Big money poker is very different to how it was 25 years ago as UK pro Willie Tann explains

The life-changing potential of the average cash game is a sobering thought, even to a long-time veteran like Willie Tann

People often ask me what the biggest changes are that I’ve seen in the game and I think my answer sometimes surprises them. Although the increased skill of players and the global scope of poker obviously stand out – on a personal level, I’d have to say that it’s the changing size of the game in terms of money and participation that has amazed me.

I’ll give you an idea of how things used to be. We used to play in illegal ‘spielers’ – casinos all over London where you’d play stripped deck (meaning all the cards from 2-6 were taken out) five-card stud and they charged an exorbitant tax of 5p for every pound! Spielers eventually died out but I must say that I made a good living from those games.

These games were all over London in the late 60s/early 70s when I was still a law student. I remember going to one place in St John’s Wood called Grovehall Court which still exists now as a bridge club. They had a roulette wheel and a blackjack table. The surroundings weren’t salubrious, they were dingy basements, smokey. There was more action because you’d just use cards from 7 upwards – just 32 cards.

We used to sit down with £50 and £100 and the opening bet was half a crown. That was a lot of money back then! Because of the huge rake, we would normally get 10% of the rake back for starting the game. Sometimes when we lost our money, the house would give us a few quid to go home with. This was called GHM (going home money). During the times when you went broke you could go and deal in this game. We used to play all night, didn’t start till 10pm or 11pm and didn’t stop till the early hours of the morning.

Money Money Money

By the 1980s, poker was legalised in casinos and there were much fewer spielers so I ended up spending quite a lot of time in the Vic. We used to play stripped deck there too. Then it became seven-card stud. Then after Late Night Poker promoted hold’em we started hold’em then Omaha. After that it was a dealer’s choice game where they played Irish and super stud. Kalooki was another ppular variant but fizzled out. It was only seven-card stud for a long time. It was a nice place to play poker, the dealers were good, the games were well run, any disputes were settled by the house rules – not like in private games where you had to worry about the cash. In the casino you got paid immediately.

Now and then I’d play in Starkeys in Russell Square – now taken over by Gala. It was in a basement but was like a smaller version of the Vic. The games were slightly smaller.
In the Vic the pot-limit seven-card stud £100 sit down was a good game. If you won £1,000 it was a decent win. At that time we used to start playing at 2pm in the afternoon. If you got there later than 2pm, you would be late for the cut. If say, 12 players turned up there would be a draw. The first nine would play and the other three would wait until they started another game. If there were more than 16 players they would start two games. It was like going to school.

Cashing in

By the 1990s hold’em and pot-limit took over from seven-card stud. What’s amazing is that in the £250 and £500 games at the Vic now, people sit down with £5k and £10k which was unheard of anytime before 2000. I’ve been told now in London that there is a £10k buy-in game. You need at least £20k in your pocket for that. Games didn’t used to be life-changing. It was £200 here and there, pocket money. Now in one cash game, you can change your life.

But ‘life-changing’ is a double-edged sword and you want to be on the right side of it. That’s why I always tell most of the young students who are trying to venture into the game, not to neglect their studies before they start playing professionally.

Being successful for a long time in poker is more than just about having talent, it’s about having a good head on your shoulders as well. I think that having a well-rounded education gives you that. Above all, you must never think that you’re above learning, however many thousands of hands you’ve played. Fifty years on in the game and I’m still learning new moves every day.

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