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Monday, 1 August 2011

For Richer, For Poorer - by Victoria Coren - Review - 04/04/11

Despite being written by a professional poker player this is not a ‘poker’ book in terms of strategy guides, instructions and poker education, it’s a biography written by a poker player about her time in the game. Therefore to read this book I had to be interested in the person, so let me quickly explain why.

My own poker journey began when I was seventeen years old. Friends of mine had been playing the occasional drunken game. Having heard this I decided to do a little research in case I might be invited and then all of a sudden it became something of a passion to me. I used to stay up late and watch a lot of poker on TV for tips (Only shows with professional players, I was worried if I watched the celebrity editions I’d pick up bad habits) and Vicky Coren used to be one of the regular commentators. I can’t remember which of the many shows I was watching but I became loyal to it because I liked her commentary. Then one day there was a stand in commentator and I was disappointed - Until they revealed the reason was because Vicky was sitting at the table!

I was instantly captivated and had a new poker hero. Obviously I rooted for Britons against the sea of Americans and Scandinavians but to watch the very player whose voice had guided me at the start of my poker journey? Yes she’s a woman and I was a seventeen year old boy so I can’t deny the crush element. There weren’t a lot of women on display at the tables, it made her something of an enigma to me and mystery encouraged interest.

To stop myself falling into trouble I elected to go the way of Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson and build a bankroll from nothing, playing freerolls in the hope of moving on to bigger things. As years passed and I didn’t win big, my love for the game subsided somewhat. I still enjoy playing, I just don’t rack up the hours online like I used to, the occasional play chip sit and go a couple of times a week is enough for me and live action has only ever been social with a competitive edge. However Vicky didn’t completely drop off my radar.

The thing is she’s not strictly a poker player. She’s been writing a weekly column for the Guardian since her teens (Not that I would’ve been interested in reading them at the time, I’m only 21 now and she’s erm … not.) and made appearances on a few TV shows I’ve watched, including hosting her quiz show ‘Only Connect’. I joined Twitter last year and following her has kept me interested and up to date in her pursuits. If I was ever going to read a poker player’s biography it would be hers and maybe quite possibly Gus Hansen if he ever chose to write one.

I got the book for Christmas because at the time I was reading ‘Black House’ by Stephen King and Peter Straub and it was so good I felt the next book I read had to be something non-fiction else I’d unjustly judge it too harshly. Vicky had been advertising her book on Twitter that same day so it seemed an obvious choice. I’ll admit I didn’t get round to it for a while because I read ‘Black House’ through a couple of times to try and educate myself in writing technique, but when I did eventually pick up my hardback copy of ‘For Richer, For Poorer’ I was in for a treat.

The strange thing was although I chose to read non-fiction to get away from a storyline, it kind of reads like one. Like a lot of fiction novels it starts with a glimpse of the ‘future’ before dropping back as far as when poker was first introduced to her by wanting to join in her brother’s game, the very beginning. It’s her first glimmer of interest in the game, though it’s not really about the cards, it’s more the environment and atmospheric conditions required to play it that she finds appealing.

In any case it marks the start of her poker journey and from that point on every chapter ends with an account of her thoughts when she made the final table of the European Poker Tour in London 2006 and is laid out in a hand by hand approach. It’s a nice recurring reminder during her description of the early years that the toils and struggles are not without reward and the constant flashes between eras feel quite cinematic.

We follow her progress in poker via plenty of little snippets that read like diary extracts which I found quite refreshing at times. Sure, more writing is dedicated to bigger events and milestones but it doesn’t hurt to have it broken up occasionally with a funny thought or unattached moment of humour; you get a real sense of her personality through what she deems notable but not of any profound significance.

She makes her first loose and as it turns out binding commitment to the game when she starts to meet new faces and gets invited to the first of the ‘Tuesday games’. Kindred spirits are formed and from there as her confidence grows she slowly elevates herself to the fringes of ‘The Vic’; a dark, gloomy and subdued traditional building full of people who play poker as it should be, every one of them enshrouded in a mystery and a back story, but in no way inclined to divulge it. It takes her a little while to consider herself a true regular there and in the mean time her journalistic connections get her invited to the occasional ‘celebrity’ game, even if she doesn’t count herself as such. It’s when she gets knocked out of a ‘Late Night Poker’ edition and chooses to hang around to watch the main event that she first meets a few notable players including Dave ‘The Devilfish’ Ulliott and more importantly Joe ‘The Elegance’ Beevers and gets truly swept up into the game, likening it so brilliantly to hot footing it after Alice.

Reading that she had a relationship with Joe Beevers was something of a revelation to me that took me by complete surprise. I knew she was linked to the Hendon Mob but not that the connection was so intimate. This stuck out to me because Joe Beevers was a huge influence on my game based on the first time I’d ever seen him play. He was the first person I’d ever seen on the televised events who laid down Ace-King pre flop. I just didn’t know you were allowed to do that. It changed my game forever and taught me that playing situations was just important as playing the cards.

As Joe sweeps her off her feet and gets her playing poker around the world we get to see how the game works through Vicky’s eyes. There are ups, plenty of them, but there are also downs and moments of danger. The game at this point is only just rising to the surface of TV exposure, the majority of it is still played underground and as such is still sometimes a bad place to be if you get caught up in the wrong situation. When he takes her to games guarded by gunmen it’s a stark reminder of how dangerous the environment was at the time. it’s also very interesting to read about how she got caught up in a strange situation where some self proclaimed defenders of society tried to force the game to remain underground by plating up a documentary that would ‘expose’ the game as seedy and degraded, and how it felt to be on the other side of such an exposé.

Eventually a few of the place names become familiar and you suddenly realise that at least a year has passed because the poker ‘tour’ is doubling back on itself. It’s a testament to her writing that it takes a while to realise because she chooses to write about new faces in old places, delving into a bit of their back story and how their personal and game orientated philosophies have changed her perspective to keep it fresh where it could have fallen into repetition. Her game is improving and it’s nice to read that she’s improving on results of the year before because it shows progress and builds nicely to the final table flashes as mentioned before.

In a moment that might please a few haters the second time she goes to Vegas its glamour is tainted or rather exposed by heartbreak and depression. It’s no longer a place of wild optimism and spectacular visuals and is stripped down to being little more than another place where there is a lot of gambling. It’s like you start to see the real Vegas; a place where punters are encouraged to spend money they can’t afford to lose, because the pretty bright lights and abundance of opportunities to win big are placed there cleverly just to reel you in and cash in on the self appointed marvel of the location.

Yes, she’s a poker player and yes, she went through a period of clinical depression. You can wipe that sneer off your face though, if anything the poker saved her. It wasn’t gambling and losing control that was the cause, her problems lay away from the table. That was the solace; she could play just to play, to immerse herself in the game in an act of therapeutic escapism. It’s in this respect that poker is like her true love; every time she has a break up or a bad event, poker is always there with open arms. It’s like a crutch she can always fall back on that won’t judge her or ask her probing questions, just be there for her whilst she works thing out in her own time.

One of the things that make this account of poker such an interesting read is that Vicky’s world changed with the popularity boom of the game she was tied so intricately to, dragging her into poker as we now know it from the underground culture like vampires brought to light. It could only be described so dramatically and honestly by a player of her generation who had lived it, and her background in writing makes her an ideal guide as we hold her hand and don our extra strength sun screen.

The best example of this to me is in describing the characters she met at The Vic. They come across as fictional characters from a novel and I could fully picture them in a card room. Obviously some of the credit goes to them for being such interesting if reserved people, but the way Vicky describes them transforms them from the pages into images lurking just out of sight in the mind’s eye.

The moments with her father are special and really intimate so I’ve chosen not to include them in this little write up because I’d hate to spoil what she’s created; you have to hear it from her. That goes for other moments of loss in her journey. I couldn’t do the way she described the situations justice so I encourage you to read it for yourself.

Yes, I do have a ‘favourite line’ in this book. It comes when Vicky is in talks with Pokerstars about officially joining their roster of professionals. The commitment would be a big one; it would mark the end of casual play and thrust her into the spotlight. Not quite committing, but not wanting to reject them outright she writes:

‘So I say, “Why don’t you put me in the London EPT, and we’ll see how it goes?”’
If you know anything about Vicky Coren you’ll know that she of course won it outright, the first woman to win such a prestigious event. It touches back on that fairytale theme, making the whole read something storyesque. I like to try and write fiction and parts of this book make me feel like I’m reading some, this line is so perfect for that. The fact it’s what really happened and had sets up a fairytale ending is why it strikes all the right chords for me.

For a link to purchase the Hardback Cover version of the book from Amazon click:

For a link to purchase the Paperback Cover version of the book from Amazon click:

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