Cultural Relatives: Shit Stadiums and Old Gamblers
A mathematical approach makes sense in poker, just as it makes sense when ensuring fans will always be able to find a toilet at Wembley – but it doesn't create atmosphere.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
When, at the top of an escalator built to take me 10 yards down a gentle incline, I spot a sign reminding me how to conduct myself safely, I understand our culture's growing need for danger. A big handful of human responses and excitements and unexplored potentials are keyed in by danger; to not have them challenged makes you feel a bit like a light switch that, no matter how hard you press it, only ever comes on half-bright.
But I don't think anyone ever truly enjoys danger that is actually dangerous, like Hillsborough was actually dangerous. The people who died there, cheese-gratered against shoddy perimeter fences – one of those horrific situations where what is ridiculous and painful suddenly turns into the last thing you will ever feel – would say yes, make this safer. Those who speak about the DIY stylings of the past with fondness should be reminded that this scenario could also include their son or daughter toddling off to DIY Hillsborough for a day out.
It's not the danger I miss, because post-Taylor Report football stadia were not dangerous. They were often crappy though, and certainly scruffy. I miss that, because they looked how my soul looks, at least in part. No part of my soul looks like Wembley. Which looks like the Emirates, which looks like the Etihad, which looks like how the new Spurs stadium will look – that modish curving seat-sweep, which my brain requires I remind you provides immaculate sight-lines from basically anywhere. Whereas The Dell looked like shit, and had girders in the way. The Baseball Ground looked like shit. Stamford Bridge looked like a variety of unrelated building projects had decided to locate a new bus stop at one end of the ground, and would need to cover it in tarpaulin until work was completed. Roker Park looked like shit.
But do you remember the effect in contrast that had? Old Trafford looked like a cathedral. St James' Park resembled a coliseum. The Nou Camp looked like it had its own postcode, towering around its little Subbuteo goalposts. The human eye responds well to contrast, to shifts in tone; it does not respond well (and god knows the 21st century is bearing this out) to lots and lots of similarly shiny and clean and neat things. The one stadium I still have a real, visceral reaction to is Dortmund's Westfalenstadion – and if it takes 80,000-odd people arranged like they've been jammed on a downwards ski-slope, then that hurts. Perhaps it's just the inevitability of childhood, that everything seemed more vivid, but I'd suggest that real life in the 21st century is a harder thing to engage with.
If you're not aware of the history of professional poker during the last 50 years, let me take you on a journey. Once upon a time there were hustlers who toured America trying to find anyone who didn't know they were hustlers. Then Vegas happened, and they relocated there en masse to intercept the tourists – although not every tourist coming to Vegas was the donkey the hustlers were hoping for. The game had started to attract whizzkids to the desert, guys who won at Backgammon and Go and couldn't stand the thought of a regular life where a boss told them what to do.
In 1989, the victory of 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth, the Poker Brat, at the World Series Main Event, the most prestigious poker tournament, caught a lot of attention. By the late '90s televised poker had grown in popularity, particularly with the invention (by the guy who invented Transformers) of the 'hole card cam', which allowed the audience to see the cards each player had.
By the millennium, Rounders – the best poker film – had been released, and people knew about the game. But it remained predominantly a Vegas thing, another world. Then the internet happened; Pokerstars became the go-to site for poker in your pajamas and remains so to this day. In 2003, Chris Moneymaker, a workaday accountant from Tennessee went, possibly in his pajamas, from a $39 satellite tournament on Pokerstars – essentially a contest where the winner gets entry into a larger tournament – to winning first place in the 2003 Main Event, and with that $2.5million. That year, the Main Event had 839 entrants, paying $10,000 each. In 2006, by which time what is universally known as the 'Moneymaker Effect' was in full swing, there were 8,773 entrants, most of them amateurs, competing for a first prize of $12million.
And so began the golden age of poker. Money was everywhere, but the past was still close enough that the most skilled practitioners were those who'd emerged from the shaded corners of Vegas and Atlantic City – Daniel 'Kid Poker' Negreanu; Antonio 'The Magician' Esfandiari; and Phil Ivey, a guy whose stare occasionally announced him as the most capable human on the planet. Plus a few old-time hustlers, plus a few of the wealthy businessmen knocking around Vegas; essentially, the most charismatic line-up you could hope for (imagine a combination of the Stretford End, one side of Highbury, the main stand of Filbert Street, and a length of St James Park). On High Stakes Poker, the crème de la crème of poker shows, they played with real money on the table, usually about $300k each, and intercut the tension of gigantic pots with the happy back-and-forth of guys who knew this was bunking off real life, and all the better for it.
But the internet continued to happen. Poker was legitimised as a career choice, and a new generation of uppity nerds with semi-complete degrees from prestigious universities happily spent days and weeks and their whole lives poring over charts, ranking probabilities, and devising the optimal strategy to maximise the equity of any given hand. Basically, like a real job.
Which is all well and good. A mathematical approach makes sense in poker, just as it makes sense when ensuring fans will always be able to find a toilet at Wembley; or politely removing from patrons any consumables that might infringe the stadium's licensing partnerships.
But it doesn't make for a great atmosphere. Drama at Wembley happens in spite of, not because of, the stadium's setting. It is a beautiful truth that the sudden force of football is just – just – that bit more powerful than anything any silly brand guru could dream up. Likewise, cool stuff still occasionally happens in televised poker. But generally, these kids whose bedroom studies turn them into the big winners and fill the TV shows are: wearing expensive headphones; wearing a hoodie; and mute apart from the odd surly aside like 'If I three-bet the turn do I just isolate all the semi-bluffs from your range?' As opposed to what Sammy Farha said to Patrik Antonius on High Stakes Poker when they'd created between them a $998k pot, and Antonius asked if he might see Sammy's cards: 'Can't tell you, surprise you,' smiles Sammy.
By the way, when I won a Pokerstars satellite that sent me to the Bahamas to play, I happened to see the big French guy sat next to Patrik in that video, in the hotel casino at about 8am, feeding what I believe were quarters into some skanky-looking slot machine. But hey – they were real gamblers, not robots. Flaws and all.
The Hand Of History – Matt Le Tissier vs Newcastle, The Dell, 1993
The thing I like – or rather, the contrast I appreciate – is how crappy the goal is. I mean the actual goal structure, of course. Instead of that modern post-rigging system that means every net is now an inviting box, waiting to bulge, what they used at the Dell seems to have the cheap-and-cheerful air of the goals that could be collapsed sideways and efficiently stacked against the wall of your school gym. The goals with which, in front of the Sega adverts in the scruffy cowshed of the Dell, Matt Le Tissier did his thing.
A Little Cultural Context
Okay, just gotta get this off my chest: in Casino Royale, during the famous poker scene, pretty much everyone misplays their hands in a variety of heinous ways. But what Daniel Craig does at the end, waiting for everyone else to show their hands first in a multi-million dollar pot, before snottily revealing that he actually has the best possible hand, deserves to get him shot by about three different players at the table and then barred from the casino for life. That torture scene later on was completely justified.