London’s finest poker players open up in this exclusive article

With the London cash-game scene buzzing, we talk to some of the iconic figures of the London poker landscape

Vicky Coren

Few people are more enmeshed in London’s poker culture than Vicky Coren. She began playing poker in the legendary Archway game that was home to Hendon Mobsters Ross and Barny Boatman among others, and still hosts one of the longest-running private games in London. She’s also one of the Vic’s cash-game stalwarts, and it’s impossible to forget her breakthrough win at the EPT London in 2006 (not least because her new sponsors PokerStars won’t let you). Her transition from seven-card stud cash player to tournament icon is a neat summary of the story of the capital’s poker life. But there is more to it than that. Coren lives and breathes London poker. It’s in her blood and she more than anyone understands what makes the dirty, lovely city shine as the new capital of poker.

What do you think London’s place is in the poker world?
I think London is poker’s natural home. It’s a very suspicious, prickly town and redolent with mistrust. In many ways I think that poker is in its most natural state in London. You can go to America and get a cheery wave and a smile from total strangers. That doesn’t happen in London. It’s an honest place to play. People won’t pretend to be your best friend.

Has that not changed a bit with the influx of younger players schooled on the internet?
I don’t think it’s changed that much and I don’t think it will. Because of the younger players there is a little bit more handshaking, people are a little bit quicker to share personal information and so forth. They will tell you about their personal life in a way that never used to happen. But as long as there are Londoners there will always be people insulting each other as a sign of affection. That is what we do here.

How has being a sponsored player changed your view of the poker world?
Not that much. I play more tournaments now, but it will still probably only be about ten a year. In my mind I am still predominantly a cash player, but I think everybody should be. Making a living from poker is about turning a profit in a cash game and on the side you can chase these tournament rainbows.

Were you not seduced by the idea of becoming a tournament pro?
I don’t think there is any such thing. There are people who are very good at tournaments, but I still don’t think they can win over a lifetime if they play that many. You will see people who have four big tournament wins in a year, but they might have played 200 tournaments. If they are buying in directly they can’t make any money.

What was your first taste of tournament poker in London?
I remember the first time I ever played in the Vic I came second in a seven-card stud tournament. You wouldn’t believe how tightly I played. I wouldn’t enter a pot without a wire-up or three suited connectors. A-A-K? Forget it. I was a bad tournament player for the first five years. My brain just couldn’t click into gear when it came to understanding the relationship between the blinds, the clock, the hands and position. The way those four things slotted together, I couldn’t instinctively grasp it.

But you played a lot of TV tournaments back then…
You should talk to Barny about when I first started playing Late Night Poker. I barely knew what a no-limit hold’em tournament was. I would play and come out after half and hour and say ‘I haven’t had a pair so I haven’t played a hand yet’. I played three series and couldn’t grasp it. I would play, get blinded out and come out saying I didn’t have a pair.

Do you think London is becoming a tournament town?
When something like the EPT or GUKPT comes to the Vic and all the big players come down I really want to play in those events. But I didn’t like it when the big cash games in the Vic were threatened by the encroachment of little tournaments. Every night there was a £10 or £20 tournament and we would be waiting around for a cash table. That used to annoy me. But I am incredibly excited about September. Having the WSOP Europe and the EPT both in my hometown is brilliant.

How do you see the future of poker in London?
I think that London will become more and more significant in the world of poker. Europe in general will become more important, and the EPT is already much more significant than the WPT. A lot of American players are relocating to Europe and as long as we can straighten up our gambling laws so that people have freedom, but are protected from risk, then London can be the capital of a poker-centric Europe.

That sounds vaguely political…
Perhaps, but I think that is the phase we are going into. It’s all about European poker. The World Poker Tour didn’t work out and the internet gambling bill that Bush brought in is terrible – they have snuck in a law that is an absolute infringement of people’s freedom. The internet has enabled poker to become part of European culture in a way it didn’t use to be and I think the next ten years is going to be all about Europe being the poker continent.

Joe Beevers & Barny Boatman

Joe Beevers and Barny Boatman are without doubt two of London’s most famous poker exports – they make up half of the Hendon Mob and played starring roles in the very first series of Late Night Poker. But as they’re keen to reiterate, their love affair with poker in the capital came way before million-dollar sponsorship deals, seminal television shows and all the comforts that the game has brought them. The boys were brought up on a diet of private games in and around Hendon – not light and airy Friday night blowouts, but serious affairs dripping with atmosphere and filled with dodgy characters. Here they give us a fascinating glimpse into the world where they truly cut their poker teeth.

What are your standout memories from playing poker in London back in the day?
Barny Boatman: It was edgier. Joe Beevers: We were living on the edge a lot of the time.
BB: It was an interesting life, and London has always been a place where people from different backgrounds meet on the poker table. It was a melting pot of people who in one way or another were living life quite intensely. That is part of what made it so exciting. People who didn’t have nine-to-five jobs, who tended to have large amounts of money going through their hands at different times, who maybe even wanted to make money disappear at some points. You could make a list of people who tend to fall into that category, and top of that list would include petty criminals and people like actors. The game Ross [Barny’s brother] and I had were originally my mates from school and a lot of his actor mates such as Patrick Marber. He went on to write the play Dealer’s Choice, which was loosely based on our game.
JB: When we are talking about these games, this was a time where there was no internet. There was no poker on TV. This was the mid-90s or even earlier. There wasn’t just the game Ram Vaswani and I used to run in my flat in Hendon. Within a five-mile radius of my flat there were a number of different private games running on different nights of the week.

Instead of playing online we would go to someone’s house and sometimes the games would last two or three days. Do you remember what kinds of games you played?
BB: We played every kind of silly game imaginable and every week somebody invented a new game. At the more serious games it tended to be the more classic variants of poker.
JB: It was a bit of a battle to see who could think up a game that would catch someone else out. I never realised there were so many different wild card and draw games and having to master those quite quickly was a key thing.

There must have been some real characters that you rubbed shoulders with…
BB: There was one guy who played in Joe’s game who wasn’t the best of players, but he did work in a very fancy clothes store in London. And he tended to pay his debts off in nice shirts. One day we looked around the table and all eight of us were wearing one of this guy’s shirts.
JB: In my wardrobe I think I had nine or ten pairs of jeans and 25 shirts from this shop in it. We would go into the shop and say ‘I’ll have one of each colour.’ He doesn’t work there any more.
BB: It was our little world, with its own language and rules. You would lend money to people you’d hardly ever met and you knew they were good for it. There was a tremendous amount of trust and fundamental honesty, which I’m not saying is not there any more, but things can never go back to how they were. We were also very excited about the game; we were always learning and talking to each other about the game.

It sounds like you miss it a lot.
JB: Absolutely. The thing I miss most is knowing where you were going to be, seeing the same people at the same events and the social side of it. We were doing it because we really enjoyed doing it. It wasn’t fashionable or in the public eye. Some weeks we wouldn’t have any money and I would be borrowing a couple of hundred quid off Barny or Ross and I would grind that up. Then I would have a nice bit of cash, and be driving around in a Porsche. And then six weeks later I would go off to Amsterdam, lose all my bankroll in a cash game and have to sell the Porsche. That’s what it was like. It was a grind, but it was something we really enjoyed doing. The face of poker has changed so much. It is less personal now.
BB: There was a real camaraderie and mutual respect. We remember when it was something a bit special to be on the poker scene. It’s not an elitist thing. A lot of people who win a million-dollar tournament these days will walk around with their noses in the air thinking they are something special, but we know about surviving in the game.
JB: People would ring my doorbell at 4am. They weren’t invited, but you knew them. Sometimes we would have a table of eight people and another fourteen people sitting in the lounge waiting for a seat. And one of the big things that really fuelled the private games was that people didn’t have to carry a large amount of cash with them. People could write cheques, you could get credit. In one way it was maybe the downfall of lots of those games.
BB: There was a dark side to these spielers. Some of them were run more like hard-nosed businesses than Joe’s was. Joe’s game was very friendly and nobody was a victim or a target. It was quite social and you honed your skills there. There were games though where they built a game around a ‘superstar’ – someone with a lot of money who wasn’t likely to win. And sometimes these superstars would know that and would say, ‘I know you are building a game around me, so why don’t you give me a percentage of the take?’

Are you still in contact with a lot of those players now?
BB: All those characters are still around. The smart ones, the survivors, have simply adjusted to the game the way it is now. We can still look across the room and make eye contact with one of the guys who was around in those days and there will always be something special between us.
JB: It’s the same people now, but it has just been diluted with the others who have come to gatecrash the party. I loved my life then, and life is good now.

Neil Channing

Neil Channing reveals that when he signed up to be a member of ‘the Vic’ 18 years ago, it was the promise of a free meal that was his primary motivation. Now 42, the Irish Open champion admits that while dinner on the house is an obvious perk of his loyalty to London’s most famous poker establishment, it’s the little things that really make it feel like home. ‘I know all the staff, I know everybody in there. They don’t have to ask me how many sugars I need in my tea,’ he says with a trademark grin. ‘People are genuinely surprised if I don’t go in there for a day. I don’t have to swipe my card and I really like that.’ He tells us why no other card room could ever compare…

What’s the best thing about being a Vic regular?
The ‘Cheers’ aspect is brilliant. I can run away to the Vic if I have any problems and bury my head in the game. If I was ever on a desert island for five years and then walked into the Vic, I could name ten people and six of them would probably be there. They’re probably there right now. I find that comforting. Wherever I am in the world, I always know what’s going on in the Vic and it’s always there for me to return to – and that’s what I really like about it.

What’s your standard game?
We have this game now which is £10/£25 hold’em, though sometimes if people are steaming we raise the blinds. One time we were playing £100/£200 with a £400 straddle. We have a rail around it and some people are precious about it, saying they don’t want people watching. I think it’s great. I remember when I started playing in the Vic, I used to look at the mixed Omaha/lowball game and if there was a £50k pot I’d be very excited.

The Vic has always had a reputation for having quite an old-school crowd – do you consider yourself part of that?
I think I’m a bit of an old relic now. I’ve been around the scene a long time. A lot of the youngsters who come into the game do look up to me, and I have a few proteges. I really love that and I actually think I can learn a lot from them; younger people generally play more aggressively and a bit more reckless.

But are they any good?
Some of these kids are right cocky fuckers but I don’t take too much notice of it because until someone has been around for three years, I don’t really think too much of their game. I don’t get close to people until they’ve been coming for six months. Once I’ve seen they can survive, then it’s worth making the effort to be friends with them. We have two or three internet whizz kids who come along and play. I find it fun when they play – I like to wind them up. We have a lot of banter about how they’re managing to stay so late, how it must be half-term week.

Do you think you’ll still be there in 20 years time?
Phil Laak and Jennifer Tilly came along to play at the Vic the other day. Phil’s no value. He’s a fucking nit, doesn’t play a hand. He said, ‘Are we still going to be doing this when we’re 90?’ I really hope we are. I said to him, ‘Jamie Gold will have won his sixth main event bracelet and people will be going, “I knew he was a good player!” ’ One of the biggest inspirations for me is Fred Carle. He’s 72 years old and making more moves than Gus Hansen every day. He sits there like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth and he’s check-raising with no pair and no draw three times an hour. If you didn’t know him you’d probably think he was some old codger sitting there waiting for the nuts. I’ve seen him put £10,000 in with absolutely fuck-all! I want to be like him.

Deep down do you wish the Vic was more like the Bellagio?
I guess it would be nice, but the Bellagio is pretty hard. The Vic still manages to be quite friendly about the way it does things. The Vic has a whole bunch of professionals playing there every day, and it needs them because otherwise there wouldn’t be a game at midday. Because there’s such a small player base compared to LA or Vegas, it’s quite a small ecosystem. The players make the changes; if we notice things that the Vic isn’t doing that the Bellagio is doing in terms of small rules or things which make the room run smoother, we feed the suggestions to the card room manager Jeff Leigh. He pretends he hasn’t heard us and then three months later comes in with a ‘new’ idea that he has just thought up.

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