Victoria Coren Interview Continued

Victoria Coren Interview Continued 0001

[*]I was reading your poker columns (The entire archives of which can be found at In American society you kind of get the feeling that there is a culture of poker and a general systemic DNA type of understanding that poker is something that exists. But here there isn't that mainstream "seeped into the unconscious" kind of awareness. And your column is one of the few things which is in the realm of the general public who don't necessarily even know that poker exists...

This is something that people don't realise. Sometimes people are critical of my poker columns on the internet on poker sites because they say they're too simplistic. And I think "there are two things you're not grasping here." One, that the space is very short - I feel like it's a huge achievement to have persuaded a national newspaper that they should have weekly poker at all, but they're not going to give me a whole page. And two, absolutely it is for recreational players. It will be for players who, if they raise with {K}{K} and get three callers, they don't necessarily understand that an {A} on the flop is bad for them. I'm hoping that they've come with me over the years. My column, if you start at the beginning has very very simple strategy and I'm hoping that the game of some of the longer term readers has developed over time. But there are concepts we consider incredibly simple if we play poker all the time that other people don't if they haven't played very much. I just wrote one recently about a World Series event in which a guy had 1000 chips left and put in 700 with {Q}{Q}, two people went all in and he folded. And you just think, what is this man doing in a $1500 World Series event if he doesn't understand that he can't fold here. That's why they can be quite simple.

I mean, it's funny, poker and the press...The first poker column I wrote was in Observer Sport Monthly, which is the sports magazine that comes with the Observer. That was probably about eight or nine years ago, and I wrote it for about a year and then the editor said "Thanks very much, it's been really fun, I think this poker fashion is probably over now, so we're going to replace that with a show jumping column. If you could come up with something else that'd be great." And of course even then poker was only played by about twelve people, and now it's played by millions. I thought that was quite funny.

I was very pleased when the Guardian said they were going to start having weekly poker. As I said, it's quite a small space I get there.

[*]It is, but it really does add up to something. I was reading it and there was a hand where someone had a full house, but it was no way it was good...

It might have been Phil Hellmuth?

[*]Yes! From the Party Poker Premier League!

Let me tell you a really funny thing. I think it was in a $1500 HORSE event at the World Series this year, I only played four events, but I was playing the $1500 HORSE and towards the end of day one I got moved to Phil's table, which was right by the rail, so obviously there were 200 fans of Phil on the rail.

They were shouting things, he was bantering with them and being very good natured. As I sat down at the table Phil shouted "I can't believe you said I should fold a full house!" I was quite startled, I was just trying to sort out my chips and the first thing I thought was "Phil Hellmuth reads the Guardian? People in the UK don't even read the Guardian, so how the hell has he seen it?"

But I felt in quite an awkward position, because, of course, Phil Hellmuth is an absolutely brilliant No Limit Hold 'Em tournament player. The guy's a genius and I'm not saying he isn't. But on this particular hand, it was a bad call. His hand could not have been good, looking at the board, although it was a full house, his hand could not have been good. But I wasn't going to say this to him in front of 200 of his cheering fans. That would just be mean! Like most male poker players, a big ego denotes something very fragile. I wasn't going to insult Phil over a hand he played in front of people. So I just said "I'm terribly sorry, I don't know what I was thinking, of course you couldn't pass." Secretly so thrilled that he read the Guardian I would have told him anything.

[*]I have a question about poker language, since I know you're interested in language...Why do they say "pass" when meaning "fold" in England and almost never in America?

I don't know, I suppose it's just habit.

[*]I have a theory that it might be to do with cockney vowel sounds, and how "Fold" and "Call" don't sound that different.

Oh my God. I, one time, was making a bet, I mean it was quite a small game, but I think the blinds were £1/£2 and I said "A cockerel" meaning ten - that's London slang for ten! They made me call. Think how much "cockerel" sounds like call. That was a terrible mistake.

[*]This is why the buttons on Pokerstars don't say "Raise a Monkey" or "Call a Pony" and use numbers. How did your relationship with PokerStars come about? Did they just approach you?

I was talking to PokerStars a long time before I actually made a deal with them. We started having a conversation in the summer of 2006, because I had started playing on PokerStars. I was a big fan of the site, I wasn't sponsored at the time and I really liked them. In a not very playing-hard-to-get kind of way I said "I'd very happily do something with you if you're interested." And they were quite interested and we started talking but it was all very complicated. These business deals are. I wouldn't have started playing poker if I was terribly good at nine-to-five stuff like contracts and negotiations. So it turned into quite a long chat and I rather cheekily said "while we're talking about it, why don't you put me in the London EPT, come on, it's my home casino. It would be fun! Don't you want me wearing PokerStars in my home event?" And they were just rather kindly, and ruefully said "oh, go on then, we'll give you a free seat in that if you wear the logo." And, you know, that worked out very well for both of us I think!

I really felt after that that PokerStars were lucky for me. I was very uncertain about whether I wanted to do a sponsorship deal at all, because brilliant as they look, of course there have feelings about, I don't know...stuff like, you get in the firing line - you take sponsorship, everybody's going to criticise how you play, everyone's going to monitor your results. Anybody who gets unlucky on the river in a hand on PokerStars is going to blame me personally. I really wasn't sure. I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it, they weren't sure if they wanted to do it, but after the London EPT I just thought well that's the Universe saying this is the right thing. This is the way forward. And eighteen months later we finally made a deal!

I'm in a slightly different position from a lot of poker players in that I do have a completely different life as well, and they relate to each other. Somebody who is a hundred percent full time professional poker player and doesn't make their living any other way is going to approach sponsorship differently and they would be right to. For me, I write poker advice columns in British newspapers and I write articles and present TV shows that are nothing to do with poker at all.

There are people who are very new to poker or haven't played at all who would trust me. If I say I play on this site, I'm not necessarily speaking to an audience of just the cognoscenti who know about all the sites already, I'm speaking to people who might know nothing about it, and they are going to trust me.

I signed up with PokerStars because that's where I play, with or without a deal. That's where I recommended that people started playing.

[*]I wanted to ask you about the hand at the London EPT with Barney Boatman, because you did something that most people don't do - you put the things that most people keep in their head on display and analysed the hand out loud. Was that for your own benefit or was it partly to pick up response? (Vicky had made a crucial call on Barney in the late stages of the EPT London after taking time in the hand to talk through the action out loud)

100% for my own benefit. Barney Boatman is far too good a player to display his hand on his face in response to a question. I was working it out and, you know, those were very tense times. We were approaching the final table in an EPT event in my home casino - it was very high stakes, not just financially.

I really didn't want to make any mistakes - there was probably an extra factor in that Barney is a really good friend of mine so maybe my thoughts might be complicated by too much prior knowledge of him. I don't want to knock him out, I wasn't sure that I wanted him to knock me out, and somehow, possibly because I've done so much poker commentary, I felt that working it through out loud would make it less likely that I made a cloudy, hurried judgement that would be the wrong one.

[*]One potential downside of that approach is that you might give a lot of information away to the rest of the table about how you break down a hand. Do you just assume that everyone knows that you know what you're doing anyway, so that's not too much of a factor?

Oh no! Plenty of people assume I have no clue what I'm doing. And sometimes they're right. No...I give a lot of information away anyway. I'm not too hung up on trying to sit there with a face of stone in absolute silence. You won't see me at the poker table with an iPod and sunglasses, although I have considered a full balaclava.

I don't really worry about that and maybe it's arrogance but I'm pretty confident that I'm in control of the amount of information I'm giving away and I know why I'm doing it. One of my greatest strengths in poker has always been that I can understand quite quickly what my opponent thinks of me and what they expect. If I had £100 for every kindly player who's said to me "you've got a tell when you do this, and a tell when you do that..." I could probably double my poker winnings over the last ten years. But...let's just say...they're often wrong.

There was this hand in some TV tournament I played recently where a guy had said to me on the break - and he meant it very nicely - "listen, you've got a tell, and I'm not going to tell you about it now, because we're still in the game, but I know 100% for certain when you're bluffing." And the first hand after the break I decided to run a massive bluff on him purely to amuse myself. I was certain that he'd probably seen something but I generally hide my information in a mass of other stuff.

I laugh all the time, I talk all the time, I flirt, I order drinks, I go for cigarettes, I'm the least still player you're likely to come across but I'm pretty confident that I know what I'm doing and I couldn't resist in this particular case bluffing him just to chuckle to myself. I think when he watches that on TV he'll remember what he told me in the break and think "oh, perhaps it's not that straightforward."

[*]Vicky, thanks so much for talking to Pokernews. It's been a pleasure!

Vicky Coren is a Team PokerStars Pro. She'd like you to check out her website at

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