will take some beating. My moment arrives. Seven pairs of eyes are fixed on me. I turn my cards over, so that they lie face up for the world to see.
Oh, by the way - I only learned how to play poker a week ago.
Why is poker such a male phenomenon? There doesn’t seem to be anything inherently masculine about the game. And yet, wherever there is poker, there are men: men drinking whisky at the table; men in smoke-filled back rooms, cigar in one hand, cards in the other; men sitting cross-armed, chips in front of them, their eyes hidden by their hoods. And, though there are strenuous efforts in the industry to attract more women to the game, these might be like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted: on billboards, TV and in films, the consensus is that it is a game for men. When was the last time you saw a film in which half a dozen women played poker?
In order to investigate, I start by organising a poker game with the ShortList lads. A group of six, all of whom know how to play poker better than me, congregate in the upstairs room of a pub. Even when the stakes are low (we are playing for £10 and in place of poker chips we are using Skittles) there is an undeniable thrill to the game. It’s a mixture of psychology, secrecy, showmanship and chance. It also becomes clear to me that more than anything else it’s a game about confidence: in order to play well, you need to be confident in your ability and confident about holding your nerve – often, for all intents and purposes, lying – in front of a group of people.
Although our Notebook editor, the cursed Bobby Palmer, ends up being the winner technically, I win two hands and, as I’m sweeping the Skittles to my corner of the table, I feel as though I already have a taste for the game.
But it’s not enough. The scale is minuscule, and with Skittles there is no sense of jeopardy: we are risking none of our own money. I need to raise the stakes. So, to find out why poker is almost exclusively played by men, I accept an invitation to enter a tournament in Nottingham, where the total prize money is £8.5m.
For me, a poker newb, walking into Nottingham’s Dusk Till Dawn casino is like a virgin crossing the threshold of a brothel. Though the game has always existed in the abstract for me, it is a regular fix for countless men in this country – hundreds of whom are sitting around the casino’s tables, hoping to get rich. The only women around are serving drinks in short shorts, tights and white socks, and, I notice, providing massages at the table. The message couldn’t be clearer: to sit at the table, you should be a man.
Before I can compete, I am given a pre-tournament lesson with the professionals. In a chilled private room with cream chairs, I sit down opposite Sam Trickett, who has won more tournament money than any other Englishman in history. He teams up with another journalist; another professional pairs up with another member of the media; and I sit next to Natalia Breviglieri, the woman lumbered with explaining the finer points of the game to me, an idiot.
Because professionals are involved, the games move so quickly I begin to panic. At one point Breviglieri asks what I think we should do with the hand we have been dealt. There follows a long pause while I think. “Call?” I say. Absolutely definitely not, she says. It is clear that, when I enter the real tournament, I’m going to fall flat on my arse.
I ask Trickett why men are so in love with poker. “It’s challenging,” he says. “It’s an ongoing game that’s not solved. It’s never-ending.” The game is popular with professional and ex-professional sportsmen who seem to need an outlet for their competitive urges: Boris Becker, Carl Froch and Neymar all play, and Trickett himself was an aspiring footballer before he discovered poker.
As for the gender aspect, he says: “I don’t know if it’s a testosterone thing. Men, generally, like to compete against each other a bit more.” Breviglieri agrees that women tend to be less competitive: “I think that’s why there are fewer women in poker than men. It does make a big difference. Women don’t have the need to win.”
Is this an inherent difference between the sexes, or a state of affairs orchestrated by the way poker has been marketed for the past century? Victoria Coren Mitchell, probably this country’s most prominent female player, has said that intimidation is certainly a factor. The industry is providing initiatives for aspiring female players, but it’s a catch-22: women are put off by the overwhelmingly male demographic; they don’t take up the game; the game becomes more overwhelmingly male.
Jon Young, who edits the poker magazine Bluff, says that men simply love to compete against other men. “In the old days they’d have fights,” he says. “Now it’s at a poker table.” There are a few other reasons that explain the gender divide: earning more than women, men have tended to have more disposable income; there is evidence that men are more likely than women to engage in risky behaviour; and poker’s popularity is believed to have soared during the California Gold Rush, where mining towns would beget saloons, attracting male miners looking to socialise and spend money.
A female columnist in Bluff claimed that the issues begin at school, where competitiveness and STEM subjects are ‘bred out’ of women: “If you drop maths as a girl at school,” Young says, “you will never get into poker as a professional.”
I do find one other female player in the casino. Lauren Render turned professional about five years ago and has won as much as £20,000 in a single tournament. I ask her why poker is such a sausage fest. “Sitting around a table with nine men can be intimidating for some people,” she says. “But I always try to tell girls that they need to break themselves in somehow. And once you’re in, you just get comfortable. I find [men] respect me once they know I can play.” Render won’t be scared out of the game: “I’m not going anywhere till I go broke,” she says.
It is time for the tournament proper to begin.
It is infinitely more sedate than I had imagined, but in this near-silence is a seductive intensity. Partypoker has staked me, meaning the company has stumped up the £550 necessary for me to sit at the table with the big boys. I’ve already realised that ability won’t win me this tournament, so mind games are my only option. Here my outfit will come into its own.
I don’t know if you’ve ever played poker against a man wearing a Vivienne Westwood cape, a pair of sunglasses and a single leather glove, but it’s intimidating. “I am The Dragon,” I tell the men as I arrive at the table. They are completely unfazed.
The persona, however, can’t be without its strengths – because before too long I find myself going head to head with the Tom Hardy lookalike. All eyes are on me as, finally, I turn over my cards. I’ve got a straight: five, six, seven, eight, nine. In that split-second, I’ve won the hand. The dealer slides the towers of chips my way and the table congratulates me. Winning a real hand feels good – like turning a key in a lock and hearing its sweet click.
Sitting on my left is a gentle Scottish man called Mark McCluskey. He happens to be an analyst for a poker staking company. McCluskey began playing at school, in an era in which “if you wanted to play poker you turned up and played”. Then, in 2003, the game experienced a sudden surge in interest after Chris Moneymaker won the $2.5m (£1.9m) World Series of Poker and inspired fellow amateurs to take up the game. Since then, poker, now a multibillion-pound industry, has become more of a science, McCluskey thinks – although he has always been drawn to its camaraderie and escapism.
“Poker has always been an aspirational thing,” Young says, pointing to the success of the Millions UK tournament as proof that the UK can compete with Las Vegas and Europe. “It’s as addictive as playing slots. The difference is, you have some control over what you’re doing.” He says you cannot lump poker in with bingo or horse-racing, both of which are huge. The game is a perfect mix of gambling and skill: “The better you are, the more skill there is and the less gambling.”
“I love the industry,” McCluskey says, “and it’s changed enormously since I started playing. It changes all the time. I find it fascinating.” I am beginning to understand the fascination. There’s a unique alchemy to poker, I’ve discovered, that explains why grown men sit for days at a time, unable to tear themselves from the table. Though you must be adept at maths in order to be a great player, you must also know how to project a certain version of yourself: you need your opponent to believe that they know what is going on inside your head. While we are playing – and shortly before I bow out of the tournament, defeated – McCluskey asks me to summarise my piece in one or two sentences. I struggle for a bit, then decide: “You are who people think you are.” He likes this. To my surprise, I sort of like it too.
And perhaps this is why men so love the game. Maybe our love of poker isn’t just a desire to get rich; maybe it is bound up with our struggle to open up. Perhaps we like games that indulge our desire to erect a wall in front of ourselves. It might be an unwelcome truth, but maybe we like holding cards close to our chest like secrets – secrets that we don’t reveal until we’re forced to.
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Photography: Sun Lee, Alice Griffiths
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