UK poker player Mickey Wernick chats about his comeback from more difficult times

From playing Stu Ungar in the biggest Vegas cash games to pawning his wife’s wedding ring, Mickey Wernick has experienced it all

A dark plume of cigarette smoke greets me as I open the car door, and I squint involuntarily as I climb inside. At the wheel sits one of the UK’s most respected poker players – a true legend of the scene – but my eyes are drawn to the thick blanket of ash and butt-ends that runs along the dashboard to the instrument panel. A furrowed hand rests on top of the steering wheel, lightly gripping another fag. The end burns away until, no longer able to hold its own weight, it finally droops and tumbles onto the gear stick. ‘It’s a very, very stupid habit,’ explains Mickey Wernick. ‘I keep going to pack it in but I can’t. I smoke about 20 or 30 a day. I can stop but then I get a bad beat…’ His words tail off and he stubs the filter into the floor.

Chance Of A Lifetime

It’s just after 1pm and I’m in Sutton Coldfield, eight miles north-east of Birmingham centre and Wernick’s home for the past 15 years. The veteran pro has just picked me up from the station and we’re on our way to a nearby Italian for lunch, where I’m hoping to get an insight into a startling past year in Wernick’s life. In contrast to most of the poker interviews I do, this latest one isn’t coming on the back of a huge win or major final table. In fact, some might say Wernick has been the recipient of something even more valuable: a second chance at turning his life around.

Just three months ago, Wernick was close to breaking point. The 65-year-old former bookie and poker pro had won barely £50,000 on the tournament circuit for the whole year and was wondering how to put food on the table for a wife and three children. During the summer, he missed his usual trip to Vegas – a kick in the gut since he’d been for the past eight years – but Christmas was his nadir. Instead of enjoying the usual excesses of the festive season, he scrabbled around simply to keep electricity flowing in the house and prevent the phone from being cut off. ‘Last year was such a sick year for me,’ he says. ‘I can’t remember one particularly bad day – they all just melted into one bad year. I felt so depressed I thought I’d never get back into the game again.’

At the time, Wernick still had a relationship with long-time sponsor Blue Square, but his contract had become heavily diluted. A change of management meant he had gone from full sponsorship to just a rakeback deal. ‘They gave me 100% rakeback, which sounds great, but how are you going to rake £2,000 if you’re doing no good and you’re broke?’ That’s not hyperbole either. He really was down to his last pennies. ‘I had a £1,500 overdraft and it read “£1,500 overdrawn,” ’ he says, with a nervous laugh.

Slide Away

It’s a terrifying scenario for anyone with a family to support, and must have been especially undignified for a poker player who has tasted greatness. In fact, the most alarming part of Wernick’s story is realising how far he has slid over the past 30 years. No one would call his tournament record particularly prolific – in two decades he has won less than $1m – but Wernick’s cash game stories prior to 1990 are the stuff of legend. In the 80s he was one of the few Brits to play in the ‘Big Game’ alongside the likes of Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Bobby Baldwin and Johnny Chan. He remembers sitting down with $100k and having ‘balls of steel’. Even from behind his polarised glasses, Wernick’s eyes seem to light up during these flashbacks, which are many and often. He reserves his proudest moments for one player: Stu Ungar. ‘I played Stuey heads-up, [which] no one else in Europe ever [did]. At the time Stuey and Doyle were great players, but when I went to Vegas they were just players I wanted to play with – I wanted to play with the best.’

He claims he could and would still play the best. ‘I saw durrrr playing the other day. He’s just a poker player, but he’s going to play a bad hand. People try to make poker a science but it’s a very, very easy game. None of these young kids are better than Brunson or Chan. They win $5m on the net – press, press, press…’ he says, mimicking the clicking of a mouse.

I wonder whether it’s hard for him to see former WSOP world champions like Brunson and Chan just playing poker for fun and knowing they are completely set up for life. Wernick is adamant that he neither views them with envy nor regrets any choices he’s made – not too many anyway. ‘It’s different in Vegas because you can play poker every day. If I lived in Vegas, I could have become rich I think. If people say they don’t have regrets, they’re telling lies aren’t they? But generally I’ve had a good life. I’ve been all over the world playing poker. I’ve had my ups and downs.’

He’s also a devout believer in the fact that if he hadn’t been on the wrong end of so much bad luck, his life could be quite different. ‘To win tournaments you’ve got to be lucky and you’ve got to be good. The hardest part is making finals isn’t it? And when you’re playing for the big money, there’s always a hand – your Jacks against A-K, the coinflip. I can never win a coinflip.’

Back Home

Wernick might not be flush with cash but we’re certainly not settling the lunch tab with a coinflip. He dismisses the idea that anyone but him will pick up the bill. ‘Don’t be crazy,’ he says, pulling out a small wedge of notes. We drive back to the family home where we’re greeted by Dawn, his second wife of ten years, and 15-year-old Tyler, his youngest daughter. As we walk through the door Tyler asks her dad for bread money. Dad peels off a note with a sigh. Joel, his 16-year-old son, is sleeping upstairs – it was a heavy videogame session last night apparently. Joel dropped out of school recently and is looking for a job. ‘I wanted him to finish his education but he didn’t want to,’ says Wernick. ‘It’s not something you can force on your kids.’

The three-bed semi may be small and a little worse for wear, but it’s not lacking in personality: almost every inch of wall space is taken up by family photos and portraits, while Timmy, a shivering shih tzu, sniffs at our feet.

Now that we’re in more familiar surroundings, I’m hoping Wernick will reveal more about what precipitated his fall from grace. One thing’s for certain, he didn’t just wake up last year penniless. He admits that he’s been struggling year on year, for as long as he can remember, with a major illness. ‘I’m a mad gambler,’ he says. ‘I get up at lunchtime. There’s a William Hill there, a Betfred there and up the road a Coral,’ he says, pointing in the direction of each one. Every Monday, Wernick takes his £200-a-week pension to one of those betting havens. ‘I like sports betting, I’m an idiot for that,’ he says. ‘The only way I make money is by playing poker. If you suddenly have a bad run, and you’re borrowing and borrowing, you just get deeper into debt.’
Another major issue has been Wernick’s chronic lack of bankroll management. He knows what he’s supposed to do, but can never follow through. ‘You’ve got to have the heart and the skill, but the most important thing, which I point out to young lads, is money management. For someone of my age and experience, I must be zero out of ten,’ he says, admitting that he’s unlikely to ever change. ‘I’m nearly 66 now – how am I going to change for God’s sake? I just like to give out good advice.’


I tell Wernick that it surprises me he’s found himself in so much debt even though he doesn’t seem very materialistic. Aside from the huge 42-inch television in the corner, he seems to live a relatively humble existence – no fancy clothes, jewellery or cars. He laughs and shakes his head. ‘Diamonds, I’ve had plenty of diamonds. I always had a lot of suits but got overweight and couldn’t wear them any more. When I won big, I used to spend money on anything. When I went broke… houses got sold, rings got sold – anything for a stake. Ask her where her ring is,’ he says, turning to Dawn. ‘Pawn shop,’ comes the reply.

‘And when we have a win, we get it out!’ he says with a flourish. ‘It’s been in and out of the pawn shop so many times.’ The two of them giggle and I can only assume it’s happened so many times that they have to laugh about it or they wouldn’t still be together. ‘They lend me £1k on it and it’s worth £6k,’ he says of the ring. ‘[The pawnbroker] asks for £1,300 if it’s been there for a long time. If it’s a month, he’ll want £60. It’s a necessity and with me it’s always been a way of life. Dawn knows that.’

Hands Off

One thing that has thus far escaped the clutches of the pawn shop is Johnny Chan’s World Series of Poker jacket from 2003, given out to players who won a bracelet that year. Dawn models the beige jacket with ‘Johnny’ stitched in black on the front and the familiar WSOP logo emblazoned on the back. ‘I told him I’d love one of those when he won,’ Wernick says, holding the jacket up.
It says something about Wernick’s reputation that Chan didn’t hesitate to give him the souvenir. Unsurprisingly the jacket is a real collector’s item, not only because of its original owner, but also because 2003 was the last year that Binion’s handed them out as prizes. In 2005, the next time Chan won a bracelet, the Series had moved to the Rio and the tradition had been left behind. ‘Johnny Texas [UK player Jon Hewston] wanted to buy it for £1,000,’ Wernick says. Dawn snatches the jacket back off him. ‘No! He can never sell that jacket.’

Cloud Nine

For all the doom and gloom, the clouds over Sutton Coldfield do at last seem to have a silver lining. When Wernick was at his lowest ebb in 2009, Welsh pro Roberto Romanello made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Romanello and his brothers wanted Wernick to be the face of their new venture, One Way Poker ( – a skin on the very popular iPoker network. ‘It’s like a lifeline,’ says Wernick. ‘Roberto and his family are really nice people and I’m not just saying that. They’re unselfishly giving me this opportunity to sort myself out. They knew I was struggling. It might sound cheesy but it’s completely changed my life. I’ve gone from sitting in the house, wondering how I’m going to get into a tournament, to playing in all the GUKPT main and side events, and all the Dusk Till Dawn events.’

It’s a relationship that seems to be paying off too. A couple of days before the interview, Wernick chopped the £200 side event at GUKPT Walsall, pocketing £6,000. ‘That took all the pressure off,’ he says.

While it’s true that One Way Poker has been a real godsend for Wernick, it’s hard to imagine how he can even begin to make sense of his life in his head. Here’s someone who rubbed shoulders with the biggest names in poker, who at one point must have had an extremely hefty bankroll, but whose gambling addiction has forced him to sell his most valuable items. Before Romanello came along his daily life consisted of struggling to subsist, and scrapping it out in the $2/$4 online games in order to pay for his tournament buy-ins.

Even if he did pick up that one big win he’s so desperate to record, you have to question how far the money would go. He has no precedent for holding onto his winnings, so how can he be sure he wouldn’t fritter it away? ‘I would [keep it] now, because I’m older. I’ve had all the thrills of life,’ he says. ‘How long can I live for? I’m overweight and I smoke. I don’t drink, so my liver is in good condition I think, but I’m not going to get many chances. I’m hoping One Way Poker means one way up for Mickey Wernick! I’m just hoping it’s me reborn again and back on track. You’re only ever one tournament away from being back.’

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