Two tens equals £800,000

63-year-old former businessman from Las Vegas wins prestigious, and lucrative, poker event in London
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a man whose entire career literally revolves around keeping his cards close to his chest, John Tabatabai is remarkably candid about the often cruel twists and turns of his chosen profession.

"Poker is a strange game really," he says. "You can come second or third in a tournament, win a ridiculous amount of money and still be genuinely distraught or upset. It's mind boggling. You try and explain it to your friends and they tell you 'What the hell you complaining about, you've just won five years salary'. It's hard for non-players to understand."

Two years ago the 24-year-old Londoner was sitting at a table at the Empire Casino in Leicester Square staring at a million pounds which had been placed in neatly stacked piles in front of him. Opposite him was 18-year-old Annette Obrestad, back then a little known baby-faced Norwegian poker player who learned how to be a high roller by furiously tapping away on her keyboard from the comfort of her parent's house.

The two young upstarts had beaten more than one hundred rivals, some of whom had been living and breathing Texas hold 'em tournaments for decades, and had made it through to the grand final of what is arguably the most prestigious competition outside of Vegas - the World Series Of Poker Europe (WSOPE). After hours of nail-biting gameplay, Obrestad went all in and won, taking away the £1million jackpot and the World Series gold bracelet, a gaudy piece of bling which poker players desire with the same ferocity that golf pros covet the Masters green jacket.

The £570,000 runner-up prize money that Tabatabai walked away did little to alleviate the pain of losing overall. "When you win it's such an incredible feeling because you've made it through this exhausting process, you've beaten everybody around you and in that tournament you were the best player," says Tabatabai, a former child chess prodigy who turned to poker in his late teens and never looked back. "But when you lose… well…" he trails off, momentarily lost for words.

Thanks to the incredible global reach of online gambling sites and televised tournaments, poker has never been more popular. Billions are won and lost over the internet everyday whilst the hold 'em tournaments that once used to attract a few hundred hardened professionals to Vegas each year have mushroomed into major international sporting events with thousands of hopefuls, amateurs and pros alike, looking to win big.

And London is fast becoming the world's second most formidable poker capital after Vegas. Over the next five weeks virtually all the world's top poker players will descend upon the capital for three of the poker calendar's most prestigious tournaments - the World Series of Poker Europe, the European Poker Tour and the World Heads Up Championship. Though smaller than their American versions, the UK tournaments still dangle the tantalising prospect of huge jackpots, global recognition and, of course, those prized golden bracelets. And unlike in Vegas, where the state of Nevada takes a chunk of your cash, the winnings in Britain are tax free.

This week more than 300 players, including former England footballer Teddy Sheringham, stumped up £10,000 of their own (or their sponsor's) cash to battle it out in the World Series' main event, which carries an £800,000 jackpot. Tabatabai and Obrestad, both now team mates with Betfair, returned to the fray but crashed out early.

Instead it fell to Barry Shulman, a silver haired 63-year-old former businessman from Vegas, to battle it out until 5am this morning with Canadian Daniel Negreanu, who seems to have an extraordinary, almost telepathic, ability to read his opponents hands. But in the end telepathy wasn't enough and Shulman claimed the jackpot and his second gold bracelet.

While North American players have long dominated international poker, the Brits are making a greater impact every year. Two British players made it through to the "final nine" table this week, carrying off more than £420,000 between them. James Akenhead, who finished ninth, has also made it through to the final nine of the World Series' biggest event which will be played in Vegas in November and has a $9m jackpot.

Teddy Sheringham, meanwhile, is fast proving himself to be as adept at cards as he once was with a football. When he arrived at the World Series earlier this week, the pros seemed to regard him as something of a novelty, celebrity figure who would soon be finished off. Instead he made it to the penultimate day, knocking out a number of professionals including fellow Brit Dave Ulliot, who goes by the name of Devilfish and whose signature look is a pair of homemade golden knuckledusters bearing his nickname.

As always, the incredible draw of poker rests in its ability to turn seemingly ordinary people into super-rich megastars overnight.

"When the final table comes along it's incredibly exciting because you often have people who have never been in that kind of situation before who are literally on the verge of winning life-changing money," says Nolan Dalla, a flamboyant former player from Texas who has been playing, writing about and organising poker tournaments for more than 25 years. "With something like the World Series of Poker in Vegas, the top prize is about $9m but I'd say the overall value is more like $30-40m because of sponsorship and endorsement deals. It's probably one of the biggest prizes an average person can participate in."

Jack Effel, WSOP's tour director, adds: "Poker has come such a long way. It has evolved from an old west, smoke filled, whiskey drinking, guns on the table type of game to a fully fledged international sport for all people, of all statures. This is the only sport I can think of where you might have a doctor, a lawyer, a professional gambler, a footballer and a guy who happens to have a lot of money, all at a poker table acting as equals. The great thing is that anyone can win."