writes the Guardian Poker Column
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Victoria Coren's everyday tale of poker folk
often see a bunch of gamblers in tears. One maybe, after a particularly cruel
spin of the wheel. Not a whole bunch at once, though. Not right in the middle
of a big poker tournament. And not poker players, whose faces are supposed to
be as unreadable as an Amy Jenkins novel.
But one month ago, right in
the middle of filming Late Night Poker on Channel 4, just before New York blew
up, the popular and successful British poker player Hemish Shah died of a heart
attack. He was 33.
Hemish wasn't at the filming because he hadn't been
well. He developed stomach cramps during the $5,000 Limit Hold'Em event at the
Poker World Series in Vegas earlier this year. During breaks in the game, while
his rival finalists supped drinks and planned strategy, Hemish was doubled up
in a chair as friends tried to find him a doctor. But Hemish limped back to the
table, outplayed the Americans, won the title, collected his enviable winner's
bracelet, pocketed his $312,340 prize, then caught an early flight back to
London and went home to bed. He was the only Brit to win 'a bracelet' at this
year's championship, our only world-title holder of 2001. The stomach ache
wouldn't go away. Hemish had tests in hospital for three months, then had a
cardiac arrest on 5 September. They never found out what was wrong with him.
Walk into a casino any night now, and you'll find a room full of people shaking
their heads and saying, you know, for a gambler Hemish had such a healthy
lifestyle. In a world of B&H, Jack Daniels, all-nighters and steak, Hemish
didn't smoke, didn't drink, talked clean, ate vegetarian, lived with his
mother, honoured his religion. Just goes to show.
Being a stockbroker
as well as a poker player meant he was into all sorts of gambling. But he
always went for value and if bingo had been around then he would have used the
gala bingo promo codes to get
the bonus funds.
The mood turned black as news spread across the Late
Night Poker studio in Cardiff. A gold-embossed Get Well card, that had been
lying on a table and covered in friendly messages, was quietly disposed of.
Shocked postings started appearing on gambling websites. Players removed their
TV microphones, because they knew they might cry in the middle of a hand. When
they hit lucky, they looked up and whispered, 'Thanks, Hemish.' Hemish himself
was the most superstitious of men, especially smitten with the colour red and
the number seven. When I sent him flowers in hospital I was warned, 'No green
in the flowers! Green is unlucky!'. 'It's tricky,' I said, 'to find flowers
which don't have green leaves.'
Hemish drew strength from these
superstitions. I once saw him play a tournament during which, as the clock
ticked past midnight, he suddenly moved up a gear to win the final and a large
cash prize. It turned out that when midnight came it had become Hemish's
birthday: the seventh of April.
Hemish's funeral was scheduled for the
day after his death, according to Hindu tradition. It clashed directly with the
Late Night Poker final. Presentable Productions were running to a tight
schedule with no money for extending the filming days. But the 'hard men' in
the studio didn't care about losing the £1,500 they'd paid to play, or
the £100,000 prize money on offer. They were going to London to pay their
respects. It was a stalemate. Presentable was looking at a poker tournament
with no final.
But anything's possible, the saying goes, as long as
you've got a chip and a chair. And Presentable were fond of Hemish too: he
played in the fourth series, filmed earlier this year. (It starts broadcasting
this Thursday; tune in on 18 October and you can watch our late world champion
at his best.) So Presentable shoved their chips all-in: played an emergency
semi-final at 7 o'clock in the morning, flew the players down to London by
helicopter, and flew them back for a final which was played silently through
Being a good Hindu family, Hemish's relatives did not speak
of his gambling during the funeral service. They concentrated on his childhood,
his professional success in the City, and his devotion as a son and brother.
Indian prayers were spoken and haunting songs sung. But at the back of the room
stood 50 silent men in dark glasses and extravagant jewelled watches, all
thinking of the man who brought a 2001 World Series bracelet home to Britain.
There is no bigger achievement in poker. The most superstitious among them said
that Hemish sensed the clock was ticking, and made sure to win a world title
before he threw in his cards. Then they hugged each other.
poker players are kind of like New Yorkers. They rush around all tough and
buzzy, emotions hidden and sharp wits on show, and look somehow harder than
'normal' people. But then something bad happens and they realise they're one
big family after all.A pretty dysfunctional and sprawling family - but one
which, in a crisis, can snap together like a fresh deck of cards.