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07/10/2001 No.2
he Guardian Poker Column
 
   
 
 
Victoria Coren writes the Guardian Poker Column
 
 
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When the chips are down

Victoria Coren's everyday tale of poker folk

You don't 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 the night.

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.

I guess 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.
 
     
 
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