Magazine article The Spectator

Poker School

Magazine article The Spectator

Poker School

Article excerpt

'The game, gentlemen, is Texas Hold 'Em. Antes are £1. Raise limit: £20. No table limit. So . . . who's in?' The gaming hall is a large, well-lit, noisy room filled with perhaps 100 people, but only two players are left in the game. Everybody else has folded and the pot stands at £150. On the table lie two jacks, two kings and an ace. The players hold their cards flat down on the table, and scrutinise each other, looking for a 'tell' that will give away their opponent's hand. The betting resumes. Two minutes later, the pot stands at £290, with both players having staked £70 on their respective cards. Then comes the showdown. Player one has two aces - a near unbeatable full house. He waits. Player two flips over his cards: two jacks, which combined with the jacks on the table makes four-of-a-kind. Four-of-a-kind beats full house, but the victor remains impassive. For him, this sum of money is chickenfeed, even though, like me, he is only 17. He gets up from the table, which is stained with pasta sauce and covered with crumbs where others have eaten their school lunches, and walks off to his next class.

In this leading private school in the home counties, large sums of money regularly change hands over the card table. The amount of cash on offer - 100 times most boys' pocket money - is an almost irresistible incentive to start playing, and I was once an enthusiastic addict. Like many of the other boys at the school, I fancied myself as a bit of a card-sharp, but soon discovered that there is a darker side to poker: beneath the exciting surface lie debt, anxiety and quite serious despair. When players should be preparing for AS-levels, they are often worrying about losses at the poker table. Although my debts were negligible compared with those of others, they still caused me to panic, lose concentration and neglect my school work.

What started out as a way to while away free periods in the newly discovered sixth-form world - where, to be honest, we have too much time off - quickly became a high rolling game for the brave and foolish. Those who at first hesitated to stake 20p soon found themselves with paper debts running into hundreds of pounds, and what seemed a good way to relax in an increasingly exam-orientated world turned into an extra burden.

As gambling is strictly against school rules, the only way to go undetected when teachers are around is to have no money on the table, so all debts are recorded on pieces of paper. But because there is no actual cash in front of you, it doesn't seem real somehow. It is hard to keep abreast of winnings and losses, and there is no inhibition (such as running out of money) to prevent the gambler playing on and continuing to lose.

The debts have to be paid, however, and so a day and time are arbitrarily decided upon, when all the cash in the 'pot' must be handed over to the winners. It is quite a sight to see a locker filled with all manner of notes and coins - sometimes up to £3,000 - being opened and the money given to one schoolboy.

Some of my fellow players claim that it is just a friendly game and that the money doesn't matter, but this is far from the truth. One boy told me he was afraid of being roughed up. Indeed, one player who is more than £1,000 to the good recently warned other players about his 'three mates who will sort out non-payers'. …

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