By Philip Watson
(ESQ: Esquire Sports Quarterly, Winter 2001)
Rider of historic “Magnificent Seven” at Ascot, 1997
Three-time champion jump jockey; world record 1699 wins
Six-time world snooker champion; 71 major titles
Leading sports promoter; owner of Leyton Orient FC
Champion pool player and hustler
In a large suite on the 22nd floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane, five men gather for The Biggest Game In Town. The biggest poker game, that is, taking place at 4pm on a wet Tuesday afternoon at the end of September. The sixth player, a small Italian jockey known for his flamboyant dismounts and narrow escapes from death, is yet to show.
“I can see you’ve dressed for the part,” Barry Hearn says pointedly to Steve Davis as the snooker champion strolls into the room. Hearn, who has been Davis’s manager for more than 20 years, is wearing a sharp, businesslike navy blue pinstripe suit with a red floral tie; Davis arrives sporting old cords and a blue polo shirt that he picked up gratis at (something tells me) the 1998 Marlin Fishing World Cup in Mauritius.
“What? I’ve come straight from practising,” says Davis, detecting, one suspects, that the psychological game has already begun and that Hearn is keen to score the opening points. As Davis orders a strong black coffee (a classic tiredness bluff, if ever I saw one), introductions are made.
On the sofa, red-faced and peroxide-haired Steve Knight, a man who, even though he is wearing a sober grey suit, looks every inch the pool hustler and poker shark, is explaining the game’s rudiments to the gentleman of National Hunt racing, Richard Dunwoody, who has come dressed in enigmatic black. It is a colour that is barely hides his patent nervousness.
Dunwoody and, he tells us, Dettori are seemingly novices at the game (beginners’ luck, we reply); Davis has played and won only once, he claims, during a three-day stint in Vegas 20 years ago (“He qualifies as an occasional player,” says his manager); Hearn is a committed newcomer (“I’m playing all the time and loving it”); and the Man from Esquire a casual player in an irregular game with friends (“Bollocks, I’ve seen you, and you can play,” says Hearn, referring to a friendly game we played in a few weeks before). It emerges, however, that the unknown Knight is somewhat more experienced.
Starting to play at the age of 17, he has entered poker tournaments around the world, especially in the States, where at one stage he was playing almost every day. “I was recently in LA for two weeks and I played absolutely nothing but poker,” says Knight, as a loud silence engulfs the room.
As we sit down at a special Ladbroke Casinos table, our professional dealer Lorraine goes over a few basic rules. We are to play pot-limit Texas Hold ‘Em with a buy-in of £100. If a player loses all his chips within the first half hour of play, he can then rebuy another £100’s worth; after that he is eliminated. We are playing a “freeze-out”, a tournament-style game that continues until one winner takes all: in this case £600.
It is small by casino standards – the Poker Million event that Ladbrokes and Hearn’s Matchroom Sport have organised on the Isle of Man during mid-November, for example, has a record-breaking first prize of £1 million. But leading sportsmen, even retired ones like Dunwoody, can’t resist a challenge.
“I suppose the focus you need as a jockey might help,” says Dunwoody, when I ask him whether he considers he has any sporting advantage, “but perhaps it is more the hunger to succeed that counts. All of us around this table like winning.”
As Hearn boasts he has superiority in the statistical side of the game (“I know money and numbers,” says sport’s definitive Essex Man), and as Davis adopts the art of the straight face, Knight appears confident and Dunwoody continues to look contained yet concerned, The Bet begins. There is still no sign of Dettori; we decide to play the game five-handed.
The first hand augurs well for Esquire. Up against the two big hitters, Knight and Hearn, and with a flop showing a pair of 8s, I raise the maximum and watch them drop quicker than a nun’s kiss. It’s a small pot and I have nothing in my hand – certainly not a third 8 to make trips (three of a kind) – but first blood is significant. I want them to think that I am a presence at this table, that to bet big against me you need to be holding a strong hand.
“Oh, you little rascal,” cries Hearn, as I scoop up the chips. “Anymore of that, Mr Watson, and we’ll just have to take you outside and give you a jolly good kickin’.” I roll with the low blow and try to look unimpressed. There is a very long way to go, I tell him, and that, as he well knows, poker is a game of concentration, self-discipline – and patience. And yet, over the next ten minutes, I continue to bully my opponents out of hands.
“Oh, I don’t like this game at all,” whinges Davis, who along with Hearn is dominating the chat at the table. “I don’t like not knowing what my opponents have got or whether they could beat me. At least in snooker everything’s out in the open and if you fuck up, you know you’ve fucked up because you missed the pocket. Anyway, I’m at a total disadvantage because there are no pockets on this table and the baize isn’t green.”
After 20 minutes I am not, however, chip leader. In one showdown that goes all the way to the last card, Knight bets aggressively and wins a pot of £105. He reveals a pair of Queens; Hearn has two Jacks. It puts Knight’s stack at around £170 to my £155; Hearn is trailing the pack with just £45 in front of him.
Over the next half and hour or so, things start to get tough. With the blinds (antes) increasing from £2.50 to £5 to £10, players’ chips become rapidly depleted. Hearn gets down to a stack, as he puts it, “so low that I could have got under a rattlesnake wearing a top hat” and twice goes “all-in” by betting every chip he has left. Both times, once against long odds, he survives.
While Knight continues to be a powerful if slightly slumped force at the table, and his experience manifest in the way he riffles his chips and throws them nonchalantly into the middle of the table, Davis loses a couple of hands and is the first, just before the 30 minute cut-off, to rebuy £100 more in chips (the total prize money now stands at £700). Although it becomes evident in his use of certain poker terms and strategies that he is not quite the beginner he would have the table believe, he is talking too much and concentrating too little.
Dunwoody is calmer and more effective. While he is softly-spoken and mild-mannered (not hard, granted, in this company) and seems to be playing cautiously, you can see the sharp intelligence in his eyes and the resilient sangfroid in his demeanour. At one point, he goes all-in and crushes Davis with two pairs against a pitiful King high. Then, clearly getting the hang of things, he raises a big £30 after the flop and sits back as each around the table drops. “I’m starting to get butterflies when I get a decent hand,” he admits, when I ask he how that win felt. “And that is difficult to control.”
“This is a very tough physical and mental game,” says Hearn. “The way I look at it, poker is more violent than boxing. Poker strips your soul bare, it displays every weakness known to man, and it shows to the world the size of your head, your heart and your balls. This isn’t a pastime; this is an intense sport and it should carry a government health warning.”
Hearn is talking things up for the purposes of promoting his new sporting baby, of course, but I look down at my chips and know he is right. Not having had a decent hand to play or bluff on in a good 15 minutes, my confidence is being dented and my position at the table becoming weaker. Suddenly dealt a pair of Queens, I bet far too strongly and scare off my opponents.
Then, with the antes up to £20 and with just £60 in chips in front of me, I face a crucial decision. Raised £40 by Knight before the flop, a bet quickly matched by Hearn, I look down at my pair of 7s and wonder what to do. What are they holding and what are my chances of winning with this low pair? Am I playing with the odds or against them? Am I risk minimiser or maximiser? There is nowhere to hide. Alternate waves of self-belief and self-doubt crash over me. If I see the bet and lose, I will be out. If I win, I will be back in the running.
“Now we’re asking a big question of our journalist friend here,” shouts Hearn, with barely concealed relish. “Where’s your nerve and how big is your bum? Room service – can I order a cork?”
“Come on, Mr Esquire, you should go out in a blaze of glory,” says an unhelpful Davis, who, needless to say, is not in the hand.
With the barracking continuing, and having at least one of them for a higher pair than me, I decide to fold and wait for a better hand.
“Oh, you bottler,” cries Hearn.
“You fool. You wanker,” shouts Davis. At this table, poker is not so much a card game as a test of male virility.
And it turns out to be the wrong decision. While Knight and Hearn are holding strong hole cards (A-Q and A-K respectively), the flop only brings a pair of 5s and Hearn wins with the higher cards. I would have cleaned up with two pairs, 7s and 5s.
Shortly afterwards, as Dettori joins us, my game is up as I go all-in against Hearn, who makes a jammy full house. I have come sixth out of six, and have to sit back impotently and watch the action.
Dettori is dressed in smart jeans and a black jacket and warmly greets the table. “What are we playing – stud?” he says, casually, as he sits down. He clearly knows more than he is letting on and throws in his first few hands. “Where did you get those cards from?” he jokes with Lorraine, the dealer. “I like poker because it’s so intriguing, but they’re worse than rubbish.”
As Davis goes all-in and wins a pot nearing £200, Mr Interesting loses his stony-face, stands up and raises his hand aloft like a post-goal Alan Shearer. The table looks surprised; this is not the sort of emotional outburst we have come to expect from the boy from Romford (via Plumstead). “Just having a little moment,” he says, as Dettori looks up at him quizzically. “I’m excited again. In fact, I feel so good I could have a Barclays under the table.”
A few minutes later, however, things look very different. Raised a massive £130 by Knight “just to add some colour to the pot”, Hearn drops and the bet passes to Davis.
“And now we’ll find out what Davis is made of,” says Hearn, as he begins to whistle the theme tune from Mission Impossible. “Man or mouse – come on, squeak up.”
Davis sits there in contemplation; his face is a curious conflation of blind optimism and neurotic panic. “I’m like this on the one-minute round in Question of Sport,” he says. ” I panic; I crack up.” Clearly playing for time, he asks Knight what he is holding.
“Stick the money in and have a look,” replies his opponent.
Davis thinks some more and, as the two-minute time limit approaches, throws in all his chips. Dettori does the same. Knight steals it with a straight made on the fourth card in the middle, and both Davis and Dettori are no more.
“Racing is a feeling sport and I just think I’m too Latin and too emotional for poker,” says Dettori, ruefully. “I just don’t think I have a poker personality –people can read the cards in my face.”
Dunwoody drops soon after when he loses a big £300 pot to Hearn, but he has played well and finishes a respectable third. It is now head-to-head – Knight v Hearn – and the game changes to no-limit, during which you can bet everything you have. The table doesn’t have to wait long for a result. Knight goes all-in before the flop with £325; Hearn, after furiously chewing his gum and rhythmically drumming the baize with his fingertips, matches the bet. The dealer instructs both players to reveal their cards. “On their backs, gentlemen,” she says, as they flip them face-up.
Knight has Q-8; Hearn A-8. The flop brings J-J-6, which helps neither, but when Hearn catches a longshot Ace on fourth street, the game is up. Hearn, having gone all-in three times, takes the £700.
“I can’t believe you’ve won that, and you’re going to be insufferable, but I guess you played well,” says Davis. “You’ve got that daredevil instinct that I think you need to have to be a good poker player. You’ve got to be a bit on the edge mentally to take some of the risks this game demands.”
“That’s why I don’t think I’ll ever be that good, because it’s not in my nature to take risks,” confesses Dunwoody. “I played this game like I was batting in a cricket match – I hate getting out early.”
As the others congratulate each other on strong performances, I begin to rationalise my performance in the way only bad losers can. Losing, after all, is always the fault of the cards and never the player. If I’m honest, however, I can already feel the humiliating wound – what Tony Holden once referred to as “a real physical pain, gradually giving way to a deep spiritual bruise”. Poker makes you face up to the worst bluff of all: the one against yourself. So how do you think I played, I ask gently to no-one in particular.
“You just didn’t play enough hands,” says Hearn, dismissively. “In fact, you were shit.”
Davis, for the first time, looks at me more kindly. “You reminded me of the type of horse I seem to back a lot,” he says. “You’re: well away, faded.”
ESQ v POKER ALL-STARS
1st Hearn +£600
2nd Knight -£100
3rd Dunwoody -£100
4th Dettori -£100
5th Davis -£200
6th ESQ -£100
Post-Match Analysis (courtesy of poker legend Amarillo Slim)
“Sometimes the lambs slaughter the butcher”
Frankie Dettori is horse racing most priceless asset. Flamboyant and effervescent, the twice champion 29-year-old jockey is known for his scampish star quality and theatrical dismounts. In June he narrowly survived an air crash at Newmarket; shattering his ankle, he returned to racing just two months later. He now acts as front man for the Arena Leisure group of race courses.
Richard Dunwoody is one of the greatest jump jockeys of all time. The 36-year-old three-time champion won the Grand National twice and holds the world record for the most wins. Tough and uncompromising, Dunwoody fell almost 700 times, but broke only two bones. Damage to nerves in his neck, however, weakened his right arm and forced him to retire last December. His autobiography, Obsessed, has just been published.
Steve Davis is a snooker legend and Britain’s most interesting sportsman. Nicknamed “Romford Slim”, he has won the world championship six times and is still beating leading players. Over the past five years, Davis, 43, has also found success playing pool; he is also in demand as an after-dinner speaker. Davis’s hobbies include chess, the internet and collecting blues and soul records.
Barry Hearn is one of Britain’s most engaging sports impresarios. Having made his name and fortune promoting boxing (he has worked with Prince Naseem, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn) and snooker events, Hearn, 52, has gone on to champion tenpin bowling, fishing, pool, darts, and recently golf and poker. In 1995 he bought his beloved Leyton Orient FC.
Steve Knight is Britain’s only world class nine-ball pool player. Known as “The Rider”, he finished in the last eight of the 1999 World Championship as the highest-placed European. Knight, 27, spends two months of the year hustling in the US, playing racks against unsuspecting locals, often for thousands of dollars.
The Game: Texas Hold ’Em
This is the game played in major international competitions, including the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Each player is dealt two cards, face down; they are known as “hole cards”. There is a round of betting; the maximum raise is to the value of the chips already in the pot (“pot limit”). Three cards are then dealt face up in the middle of the table; this is “the flop” and it is common to all players. There is another round of betting. A fourth common card (“Fourth Street”) is dealt face up in the centre and there is another round of betting. Finally, a fifth common card (“The River”) is placed face up and there is a final round of betting. Players can use any five cards out of the seven dealt (their own two plus the five community cards) to make their hand.