Footballing actor Vinnie Jones tells us about his love of poker: “We were banned from playing for money on the way to games because of all the rows”

Hardman Vinnie Jones has been playing cards for decades. He tells Steve McDowell why he doesn’t want to talk crap – he just wants to play poker

Cards have been the one constant feature of Vinnie Jones’ multi-layered career. Wherever the footballer-cum-actor-cum -greyhound owner has been, he’s never been too far away from cards.

He collected a dozen red ones during his footballing career and still holds the record for the fastest yellow on these shores – just four seconds – picked up while playing for Chelsea in 1992. During his football road trip, which included stops at Wimbledon (twice), Leeds, Sheffield United, Chelsea and QPR, Jones always had a reputation as one of the game’s hardest men. It was this that was to follow him from the midfield to the big screens of Hollywood. Now 41, he’s a man who has done to life what he was once famously snapped doing to Paul Gascoigne – grabbed it by the balls.

Crazy for cards

He began his football career for Wealdstone in 1984. Though he may have been playing the football as a part-time profession, the card schools were full on – a pattern which continued throughout his football career. ‘There was always a card game going on, but some of the biggest games I ever played were at Wealdstone.’

It was with the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon where Jones really made his mark on the football pitch. The Dons’ most glorious moment came in 1988 when they beat Liverpool 1-0 to win the FA Cup final, but even on the club’s most memorable day the cards were still a feature. ‘We had a big old game on the bus to Wembley,’ explains Jones, ‘I won £800 off Wisey [Dennis Wise] playing three-card brag and shoot pontoon. Another time we were coming back from Aintree on the train and Joe Kinnear [Jones’ manager in his second stint at Wimbledon] and me were getting off at Watford. We got into a monster pot and they held the train up for five minutes. John Hartson won it with 10, J, Q, beating my A, 2, 3. The bastard!’

Inevitably, it wasn’t long before the Crazy Gang got a bit, well, crazy. ‘We were banned from playing for money on the way to games because of all the rows.’ So dominating was the poker theme during those days that in 1993 the Irish Gardai were mighty relieved when the 62 members of Vinnie Jones’ stag party only emerged once in three days from their Cork hotel room poker school.

‘The biggest hand I ever won was, as so often happens, the last pot before we had to leave for the airport. I was in with one other guy who was sure I had a full house, eights full of twos. He folded three Queens. He doesn’t know to this day what I was holding. I won £15,000,’ Jones chuckles sinisterly.

Following the success of his first proper acting role in 1998 hit Brit crime-flick Lock, Stock… Jones made the unlikely switch from footie to films, and a full-on movie career has followed. When we talk at a celebrity poker event at London’s Sportsman Club, Jones is ‘knackered’ having just returned from filming X-Men 3 in Canada (he plays Juggernaut). The man who has described himself as ‘having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other’ is fronting the event for SPARKS – the children’s charity for which he has worked since 1991.

‘I’ve been playing cards for almost as long as I can remember,’ says Jones. ‘I used to play with my Nana when I was a kid, playing a game called Newmarket with all her pennies and tuppences.’ Of course, as his sporting career developed so did the cards, and most of Vinnie’s playing career has been with three-card brag (what Yanks would call ‘English poker’). But graduation to Texas hold’em was only a matter of time.

Pitting star against star

Acting has given Jones both greater fame and also more famous friends to play poker with. He became friendly with Brad Pitt after making Snatch and on his visits to LA. ‘We used to play a lot round Brad’s house – Guy Ritchie, Jason Statham, all of us really. He loves it, gets the draught Guinness in, loads of food. Brilliant.’

Even in Canada the poker itch got a scratch, in that case in the River Rock casino outside Vancouver. Is he famous enough now to be recognised? ‘I’m in my cap and I grunt and moan a bit and people go: “Are you…?” and I say, “I’m here to play cards, not talk bollocks.”

‘It seems to give them what they want because they send a request to my website and ask for a signed photo for their kid, saying, “I’m the guy who beat you with the full house” because they haven’t got the nuts to ask me at the time.’

So does he have any further ambitions in poker? ‘Nah. I just love the buzz of it. I don’t care if it’s $50 or $50,000. I do it for the winning.’ And for a man with an FA Cup winner’s medal and an award for best actor (for Snatch at the Empire Film Awards 2001), you can take it he’s quite used to winning.

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