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02/12/2001 No.4
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren writes the Guardian Poker Column
Email : TheEditor on any subject.
When the chips are down

Playing tennis, or football, a language barrier doesn't matter. But poker is about the quips, the banter, the flirting. They're also what makes it bearable to sit there for the best part of a day.

Ah, the Oscars. The dazzling glare of a hundred Aertex shirts. The old-time glamour of a B&H butt stubbed into an ashtray. That certain je ne sais quoi of a lady in rhinestone jewellery swearing at a croupier.

I speak, of course, of the 'Poker Oscars', happening in two weeks' time at Casino Ray in Helsinki. This is a new idea, suggested by Nic Szeremeta of Poker Europa magazine: to hold a glittering awards ceremony with prizes for best player of the year, best rookie, best individual tournament performance and so on. But the spiciest title, giving rise to the most debate, is 'Poker Personality Of The Year.'

I am delighted to report that, of the five nominees in this last category, three of them are British. Best player of the year is likely to be Marcel Luske from Amsterdam, known (of course) as 'Dutch Marcel', who is currently top of the European rankings. This year, the man has won Pot Limit Omaha tournaments in Vienna and London, No-Limit HoldEm tournaments in Prague, even a Limit 7-Card-Stud High-Low tournament in Paris. He seems to win at every variation of the game, in every city, at every level.

But, far more important of course, the Brits are leading the field for best personality. Hot favourite for that much-debated title is Mad Marty Wilson from Birmingham. There are several reasons why everybody loves Mad Marty. Firstly, he's the friendliest guy you could hope to meet. Secondly, he's a ducker and diver: always devising crazed schemes to get enough money for gambling. One year he claimed to have bought his entry ticket for the World Series by collecting acorns outside Las Vegas and selling them on as 'the genuine article from Sherwood Forest'. Another year it was stolen whelks.

And thirdly, he has the most fantastic way of telling disguised jokes. However cheesy the imminent punchline, you just never see it coming. 'There was an Iranian guy next to me at the poker table,' Marty once told me gravely. 'He had scars all over his wrists.'

There was a pause while I reflected on the possible reasons for this. Marty let me think. Eventually he went on: 'I said to the guy, "You won your appeal then?"'

At the filming of Late Night Poker in Cardiff, Marty and I shared a taxi to the local casino. 'The name's Wilson,' Marty told the hotel receptionist when he booked the cab.

'For now?' she asked.

'No,' he said, 'it's always been Wilson.'

When the car came, Marty told the driver all about how he himself was once a cabbie. 'Gave it up in the end,' Marty told the nodding man at the wheel. 'I couldn't stand people talking behind me back.'

Of course, the jokes and the 'mad' handle disguise a shrewd and cunning poker player. And Marty is only one of many lovable and funny folk around the poker scene. I asked Jurke Inisalo, the poker manager at Casino Ray, why they were giving a prize for 'best personality' and he said, 'Everybody likes a "character" at the table. These nominees are all good players, but it is their likeable qualities which really improve the game.'

I was in Amsterdam recently, and went down to play poker at the Holland Casino on Leidseplein. I learned two things. One is that the nickname of 'Dutch Marcel' doesn't quite have the same edge in Holland. The other is that poker becomes surprisingly dull when everyone around you is speaking a language you don't understand.

Playing tennis, or football, a language barrier really doesn't matter. But poker is all about the quips, the banter and the flirting. They're vital in getting 'a read' on players and judging them accurately; they're also what makes it bearable to sit there patiently for the best part of a day. Without any chat, poker is just check, call, fold; bet, raise, fold; check, bet, fold. The hours pass, the chips clink, and life slips away. Without the cloak of funny chatter, I saw the stark bones of the game: a long, lonely chase after money.

I sat next to an elderly Dutchman who kept forgetting to 'post his big blind'. Eventually I tried reminding him in English.

I'm sorry,' he said, 'I was dreaming.'

'Dreaming about aces?' I asked.

'No,' said the old Dutchman. 'I was dreaming about when I was young.'