Games: Poker

I REMEMBER a witty Scots rogue at the old En Passant coffee bar, which combined chess downstairs and poker upstairs, inquiring: "And where are ye goin' to spend Christmas? Upstairrrs or downstairrrs?" The En Passant, situated in an alleyway off the Strand in London, was one of the most dingy, run-down places any gambler or chess player could dream of.

But to the denizens who thronged its smoky tables, backbench MPs, lawyers, printers from Fleet Street, bar-room philosophers and a rich assortment of petty thieves and conmen, it was more home than home itself.

Similarly, I have often been struck, at a higher level both of play and comfort, by the enthusiasm of professional poker players - to sit down and play for long, long hours, when they don't need to play at all. They include, for example, chief executives from major casinos, like Bobby Baldwin of the Mirage, whose salaries are well up in the million-dollar bracket. Which prompts the question: how are you going to celebrate the new Millennium? Surely what poker players would most enjoy would be an invitation to a really swinging game. In black tie, perhaps, with a bottle of champagne close to hand. That is not practical for most of us, who have family and social obligations which take precedence. Still, New Year prompts one to reflect on the basic question about poker, namely: why do we play and play so much?

Making money is not the point of it all, even though as everyone knows money is how you keep score. Of course no one wants to lose. Nevertheless, I think for most players the real point of poker is that it is the best way they know of spending, not money, but time. Time is what the passing year is all about. The difference between winning and losing is not so important as the experience of playing, indulgence of the gambling instinct combined with a mental challenge. That is the fascination which keeps players going. The game is a non-stop drama. Money? Oh yeah, that comes into it, too.