Hill reaches the end of the road in Sunderland
King’s Cross station – again – with a poker table on my back and a chipset on my hip. Destination: the northeast. After some in-office wrangling as to who would accompany me on the final odyssey, this month’s lucky guest is PokerPlayer publisher and token Aussie, Matt Balch, who has swapped the splendour of Sydney for the streets of Sunderland, which upon our arrival are practically empty. Apparently it gets livelier later on. As the cabbie explains, ‘Chews-dear neit is gear neit.’ It’s an interesting fact, and one to consider as we check in to our beachside hotel, with the three inches between the beds notionally qualifying it as a twin room. Following a quick loosener while gazing at the majesty of the North Sea, we’re heading to the home of freeroll winner Steve McLane, whose blackcat73 handle hinted at his location, much to my travel-weary dismay.
NEAT NEAT NEAT
The spanking new gated mews where he lives seems civilised enough however, and we are buzzed in to be met by a stern-faced security guard who insists on seeing some ID. At first we think it’s a joke, then we’re not sure as he’s insistent that our names aren’t down, and ‘phones’ Steve McLane to ask if he should frisk us for weapons and drugs. His cover is blown, but it’s possibly the strangest ever beginning to a Hilly’s Home Game as we’re ushered in by a fake security guard by the name of Spoors Smith, the final leg’s obligatory loose cannon. McLane fought him at a boxing club ten years ago, and has seemingly been saddled with him ever since, like Begbie in Trainspotting.
There have been a few places on the Home Games tours where I’ve had to wipe my feet on the way out, but McLane’s flat is immaculate, with only me and Balch breaching the shoes-off rule. Early chat establishes that we have come from that London, and with wide-eyed wonder Spoors asks, ‘What’s it like?’ having not visited the capital since a school trip in 1984. We assure him that it’s similar to other cities if somewhat larger, but he sips his coffee and with a faraway look declares that it would be ‘too busy’ for him.
Following a top-notch feed, play gets under way on the kitchen table. Spoors has moved from coffee to Stella and signals his intentions when his 7-4 makes a full house. He’s dealt pair after pair, and holding 3-3 I attempt to bluff him off a K-K-8-8-4 board. You can’t bluff a man who can’t play, and he thinks his pocket sixes are good, which annoyingly they are, leaving me seriously short-stacked. To add insult to injury, Spoors declares, ‘I can barely play snap.’
I claw some chips back when our host’s brother Dave keeps firing barrels at my flopped straight before revealing nothing but Ace-high, drawing comparisons with former Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall’s notorious worst ever televised hand of poker. By way of defence he mysteriously announces, ‘Lovemaking is not about the first minute and a half.’ Meanwhile a third McLane brother turns up and immediately asks Balch, apropos of nothing, ‘Are you an Australian Serb?’ The Stella appears to have unleashed the beast in Spoors, and he open-folds his cards on a number of occasions regardless of the action, at one point simply throwing away his big blind to no raise. Fixing me with his one good eye, he declares, ‘You look like Frank Skinner.’ He’s also so impressed by my rudimentary shuffling that he asks, ‘Are you married to Debbie McGee?’ By now a runaway train, Spoors randomly wins another pot and says, ‘I can’t reveal the method behind me madness. Knowledge is power.’
With a prior agreement that the first player out does the washing up, the play becomes painstaking and Steve McLane warns Spoors that if he doesn’t speed up he’ll cut off his Stella supply. Minutes later he possibly regrets his words as Spoors’s 5-5 does for his A-Q to send our host to the rail, and the kitchen sink. With the chips starting to fly, Balch soon cripples young architect Rick Marsden when his limped 2-3 flops a full house. And having generously doubled me up by calling my Q-7 push with Q-5, Dave McLane looks set to have his revenge when I make a mathematically correct push with 4-5 suited. Gleefully slow-rolling pocket Aces, his face turns to despair as I flop a straight draw and make it on the turn to vanquish the remaining McLane and guarantee a place in the final for the by now steaming drunk Spoors.
There’s still 40 quid to play for, but my epic comeback is quashed when Balch’s K-T shove gets the better of my pocket Eights to cruelly oust me on the bubble. Now heads-up, Spoors announces, ‘F♥♣♦ ya! All-in!’ His A-K suited can’t beat Balch’s sixes and the antipodean takes the money, despite claiming this to be his first sit-and-go in two years. Spoors is overjoyed at having doubled his tenner buy-in, and presumably at the prospect of his first trip to the capital since Frankie Said War. However, days later, Balch receives a call from Steve McLane to say that Spoors had sobered up and shat himself at the thought of playing for real money in London, and that he would be standing in. The loosest of loose cannons, the final will be a lesser occasion without the one and only Spoors. But maybe it’s for the best…