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Money For Nothing, and Your Chips For Free

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Stepping into the fast-paced, high-stakes world of online poker, Scott Johnson speaks to student poker ace, Harry Lodge, who tells all about playing your hand, keeping your cool and pocketing £27k.

On 5 November Ryan Reiss emerged victorious from a field of 6,352 men and women of hugely varying ages (21 to 92) from 83 different nations over nine days of competition. His prize? A cool $8.5 million dollars and the title of World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event (ME) Champion. The American became the 6th straight ME champion aged under 25, showing how much of a young man’s game poker has become. But isn’t poker only for the super-rich and the internet nerds?

Okay, let’s tackle the internet nerds point first. Whilst your impression of most poker players may be 30-somethings who still live in their parents’ house, afraid to come out of the basement, there are many examples of this being untrue. Poker professionals are constantly trying to become healthier individuals, as it’s impossible to concentrate for large periods of time with diets of fast food, red-bull and coffee. There are also a number of world-class athletes enjoying themselves by indulging in poker. Current Tennis World No. 1 Rafael Nadal is a recent addition to the team at PokerStars, the leading online poker site. It’s definitely worth watching the YouTube video of him learning to bluff by trying to convince people he’s not Rafa. 18-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps also plays a lot of poker, entering tournaments around the world. There are many people from other walks of life that like to indulge in poker, such as Vicky Coren, Ben Affleck and Toby Maguire. The point stands: it isn’t always the usual suspects at the poker tables.

Image Credits: Pokerstars
Image Credits: Pokerstars

The point about the game being dominated by the super-rich is a fair assumption. With the WSOP ME requiring a $10k entry fee, it obviously prices out a lot of people. However, we only have to go back ten years, when Chris Moneymaker (yes that is genuinely his legal name) qualified for that year’s ME for just $10. He turned that $10 into a very nice $2.5m, a very good return by any measure. PokerStars’ online MicroMillions tournament series paid $126,000 to the winner of their main event which had a buy-in of only $22. So whilst buying in directly to the big tournaments may be for the extremely affluent, it is possible to get to poker’s richest prizes in other ways. Exeter have their own example of this, with current student Harry Lodge qualifying for the UK Poker Tour event on the Isle of Man for FREE. Yes, you read that correctly, free. The event usually requires a £1,000 buy in, but Harry earnt his place free of charge and ended up in a brilliant 5th place, taking home £27k. Harry is currently General Secretary of Exeter’s very own Poker Society, and Exeposé caught up with him to talk about his poker career.

I met Harry at one of the weekly Poker Society tournaments, and it is immediately obvious this is a comfortable setting for him. But there’s nothing about the second year Economics student that would suggest he’d just paid off his student loan after three days work. When questioned about the fact he pretty much shrugs it off, claiming that all the money is still just sitting in his PokerStars account. “I took my girlfriend out for dinner!” he laughs when I ask about his plans for the money. That’s still going to leave a lot of change from £27,000.

Harry talked with a smile when he was asked about playing in the event. “Playing live tournaments is a different challenge to online, but there are some things you can use live that you don’t have online. When you’re sitting across from the other player, they can give off tells and their body language can change in different hands. One player would use his hands to cover his face when he had a big hand which was a big help.” Meeting some great players along the way was another highlight for Harry. 2013 WSOP Player of the Year Daniel Negranu was there playing in the event, as was British professional Jake Cody. Meeting these two was a personal highlight for Harry: “Sitting at the table with players I have a tremendous respect for was amazing, seeing them finally play for real rather than just on TV was something very special”.

So experiences aside, was the tournament always destined to be this successful for Harry? Looking back now it’s easy to say it was always going well, especially as he started Day Two of the tournament in a nice position, 20 out of 380, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. “The first two hours of Day Two weren’t good. I got in some difficult situations against some very good players and it left me with one of the shortest stacks in the room after this point”. Harry still looks a bit frustrated about that moment in the tournament. Watching everyone else increase their stacks whilst you’re going the other way is tough mentally, but Harry said he remained patient, despite the looming possibility he would have played a lot of poker for little or no return. But Day Two got better for Harry, moving up the rankings with some clever play to reach the final table and Day Three.

Obviously the final table of a big event is where every poker player wants to be, and Harry was extremely proud of his achievement, “Playing poker on TV is the pinnacle for all players, for one of my first big live tournaments to reach this stage was amazing”. However, it’s not all good things on the final table, Harry recalls. “You feel a lot more pressure when playing on TV, as more pressure when playing on TV, as a bad play is immediately highlighted for the entire audience to see, as they reveal your cards after the hand finishes. I knew, however, it was the first TV appearance for other people, which might make them scared of the whole experience, another thing I would be able to exploit.” Harry’s losing hand was one to be gutted about, as before the hand, he was ahead. “I was upset to go out on that hand, as I had Ace Jack whereas my opponent held Queen Ten, but when the Ten came on the flop it put him ahead”. I can also imagine it’s hard to be too upset if you’ve just paid off your entire student loan!

Is £27K and a UKIPT final table enough prize money for Harry this year? Not at all, Harry has already qualified for the UKIPT tour event in Nottingham, as he looks to build his career in the game. Looking forward, Harry is thinking positive, “In the next five years I hope to finish my degree and start playing poker professionally, both live and online, whilst remaining successful”.

What this interview highlights is that poker is no longer restricted to Las Vegas casinos and smoky basements, but is accessible throughout the world. The European Poker Tour operates all across the continent with tour locations including Monte Carlo, London and Barcelona with a huge number of nationalities represented at every event. The buy-ins at these events range from €220 for side events to a massive $100,000 for the super-high roller event reserved for only the seasoned pros and the extremely affluent.

The world’s largest tours also span across the globe into the Pacific regions, with both WSOP APAC and the Aussie Millions available to those players located in that area of the world. China is also catching onto the Poker boom, with Macau hosting some of the largest cash and tournament pay-outs in the world.

So we’ve mentioned the smallest tournaments in the world, but what about the biggest? You might be forgiven for thinking the biggest would be the $100,000 buy in at the PCA, but one tournament at the WSOP dwarfed them all. The 2012 Big One for One Drop had an eye watering $1,000,000 buy in, and 48 people stumped up the money to be part of history. $111,111 per player of this entry fee went to charity, all going towards One Drop’s mission of providing clean water for everyone in the world.

Image Credits: Robertsullivan/AFP/Getty
Image Credits: Robertsullivan/AFP/Getty

But before poker gets all high and mighty, the winner Antonio Estfandiari took home over $18m and British pro Sam Trickett took home $10,112,001 for coming in second place. On the bright-side, there were other players that were not professionals taking part and a lot of businessmen, promising to donate everything of their winnings to charity as well. Is Poker starting to concern itself with how it’s perceived?

Online poker is still banned in the States, after Full Tilt Poker was convicted of defrauding its members through a secret ‘God Mode’, which allowed people at the top of the company to see their opponents’ cards during a game. The funding structure of the company was also set up as a global ‘Ponzi Scheme’ with each new investor’s money being used to pay the returns to the original investors. Obviously this scheme cannot continue as the new investors dry up. However, Full Tilt has been re-launched successfully in recent years, and online poker is closer than ever to being reaccepted in the US.

Poker has had a long battle to convince people that it is not a game played purely in the shadows. Exeter Poker Society has also experienced its own troubles regarding this image when trying to find a room for their regular games. Over the Summer they were granted permission by a University official to use the space at the top of the Forum, but his decision was overruled by someone higher up who deemed poker to be ‘inappropriate’ for such a prominent space. This came despite the fact that joining the society and playing regular poker is a lot cheaper than joining the average AU club, but the image played its part.

However, the Poker Society is steadily growing and at the end of the year will once again take a large group of players to the UKSPC which was mentioned earlier. Events like this have helped open the student world up to the higher levels of poker, with the winner of the event qualifying for the Grosvenor UK Poker Tour Grand Final at the end of the year. With events available to students becoming more and more common, poker will become more and more a young man’s game.

With other Poker Society members, Will Fasano and Andy Wade, having also played at UKIPT Events and with many members planning to play when their schedule allows it’s safe to say that the global influence of poker has well and truly hit the University of Exeter,  and it’s definitely not the only university in the UK experiencing the uprising of the game.

Scott Johnson

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