When the green baize beckons...

As London prepares for the first European professional poker festival, Chris Arnot talks to Britain's trump card
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The pounds 50 notes emerge from Derek Baxter's inside pocket in a neat wedge. He slides them across the green baize and the Chinese dealer's thin forearm flicks out like a lizard's tongue. Safely gathered in, the notes are inspected, counted and eventually locked away with seven other wedges.

It is just after nine on a Sunday evening in the Rainbow Casino, Birmingham, and by the time the big game is under way, each player has two or three piles of chips next to a rapidly filling glass ashtray. Thick coils of cigarette smoke lick around the green fringes of the overhead lights.

Mr Baxter feigns indifference during the preliminaries. But while chatting with the burly bookmaker on his left, the corner of one piercing blue, if bloodshot eye follows the dealer's every move. If eyes are the windows of the soul then top poker players have the curtains drawn. They give nothing away. They sum up mathematical probabilities and psychological clues in quick, darting glances before glazing over again.

There are maybe 40 British players who can hold their own in card rooms worldwide. Derek Baxter is almost certainly the only one to rely on poker for his living for over 25 years. When the game breaks up, at 4am, he is already back home in bed, pounds 500 the richer.

He will need every penny when he checks in at the Metropole Hotel in London's Edgware Road today in preparation for the fortnight-long Festival of Poker at the nearby Victoria Sporting Club, Marble Arch. Just to buy in to the final game will cost a minimum of pounds 1,500. Prize money for that game alone is expected to reach pounds 120,000 (half of it going to the winner). That's significantly higher than anywhere else in Europe, says casino manager Bill Slate. "We believe the winner of our premier competition can rightly claim to be Poker Champion of Europe."

Mr Baxter believes he is the best in Britain. "It's the only way to think," he grins. Self-confidence to the point of chutzpah is part of the poker player's armoury. He looks cool for a man of 55: open-necked dark shirt beneath a well-cut jacket of dog-tooth check. The hair is slightly flecked with grey.

His father was a hustler in the snooker halls and a compulsive gambler. Friday night was poker night in the Baxter household. Young Derek, then a trainee on one of the first computers in Birmingham, was encouraged to put his pounds 13 wages on the table. "I lost it all, every time. The only way I could get the bus fare to work the following week was to make the sandwiches and the coffee."

A salutary experience? Not at all. In that front room, redolent of beer fumes and stale tobacco, he caught the bug that was to dictate his life. As the Sixties progressed, he graduated to the gambling dens of Soho. Then it was back to Birmingham to become dealer and, briefly, manager at the Rainbow Casino before trying his luck as a full-time professional in 1968. "Over the years, I've won millions and spent it," he said. "I like to go on holiday for weeks on end. Always five-star hotels. Always champagne."

He lights another Benson & Hedges and holds it between fingers with long card-dealer's nails. It's half an hour before the big game and we are sitting in the Rainbow's bar with its white wood-veneer fitments, maroon velveteen upholstery and low copper-topped tables. These days he never has alcohol before or during a game. He learnt his lesson on his first trip to Las Vegas in 1980. "By the ninth day I was nearly $80,000 up and I decided to call it a day," he recalls.

That decision was hastened by the appearance of a persistent hooker. They had a few drinks, then a few more. When she dropped him back at his hotel at six the following morning, he should have gone to sleep off his hangover. Instead, he wandered unsteadily across the street to the Horseshoe Casino. The World Series was in progress and $500,000 lay on the table. He tossed in $10,000 of his own to buy in to the game and ordered a drink. "The last thing I remember is taking the first pot of $26,000," he says. From then on it was downhill all the way.

When he woke at four in the afternoon, his abject physical condition was not helped by the slow realisation that he had lost not only his winnings from the previous evening but also another pounds 15,000 he had brought from England. "It was my own stupid fault," he says. "You should never drink and play."

Two years ago, Mr Baxter went into an emergency home repairs business with one of his sons-in-law. "I draw a small wage, but it's nowhere near enough," he says. "I just don't want to be relying on poker when I'm 70." He has applied for a mortgage for the first time in his life. "When the building society rang my landlady for a reference, she told them I was a model tenant," he says, another grin crinkling the creases around those blue bloodshot eyes. "I always pay the rent on time and I'm hardly ever there."

But if, perhaps, bourgeois respectability beckons, first there is the small matter of the European tournament at the Victoria Club. And the one after that. For Derek Baxter, there will always be just one more big game on the green baize horizon.

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