Al Alvarez Master class
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neophyte David Fowler learns the ropes at Al Alvarez's card school, and comes
away a convert to the beautiful game
I gamble regularly on football, tennis and the stock market.
The roulette table is not unknown to me. Once, when I was really, really bored,
I took a punt on the Christmas charttopper. But something I've never done
is sit down at a blue card table, light the obligatory Havana and play poker.
I've never been stupid enough. Being fleeced by smirking
know-it-alls while you try to figure out what the hell is going on isn't my
idea of fun - it's tantamount to a knifeless mugging. So when 888.com needed
a novice to take part in their free beginners' poker tournament - with coaching
by world-renowned expert Al Alvarez - I was there like a shot. A 100% genuine
poker virgin and game as hell.
The Alvarez masterclass is taking place at a gentlemen's
club in Cavendish Square. It's midmorning, and Roy Houghton, a London casino
dealer of some 30 years standing, has set up a vast pro table in the wood-panelled
library. Perched on a high stool overseeing the proceedings is Al himself,
a diminutive, smiling gent in his 70s.
He welcomes us with the ultimate icebreaker, telling us about
the aptly-named Chris Moneymaker, a then-unknown who laid down a $40 dollar
stake on the internet, qualified for the World Series of Poker Main Event,
and went on to win $2.5 million. Best of all, Moneymaker had borrowed half
the original stake from a pal - the friend's reward was a cool, and honourable,
$1.25 million. This, we hear, is all in a day's work for card players.
Al's poker patter continues in the same rich, effortless
vein. It's difficult not to be seduced - this is like learning rock'n'roll
from Elvis. Alvarez gave up his Oxford professorship in English in the late
1950s to 'go freelance', then discovered poker aged 30 at a bohemian boozer
while seeking solace after divorcing his first wife. At a time when most Britons
saw the game as a pastime for common criminals and half-cut cowboys, Alvarez
saw it as a kind of chess, but with more risk. He was instantly hooked.
'In those days, the casinos closed at 3am and we used to
go to Gerrard Street in Chinatown,' smiles Al, lighting a huge pipe in front
of his Aces and silver dollar-festooned 'lucky' tie. 'All the gambling joints
were full of petty criminals with pocketfuls of greasy notes. There was lots
of dodgy money everywhere - loads of third party cheques and money laundering.
'I remember one place just off Piccadilly. You went up four
floors and there was this steel door. The place always smelt of fried food
from the restaurant below. It was run by an ex-policeman who'd been thrown
out the Flying Squad for arresting a teenage girl, then setting her up as
his mistress. Even if you didn't like cards, he was so manipulative you'd
be spending money at his tables within five minutes!'
From couplets to pairs
After putting together his first big winning streak, Alvarez launched himself
into the capital's casino circuit and was soon playing two or three times
a week. By 1965, he was playing so well that one night's winnings alone enabled
him to buy a brand new E-Type Jag and a bicycle for his son. What's even more
impressive is that during this period, Alvarez also made time to become a
critically accomplished poet and the author of over 20 works ranging from
literary criticism to acclaimed novels and non-fiction. A renaissance man,
Right now, however, we have to forget the glamour and focus
hard to master the cold, basic mechanics of poker. Dealer Roy takes charge,
and within minutes, the poker jargon is flying: everything is 'doubling blinds',
'flops' and 'rivers'. Mild panic rises around the table - well, my part of
the table, anyway - and that $2.5 million prize seems a very long way away.
As my colleagues start to ask advice of Roy, it suddenly
dawns on me. I'm the only true novice here. No wonder we were moving so swiftly.
I have a problem. Roy refuses to believe a bloke from InsideEdge hasn't ever
played cards. I assure him the last hand I won was at old maid in 1974. For
my efforts, I finally - thank God - get a basic presentation of the rules
of Texas hold'em. It's the most widely played variant of the game (see the
box on p92 for some of the others) and the one we're playing today.
Slowly, the rules start to make sense, and after we've gone clockwise round
the table half a dozen times, I'm in business, compulsively glancing at the
notes ('Say 'pass', 'call' or 'raise',' etc) on my knee before every play.
The most difficult part for a complete novice at this stage seems to be remembering
the terminology. As a result, I probably look stupid, but so what? At least
'At this level, the game is quite repetitive,' apologises
Roy unnecessarily, 'but it will get more interesting with experience. That
is exactly why the internet is such a superb place to learn to play. In my
day you had to 'pay to play' and you took a hammering. Now you can just watch
for a while and start playing for as little as 25p. And you can leave the
table whenever you want.'
'Start playing with small amounts by all means,' adds Al,
as Roy counts out chips in preparation for the afternoon's tournament, 'but
always play for money! Money is the language of the game. Making a bet is
like making a personal statement. Poker is a game of odds and probabilities,
so if you're playing for nothing, you'll start calling long shots just to
see what happens. You'll get the bad habits that can make you a very loose
player. You'll end up in 70% of the hands when you should only be in 30% and
find that you're suddenly bleeding money all over the place.'
The 888.com beginners' tournament starts around 2:30pm. Loosened
by a stiff bourbon, I take my place. My competitors are a mixed bag. One woman
looks so uptight that if she swallowed nails, she'd shit baking foil. Another,
bridge-playing, plumy sort, asks derisively if I write for a 'lads' mag'.
A grinning bloke with a trendy haircut looks like he can't wait to rip me
to shreds. I know I'm bottom of the pack when it comes to experience, but
I'm going to scrap this one out for all I'm worth.
The first hands are dealt. My cards are dogs. The game goes
on regardless, other players reacting to the flop and raising bets. But as
they're twisting at the turn and falling at the river, I'm stranded somewhere
on the muddy bank. More cards and more dogs. Five hands later and I still
haven't managed to get further than the turn. Even Al Alvarez seems puzzled.
Am I a muppet who doesn't understand the game, or have the poker gods really
deserted me this comprehensively?
Al comes over and sees what unworkable hands I'm getting.
He smiles knowingly. Should I go in and bluff my way and see what happens,
I ask? I mean, I'm getting a bit lonely here. 'God, no,' explains Al, instantly
replenishing my confidence. 'You're doing exactly the right thing. A good
player makes the maximum from a good hand and loses the minimum on a bad hand.
Sit tight until you're ready.'
'And don't even think about bluffing with garbage like that,'
adds 888.com's Jonny Natas. 'Bluffing cold on crap cards is stupid - you've
got no chance of winning. If you've got half-decent cards and a chance of
getting something later in the game, fine - that way you're bluffing with
a chance to make your hand. That's a semi-bluff we call 'bluffing on the come'.
But don't waste your time with cards like that.'
Fortune favours the Dave
Around 4pm, my whole world changes. I'm looking at a selection of cards that
Roy would call 'the nuts' - nice high numbers in suit and even a couple of
Aces. I'm raising bets at every turn and my opponents are worried. The flop
comes down beautifully, the fourth and fifth cards are looking good, and from
being weak and passive, my table personality is turning.
More interesting still is that everyone is taking note. I'm desperately trying
to not draw attention to myself, but it's no good. Foil woman is bitching
to everyone who will listen about 'beginner's luck'. I'm on a roll - I'm calling
and raising at every turn. Ten minutes later and I take another player, bridge-woman,
out of the game completely. She scowls, but I feel fantastic. The more people
look worried, the more I'm enjoying it. Another player collapses under my
onslaught. This is sublime.
'Never mind the bad feeling,' whispers Al in my ear. 'That's
nothing. Once, I saw a chap get so riled he hit someone over the head with
a stool. When you see people lose their cool, just think of it as a good opportunity
to take their money!'
Next hand, I'm calling, raising and intimidating other players
again. There is a rush of power in my play, as though psychologically I'm
on another plane. Soon, everyone folds apart from an experienced media type.
This time my hand isn't as strong as previously, but I'm sure I can still
do the business. I know for a fact that he's bluffing; at least I feel he
is. There is zero doubt in my mind.
The bets are raised again and we get to the killer card.
I'm playing so well and dominating so strongly, my gut feeling has to be right.
Like Al Pacino in Scarface, I'm starting to believe the world is actually
mine. But in one disastrous turn of a card, I realise I'm wrong. Media type
wasn't bluffing and, despite the beads of sweat, he has beaten me. How could
something that felt so right be so wrong?
Not bad for a first effort
'You were rushing!' Jonny laughs. 'That's what we call rushing! You were on
a roll but you took it too far. You thought you could pull anything off. Ultimately,
you needed to take cover and wait for the right cards. You should only attack
when you have a strong chance of winning - not just because you like attacking!'
He's right of course. But it still felt fantastic.
I drop out of the game in third place - not a bad showing,
all things considered - and Al comes over for a chat. Poker, he opines, mirrors
life. He quotes the immortal Kenny Rogers on the importance of knowing 'when
to hold'em, fold'em, walk away and fight.' He's says that the sort of person
you are in life is reflected, magnified even, at the card table, whether you're
a 'rock' at one extreme or a 'loose cannon' at the other. Self-knowledge,
we hear, is the key to greatness - that and a dash of luck. It's like hearing
an avuncular religious zealot speak.
Alvarez is a poet, but what he's talking about is rooted
in earthy reality. The reason poker is so addictive - no, make that so great
- is that this game is about so much more than pairs, full houses and straight
flushes. It is about how you perceive yourself in relation to the outside
world and how they see you. At the highest level, you don't play other people's
cards so much as play other people. Poker is a way of defining your personality,
of saying who you are and how you act, through a 52-card deck.
Yes, poker is like a religion. And yes, I've just been converted.
We are grateful for this article to Inside Poker Magazine.