UK poker has never been better, with so many great players tearing it up in online and live tournaments. Julian Rogers meets three of the best to find out the story behind the British boom…
Team GB. Those two words evoke fantastic memories of British athletes leaping hurdles, smashing clay pigeons and whizzing around the Velodrome at the London Olympics. They exceeded expectations, each team member spurred on by the inspirational medal winning performances of their teammates.
A similar Team GB mentality and comradeship has manifested itself in UK poker, leading to the most successful period in British poker history. A large, growing band of precocious pros are tearing up the games online and live. The shared euphoric highs and heartwrenching lows of professional poker have created a bond where each supports the other, and is inspired to try and replicate the team’s success. It’s an experience that is turning them into world-beaters.
The three amigos
One year after the Team GB athletes’ heroics in London, a triumvirate of the UK’s finest poker talent is due at a photo studio in an edgy south London industrial estate. Somewhat surprisingly, Chris Moorman is early. He sits slumped on a faux-leather sofa sipping a bottle of water and thumbing his iPhone. Apart from a wristwatch the size of a discus, his casual attire of T-shirt, grey jeans and slip-on shoes offers little indication the 28-year-old has amassed career winnings of over $12 million.
Fellow British hotshots Craig McCorkell and Sam Grafton rock up at ‘poker o’clock’ or, in layman’s terms: late. Grafton’s unmistakably loud voice signals his arrival even before he bounces up the stairs, the mild-mannered McCorkell in tow. Pleasantries out of the way and the gregarious Grafton gets down to business by ribbing Moorman about him ‘only’ finishing runner-up in an FTOPS event four days earlier for a $62k score.
Moorman retaliates by firing a playful salvo about Grafton’s lack of Omaha prowess. It’s all good-natured banter with no malice. ‘People know that the British players are a tight knit group and close friends,’ says Grafton. ‘Players from other countries have divides and not everyone roots for each other. But we have “office” nights out and Christmas parties because it feels like we work together. As a poker player, there is no other support mechanism than the group that you have.’
You can see how strong that support is every time a British player final tables a major live event – the rail is always crammed with boisterous Brits cheering on their compatriots. It’s now become part and parcel of tournament poker, especially during the WSOP. This summer the raucous support was best illustrated when decibel levels shot through the roof after Hendon Mobster Barny Boatman and party-loving pro Matt Perrins each won WSOP gold. In fact, the drunken shenanigans after Perrins’s victory finished up with three of the British crew being arrested for swimming in the Mirage’s fountains.
Live and kicking
Partying aside, having buddies to discuss poker strategy and theory with has been ‘hugely beneficial’ in the development of the current crop of the UK’s elite, says McCorkell. ‘Chatting about poker with successful professionals is the best way to improve your game. They’re experiencing what you are, playing hands with the same players every day and trying to devise a way to beat the game.’
Moorman, though, recounts how the whole Team GB vibe didn’t really exist when he won a seat for his first WSOP Main Event back in 2006 and jetted to Sin City all on his lonesome. ‘I went on my own so I was going down and having dinner in the hotel alone. It seemed to be just me and some older live guys like The Hendon Mob. It was hard to meet people and very different to how it is now.’ It was during this WSOP that one of UK poker’s old guard imparted friendly, albeit misguided, words of wisdom for the fresh-faced whippersnapper from Brighton. ‘I called John Gale down with third pair and was right, so he pulled me to one side and said, “Son, I like you, you’re British, but if you carry on playing like that you’ll be bust within six months”.’
Seven years later, with $3m banked in live tournament cashes, Moorman has evolved into one of the most accomplished and feared pros in the world. Although a bracelet still eludes him, he has come agonisingly close on two occasions, finishing runner-up in the WSOP $10,000 six-handed event in 2011 and second four months later in the WSOPE Main Event.
A feather in McCorkell’s cap was bagging a bracelet at last year’s WSOP in the NLHE $3k shootout, and winning $368k in the process. ‘It was an amazing experience and an unbelievable day that I will never forget,’ he reveals with the same broad grin he wore in his post-victory photograph. McCorkell says he revels in playing live, partly because online poker is ‘quite an antisocial profession’ and because he finds it particularly lucrative. ‘Live poker is much more profitable than online – building an image of someone is much easier when you can see them sat opposite you.’
Poker Team GB had a decent WSOP with three bracelets and various big cashes, but it’s on the virtual felt that the nation’s elite – including this trio – have hit a rich vein of form in 2013. Grafton took down the Full Tilt Sunday Brawl in February for $40,000 and followed it up by banking $153k from a PokerStars SCOOP event in May. McCorkell reinforced his tournament credentials by winning $104k in the PokerStars Super Tuesday, one of the toughest and most prestigious tournaments in online poker.
Then there’s online phenom Moorman who in March snagged his first FTOPS title, and $200k, to take his online earnings to a staggering $9.7m. His roll call of online career wins is as long as a Guns N’ Roses guitar solo and he’s still the record-holder for the most number of PocketFives.com Triple Crowns. This means that on 14 occasions he has scooped three major online tournaments on three different sites in the space of a week. And like most pros, the Sabbath is traditionally his busiest day of the week. He mouse-clicks between up to a dozen tournament tables for hours at a time. ‘Every Sunday I start at 1pm and finish at 6am on the Monday morning,’ he nonchalantly divulges.
Despite their success, Team GB isn’t an impenetrable clique and none of the three pros at the shoot display any hint of braggadocio; they’re humble guys striving to be the best. They are also quick to applaud fellow pros – in particular Chris Brammer and Toby Lewis. Brammer continues to run all over the online tourneys and recently defeated a 3,500-stong FTOPS field for a $130k score. Lewis, the 2010 EPT Vilamoura champion, even found time to grind the Sunday majors while on a booze-fuelled holiday in Croatia with Perrins, JP Kelly and Dave Nicholson in August.
Despite wrestling with a ropey internet connection on the Adriatic coast, he outlasted 599 runners to take down the $2k FTOPS for a whopping $253k after a heads-up deal. Like a true balla, he tweeted a photo of himself clutching a celebratory can of Tuborg lager and a cheese baguette.
‘Toby’s ROI in tournaments is phenomenal,’ praises Grafton. ‘He crushes it. He never comes second or third, he just wins.’ Grafton says impressive online results recorded by Brammer, Lewis and other British stars spurs him on to chase similar glory: ‘You see your friends succeeding and you want those results as well. I’m very competitive like that.’