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Copyright 2005 MGN Ltd
April 6, 2005, Wednesday
HEADLINE: NET PROPHET: ONLINE
POKER CAN BE YOUR PAS SPORT TO THE BIG TIME
BYLINE: ALEX HANKIN
Qualified online: French pharmacist Pascal Perrault scooped
over £100,000 for winning in Vienna; John Gale: making it
THEYcall it turning a tooth-pick into a lumber yard'. Both the
2003 and 2004 outright winners of the multi-million dollar World
Series of Poker did it. And so could you.
Chris Moneymaker won $ 2.5m in 2003; last year Greg Raymer scooped
$ 5m. What connects these two big men of professional faceto-face
poker - outside an apparent fondness for fried foods in large
portions - is that their journeys to the top started online, in
low entry-fee qualifiers. Moneymaker worked his way up from a
$ 40 qualifying tournament on Pokerstars.com to earn his $ 10,000
seat and all-expenses package to the Poker olympics. Raymer stumped
up $ 150 to take his first online step on the road to Vegas.
The online poker
boom has given thousands of small-time players a passport to the
heady world of the international pro-poker stars - and not just
in the USA.
Last year saw the launch of the EUR5m Poker Stars European Poker
Tour - a series of big-money televised tournaments across the
continent - and online small-fry have been making a huge impact.
Never one to shirk the tough jobs, netprophet caught up with
the tour in Vienna, to briefly compete in the EUR600,000 main
event, and speak to one Racing P ost reader who has made the leap
from online to big time.
In February, John Gale took his tooth-pick - a $ 40 qualifier
on PokerStars.com - and turned it into an all-in ticket to the
World P oker Tour tournament in the Bahamas. He beat a field of
416 to win first prize, and trousered $ 865,000, or knocking on
half a million quid.
I came face-to-face with Gale - 51-year-old father of four, soon-toretire
City shaker, and horse-mad former jumps owner - when we momentarily
went one-on-one at Table 12 of the 300-player Vienna cardathon.
I had raised, putting all my chips in. Gale stared at me. Like
a honeymooning vet might observe a droopy sheep from his hotel
window - curious, perhaps even intrigued on a professional level,
but not enough to snap on the rubber gloves and get stuck in.
But let's set the scene for this moment of sporting drama - and
the Bahamas it ain't.
From the outside, the Concord Casino seems an unlikely venue
for the European poker elite to duke it out.
Think tandori takeaway crossed with a small DIY superstore, pop
a brothel next door, and shoehorn the whole shebang into a carpark
under a flyover on the wrong side of the tracks, and you have
it - Austria's premier cardroom.
The Concord didn't exactly reek of glamour and dazzle inside
either, though there was definitely something flavoursome in the
eyewatering fug. Do hardening arteries give off a distinctive
I watched one competitor prepare for the big event by eating
a plateful of fried eggs and parsley, washed down with a glass
of warm milk, into which he had carefully stirred half a dozen
sugars. This was a non-smoking event, so he rounded off his warm-up
with a few nourishing puffs.
He needn't have bothered, the house rules only required you to
get up and move half a step from the table before you could spark
up. Hour after hour, pale figures bobbed endlessly up and down
through the smoke like darts players on a carousel. There's no
denying that many of Europe's top poker stars are showing signs
of wear and tear. But the sheer physical demands of the game are
When I caught up with Gale on the morning of day two of the three-day
event, he had managed just four hours sleep, getting back to the
hotel at 4am, buzzing with adrenalin until 7am, after 13 hours
intense scrapping at the table.
Short on chips, but still inthere fighting, that afternoon promised
another motionless marathon.
You need a tireless backside in this game
- but the mind is the muscle that counts. While on the previous
day I had spent time between hands wondering what everyone was
listening to on their iPods, Gale had been ruthlessly dissecting
the play and the players on our table.
"What wereyou doing yesterday!?" he asks genially,
before rattling off a card-by-card analysis of hands I couldn't
remember playing, including the one that dumped me out of the
running, in a head-to-head showdown with a Texan who could pass
for Dennis Hopper's sweaty brother.
"His whole face lit up when he hit that ten," Gale
I hadn't been looking, of course; worrying about playing out
of turn again, probably; trying to work out when would be a good
time to nip to the toilets.
"There's a lot of luck," Gale adds kindly. "No-one
has ever won a big tournament without getting lucky. You could
be the best player in the world and not win a major tournament
- but the worst player in the world will never win."
IWONDERwhether the player who went out on the very first hand
of day one thought he had been unlucky. According to Gale, that's
at least as important a question as whether he played his cards
"It's a people game," he says, revealing that he, like
a lot of the best players, keeps extensive notes on individual
opponents, making use of the onscreen facility most major poker
"When I play online
poker I sit in my study or wander around the house with a
laptop, and I record notes on everyone: their playing styles,
what they do in certain positions. A lot of it is committed to
memory, but I'm pretty methodical about keeping notes."
A career in finance, stocks and shares - Gale's company pitches
IPO's - has seemingly equipped him well for life at the table.
A salesman's sense of the relativity of worth; a willingness
to shoulder risk; combined with a keen sense of the bottom line.
The latter would have kept him out of pro-poker - until the online
boom. The qualifier that set him on the road to the Bahamas was
just "something I thought would be a good way to spend an
hour or so". It ended up changing everything.
Poker Stars in particular have "been brilliant" says
Gale, a way in to an on-the-edge lifestyle that only the rich
or reckless could normally embrace with steady hands. Online offered
him a chance to prove himself, and now Poker Stars bankroll him
at selected tournaments.
"What a life, travelling round the world. But it wouldn't
have been easy to put up ten grand of your own money for your
buy-in and travel to the Bahamas, just to have a go'. And you
probably couldn't keep on doing it."
He's not alone in making the leap. Almost half the field at Vienna
had won their seats and expenses scaling the pyramid of online
qualification; three of the final eight players, including the
winner, came the online route.
If you fancy joining them, Gale offers three golden nuggets of
advice for wannabes: "Read as many books about poker as you
can, even if you only take one thing from each of them.
"Take your time - you're never going to win a tournament
in the first hour or two."
And, speaking as a man who relatively late in the day has seized
the opportunity to try a dream life, and a warming lump sum, on
for size, he adds: "Keep hold of your dreams and your aspirations
- otherwise you might as well be dead."
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