Swimming with the Devilfish: Excerpt 2/5

“It could have been Gay Poker…”

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(Extract from Des Wilson’s “Swimming with the Devilfish” – now on sale)

Its the first televised World Poker Tour event of the year, and its taking place on a grassy bank under palm trees beside the beach. Instead of being hunched, bleary-eyed, over the final table in a crowded card room, the survivors of the 450-player field are relaxing in the sunshine. There’s never been a final table like this. They’re playing for $3.4 million of prize money and a first prize of $865,000 dollars – plus a $25,000 buy-in to the WPT Championship, yet it’s all hugs and handshakes as the game ebbs and flows. Not for these finalists the unflinching stare across the table, the drawing in of the winner’s chips without so much as a sympathetic glance at the loser in the hand. When there’s an all-in they’re putting their arms round each other while they await the Flop, they’re hugging each other at the Turn, they’re virtually rolling in the surf together at the River. As I said later to John Gale, if I didn’t know better I would have assumed this was the final of Gay Poker.

It is John who is the cause of all this. The truth is he doesn’t know how to behave. This is only his second live tournament. No-one has told him you’re supposed to sit tight, emotion-less expression-less, as you drive your luckless opponents into bankruptcy. No-one has told him this is a game without sentimentality, where the strong flourish and the weak go to the wall, and who cares ? The fact is John is a good guy. He likes his fellow competitors. He plays poker for fun. He’s only in the Bahamas because he won his entry in a qualifying event on the internet.

Of course he wants to win. He hasn’t slept all night, he’s so excited. Oh he definitely wants to win, but the thing about John, the thing that makes him special, is that he doesn’t want the others to lose. And so, as each goes out, he’s on his feet, arms round shoulders, hugs… my God if you have to lose at poker, you want to lose to this man. By the time he’s done with you, you’re glad you’ve lost.

And lose they do. Because John may be a kindly winner, but he’s a ruthlessly aggressive player. You would expect someone catapulted into a World Poker Tour event to be a bit cautious. Forget it. He’s decisive. He’s dominating the table. Above all, he’s not afraid…

…but the other players are having a little less fun than John. One by one they’re eliminated until its heads-up with a New Yorker called Alex Balandin (a relative unknown who apparently makes his living trading in shares and has also been a member of a blackjack counting team). Although their stacks are about even, it takes only 10 hands for John to knock him out. In the second last hand, John raises and re-raises the Big Blind four times with King-Queen to Alex’s Ace-7. John flops a Queen and the pair holds up. Then a now-desperate Alex goes all-in with 8-7 only to find John has pocket Jack’s. The pair holds up and it’s all over.

More arms round shoulders. More hugs. And then John, in tears, tells the world how he feels. Humble.

There isn’t a dry eye in the house.