Cool-hand Noel is $1m poker champion of the world

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NOEL FURLONG, an Irishman, calmly outplayed the best of the West yesterday to clinch the $1m (pounds 625,000) first prize in the World Poker Championship in Las Vegas.

It was not just a victory for the old world over the finest in Las Vegas. It was also something of a triumph for the older generation over youth. The player 61-year-old Mr Furlong finally busted in a long and exciting duel over the baize was nearly half his age.

Sitting side by side at the poker table in Binion's Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas, Alan Goehring, a bond trader from New York, and Mr Furlong looked like father and son playing a friendly game of cards at the kitchen table. Or they might have done, but for a million dollars stacked up in thick green bundles beside them.

Mr Furlong, silver-haired and wearing a khaki shirt and trousers, always appeared relaxed, even when he lost a pot. After four days' play, in which he outlasted 392 other players, his stamina was formidable. Yet he confessed he had not played cards for the past two years and felt quite ill at the start of the tournament.

His young opponent chose to sit stock still, expression-less. He wore wrap-around dark glasses that concealed his eyes and any clue to his thoughts.

As a race-horse owner, Mr Furlong is no stranger to high stakes play. Among other celebrated coups, he won a million-pound gamble at Cheltenham races recently. He used gambling winnings on another occasion to settle a tax dispute on his carpet business, so that he would be free to watch his horses run in England.

Large crowds surrounding the table and watching the action on video monitors cheered on Mr Furlong when he hit a full house to win all his opponent's chips.

The victor sounded more than a little dazed facing the cameras. "I've no idea what I will do with the money. Get drunk. Give gambling up for a while? I hope so," he said.

The loser strode off into the Las Vegas sunset, not to brood on his defeat but to telephone his parents. He said he was very happy with his play, which netted him $768,625. Unlike some other players who struck it rich at the World Series of poker, he intends to return to his regular job.

It was a great night for the Irish, with two players at the final table. Padraig Parkinson, Mr Furlong's fellow countryman, took third place, worth nearly half a million, and George McKeever, from Dublin, took the seventh spot.

"Sure and it's all down to the boys playing at the Eccentric Club I ran in Dublin a few years back," explained Terry Rogers, an Irish bookmaker and voluble figure on the gambling scene. "That's where they learnt to play the game so well."

The game of the world championship is called Texas Hold 'em, a modern form of seven-card stud. It strongly appeals to the American temperament, being fast and quick, like a gun duel.

But with two top Vegas pros biting the dust in the final table, and another finalist being Swiss, the Americans are facing a real challenge to their skills from Europe. A sizeable group of British players paid their $10,000 entry fee to play in the world championship, but without success this year.

In what proved to be the final hand, the antes were $3,000 and the opening bets $20,000 each. Mr Furlong was dealt two fives in the hole. When the community cards came out, he found he had made a monster hand - a full house fives on queens. Cannily, he checked his hand without betting.

When the next card came down, he bet $100,000, which looked like a "steal". His opponent thought about it and raised $450,000, whereupon Mr Furlong set him in for the rest of his chips. Mr Goehring had two sixes in his hand, which failed to improve.