Willie Tann

Sexagenarian Willie Tann has made a habit of
yo-yoing from rich to broke and back again

He’s got an exceptional eye for weakness and profits from it without mercy

I’m low on chips at the £100 Hold’em table at the Vic (Grosvenor Victoria Casino). A grey-haired Chinaman – in his sixties, I guess – is alone with me in a hand. He’s pre-occupied, eating a stir-fry with a fork and studying a racing paper.

There’s no way he’s paying attention. I don’t think he’s looked at his cards. I decide to bluff and raise all I can. Without looking up he throws a pile of chips onto the table. He’s re-raised – bet the pot. I stare at him for a while. He never stops eating; his eyes never leave the racing paper. I’ll swear he hasn’t looked at his cards. Or has he? Can this be for real? What’s going on here? I’m tempted to re-raise but warning bells are clanging in my head. I no longer know who’s bluffing who. I fold. Still without looking up, he puts down the fork, scoops up the chips, then resumes eating and reading.

Two things have happened. I’ve just lost half my already-small stack. And I’ve met Willie Tann. I next see him at the World Series in Las Vegas. Apart from the climactic $10,000 Main Event to come, we’ve reached the last day of six weeks of poker and 758 players, including some of the world’s best, are contesting the $1,000 no-limit gold bracelet. And here he is, on the final table. He’s not eating or reading now… He’s fully focused and fighting like a tiger. I remember what I’ve read somewhere… that he builds his game around five Ps: practise, patience, perseverance, psychology, and position. It’s all on show here.

He may have come into the event looking beaten after a disappointing few weeks but he’s not. Willie is never beaten, not until his last chip’s gone. Now, calling on 40 years of experience and the courage, inner strength and tenacity that have enabled him to bounce back from countless gambling disasters, he wins the coveted gold bracelet and the money – this fantastic pile of $100 bills, $188,135 is all his. The strain disappears from his face. He’s beaming, revelling in the enthusiasm of scores of jubilant Brits. He’s ringing his beloved wife Sally on the mobile. He’s a happy, happy, man.

There’s just one problem: we have to get him out of the Rio casino with the money.

Because, as I’ve written elsewhere, ‘Willie Tann’s story is one of triumph and tragedy, endlessly repeated, often on the same night.’

Winning streak

A lot of poker players have leaks. A lot are gamblers. But with Willie it’s extreme. It’s sad, because he’s a poker player of legendary skill and a lovely man, yet because of an obsession with the dice and the horses he’s often under-resourced and thus dangerously exposed, often reduced to borrowing from friends to scrape together buy-ins. One day he’s a giant of the game, the next day a beggar.

But let’s look at the positives. He’s won where it counts – not just the WSOP gold bracelet, but in 2004 the UK Open (just under $100,000), plus wins at the Irish and French Opens. That year he made 13 final tables to become the number one European player. In 2005 he came back from the World Series win and immediately came sixth in the London Open and picked up another $75,000. He won a further $53,000 in a pot- limit Omaha event at the Aussie Millions in January 2006. When I last spoke to him – in May – he had just ‘decimated the field’ (according to one observer) to win a Hold’em event in Luton. He’s always a contender, and when he’s not playing tournaments you’ll find him in cash games at London’s Grosvenor Victoria or The Sportsman, and he’s more often than not winning there too.

So what makes him a winner? Ironically, one factor is the same gambler’s instinct that’s done him so much damage… because, he says, he has no fear of losing. He’s not afraid of making big bets, of shoving his chips in.

When a gambler stands his ground, puts every cent he’s got on the line, is it courage, or is it madness? People like Willie Tann say it’s neither, it’s just what they do and the business they’re in. But it helps to have been there before. Willie has been ‘there’ so many times – hanging on the throw of a dice, his finances hinging on the speed of a horse – that the size of the bet doesn’t factor in the equation, only whether the odds justify the call.

Another factor is an extraordinary combination of patience and aggression. Willie knows when to throw cards away. He’s a very rational poker player. He can wait a long time for the right hand if he has to. But he’s also got an exceptional eye for weakness and profits from it without mercy. If you want to play for fun, don’t play Willie.

Then there’s experience, not only as a player but also as a dealer. That’s how many of the London poker veterans first knew Willie – as a dealer, and sometimes in some fairly shady places… In Spielers Casino, Westcliff, for instance, mixing it with criminals and conmen and the more honest-to-god poker players. Willie has seen it all. Over the past 40 years he has become deeply embedded in the fabric of British poker, long before most of those he now faces at the table were even born.

Bitten by the bug

Of course gambling was not in Willie’s parents’ plan for him. When they moved from China to Singapore, where Willie was born in 1941, they had high hopes for him. They sent him to London when he was 20 to study at Lincoln’s Inn to be a lawyer. But he already had the gambling bug. He tried changing sides and becoming a bookmaker. He owned a Chinese restaurant in Soho for a couple of years in the 1970s, and ran a company supplying hot towels to Chinese restaurants all over London. But Willie is, was, and always will be a gambler. Fortunately, so prolific have been his poker winnings, that he’s been able to buy a lovely home in the country and support his son as he progressed to the Westminster School, Oxford, and The Bar.

As for the gambling and borrowing issue, he openly acknowledges it. ‘Of course I go broke now and then. If you show me a gambler who’s never gone broke then you’ll be showing me a gambler who must be lying.’ But he’s trying to control it all. He’s trying to change his name from ‘the Diceman’ to Mr Miyagi. As his sponsor’s site says, ‘Miyagi is the wise old master who speaks in a truncated oriental voice full of deep philosophical mutterings while also maintaining a low and humble profile.’

Actually that’s not too far off the mark… except that the mutterings at the dice table and the racetrack are often more explicit than philosophical.

Career highlights

Tournament winnings: $948,010
2005 Winner of the $1,000 WSOP No-Limit Hold’em event
2004 Made 13 final tables and became European No. 1


They’ve been together 30 years and, he says, she never complains or criticises, no matter what gambling disaster strikes. Clearly, Sally is a saint.

Especially, and perhaps not surprisingly, Chinese food. He’s an enthusiastic customer of the Royal China restaurant in Queensway, London

Unfortunately, the horses don’t love Willie. A piece of advice then: find out what Tann’s ‘on’ and back another, even if it’s lame.

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