"Those are your hole cards, as big blind you bet two then wait for the flop." I expected poker to be shrouded in jargon as thick as cigar smoke at the end of an all-night game, but some of my other preconceptions prove misplaced. The explosion of online games and televised tournaments means old clichés are folding like a fish with a dead hand (an inexperienced player with the wrong number of cards). My teacher is neither a gnarled pro in an eyeshade, nor a thickset heavy with a gun in his sock, but the executive director of the International Federation of Poker, to whom I am about to say something colossally stupid.
"You’ve got two aces, best starting hand…" continues Oliver Chubb, who looks too young to have spent five years as a professional player. "Wouldn’t it be better if the aces were of the same suit?" I interrupt, keen to show off my research. Oliver frowns. "How would that be possible?" he asks. Silence. "Ah, yes, there’s only one ace per suit," I mutter. As a poker faux pas, it could only be worse if I had spilt rum-and-cola all over the green baize.
Except there is no green baize here, or any chips, or even a deck of cards. Instead we’re at a conference table in the IFP’s Berkeley Square headquarters, looking at a television screen the size of a door. The screen is linked to a laptop on which I’m about to play against five people from the IFP office, using a beta version of its new online poker game. This might not seem fair—but were I to play five-a-side with people from FIFA, I wouldn’t expect any of them to take a penalty as well as Lionel Messi. I would, however, expect them to know the rules, which is where I am at a disadvantage.
That’s not exactly true. I understand the rules, it’s the gameplay that’s baffling. I know that two cards are dealt face down to each player (the "hole"), then three face up to the table (the "flop"), then two more separately (the "turn" and the "river"). Bets are raised or matched ("called") each round and the player with the highest-ranked hand wins. Each player must make their raise-or-call decision within 30 seconds. I feel as if I’ve learnt enough French to book a hotel, and now I have to translate for the United Nations.
With Oliver sitting at my shoulder, we begin. I can grasp when I have a good but simple hand: an ace, say, or a pair. But even though we’re only playing for imaginary stakes, anything involving more than two cards, such as a full house—a pair and three of a kind—and I go into brain-freeze. Immediately Oliver queries a decision I make to raise. I’m ashamed to admit it was because I had four cards the same colour. Oliver is firmly of the opinion that I should fold, because I have a seven and a two of different suits and this gives me only a 7% chance of winning. And he knows all this before I’ve even turned all my cards over. This is clearly a game for stats-heads; no surprise that the man who eventually wins the game is the office accountant.
Back home, lesson over, I find myself wondering if my game would be sharper if I bet real money. I log on to a leading gaming site. Whereas the IFP promotes poker as a "mind sport", web poker is there for the money—the money players lose, as well as a 3% cut of anything they win. But do the people who win play with a print-out telling them when to raise sitting on the desk next to them? I bet they don’t.
There are more than 100,000 players online, and few of them are betting in English. Instead the 16,000 tables are mini-Babels—Dutch v Belarusian, Chilean v Finnish. I’ve no idea how to select a game, though instinct tells me to stay away from any game described as "Fast", and from the table occupied by JustForFun81, who sits there alone holding $45,000. What big chips you have, Grandma.
I buy $50-worth, promising myself that I’ll quit when I get to $100. I’ve read enough My Gambling Hell stories to know how this can go; I’m not going to end up living in my car.
It starts well. I’m soon up to $72—though mainly because I make an accidental bluff, over-betting on three cards of the same suit. Then I have to leave my PC for a moment to sign for a parcel. And just as Coleridge’s dream of Xanadu vanished while he dealt with the man from Porlock, by the time I get back, that’s it. My mojo’s vanished. I join a different table, where the players are less forgiving. While I’m searching my print-out for clues as to whether to raise or fold, the round ends and lo, I am in tap city—out of chips. And that, as Oliver might say, is a real flop.