Britain's hall of fame

How is Britain’s answer to Binion’s Horseshoe facing up to the new poker revolution?

 
There’s an unspoken rule that a rite of passage of being a poker player involves serving time at The Vic

Even if you’ve never been there, if you’ve got the remotest interest in live poker, you’ll have heard of London’s Grosvenor Victoria Casino. More commonly known by its informal moniker, The Vic, you could be forgiven for thinking the casino just north of Hyde Park in London is actually a cardroom with a casino attached.

The story of The Vic is the story of poker in the UK. It’s still the poker room of choice for many of the UK’s big live-game players, and on any given night you’ll run into some of the stalwarts who are an ingrained part of the history of The Vic. As I found on a recent visit, they’ll happily regale you with tales of the old days, when the legendary ‘big game’ was in full swing and hundreds of thousands of pounds changed hands.

Vic veteran Michael Arnold joined in 1972. ‘I used to play down The Sportsman, where Willie Tann used to deal, but I was such a “star” [fish] there that no-one wanted to tell me about The Vic, because they didn’t want to lose me,’ he admits. Arnold knows the history of the club better than most. ‘The Victoria Sporting Club, as it was then known, grew out of one room. It was a private club where bookmakers came and used to make the prices for the races. It ran for a long time, and they’d play lots of games, opting for a stripped deck, though they stopped that after a while because the Greeks had ‘their way of doing things’.

In the early days, The Vic games centred around seven-card stud, but in around 1983, from America, via Ireland, Manchester and Birmingham, came hold’em, with Omaha hot on its heels. The game that is part of Vic folklore, though, is London lowball, a seven-card-stud low variant almost identical to razz. Lowball games started to attract a crowd of serious pros and wealthy amateurs, and the pots began to swell to huge levels. According to Arnold, it became ‘probably the biggest game in the world, with average pots of more than £60,000’. And this was in the 1980s.

One regular was Willie ‘The Diceman’ Tann. If a Vic Hall of Fame was to be introduced, Willie would surely be its first inductee. He’s been playing poker here ‘since the doors opened’ and was one of the originals from the legendary game. ‘We’d start at 2pm and go on all day and all night. The standard of play was the best in the world. It grew, attracting the likes of Donnacha O’Dea, Surinder Sunar and Ben Roberts.’

CHANGING TIMES

Eventually, though, it got too big, with too many people losing too much money. ‘The big game died a few years ago,’ Willie recalls sadly. These days, you’re unlikely to encounter games of that size at The Vic. Indeed, a lot has changed at London’s poker HQ since its 1980s heyday.

I still remember my first visit some years back. At the time, there were only a couple of other legal poker alternatives in London. As I crossed the hallowed threshold, I was expecting to walk into poker heaven, but all I found was a rather unwelcoming, smoky, jaded room – it was devastatingly anti-climatic. Groups of hefty, beer-bellied blokes, ring fingers with faded lines where wedding bands once were, sat around the tables glaring at me and each other. I tried going back a few more times, but each time, we fell in love even less.

However, returning this summer and playing at the new poker tables, it soon becomes apparent that, once more, something has changed. The online explosion has encouraged new players onto the live circuit, and the introduction of lower-stakes tournaments and a new cardroom to accommodate the swelling numbers has made the vibe friendlier, and the people more approachable. Sure, the level of play may not be consistently expert, but I’ll gladly trade that in for a pleasurable place in which to play poker.

Others seem less enamoured by the recent changes, though. ‘I’d never say it, but I overheard someone say, “It’s fucked and they need to unfuck it!’’,’ says Willie. With the loss of the big game, its players scattered around other poker joints, and claims of a confusing tournament schedule, there’s a feeling among some that The Vic is alienating the old clientele while still not getting it right for new players. And as for the restaurant – it seems everyone wants to talk about just how poor it is.

‘We know it’s not quite right yet, and we need a facelift,’ admits manager Jeff Leigh. ‘Ideally, the poker will all be on one floor once the refurbishment is done next year. But no-one has a better variation of game and standard of professionalism than The Vic.’

After 15 years running the cardroom, Leigh is no doubt intimately acquainted with how poker players do love to moan. ‘I took a pay cut to work in the cardroom. After four weeks, I hated it, and thought, “What have I done?” Yet here he is, all those years on, still striving to make The Vic the best in the world. Proof, again, that there’s something about the place – it gets into your bones.

Marc Goodwin, currently lording it up at the top of the European rankings, still has a soft spot for The Vic too. ‘My best recollection is dealing for ourselves while playing for fortunes. We ate in the restaurant with some female company, and because we didn’t have to pay, we ordered the entire menu, including every bottle of Cristal champagne. Being cocky, I said I’d get the bill, gave the waiter a £50 tip and signed. He returned to say the food was free, but I had to pay for the Cristal. Whoops! The tab came to more than £1,700 – and that was 20 years ago. Fortunately, I won the British hold ’em title here, which helped pay the bill!’

RITES OF PASSAGE

For all the criticism, even today there’s undeniably something special about The Vic. The characters certainly go some way to making this place unique, but it’s more than that – it’s like there’s an unspoken rule that a rite of passage of being a poker player involves serving time at The Vic. Whether it be grifting and grafting at the cash tables, or making it to the final of one of the many ranking tournaments, you need to have played at The Vic.

It has, perhaps, lost some of its heritage and may have been guilty of coasting along on its reputation for a while, but it is now fighting back. And while competition across town from members’ clubs such as The Gutshot and the resurgent Sportsman Casino are forcing The Vic to move on, veterans from London’s legendary cardroom will be glad to know one thing hasn’t changed – at the higher-level tables, the standard of play is among the best in Britain, and possibly the world. Even today, if you want to test your live game, there really is nowhere like it.


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