The Cutter catches up with two-time EPT champ and all-round goddess Victoria Coren-Mitchell to discuss all things poker….
Winning an EPT is a remarkable achievement, something that furnishes the CV of only 98 poker players.
To win twice however is a unique accomplishment and statistically speaking borders on the impossible.
What makes two-time champ Victoria Coren-Mitchell’s recent win in San Remo – where she added to her 2006 triumph in London to stand alone in the record books – all the more mind-boggling is that she isn’t a pimply-faced math-freak who breaks into a sweat if away from a table for longer than a basic toilet break and goes all Sheldon Cooper if talk strays beyond merging or +EV. She selects her tournaments carefully – a Pokerstars-sponsored event here, a high-roller there – so as not to clash with her other highly successful career as a writer, host of rock-hard quiz Only Connect, and irregular appearances on panel shows and Question Time.
When you think about it this is truly bizarre, akin to Jeff Stelling skippering to glory in two Americas Cups, or Will Self out-potting O’Sullivan and co to a couple of Welsh Opens. One of Britain’s most talented and coveted poker superstars is also ‘off the telly’. Brilliant.
What also – rather depressingly – makes the rise of this erudite and likable Londoner all the more worthy of acclaim is her gender. Apparently we’re still of an age when someone with breasts beating the boys at their own game is considered a surprise, so much so that it’s led to a few begrudging mutterings of discontent. London was a fluke. What, she’s won again in Italy? Well that must be…erm….lady luck helping out a sister for the second time.
Not that such silly sourness bothers Vicky. Being under-estimated is far preferable to being overestimated as it means there’s something to exploit, to beam a radiant smile at before hauling in another stack of chips.
If you play pub poker or with your mates in a kitchen who better to learn from than a lady who bluffs Negreanu before breakfast, tricks Hellmuth into calling before lunch, then heads off with her trophy and fortune for a terribly British champagne piss-up. Well, when she remembers to pick up her winnings that is….
What first got you hooked?
I was a gambler from quite a young age and when I say that I mean four. My grandfather used to deal blackjack, not professionally, just for me and my brother for sweets.
We grasped the concept that we could win five sweets or there was a risk it could be none quite early and I like that. So I was gambling from the off.
Then my brother started playing poker when I was about 14 and the kitchen was full of boys and that seemed an attractive prospect.
Have you ever encountered sexism in the game and is it possible to use those preconceptions against them on the table?
I’m trying to think of a game I’ve played in where I didn’t encounter sexism. But part of the game is to make assumptions about people quickly and I don’t blame people for jumping to conclusions. But absolutely that’s a very exploitable thing though less so now because I play poker professionally so people know me when I sit down to play.
Before though when I used to go to Vegas and play cash games and they just saw an English girl they’d assume that they could bluff me very easily, that I wouldn’t be bluffing myself, that I’d never bet a draw hand so obviously if you know they’re thinking that you can wrong-foot them. So hooray for sexism.
What were the main emotions after winning your first EPT in 2006 in your home town?
Sort of shock. One of the things I can remember very clearly is that I forgot about the money. I literally forgot to collect it and it was £500,000.
I won and sort of staggered about hugging everybody and buying champagne for the card room and then I went out drinking with some friends until dawn, went home and picked up about a million e-mails and made phone calls. And then about eleven in the morning I went “Hang on a minute….”
I’m not somebody who’d forget a fiver in an old coat pocket so I must have been in shock.
Who would be on your dream table?
I’d love to play against myself because I know all my mistakes so I could exploit that.
Most poker players will tell you their dream table is a lot of very rich people who don’t know the game very well. I don’t really feel that way because I’m in it for fun. So I’m always happy if I’m at the table with old school British players, the ones I’ve known for a long time.
I’m happy playing a cash game at the Vic where people are just taking the mickey, and making jokes, and arguing about football and it can be a really tough game – it’s not the easiest way to win money – but it’s an atmosphere I like being in.
Do you have an arch nemesis in poker – someone who always seems to out-flop or river you and if you do how do you deal with that?
There’s a man called Freddy and he plays in my local game. And you’ll never see this guy on TV, he never plays the big tournaments. He’s an old cockney fella who was a greengrocer back in the day. I don’t know how old he is but he tells me he used to deliver the fruit in a horse and cart.
I don’t think I’ve beaten this guy in a hand in twenty years. I can beat Phil Ivey, I’ve beaten Patrick Antonius, Gus Hansen, these big names. They have no fear for me and I don’t find them difficult to play against. But this old London greengrocer….
What three bits of advice would you offer to a novice player?
1/ Never play for sums you can’t easily afford.
2/ Don’t worry if you’re frightened when you start playing. Worry if you’re still frightened after a year.
3/ Dress in layers because a card room is always too hot or too cold
How do you deal with a slump in form and luck?
I have a very good temperament for poker and I’m very philosophical. I can take the swings and roundabouts quite easily. But also I don’t play that much. I think it’s difficult for the full-time pros who don’t have another job. They might play three tournaments a week, fifty weeks of the year. I probably only play about ten in the whole year so I don’t really have runs in that way. I’m not sure it’s good for you to play poker all of the time. It’s not good for the personality or your poker game to do nothing else at all. Even if it’s just a hobby do something else, take some time off because these bad runs aren’t going to happen to you if you’re not playing so much.
What one thing would you change in poker?
I hate it when you see somebody cheering at a table because they’ve knocked someone out. When I started playing – weirdly for a game that’s all about trickery and deceit and frankly when I started playing there was a lot of criminals – it was quite sportsmanlike and gentlemanly. And I loved that about it. And to see this now when someone has done all their money, they’ve just been knocked out and they’re all disappointed and upset and some guy is cheering in their face…it makes me want to ‘accidentally’ knock my drink over them.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve heard at a poker table?
The Devilfish and his girlfriend had just got back from Vegas and she was saying that they’d met Mike Tyson. And this old cockney said “Some would say he’s a very attractive man”.
I said “Are you kidding? He’s a convicted rapist”
And Trevor replied “Yes but not all woman are as fussy as you”.
Lastly, the question that’s flummoxed the finest minds down the ages….what’s the correct way to play pocket jacks?
It depends entirely on your stack size. The thing about jacks it’s the biggest hand you can have where it’s more likely there will be an over-card on the flop than there won’t.
It totally depends on your chips. If you’ve got twenty big blinds or fewer I’d stick them all in. If you’ve got a big stack there’s an argument for just calling. Have a look at the flop and decide later.
Don’t let it seduce you too much.