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14/11/2010 No. 96
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren
Sunday 14 November 2010
Let their hearts rule their heads

Poker was once a chancer's game. Now it's a more honourable career than the City

We have a new world poker champion. Jonathan Duhamel, 23, from Canada, has just won the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and its $8.9m prize.

Last year, the world champion was Joe Cada, 21, from America. The year before, it was Peter Eastgate, 22, from Denmark.

What do you notice? They are all children! Runner-up this year was John Racener, 24, third was Joseph Cheong, 24, and fourth was Filippo Candio, 25. All are multimillionaires now.

If you still imagine poker as an outlaw pastime for old men in dusty back rooms, you should get out more. Following the internet revolution, a new generation is growing up with poker as a serious career choice.

Jonathan Duhamel, the fresh champion, dropped out of the University of Quebec, where he was studying for a degree in finance, to become a professional player.

His parents argued against this plan. That's a conversation I'd like to have heard.

"Jonathan, you're being silly. You're taking a finance degree. Finance is solid. Nothing could possibly go wrong in the world of banking and international economy. Why would you turn your back on that to gamble?"

[TWO YEARS LATER] "Hi Dad, it's Jonathan. I've just made nine million dollars."

Meanwhile, the students are rioting because their fees are being whacked up, due to bankers "speculating" away all the public money.

So who are the gamblers? You won't find a poker player whose losses led to housing benefit being slashed and fire extinguishers thrown off a roof.

There is an army of youngsters like Jonathan Duhamel out there; I know, because I play poker with them. They are clever, educated, turning their mathematical skills to the game of probabilities and judgment. They are shrewd and sensible; they exercise "bankroll management" to make sure they can't go skint in a single disaster. It would be nice if our expert financiers had done the same.

There is a 22-year-old chap called Jake Cody, from Lancashire, who unnerved his parents by quitting a psychology degree to play poker full-time. In January, he won the French leg of the European Poker Tour for €847,000.

"Be careful with that, young man," I said, as if I were his granny. "Big wins come once in a lifetime, or not at all. The only aim in poker is to survive. Put it safely away and play with a tiny proportion."

But Jake was ahead of me. He was already planning to invest the money in property around Manchester. Six months later, he won the London leg of the World Poker Tour for £273,783. I sighed and went back to my knitting.

Parents don't tend to be terribly keen on their children playing poker. I hid it from mine for years. They thought I played the odd recreational game with friends. I didn't reveal I'd been playing casino tournaments until 2004, when I couldn't resist ringing them up to say I'd just won £14,000.

"That sounds good," said my father cautiously. "I wouldn't tell many people about that if I were you."

Two years later, I rang to say I'd just won £500,000. Then they told everybody.

If your teenage son or daughter wants to be a poker player, and you're terrified, what would you rather they did? Where do you see security for them?

In manual work? Industry? Don't be ridiculous. Publishing? That's on its last legs. Media, television? No safety there. A desk job for a lifetime? No such thing any more. Banking? Hoho. As long as the kid is bright and sensible, don't worry. Poker is no longer about establishing who is the best drunken old dropout. It's about who is the best maths genius.

It's far less risky than it was when I started playing, because of the scope of the internet. If you're any good at the game, you can play for tiny stakes and spin them up into large amounts. A clever player doesn't buy into these huge tournaments, he (or she) will win their ticket for £10 in an online competition. A clever player doesn't chase rainbows, but saves for rainy days.

I should mention that I'm a member of Team PokerStars Pro, affiliated with the giant website, so you might say I would be an apologist. But it's not so simple. I was drawn to the game, initially, by a seedy romance that no longer exists. What you might think I'm hiding is something that's actually gone and I miss it.

If anything, I think it's become too sensible and solid; the young pros play online for 50 hours a week like traditional desk jockeys. The best advice you can give your kid is to remember he must still go out and meet people, travel the world and not just stare at a screen until he dies – just like you'd say if he worked in IT.

And of course there are risks, for the wrong sort of personality. You need the discipline and restraint not to play for sums you can't afford, nor to stake more than 5% of your "available bankroll" in any one game. You need the self-awareness to stop if you're losing, temporarily or permanently, and do something else. Playing poker for a living if you don't make a profit year on year, hoping always to "get out of it" with the big win, is about as smart as continuing to believe you'll become a professional footballer when you can't run 10 yards without falling over.

Neither do I think students should drop out of degree courses to turn pro, because they can easily play internet poker on the side. If it works out in the future, those poker winnings are non-taxable, unofficial earnings, so you'll never have to pay back that crippling loan.

What happier revenge on a regime that gave our education money to the real gamblers? Better the mouse than the fire extinguisher.
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