Vicky Coren has a hugely high profile in the world poker so we caught up with her to learn the secrets of her success

One of the most respected females in the game, Vicky Coren tells us about success, sexism and female stereotypes

Barbara Windsor is not the answer I was expecting. London EPT winner Vicky Coren is sitting in a north London photo studio talking about women she admires, and somehow we have drifted away from poker and onto the fun-loving buxom star of the Carry On films. ‘All the guys loved her,’ says Coren with a sly smile. ‘But she was always secretly in control.’

Right now, however, it is less clear who is in control. Ostensibly it is the photographer, but you get the impression the subtle charm of the star on the other side of the lens is wielding the most influence. As the team set up the next shot, Coren saunters over to a table in the corner of the room and glances down at a few of our mocked-up covers. She picks up one with the headline: MAN’S GAME? and breaks out into a huge grin. ‘Oh dear – but it is a man’s game,’ she says with a breezy laugh. ‘I hope you don’t expect me to say anything else.’

Vicky Coren seems to enjoy confounding expectation. In person she is charming and a little coquettish, but there is a steel-like confidence behind the soft blue eyes. And, she is simultaneously straight-laced and rebellious: ‘I love the shady characters involved in poker, but I get very cross if people are rude at the table. I love smoking, and I never take drugs.’

Her first job after graduating from Oxford University was as a stand-up comedian – throwing herself headfirst into an unwelcoming male dominated world. It wasn’t easy, but Coren did it anyway. She admits to always being something of a tomboy – and this was what first led her to poker.

Aged 13 in what she describes as the ‘bitchy and two-faced’ environment of an all-girls school, Coren felt isolated and unhappy. As a result, the cigarette and whiskey-fuelled poker games her brother and his friends played seemed like a breath of fresh air.

‘They were openly rude to each other, and it seemed strangely healthy,’ Coren says. The poker became her way of escaping the claustrophobic school life, and when she went to university, she carried on playing – catching the bus from Oxford back to London to take part in home games.

Unsteady ground

Despite this, it was still several years before she fell head-over- heels for the game. By now she was in her twenties, an accomplished journalist and a member of London’s Grosvenor Victoria Casino. But on her occasional trips to west London, she never made it as far as the poker tables. In a typical scenario for many female players, Coren spent years going to the Vic and playing roulette – too scared to even enter the card room.

Indeed, it wasn’t until she struck up a friendship with Hugo Martin – a regular poker player at the Vic – that she found the courage to first take her seat. As before in her brother’s home games, the rude and uninterested players instantly made her feel welcome. ‘The Vic has a very “London” mentality,’ she says. ‘It takes two or three years before they learn your name, but five or six years later, the same people are your best friends. I love that and feel comfortable with that type of mentality.’

Writing and TV presenting duties continued to fill Coren’s days. However, by the late 1990s, a promising poker career was starting to blossom. She was a regular winner in the pot-limit hold’em games at the Vic and, over the next few years, would regularly walk away around £10,000 in profit for the year. But, in tournaments, despite some small successes, there was little to write home about. Then, on 23 September of last year – on the second day of the London EPT – everything was to change.

‘I’m a cash game player,’ she says. ‘I had won some money before, but my skills were not tournament skills. During the EPT, I felt myself realising things about tournament poker. I felt it happening. In the past, I was just happy to make money from tournaments, but now I felt an urgent and commanding desire to increase the chips I had. Suddenly, I felt like I would rather get knocked out than wait for a good hand. I only cared about getting more chips.’

By the time Coren arrived at the final table, the crafty, cash game side of her game began to fall away, and was replaced by pure, naked aggression. ‘It sounds silly, but I always found it hard to stick it all-in with nothing to pick up the blinds. But as we got towards the final table, I wanted to do that. I became greedy for the blinds.’

The craftiness still remained to an extent; she’s clearly reluctant to give too much away about her tournament game, but admits her approach to blind stealing was more sophisticated than it may appear. ‘People say when you get low on chips you should stick it in with any Ace,’ she says. ‘That is just nonsense, because they will only call you with a hand that has A-6 dominated. If you are sticking your chips in with the hope that people will pass, you are much better off doing it with a hand like 8-6, where your cards will be fresh.’

The change in approach certainly worked. It led to her now legendary win, where she picked up £500,000 and defeated a final table that included US player of the year, Chad Brown. Coren became not only the first female winner of an EPT event, but also the first female winner of any major tour event in the world. It should have been the start of her career as a truly iconic British poker pro, and as a figurehead for women poker players everywhere. But things didn’t quite work out that way.

In 2007, you are still more likely to see Coren at the Vic’s £5/£5 game than a WPT tournament. In Vegas, she will play no higher than $10/$20 no-limit. She continues to live her ‘other’ life as a journalist and TV commentator, and seems happy for poker to remain a lucrative hobby. It’s not as if she lacks ambition. So just what is holding Vicky Coren back? For starters, it is her decision, beyond one-off deals with PokerStars, to not be a sponsored player.

‘I couldn’t comfortably go and play every tournament I want to because it is just too much money. I have been thinking about whether to play the Poker Million, which is $25,000 – but I just can’t justify it. I think it’s funny that you don’t have enough money to play every tournament you want unless you have so much money that winning wouldn’t mean anything to you anyway. People have to be very careful, because you can get addicted to the tournament lifestyle. You can spend fortunes chasing this rainbow around the world and you can end up in a very bad place.’

But there is also a less obvious reason than money. For Coren, the EPT London was as much an end as a beginning. She didn’t automatically assume this was the start of a brave new world of poker riches. She simply feels that for that moment in time, the poker gods were on her side. ‘I played well in the London EPT. I’m pleased to have proven I can win at that level, but there is a lot of luck in tournaments.’

It’s not false modesty; Coren puts it down to one of the more common differences between men and women’s approach to success in the game: ‘Poker tournaments are usually full of men metaphorically pointing at themselves in the mirror and shouting, “YOU ARE A WINNER”. I remember playing in the women’s event at the WSOP, and they were all saying how nervous they were and what a waste of money it was. These women were not worse players than the majority of men – it was just the way their self-esteem was balanced.’

And Coren is not taken with some of the more resolutely male aspects of the game. ‘There is this fad now for guys to turn up to poker tournaments carrying a bottle of water as if they are entering a marathon,’ she says, incredulously.

‘They aren’t. They are playing a children’s game until late into the night. I think it’s silly. Some guys out there think it’s a bit lame to sit on their arse all day playing cards, so they talk about it as a big physical challenge; that surviving through many days of a tournament requires stamina and peak health. Of course it doesn’t. You just sit there like an old grandma ordering buns and tea. It requires no stamina whatsoever.’

How canny

Poker’s athleticism may be up for debate, but as a sport it unquestionably requires a lot of guile. And it’s an advantage Coren thinks applies differently to women than it does to men. ‘Women are socially conditioned to compete more cleverly,’ she says, perhaps with her icon Babs in her thoughts. ‘In social terms, Women are trained to laugh and look admiring, while secretly controlling everything. This makes them good cash game players, where the qualities of patience and disguise are more profitable than bluster and a strong right arm.’

At the poker table, Coren knowingly plays up to the side of her personality that allows people to underestimate her. ‘I have almost no vanity and would never show a bluff out of pride. If people think I’ll play tight and nervous because I am a girl, then hooray for them. And I don’t mind the level of sexism and rudeness that exists. I’ve had ten years of it. I would rather that than the atmosphere at the Rio where you get banned from the card room for telling a joke with a rude word in it. Poker used to be rebellious and counterculture, and I saw that as romantic and exciting. A lot of people started playing poker to get away from a world of health and safety and daylight fascism. Give it another five years and poker hours will be 9-5.’

While Coren may feel comfortable calling poker a ‘man’s game’, she remains effusive in her praise for other female players. She is a huge admirer of Lucy Rokach and Jennifer Harman, while referring to Isabelle Mercier as ‘very cool’. But she is no evangelist for women in poker. If the reason women aren’t playing much live poker is because they don’t like the aggression, then her view is simple: leave them to it.

‘Internet poker, on the other hand, is the best thing ever invented for women,’ she adds. ‘Everything that didn’t suit women about live poker was removed at a stroke. It allows you to be as competitive as you like and you won’t get men giving you funny looks. Live poker, broadly speaking, is a more masculine activity. And a lot of women have better things to do with their time. Women with husbands and children may not have the ability to spend many nights during the week out until 3am.’

Despite her views, you somehow know that if, and when, Coren gets round to family life, poker will still play a huge role. The game fits her perfectly. And, making no bones about it, she is a fine player. If she was American, with her charisma and eloquence, there is little doubt she would be a huge star. But here, in Britain, we reward her poker modesty with relative anonymity.

She’s ninth on the all-time women’s money list, and yet most poker fans would not even class her as a real player. But for as long as people choose to underestimate Vicky Coren, she’ll keep smiling sweetly while raking in the chips. Babs should be very proud.

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