BBC News

Poker's faces: Are the British about to invade?

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

media captionWorld Series of Poker finalist Sam Holden and Liv Boeree, another UK poker star, talk about the rise of British players

The US-dominated world of poker is under threat of invasion from a wave of British players, with a 22-year-old from East Sussex about to compete for the biggest international prize at the weekend. So how did Britons barge their way in?

Sam Holden's quiet poker session, one recent afternoon in London's West End, is suddenly interrupted by a stranger who briefly appears at his shoulder, hands over a bundle of notes, then quickly disappears.

When queried, Holden explains the man "has bought a percentage of me for a tournament I'm playing in" - a common occurrence among the high-end poker set.

The former student used a similar tactic to raise the $10,000 (£6,326) required to buy entry into the Main Event tournament at this year's World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas.

Against the odds and confounding expectations, he has now reached the final table - known as the November 9 - out of an initial pool of 6,865 players.

The WSOP is an annual event that can be considered as the World Cup of poker, coming complete with a gold bracelet for tournament winners.

The Main Event involves Texas Hold 'Em poker, the world's most popular form of poker, and has a top prize of $8.7m (£5.5m). Mansour Matloubi is the only Briton (although Iranian born) to have ever won the Main Event, and that was in 1990.

Holden, whose demeanour is shy but warm, and whose tangled mop of hair retains the look of a carefree student, began playing at university while studying a forensic science degree, simply for fun with low stakes.

After consistent wins and earning "a decent hourly wage" while playing during his term holidays, he decided to try his hand at the game full-time after his studies ended, with the idea of doing it for a year.

Although he has now been a professional player for about four years, this year was his first entry into the WSOP tournament. His arrival at the final nine players at his first attempt has caused ripples in the global poker community.

"It'll be a big sporting event, there'll be a big crowd there, it's very exciting going in," he says. "I've got a good chance and if things go my way I can come away with the bracelet."

After a 108-day break in the action, which began on 8 July in the crushing heat of a Las Vegas summer, the November 9 are whittled down to three on 6 November, with the final table playing on 8 November, until there is only the winner left.

Holden says he has spent his break scrutinising the playing styles of his opponents, watching footage of them and working out how they play. He acknowledges that he is relatively new to the game, but also recognises that he is just one of a number of young, hungry Britons to be making their mark on the poker world.

"British poker is doing incredibly well at the moment," he says. "Over the last two years we've had brilliant results in the biggest tournaments in the world, both in live tournaments and online. Considering our population, and population of players, it's quite incredible really.

"Previously the US had a real stranglehold over the whole market. It's their game, they're brought up playing poker at the kitchen table, whereas we don't really do that in Britain."

To raise the entry fee into the Main Event, Holden sold 61% of himself at WSOP - so he will only keep 39% of any winnings he accrues. However, the first player to be knocked out of the November 9 will still take home $782,115 (£494,757).

image captionLiv Boeree handles her chips while Sam Holden considers his options

Holden's sale of his stake means he'll keep £192,955 if he's the first to go, and £2,145,000 if he wins the top prize.

Liv Boeree is another Briton who has made a huge impact on the international scene, not least through winning the 2010 European Poker Tour in San Remo for 1.25m euros (£1,098,731).

The 27-year-old from Kent is also a model and television presenter, and, armed with her first-class degree in astrophysics, harbours ambitions of one day becoming "the female Brian Cox".

But for now her future lies at the poker table, and she is visibly proud of her fellow Brits. "Typically poker was seen as more of an older person's game, but now the typical player you see are young, often university graduates, and the biggest demographic is probably between the ages of 18 to 30.

"The UK has exploded onto the international poker scene. The boom started with the spread of online poker sites, and that's trickled down into the nation's subconscious.

"It was always popular in the US but now we're having our boom."

Part of this is because poker's image and reputation have improved, says Boeree.

"Twenty years ago people maybe imagined poker being played in underground rooms or in casinos with big high rollers. This is not the case, it's so accessible now."

Boeree looks faintly horrified at any suggestion that poker is easy to profit from. "It's a game of skill with an element of luck," she says.

Away from the glitz and glamour, there are also plenty of Britons making a unspectacular-but-steady amount of money from poker, primarily online.

Ian Taylor, 33, from London, is what's known as a grinder - someone who doesn't win giant pots at glamorous events, but who wins enough to treat it as his full-time job, playing a set pattern of about eight hours every weekday.

"If you took all the professional poker players in the country, you'd find there are a lot more like me than the Liv Boerees and the big live tournament players that you've heard of," he says.

"I'm not a millionaire, I'm not super rich, I make a fairly decent living, probably better than in most other jobs, but it's a slow steady income rather than six-figure sums."

image captionIan Taylor says that while he is not rich or famous, he does make a living by playing poker online

According to Alun Bowden, editor of PokerPlayer magazine, the current British invasion on the international poker scene is down to a "community spirit" among the country's new generation of poker players.

"Sharing of information and talking poker is one of the reasons UK poker has come on so much recently," he says.

"For every guy that breaks through with a big result there are 10 waiting in the wings with just as much talent and ability to win. These are guys who were 17 or 18 when the poker boom hit the UK and have played hundreds of thousands of hands online and are really, really good.

"Expect to see more Brits at the final tables in years to come."