Victoria Coren is very good at poker and has won a lot of money playing it. But despite this and a big sponsorship deal from a poker website, she does not consider herself a professional player. This is probably a very good thing, because when she is not writing or presenting TV programmes (which she does consider her job), she is generally playing poker, either online or live. So if poker was work, she says, she would have no free time at all.
As hobbies go, poker is a very lucrative one. Looking surprisingly fresh faced for someone who has spent the entire night playing Texas Hold’em online (part of her contractual obligation to the Poker Stars site), Coren explains that although she sees herself as a writer, she makes better money on the tables.
“I have made more money from poker than I have from writing and have done for a very long time now, but psychologically I think of my writing as a job and poker as my fun. I’m a professional writer with a very lucrative hobby.”
Lucrative indeed. In 2006, Coren won the main event on the European Poker Tour, winning herself a cool £500,000 in the process. Her career winnings are estimated to be in the region of £1 million. Although she might not consider herself a professional, there are many poker pros out there who would envy her success on the circuit.
It is probably true to say that she is unique among her peers. There are very few women playing the game to a high standard — she was the first female to win a European Poker Tour event and the first to win a televised tournament. It is also fair to say that there are very few pro players on the circuit with a first-class degree from Oxford, who write columns for the Observer and present BBC4 quiz programmes — as does Coren.
So what is a nice, middle-class Jewish girl from north west London doing in the ultra-masculine, hard-drinking, sometimes dark world of competition poker?
Coren draws deeply on a cigarette as she ponders the question. She feels that, despite the fact that she grew up as the daughter of celebrated writer and broadcaster Alan Coren, and had a posh private education, there is something of the old-time Jewish spieler about her.
“My dad’s family had been full of men who gambled. There were these funny characters called Fat Sam, Ginger Phil and Uncle Sid — all cockney chancers and Jewish wide boys who were out to make a buck however they could.
“Had my father kept in touch with his extended family in north London, I would have grown up with these types. As it is, I got back in touch with the sort of people I had come from — in some cases literally. Through poker I met an old man, who is quite a good friend of mine to this day, who played kalooki with my grandparents. It goes to show that people are born, not made. My brother [Times restaurant critic Giles Coren] had exactly the same upbringing but he is very comfortable spending an afternoon playing cricket on the private pitch at a stately home, then staying the weekend with the titled owners. I’m comfortable in a smoky card room with a lot of grumpy old men in sports jackets who make £100 a week if they’re lucky.”
The fact that Coren has finally got around to writing a book, For Richer For Poorer, about her life in the game, after turning down many offers to do so, also has a family explanation. “My dad got ill. He was diagnosed with cancer and we knew it was terminal. I felt I needed a big project to get lost in. And I wanted to write a book that tells the true story of poker — the dark side, the lonely nights. It’s a personal memoir. Normally I don’t share massively personal things with strangers but I didn’t want this book to be dishonest. I wanted it to be anecdotal — about life in a strange world with funny characters in weird places.”
Coren feels that she is a natural gambler but that is only half the reason why she was attracted to poker. Clearly the adrenaline of playing and winning is a huge factor, but her attachment to the game is considerably deeper than that. “As a child and a young adult I never felt a part of anything. My parents had left their Jewishness behind so I did not really feel part of that community.
“And my parents sent me to a very posh school in West London. I was not like the girls there. They were elegant, goyishe west Londoners — they knew things I didn’t.
“Also, I was in single-sex schools from the age of five to 18, so I started playing poker with my brother’s friends when I was a kid. Boys weren’t bitchy like girls — they insulted you openly and laughed in your face. I loved that. That characterises the poker scene. It’s not about witty small-talk but stupid jokes and strong opinions. I fit in there very well. I found my community.”
Enjoying poker is one thing but excelling at it — and beating the men at their own game — is quite another. Coren feels that being a female can actually be an advantage. “A big part of winning at poker is psychology and detective work — things that women tend to be quite good at. Why is that person doing this or that? You are looking at someone’s face and working out if they are nervous or confident. You need a good understanding of people.
“It’s like in relationships. Sometimes you’re going out with a guy and he sends you a text which looks like it means this but maybe it means that — and why did he send it at all? My strengths in poker are definitely judgement and calculation — but you do also need a good knowledge of the game, a sense of money management and a bit of maths.”
You do not, however, need to be able to calculate the odds to 1,000 decimal points, although Coren acknowledges that there is a breed of super-geeky player who has come through the online version of the game and who has a clinical approach. “You do find some very mathematical poker players, especially now. A lot of the Scandinavians are like this. It’s not about feeling or instinct for them, it’s entirely about the odds they are being offered to make a call.”
If the Scandinavians thrive in tournament poker, the Jews also love the game — probably disproportionately so. High profile celebrities who Coren has played with include writer Al Alvarez, playwright Patrick Marber, the late Times and JC columnist John Diamond and Stephen Fry. Coren has a theory on why Jews enjoy gambling in general and poker in particular.
“In my experience, Jews, Irish and Persians seem to enjoy the game more than others. They all seem to come from groups which have suffered a lot. If you come from a race of people that has suffered injustice, and had a terrible time for many years through factors beyond their control, maybe you are readier to throw yourself open to risk. Maybe you are quicker to think: ‘What the hell, how much worse can it get?’ Perhaps the Jews feel closer to the rawness of chance and know that succeeding — even living — is all about getting lucky.”