The home front

Forget the US, the UK is the home of some of the
finest and most entertaining poker players on the
planet. InsideEdge caught up with five of them to
find why the Americans should be worried.

I don’t think I’m playing my best game. If there are two players in the UK that are vastly overrated, it’s myself and Devilfish

Underneath some railway tracks in South London, five of Britain’s best poker players stand, arms folded, staring at the camera. They don’t notice the young woman walking behind them, struggling with two enormous shopping bags. She sidles past as the photographer stops snapping for a moment and gives them a good look up and down. Passing by with a confused look, she asks me in an undertone: ‘Should I know who they are?’ I smile and glance at them – the European Player of the Year, the flash Brummie with a knack for final tables, the Scot with the quick wit and sharp skills, the fast-talking tournament genius and the poker icon. ‘Yep,’ I reply, ‘You should.’ As should anyone interested in poker. These guys are some of the best poker players on the planet. And they just happen to be British.

Note their faces well – you’re going to be seeing a lot more of this gang of Midlands-based players in the future. They’ve already begun to properly flex their poker muscles in the past year, with final table appearances at the Monte Carlo Millions, the EPT and the World Heads-Up Poker Championship. And it’s all done with a smile. In the words of Spinal Tap – their philosophy seems to be to have a good time, all of the time.

This Brit Pack share hotel rooms, cash and plenty of laughs – often at each other’s expense. As a group they are a constant wave of banter. They’re forever needling and challenging each other to stupid bets. The latest is between easygoing, perma-tanned Omaha expert Marc Goodwin and UK poker icon Dave ‘el blondie’ Colclough to see who can get in shape and look best by the pool in Vegas during this year’s World Series. It’s for £1,000. You get the feeling the whippet-thin, pale Colclough should have asked for better odds than evens but it’s not really about the money. Goodwin knows that winning the bet is all about bragging rights and he wants them, whatever the cost.

‘My idea is to go to everyone in the house we’re staying in and offer them money to pick me. If it costs me £2,000 to win his £1,000, that’s fine,’ Goodwin chuckles. He’s not joking, though. These guys are constantly looking to get one over on each other. ‘We all gamble on almost everything,’ Goodwin says. ‘But find me a poker player who isn’t a sick gambler and they’re useless.’ And his eyes light up when talk turns to the group’s current obsession.

‘Right now, we’re addicted to a game called ‘crash’. It’s fantastic. We get drunk and gamble thousands on it and we’re in hysterics. We started playing it in Monte Carlo and people were begging for games. Hachem wanted to play and we wouldn’t let him because there was no spare seat. Paul is the biggest winner – he’s so lucky, it’s a joke – and you always want Dave in your game because he’s so unlucky. The one time he got dealt the perfect hand it was a misdeal!’

Luck, or the lack of it, is something of the theme of the moment for Colclough. He’s undoubtedly one of the UK’s biggest poker stars, but when he sits down at the bar in the minimalist glamour of London’s Cumberland Hotel later that day he looks like he needs a drink. And no wonder. Since ditching his career as an IT consultant many years back, Colclough has become involved in so many poker-related businesses that it’s surprising he finds time to play at all. The demands on his time are beginning to grind him down.

‘A month ago, I took a decision to try to get out of a lot of the things I was involved with. I’ve had three meetings already today, and when I arrive at the game I’m going to be tired and not as focused as usual. Most competitions you only have to make one mistake and you are out. Two years ago, I made 32 final tables in one year when I was just playing poker. Right now, I’m making ten or 12 final tables, and I don’t think I’m playing my best game. I’m the most overrated player in the UK. If there are two players in the UK that are vastly overrated, it’s myself and Devilfish,’ he remarks.

He’s at least half wrong there. Softly spoken and self-effacing, Colclough is a phenomenally successful and well-respected player. Indeed, he’s banked almost £2 million in tournament winnings, and the rest of the guys unhesitatingly name him the best of the bunch. But while it’s easy to put his words down to modesty, Colcough’s lack of stateside success clearly gives his assessment an edge. ‘I feel like Colin Montgomerie. I haven’t won a WSOP or a WPT event,’ he grimaces, overlooking his six World Series and one World Poker Tour final tables.

‘The worst thing is I had one won and I gave it away [in 2000 when he made a deal at the final table of the $2,000 WSOP pot-limit hold’em event]. But I thought those sort of opportunities would come around all the time. I was too bigheaded, but poker players are too bigheaded.’

Maybe they are, but that’s really not the impression you get from Colclough. He sits, legs tight together, hunched over while drinking a coffee as we talk. His body language is all about making himself seem as unthreatening as possible. He’s not as loud or as outspoken as most, and it’s hard to coax anything from him other than understated analysis of his game. Is it possible he’s just too nice to win a poker tournament?

‘Okay, I’ve won tournaments for $100,000, but at the highest levels I haven’t stepped up. If I knew the reason for it I would address it, but it could be I don’t have that extra inch of ego, viciousness or killer instinct. Having said that, I’m not happy with second. I came third in the £1,000 at the Vic [the Grosvenor World Masters No-Limit Hold’em event in June for £15,000]. People are texting me congratulations and I don’t feel like I’ve done well. It sounds silly, but there was a little glass trophy and I wanted to win it.’

He doesn’t play timid poker, with his early successes down to utilising an aggressive way of playing Omaha rarely seen in the UK at that time. And he’s carried that risk-taking style with him to hold’em, where he combines it with a deep analysis of the game. Colclough is a student of poker as well as a master, and is constantly looking at ways to improve his game. ‘There are always ways you could have played better. I try to play how people don’t want me to play.’ You could say Colclough has the game, but not yet the results. The more frequently given explanation is he simply isn’t getting the breaks. At the last WPT World Championship he found himself in a position where he had 129,000 chips by the second level of the first day and then picked up pocket Kings in the big blind – only to run into Aces. ‘Some people would say that’s just unlucky. But do the absolute top players get away from situations like that?’ comes the rhetorical question. ‘If I knew the answer, maybe I would win more big tournaments,’ he says, adding, ‘But anyone who tells you they know the answer is lying.’

With almost $200,000 in tournament winnings this year alone, he’s not struggling, but his lack of big-time success clearly bothers him. It’s not just about the money either, though the uncertainties of earning a living from the European circuit doesn’t help his stress levels. (‘Last year my principal income was from two events – one in February and one in December. It can get very worrying’).

No, he may not say it, but what Colclough seems to crave most of all is recognition – recognition that his game really does put him up there among the world’s best. ‘I get highly embarrassed about people seeing me lose. If I make a bad play and everyone is talking about me, that hurts as much as getting knocked out, though that bloody hurts, too.’

One man who knows all about the vagaries of life as a poker pro is the current European Player of the Year, Mickey Wernick. As he stands, looking slightly dishevelled on the edge of things at the photo shoot, you could be forgiven for overlooking Mickey. But he is a truly talented player – determined, experienced, full of moves and hugely underrated. He’s a real live-game expert, relying more on reads and moves than mathematical probability. I meet up with him again at the bar at London’s home of poker, the Grosvenor Victoria, where he sits sipping an orange juice and chain smoking. Our conversation is constantly broken by a stream of well-wishers who come up to shake his hand. Everyone loves Mickey Wernick, it seems. ‘Someone came up to me the other day and asked for my autograph. What’s this all about with poker players giving autographs – has the world gone crazy?’ he says.

Only a year back, however, it was all so different. ‘Last August I was scratching around to meet the bills. I went in to my local casino in Wolverhampton with £60 in my pocket,’ he says. ‘I entered a £25 tournament and finished up winning £1,200. I jumped in my car and came down here [to the Vic]. I entered the £1,000 tournament [last year’s European Championship No-Limit Hold’em event] and ended up fifth. I came back the following afternoon and went straight to the Omaha hi-lo, finished in the money and went straight into another tournament and – fuck me – I’d gone from nothing on the Sunday to £18,000!’

All of a sudden, he was causing a sensation, rocketing to ninth in the European Rankings. ‘I have a cunning Jewish brain and I thought this could be a big thing, so I really gave it my best shot and went to number one in December. It was between me and Pascal Perault in the Christmas Cracker at Luton. We both got to the final table, I had 39,000 and he had 240,000. I sat and grinded, and grinded and finished up winning it. Then I picked up sponsorship from Blue Square that has changed my life.’

It marked the end of an amazing year for Wernick, but at 62 he’s more comfortable than most with the highs and lows. In his twenties he was a casino owner, and has been playing high-stakes cash games since the 1960s, playing draw poker with £20 antes when that was a week’s wages. But it was in the 1980s when his game went to a level few UK players will ever experience. On regular trips to Vegas he’d find himself playing headsup with the likes of Johnny Chan and Bobby Baldwin. ‘Back then, I was pretty bigheaded – I thought I was the best. I wasn’t afraid of anybody. I was playing Stu Ungar heads-up and I didn’t care. I was fearless.’

‘In 1986 I won an Omaha 8 tournament and went straight into a game with Johnny Chan and Chip Reese. I started out on Thursday. By Sunday morning, I hadn’t moved from my seat. I’d done my $86,000 and I wasn’t going anywhere until they carried me from the seat or I got my money back. Eventually, on the Monday morning, I got my money back and said, “That’s my lot.” Stu Ungar looked up at me and said, “Hit and run?”’

The big cash games first brought part of the Brit Pack together. Colclough, Wernick and Goodwin met back in the 1980s when they were regulars at a private cash game played at a venue known as Barry’s, in Birmingham. It was a poker school for a generation of Midlands poker pros, and hundreds of thousands of pounds changed hands. A local building-firm owner lost millions to the likes of Colclough. The crazy gambling was evident too, with one notorious tale of a £50,000 bet on a single game of snooker.

So was Colclough making as much back then as he is now? ‘I made a damn sight more money in those days. It was great fun, we always had a great craic. Playing in Barry’s spieler with Mickey and Derek Baxter and some of the best cash players in the world and beating them was incredibly satisfying. But, unfortunately, too many people went broke and the game finished,’ comes the misty-eyed response.

The three players found each other again on the poker circuit, where they hooked up with Tony Chessa and Paul Jackson, who are perhaps the least well known of the Brit Pack, but hugely entertaining company. Meeting up with them in a sedate hotel in London, I feel like I’ve been verbally assaulted. The duo have a relentless, machine-gun banter. When Chessa starts talking about how his Littlewoods sponsorship has made a huge difference to his life, Jackson is quick to chime in with, ‘You can’t understand a word he says. He’s got no hair, he’s got no marketing abilities whatsoever and he has a sponsorship deal – what’s that about?’

‘Yes, but I’m better looking than you,’ retorts Chessa. ‘No you’re not, you look like a fat Andre Agassi,’ is Jackson’s comeback. At which point, a long-suffering waitress brings our drinks, and Chessa asks her who she thinks is better looking. After much persuading, she finally points to Chessa and the two crack up.

Chessa is the baby of the group, at 32, but has already attracted a lot of attention in his native Scotland with a run of final table appearances. His easy going, quick wit makes him a popular face on the circuit, and he’s devoid of most of the ego that comes with some of the newer breed of pros. Chessa began playing poker to unwind after finishing a late shift at one of his family’s restaurants in Glasgow. ‘I lost my shirt when I first started playing. I must have lost £50,000.’ It’s safe to say he’s winning far more than that these days, however.

He’s a relative newcomer to the Brit Pack, and has yet to register his first big-money win, but behind all the schoolboy laughs, it’s clear they all have a huge amount of respect for him and each other. ‘We’ve never fallen out. If any of us asks anyone for money they can have it, no questions asked,’ Chessa says. ‘I share a room with Marc and we both put our money in the safe – at no point is there any question about counting it or making sure whose is whose.’ Jackson quickly echoes his comments. ‘We’re all like-minded, and we all know we won’t take advantage of each other. It’s rare in this world and very rare in poker.’

Jackson was another who discovered the game in the casinos, but got the bankroll to turn pro only after winning numerous tournaments online. Some of his biggest wins came on, where he swears he only ever made a single £250 deposit. He’s something of an internet anomaly, however, with a tight mathematical style and has no time for the grandstanding aggression of the new breed. ‘A lot of them just use mindless aggression. Occasionally it works, but more often it doesn’t. It’s why you rarely see the same players on the final table.’

Jackson has made more than the one final table since turning pro, amassing almost $1m in prize money, including second-place finishes at the Monte Carlo Millions and the World Heads-Up Poker Championships. And he says his success is something many card room regulars could emulate. ‘There are plenty of players who if given the opportunity would be world-class players, but they never take the step. I’ve always been successful at poker, but I had a job and never considered it as a career to feed my family. There are hundreds of players like that who can’t make the jump.’

Marc Goodwin only recently made that jump himself. Eight months ago, he was selling double glazing and playing in his spare time. Now he travels the world playing tournaments, or plays online, where he lands $8,000 on an average night on Omaha cash games. He’s no grinder though, with his flops-seen percentages – in the high 80s – amazingly high for a pro. ‘It’s a mixture between being a gambler and controlled aggression. I’m there to gamble. I want to be active,’ he says, admitting, ‘Sometimes I know I’m doing bad moves, but the hand moves faster than the head.’

He could make a good living online, but for Goodwin the lifestyle of a live-game pro can’t be bested by a life spent sitting in front of a TFT screen. ‘I’ve seen lads winning and losing a million dollars online. They didn’t even do anything with it, that’s the sad part. I love being on tour. We’re all living the dream and loving life. We stay in the best hotels, we have nice cars, we eat in any restaurant we want, buy what clothes we want and we worry about the money later. And the banter is unbelievable. I’m laughing so much I’m crying sometimes.’

Colclough, however, is in no doubt there are some aspects of the way the online generation approach the game that gives them an edge. ‘Some of the internet players scare me when they start talking about percentages of calling flops and bet rates on the flop. A lot of the top live players will not agree, but they are fooling themselves.’ Wernick has a different view. ‘You have to play poker with this’ he says thumping his balled up fist against his chest. ‘You have to have a big heart.’

You have to have a bit of flash, too. The sunlight glinting off the black paintwork of the Ferrari lights up Goodwin’s face. He’s utterly in his element. But despite his £1,000 suit and Prada shades, there’s something faintly charming about the picture. If the US is a hyper-real travelling circus with the attendant cavalcade of outre personalities, outlandishly expensive cash games and huge TV audiences, then Britain is more down to earth. There’s something resolutely unpolished and gritty about the UK poker scene. It’s perhaps partly a matter of perception. US players see themselves as superstars; British players are a bit more humble – for now, at least.

But mostly it’s a factor of money. Although the rapidly growing EPT is having an impact, the real money is still won over the pond. That doesn’t mean it’s where the real poker gets played. ‘I don’t care what anyone says, the UK game is much tougher. We are better players than the Americans,’ Tony Chessa says. Jackson agrees. ‘The top Americans are brilliant, but the rest are nowhere near as good as they think they are.’

What is unarguable is that the earnings of players on the US tour are way in excess of the richest dreams of the typical British poker pro. A single final table finish at a major WPT or WSOP event is equivalent to a year slogging around Europe. Paul Jackson believes it’s possible there are no more than 30 players regularly turning a profit on the European circuit. ‘Around 3% of players make money, 6% break even and the rest lose,’ Chessa concludes.

So what’s stopping the cream of British talent leaving for the US in their droves? Ironically, for some it’s the money. ‘If you want to travel in America to play in a $10,000 tournament, it’s going to cost you around $20,000 to do so. How many times can you do that before you get into trouble?’ asks Goodwin.

For both Jackson and Colclough, it’s family life that keeps them here. ‘If it wasn’t for the fact I have an eight year-old daughter, I’d be sat in the Commerce or the Bellagio playing $25/$50 or $50/$100 hold’em every day. Every time I sit in those games I just find it so easy to win money. I could win enough on the cash games that I could play the tournaments without worrying about making money,’ Colclough says.

But, with recent big wins from Harry Demetriou and former InsideEdge writer Roland De Wolfe, it seems the Brits are finally taking the game to the Americans on their own soil. And it’s a contest Goodwin, for one, can’t wait to get involved in.

‘I played in the Bellagio for three weeks and I never came across a player,’ Goodwin says. ‘That’s not being bigheaded – as a matter of fact, the best player I sat on a table with was Tony Bloom. I didn’t even realise I was on a table with David Williams and Todd Brunson. I could see their moves coming and I couldn’t believe they were falling for things. If you put together a team of six Brits, you could take on any Americans. They may have been ahead of us once, but they are not any more.’

Maybe someone should fire a warning shot across the Atlantic to let them know the Brit Pack’s coming. They won’t know what’s hit them.

Pin It

Comments are closed.