Monday, 29 July 2019

Marrakech Express

I went to Morocco on a whim really. I went because I expected that no poker player worth his or her salt would be there. They would all surely be in Las Vegas playing at the World Series of Poker - the biggest poker event of the year. Why would anyone good be at this weirdly scheduled North African event? I dreamed of tables full of suave but clueless French businessmen and friendly but naive locals.

Generic French Businessman
As is the way with travelling to poker tournaments, you are conditioned to expect the disappointment of failure and financial losses. This is simply the way tournament poker works. The creeping inevitability of losing trip that perhaps can be staved off by a 'min cash' in the main event or a nice run in a side event or finding some good cash games. To be break even is beautiful. Sure - someone is going to win the tournament, but it sure as hell won't be me, right?

Expenses would have to be kept to a minimum and focus maintained. I would fly Ryanair. Arrive on the day of the event itself. Stay in a crappy hotel. Eat as cheaply as possible. No extravagances. No drinking. No tourist shit. Avoid all situations that involve haggling.

Delay and bad seat draw

It began badly with a two and half hour delay and a middle seat on the aircraft. I'd had an upset stomach the night before and it decided to rear its head the moment the plane began to taxi. I held my breath and concentrated. Five minutes, ten minutes. Watching the seatbelt light and hoping it would be turned off soon. I scanned the toilet doors, working out how many seconds it would take me to get there.

Fifteen minutes. I pressed the button to summon a steward for the first ever time in my life and asked if I could use the bathroom. Negative - we were still elevating, levitating or doing something. A few minutes later, envisioning ending up in some Moroccan jail due to disorder on the flight, I made a break for it - but at the exact same time a woman behind me did the same with her son. Both toilets now occupied. I waited in the aisle. I made desperate eye contact with the steward. He seemed to understand the severity of the situation. After the two longest minutes I can remember, disaster was avoided (just). The rest of the flight passed uneventfully but with a lot of opportunities to purchase scratchcards.


I arrived in Marrakech probably the least prepared I had ever been for a poker trip. Having never visited the city before, I had no local currency, no phone data and no map. I did at least know the name of my hotel which made me more organised than many of my fellow poker players are when they arrive (mentioning no names!).

My hatred for airport taxi drivers is deeply ingrained, so after picking up a few notes of local currency I followed the signs for the bus. I knew the casino was near the Sofitel and the driver nodded when I mentioned it as I purchased my ticket with my schoolboy French. Smooth.

We drove down some wide palm lined streets. I could not see the Sofitel and the driver did not motion for me to get off. Soon we were at the Jemaa el-Fnaa, the tourist centre of Marrakech. This was too far. The driver shrugged. It turned out that Sofitel was pronounced The Sofia 'Otel and he just assumed everyone wanted to go to the central square.

We travelled back towards the airport and I saw the decrepit sign of my hotel nearby. I convinced the driver to drop me by the side of a dual carriageway and schlepped it through the miasma of the traffic to the hotel lobby.

My room was massive and contained a single bed and no other furniture whatsoever. In certain places they would call this minimalist and charge you a fortune. I expected my room to be basic but this was just... odd.

I was already late, so I headed off the the casino with a ten minute walk through the Hivernage district of Marrakech. A bevy of horse and carts ferried passengers around. At certain corners the horses gathered and pooed a lot, swishing their tails in the heat. Meanwhile the drivers smoked cigarettes and shot the shit, touting for business when anyone who looked non-local walked past.

With the aroma of horse manure in the air, I arrived at the glamorous Casino Marrakech and it was time for some poker.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Man wins poker tournament

I have played poker for many years and in all that time I have only managed to win one live tournament. Shockingly in the second half of 2018, despite having recently 'retired' from poker - I managed to take down two events.

Warning - post contains a lot of poker.

Summer Cup

I went back to day two of the Berlin Summer Cup (€220 buy in, 250 runners) with just 22 big blinds, lying around 50/62, with 27 players paid. I commented to my friend that at least it would get me out of the flat for the afternoon, but I expected to be available to watch the Uruguay v Portugal match later that evening. About 15 people bought in for 8bbs at the beginning of day two to swell the prizepool and we were off. Early on average stacks were very shallow, due in part to the number of day two re-entries, so there were a lot of all ins. I didn't do very much and dwindled down to 10bbs where I had my first (and I think only) suckout, doubling with A8 vs AQ. Shortly afterwards I went on a tear, busting three players in an orbit and vaulting into one of the top positions.

On the bubble I was able to steal a lot of pots but lost most of my chips in a flip for the chiplead just after the bubble broke. I managed to hang around, grind my shortstack and steal pots here and there to go into the final table ninth out of ten. Already there were murmurs of a deal but we started to play and two players busted relatively quickly. A young Austrian guy that I'll call Falco Jnr in a full Austrian National Team tracksuit with a bumfluff moustache and slicked back hair and big shades was a monster chipleader with almost half the chips in play. I'd played with him the previous day where he coolered five or six different people to finish as Day One chip leader. I had a feeling that he could punt his stack off at any moment and was very happy with my seat on his direct left. He was very friendly and fun and later introduced himself as Crazy Boris.

Deal or no deal?

The deal was discussed and I acquiesced to looking at ICM numbers out of politeness. Fortunately Crazy Boris asked for a ridiculous amount of extra money so he was the one to nix the deal and we played on. A little while later, now 7-handed, the Austrian had spewed off a few chips and was now in the market to deal and I had to be the one to put the kibosh on it, drawing the ire of the rest of the table. I was the shortstack with 10bbs (therefore no ICM pressure) and to the direct left of the spewy chipleader. Plus of course I've played hundreds of final tables and felt totally comfortable and was having lots of fun.

The table seemed to believe that as the shortstack I should be most incentivised to deal and didn't understand my rejection. Of course, the most keen on a deal should have been the guy second in chips who was to the right of the chipleader and thus totally handcuffed and in a very tricky situation. At this point one of the casino regulars who I had played with before  told me that he knew I played online for 'Millions' and it was not a big deal for me and how could they play in this turbo structure? I replied in my bad German that I was here to gamble, I was a kid with a dream and chopping wasn't for real men - slamming my fist down on the table for extra emphasis.

No deal!

We talked for about fifteen minutes and then the first hand after the failed deal discussions I doubled up via a flip for ultimate DEAL REJECTION JUSTICE. I managed to bob and weave until we got five handed, rejecting several more deal offers along the way. I made a crucial double up with AQ vs the A8 and shortly afterwards I picked up kings in a fortuitous spot to cripple one of the two good players. Soon we were four handed with three evenish stacks and a shorty.

Falco is not impressed with my 28 offsuit
The crucial hand was a ridiculous one. The good young quiet player limped off 25bb from the cut off (which is an interesting adjustment off that stack depth), the spewy Austrian completed in the sb and I checked in the BB with 28o. The flop was T82 with two spades and Falco Jnr open shipped for around 6x pot. He'd shown a propensity for random spews, so I looked down at my cards, shrugged and called. I managed to hold vs his KT and was monster chipleader. I was now in a great position and shoved almost any two cards several hands in a row with second in chips totally in an ICM coffin, enjoying his wry looks in my direction each time.
In the break I indicated to the competent young player in second place that I'd be open to chopping with him heads up but he seemed noncommittal. I resisted making my usual comment in such circumstances - something along the lines of - 'Why? Do you think you are better at poker than me?' - it later emerged that he knew my screen name and we'd played a bunch of mixed games together previously on Stars - but he wouldn't tell me his screen name even after the tournament so I guess we aren't going to be friends.

Man gewinnt ein Pokertournier

My trophy cabinet. 
Anyhow, I managed to finish things off quickly by busting the shorty in a flip and then grinding it out heads up in front of my one man rail of Sergei. With lots of flops favouring my ranges, I was able to barrel a lot of flops and turns. Finishing it off with 88 holding vs K7 for a my second ever live tournament win. I felt great and thought I'd played excellently, trying to avoid marginal +ev spots and high variance situations to preserve my stack and of course running very well.

It was all very low key. I asked the staff where the glorious Summer Cup trophy was and the reply was a shrug. So there was no trophy and the results won't even be officially recorded due to new EU data regulations. Did it indeed actually happen?

Playing 'Irish' in Ireland

The Unibet Open in Dublin was my first ever time on this tour. For some reason I seem to be always busy when they have a stop or it is somewhere I don't want to go (London - used to live there, expensive. Copenhagen - good players, expensive. Malta - been there too much). I wasn't too excited about Dublin too, but after grinding the satellites I had a package that I needed to use, so a second trip to Ireland in two months it was.

An actual trophy!
I enjoyed the festival. They tried really hard to create a good vibe and I had a positive experience overall. Numbers were not massive, but plenty fine. I have to say that Ireland is probably the nut best place to play poker in Europe. Extreme friendliness, a willingness of players to chat about anything and a steady supply of alcohol make for a great combination.

There were a nice selection of side events, but I didn't do any damage in these until we got to the 'Irish' tournament. Irish is a four card poker game where you discard two after the betting on the flop and then it plays like Holdem. I racked my brains and I do not think I ever played this game before although my friend Paul claims we played together around twelve years ago. Strangely no Irish players knew what the hell it was.

On the day I tried to come up with some guerrilla strategy. Obviously, similar to Pot Limt Omaha the standard of a good hand goes up. Top pair is no longer that great, especially in a multiway pot. Unlike PLO though, rundown hands are not that desirable at all, because you don't get to keep all your cards until the end and you are also blocking your own outs and you will have to pick and discard a portion of your straight draw unless you flop it directly. Double paired hands seemed like they would be very good to me (I actually managed to flop two sets at the same time in one hand with a pocket double pair!). Of course big pairs and suited aces are excellent - the same as in PLO.

Sixty-eight players entered and despite being short on the bubble I managed to squeak into the money and make the final. Then I went on a sick run of cards and totally crushed the table. I also played super aggressive because as I had suspected, the level of play was overall too passive as many people were unsure about preflop hand ranges, preferring to see a flop and make decisions about their hand then. There were a couple of spots where I had top pair on the flop and a biggish draw, therefore in a tough spot as what to throw away, but both times I got extreme tells from my opponents in the manner in which they discarded their own cards (my experience playing draw poker in America helped here) and I was able to make the right decision both times - once keeping the pair and fading the draw and once taking the draw as correctly deduced that I was against and overpair and managing to get there.

I got heads up with a player who seemed to know what he was doing and after a long grindy battle railed by some random French people- I won all the chips for my second live tourney this year and my first actual trophy. Unfortunately the trophy is ugly as hell (airport security mistook it for an external hard drive) - but they do put your actual cards you won with inside the trophy which is a cool touch. Even though I had Ace King which is pretty boring.

Walsall - where dreams are made

2018 again ended with me considering retiring from poker. Although I didn't technically un-retire in the first place, so I guess the first retirement is still binding. Though in the first three months of 2019 I already have plans to play poker in Germany, Morocco, Estonia, Czech Republic, Ireland and Walsall.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Great Escape

I recently played the Party Million poker tournament in Rozvadov. Both the tournament and the casino were great, but travelling to and from the venue without a car proved even more difficult than I expected.

Rozvadov is a small village in the Czech Republic on the German border. Unremarkable apart from the fact that it houses the largest poker room in Europe. King's Casino seems to be turning itself into a major player in the European Poker scene but this was my first time at the venue.

King's Casino - Photo by Tomas Stacha
Generally when playing live poker I like to turn my trip into a mini holiday and have an interesting place to visit and it is a bonus if it is straightforward to get to. Rozvadov had neither of these things in its favour. However, when Party Poker started running satellites to the tourament which had big overlays, I couldn't resist the value and soon managed to win my seat.

I played day one online and despite all my best efforts to build a stack or bust - I limped into day two with a short stack. “It's a long way to go with 24 big blinds” remarked my friend Paul and I had to agree.

Last minute travel plans

Nevertheless I was committed and I still had a shot, so I confirmed my b&b reservation that I'd made several weeks ago. I usually have good attention to detail with these things so I neglected to double check the specifics. I found a cheap flight to Nuremberg at short notice and amazingly there was a rideshare listed leaving Nuremberg two hours after my flight landed which went directly past Rozvadov on the highway. It was all too easy!

My driver was a friendly Czech man who spoke no English. He was driving from Strasbourg to Prague trying to pick people up on the way to help pay for his petrol. He ended up being a bit late so I had a some time to kill at Nuremberg Central Station. I found a cafe area with plugs and wifi and settled in for a while.

Soon I realised that a man was trying to attract my attention from about 10 feet away. At first I ignored him but eventually became tired of his attempts to beckon me over. Approaching him he informed me that he needed his phone charged urgently, I told him to come and sit down and he could borrow my USB cable. It soon became clear that he was legally not allowed to set foot inside this establishment, though he never told me why. He stood resolutely 1cm in front of the entrance. He also only had one eye.

Regrettably I have been somewhat conditioned to assume the worst and in these situations I am always expecting to be ripped off or robbed or to be angled in some way. Yet the curiosity always gets the better of me and I usually go along with it, at least for a while, to see what happens. Almost always of course it is totally fine and on this occasion there was no scam and the guy just wanted his phone charged. He was probably a shoplifter though...

My driver had two other passengers stand him up so was happy to see me. We made small talk in German and French. Sadly he didn't even like football so that was a whole section of my smalltalk with men repertoire out of the window straight away and we soon ran out of things to talk about.
Seems reputable

Arriving at the truck stop

I first realised that something was afoot when I got directions to the hotel from Googlemaps and saw it was 5 kilometers from Rozvadov – not actually in the village itself. The sat nav soon led us there and it became clear that I was staying by the side of the highway in what could only be described as a truck stop. The key was left for me in the flower bed next to the front door in a manila envelope with my name on it. 

Checking in I surveyed the view (quite easily as my room had no curtains). Going clockwise there was a brothel, loads of fields, another brothel and a large barn that had its roof caved in. I had a TV to watch the Champions League final and some snacks, so I passed up the chance to explore and settled in for the night.

The tournament itself was excellent. The poker room is massive. You pay an entrance fee each day and in return you get as much food and soft drinks as you would like to eat. Thankfully I managed to double up within the first 20 minutes. A little later I ran my AK of spades into AA in a standard pot for a big chunk of my stack. The flop was king high with two spades. Somewhat favourable. I was able to complete the suckout on the turn and from then on I was able to pilot my stack into the money. Thereafter a period of supreme card deadness meant that I couldn't really get my chips into gamble and I laddered up a few pay jumps before running my short stack into AA. I finished in 61st out of 820 people - which meant the trip had been worthwhile.

After busting I went back to my hotel in Brothelville. The wifi was down, so I vowed to organise my departure in the morning. I would probably wake up early anyway as there were no curtains.The next day the wifi was still down, so using spotty 3g coverage I managed to find a few German bus timetables on my phone. It is the countryside so the buses were infrequent but it seemed easy enough.

Moosbach from above
An unwise decision

I settled on Moosbach as town over the German border with the next bus departure which I would be sure not to miss. This way I thought I'd save some time and wouldn't have to wait around for as long. I used the shuttle service from the casino and got the driver to drop me off there. He had never heard of the place and seemed unsure of why I was going there but I assured him everything was good.

The bus stop in Moosbach was in the central square and easy to find, but it was unclear which side of the road I had to stand on. I positioned myself in a spot where I could intercept the bus going in either direction and mentally patted myself on the back for being such a boss at navigating European public transport.

The bus didn't arrive on time. Five and then ten minutes passed. I was mildly perturbed, this was Germany after all. Had I made a mistake? I checked the timetable again and everything seemed ok. But then I had a thought. It was a Monday in Spring – the day of the week and the season most likely to have a public holiday. I was in Bavaria, the area of Germany that is the most religious and has the most public holidays of all. I checked the calendar on my phone. Pfingsten/Wittsun. Shit!

I needed help. Next to the bus stop was an inviting guesthouse and bar. Using my very best bad German, I went in and asked the guy working there if there were any buses on holidays. “Nein” he replied and went back to his work. I followed up by asking if he had the phone number for a taxi. “Moment” he growled at me before retrieving his phone and disappearing into the back room. He returned shortly afterwards to bring me the news “He has no time”. Hmmmmmm. I enquired if there was another rival taxi company and was met by a shrug and a look of indifference.

I guess I wasn't surprised that the taxi driver had no time. If he was the only taxi driver in the area I'm sure he had loads of bookings and a packed work schedule.

The man stared at me as I pondered what to do. As I had no idea how to leave this town I hesitated and refused to admit the conversation was over. Several seconds went by as we looked at each other. The room was silent apart from the distant hum of a vacuum cleaner elsewhere in the building. “Goodbye” he eventually barked at me in English in a somewhat passive aggressive way and stepped into the room behind the counter, closing the door.
Which way should I go?

Hugh Grant Mode activated

Quickly I surveyed the layout of the establishment. It seemed that the door led to a some sort of cuprboard or store room and not into the rest of the building itself. If there was no other exit he'd have to come out of there eventually. I decided to test my theory. I took a few steps and banged the entrance door a bit. I then stood as still and as quietly as possible. In my brain I activated 'Hugh Grant Mode'. Shit was getting serious.

It took him less than a minute to come back through the door and the look conveying a mixture of surprise and contempt was priceless. I decided to give it one last shot and asked in my most polite voice with what I hoped was just a hint of desperation "Können Sie mir helfen?" - even using the polite Sie form of address.

The man looked me up and down dismissively before delivering his final verdict on the matter “NEIN”. He then began to move towards me, waving his arm in front of him in the manner of attempting to swat a particularly irritable fly. I began to suspect that he hadn't tried to call a taxi for me after all and it seemed that this interaction was becoming something of a dead end.

I've had a lot of conversations with strangers over the years, but this ranked as one of the worst of all time. Personally I feel like I made a good effort and bore little of the blame for the negative outcome. My conversation partner on the other hand left a lot to be desired. As I walked off defeatedly, I mentally crafted a variety of terrible Tripadvisor reviews about the establishment.

Time to call my girlfriend

I was at a loss as to what to do. I vaguely knew where I was but I had no way to leave. In desperation I called my girlfriend. She is Bavarian but had not been back there for around 8 years and she totally hates the place. Her replies to my predicament were along the following lines:

Moosbach Church (under construction)
You woke me up!

Yes it is a holiday so it looks like you are totally fucked

This sounds like the kind of Bavarian town where I grew up, now I guess you understand why I wanted to leave

"Ha Ha. You'll never live this down...!"

During the course of the conversation Church Bells began ringing and suddenly the street was full of Moosbach residents. A bunch of people in robes wandered by. Pensioners ambled through the square. I sensed possibilities... surely this bunch of God-fearing religious people would help a foreigner in need?

I was in the process of selecting which person to go and talk to when a man in army fatigues carrying a giant crucifix walked towards me. Yes, perhaps not him....

I walked a little and found another guesthouse. This time the lady really wanted to help me. We got the phone book and between us called 7 or 8 different taxi companies from the surrounding area. The best result we got was someone saying he might come and pick me up in two hours. He couldn't be sure though.

Religious rejection

My last throw of the dice was to just go and randomly talk to people who had just come out of the church service. I hoped that after relaying my story, one of them might decide to offer me a lift to the next town or know someone who I could pay to drive me.

I told the first guy in a mixture of English, bad German and hand gestures. He was amused,and he laughed a lot at my situation. I was pleased, I was finally establishing a rapport with the locals. The man then turned around and relayed the story to a group of people who were closeby. They all laughed too. Heartily. Hugh Grant Mode was clearly kicking into overdrive.

“So what can I do?” I asked this group of people standing next to their cars, all of whom likely had the entire day off work. No idea, good luck was the cheery response and they all went back to talking amongst themselves. RE-JECTED.

Exhausted of ideas I looked at the map on my phone and found the next town my girlfriend told me about when I called her. I tried to convince myself that it looked slightly bigger than this one. Admittedly surface area wise it did look a similar size. However it was written in a slightly bigger font on Googlemaps, so that must count for something, right?

McQueen leaves Moosbach (maybe)
My mind drifted to one of my favourite movies The Great Escape. These guys had all managed to navigate themselves through German countryside without a car in a variety of innovative and smart ways. They were prisoners of war on the run in behind emeny lines and Donald Pleasence was even going blind. How hard can it be for me?

Of course *spoiler alert* most of them get recaptured or shot at the end of the movie, but I was trying to remain upbeat so I pushed that part out of my mind.

Seeking inspiration I looked up the village on Wikipedia. The entry told me "Moosbach is a municipality in the district of Neustadt (Waldnaab) in Bavaria in Germany" - I scrolled down thinking my phone was buffering, but the page was blank and Wikipedia provided no further information.

By this point I was feeling parched. I walked over to the drinking fountain in the square, leaned in and took a few well needed gulps. Two elderly ladies looked at me with a blend of confusion and disgust. I noticed a sign next to the fountain which said No Drinking Water.

Shanks's Pony was the only method of transport left available to me, so I hauled my luggage on to my back and began walking. So long Moosbach, I can't say I'll be coming back.

Hitchhiking debut

Now at this point I will admit that I've never really fancied myself as much of a hitchhiker. I am easily discouraged and would expect to get downhearted at the constant rejection. My girlfriend had already informed me “Nobody in rural Bavaria will ever pick someone up the way you look.” Despite that withering prediction, I started sticking my thumb up at cars who drove past me as I was walking. One drove past, then two, then three. I was already getting fed up of hitchhiking.

It doesn't look that far!
There was no path at the side of the road, so I was walking on the grass verge, but at least it wasn't raining. When the fourth and fifth drove past I concluding that hitchhiking was crap and stopped putting my thumb up.

After walking for around 1km, something unexpected happened, a car pulled up alongside me. Envisaging a volley of abuse from the driver for breaking some obscure Bavarian law, I ducked down and peered through the window. Behind the wheel was a man wearing a very large hat. He offered me a lift.

The hat pays dividends

Florian was a very nice man and he explained his kindness by saying “Us hat people need to stick together. This is a friendly gift from one man wearing a hat to another

He said he would happily drive me to the next town. I checked with him that I wasn't making him take a detour or that he was on the way to something important. He told me he was on his way to lunch with his friend, but his friend was a terrible cook so it didn't matter if he was late. “So you are lucky and I am lucky!

My driver and saviour seemed optimistic that there would be a bus from the next town, even on a holiday and despite having never caught it himself. Pulling up at the bus stop I was deflated to see that this was the same bus route that served Moosbach. I tried to make one last attempt at deciphering the many subsections of the timetable referring to public holidays. There was either a bus in 45 minutes, or in 6 hours or not at all.

Florian came over to assist. When he started reading the timetable backwards it quickly became apparent that he had no idea how to read a bus timetable. Using this knowledge I tried to encourage the viewpoint that there wasn't going to be a bus for six hours by putting my finger next to the time and saying “I think that's it” repeatedly. He seemed unsure but commented he hadn't read a bus timetable since he was 12 years old. We both glanced around the town and it seemed to be entirely closed. He then said those beautiful words “Just get in, I'll drive you, it is no problem

Thanks to Florian (have I mentioned he was a very kind man) I was able to get to a train station and plot how to get back to Berlin. When we pulled into the station he said to me. “If you have some time, perhaps you can go and take a look at the preserved medieval architecture of the town while you are waiting for your train.” Yes I thought... that would be nice... or I could just get the fuck out of Bavaria as soon as I possibly can!

My journey back to Berlin on the train was uneventful. I reflected that I cashed in the tournament and got a taste of rural Bavarian life that I won't forget or hopefully repeat. I was also happy that I didn't have to walk 25km with my luggage. I expect I will be going back to 'Rozvegas' at some point as it seems to be having more and more poker tournaments. Next time I think I need to plan a more wisely - or better still, find a friend with a car who also wants to go along.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The road to Stalintown

When visiting Georgia my mum's advice was simple:

"Don't cause any trouble"

"But wait...What if I go to Gori, the town where Stalin was born and is still revered and worshipped like a God and somebody asks me my opinion about him?"

"Say Stalin? I've never heard of him. Say you don't know who he is."

"Then how would I explain why I ended up in this smallish out of the way town in Georgia?"

"Just say you are passing though. Say it is lovely place."


Joseph Stalin was born in Gori in the Russian Empire (now Georgia) in 1878. The present day town has a population of around 50,000 people and is somewhat of a shrine and memorial to the genocidal Soviet dictator. Stalin is of course Georgia's most famous son to everybody in the world apart from Manchester City supporters.

A marshrutka in action
Getting to Gori from Tbilisi was to prove something of a challenge. By far the most common way of getting around Georgia is in the hot and stuffy transit vans and people carriers that operate as shared taxis called marshrutkas (or marshitskas if you are in a bad mood). You see hundreds of these around Tbilisi, all heading off in various directions around the city. In theory they are all pretty organised, with numbers and routes, but to someone who can't speak Georgian or Russian it can be pretty difficult to work out and understand.

It seemed that the best way to get to Gori was to go to the metro station Didube on the edge of town. At Didube we were greeted with a giant, chaotic and sprawling market. Picking though the stalls we eventually found the place we needed, a giant patch of wasteground filled with hundreds of yellow and white transit vans. Speaking none of the local language, the only thing to do was to walk around repeatedly saying the name of the place. Of course it took about five seconds for us to be identified as clueless tourists. From then on we received all kinds of offers for guided tours, personal chauffeurs and so on - all for astronomical prices. Finally someone took pity on us and told us that to get to Gori we had to go to the other giant patch of wasteground filled with transit vans (of course!), so we followed him through the rubble and the chaotic market and quickly found someone making the journey. A small amount of Lari were exchanged and we sat in the people carrier waiting for it to fill up. Quickly it seemed we were ready to go.

When the driver got in the car he did something very unexpected. From his pocket he pulled out a huge butchers knife, showing it to his mate who was sitting in the passenger seat - they both laughed heartily. He then placed the knife in between the two front seats next to the handbrake, put the keys in the ignition and we were off. Nothing was mentioned about the huge knife for the rest of the journey but the glint from the afternoon sun on its considerable surface offered a constant reminder.

Note large knife and prayer beads
I was somewhat concerned but had done my research from several sources. Although Gori was invaded and taken over by Russia as recently as 2008 as part of a war between the two countries, I had read it was now completely safe and the only two remaining areas of dispute were Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the Russian border. Two places I definitely did not plan to go.

Instead of sweating the chance of being attacked by Russian bandits I should probably have been more concerned about dying in a car accident. The man behind the wheel with the big knife was an absolutely terrible driver, even by Georgian standards. I should probably list the rules of Georgian driving that I picked up while I was in the country.

1. Never ever indicate
2. The lanes drawn on the road are for guidance only
3. Traffic lights are a hindrance. Stop only when there is a significant number of people walking in front of you that you wouldn't be able to plough through them. Do this by slamming on your breaks at the last possible opportunity
4. While driving enjoy the stripey patterns drawn across the road. These have no significance apart from aesthetic design.
5. Shout a lot.
6. Wave arms manically
7. Use horn liberally

Stalin enjoys a casual moment
We were driving on a three lane highway. The scenery was lovely but I couldn't help but notice that the driver had chosen a path directly in the middle of the outside and the middle lanes. We were going pretty damn fast, the car shook and the prayer beads hanging from the rear view mirror clicked and clacked together. He was also having a very animated conversation on his mobile.

Even so there were still cars that wanted to overtake us. They did this by steaming down the small gap between us and the barrier in the outside lane with the horn blaring. Our driver was apoplectic at the cheek of people blaring their horn at him. Clearly he believed he was driving totally fine. My hands clenched holding on to the seat in front. Occasionally we 'changed lanes' by swerving violently. Every articulated lorry up ahead was a heart in the mouth moment.

It proved to be a long 50 minute journey but we arrived without serious incident. Disembarking from the vehicle we gave our thanks to the driver for not killing us and wished him a good afternoon.

And there it was in front of us in all its glory.... The Stalin Museum

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

There's a guy down the kebab shop swears he's Hitler (AKA Döner Darts Hitler incident)

There's a certain kind of a moustache which is a problem. You'd know it if you saw it. I'm talking about a shaved top lip on either side with a patch of quite thick hair beneath the nose remaining. Particularly if it's dark hair.

There can only be two acceptable moments when a man sports this moustache. Firstly when shaving, when you do all the other bits and you leave that bit there to see what it looks like. Importantly you must make sure everyone is out and NOT take a photo. Secondly, when going to a genocidal dictator fancy dress party and you haven't got the depth or volume of top lip facial hair to pull off 'The Stalin', nor the scraggly beard to go for 'The Genghis Khan'.

I was in the kebab shop this evening.

This is not unusual.

Tonight due to extreme hunger and a diverted train I was in a new establishment. The signs were mixed but taking the queue inside as a good omen, we dived in to shelter and hopefully to enjoy above average food (hey, I aim high).

At the front of the queue and just about to order was a man who had the aforementioned moustache style. Of probable Turkish descent, he wore a darts shirt, with darts jauntily sticking out his his top pocket. Balding a little, his hair was swept over in a severe side parting.

And then on his top lip, there it was.

The odd thing is that I don't recall ever seeing this facial hair before in my life. However this is the second time I've seen this in two weeks in Berlin.

It's difficult to know what to do in such circumstances. Being brought up in Birmingham I've come to learn that speculative opening conversational gambits in late night take away shops do not always have pleasant consequences, particularly if criticising the beliefs or appearance of the other party.

I pondered the consequences of leaning over and with a casual shrug and "entschuldigung" enquiring "Das ist ein Hitler Moustache, ja?" I also thought about taking a cameraphone photo, but then I remembered he was carrying darts in his pocket after all.

I didn't get chance to think about it too much, because soon Turkish Darts Hitler had ordered his food and was on his way. Perhaps that is the look he is going for in order to attract darts sponsorship? (after all there has already been a viking and a vampire). Maybe he likes the look and people are too polite to tell him. Maybe he is simply a Darts Nazi and that's all there is too it.

Whichever it was, I made a mental note to start dressing like Winston Churchill when I embark on my stint on the Berlin amateur darts circuit. I can sense a rivalry brewing already.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The inebriated Russian has landed

There he was in seat three. Bull necked, broad shouldered, shaven headed and clad in an expensive biker jacket. Several scars decorated his face and a glassy, lopsided but frankly quite threatening grin was spread across his face.

The empty glasses half filled with melting ice by his side and the fact that he was loudly singing songs in Russian were a sign. This man was drunk. Very drunk indeed.

It was after midnight. Approaching the money bubble in a turbo side event at EPT Prague. Surely the graveyard shift for any tournament director. The lady in charge on this particular evening struggled to contain the people on the rail who were of course also heavily drinking, shouting and frequently getting in the way. One man in a tracksuit even tried to break and balance tables and do her job for her.

Several drinks had already been spilled, glasses smashed and a weary waiter with a dustpan, brush and mop was on permanent standby.

The game was Texas Holdem with deuces wild. The same as regular Holdem except all twos either in your hand or on the board could be used as wild cards. In theory – five or even six of a kind could be made. And of course flushes, straights and full houses were far more easy to come by.

I'd never played this game before but after about 10 minutes I'd settled on the strategy of never playing a hand without a deuce in it unless on a bluff. Powerful traditional Holdem hands went down markedly in value and at one point in this tournament I even open folded pocket kings. Ridiculous of course under normal circumstances in any tournament other than the bubble of a satellite. Some people adapted quicker than others and some people engaged in quite deep strategy talk at the table which was surely a mistake.

Our Russian friend was getting into the spirit of the evening by singing bawdy songs in English and Russian and occasionally just swearing loudly at nobody in particular. He exuded no aggression, just a general air of Tourettish bonhomie, so generally he was tolerated by the dealers and the floor staff. He also insisting on calling me Donald and became the third person at the poker table within a few weeks to say I was a spitting image of a young Donald Sutherland. We shook hands several times to confirm our friendship. He bought me a drink.

Donald Sutherland (mixed game specialist)

Surprisingly he was playing well, very well indeed. In a short time at the table I'd seen him run a couple of quite skillful bluffs and make one excellent fold. His grasp of the wildcard aspect of the game seemed good and the fact that he was hammered and could barely string a sentence together made him tricky to read. In between hands he sometimes confusedly asked where we were or what tournament this was.

The problem came when we were down to 18 players and the tournament director asked us to move to the other side of the room to and have a redraw to play the final two tables. The Russian player faced some issues including stacking his chips, understanding where to go and walking in a straight line. We made it just about, but it was a struggle. I learned that making a drunk Russian bear of a man move from his seat when he didn't want to was a tricky process. I also intervened to stop him putting his tournament chips in his pocket on several occasions for fear he would be disqualified.

At around 3:30am I was knocked out just short of the final table when my ten-two was unable to beat the ace-two of my opponent. I managed to quickly sort out my winnings and was chatting to a couple of people I knew in the corridor when I heard the shout of “DONALD”. I turned to see the Russian guy running out of the toilet towards me and then attempting to rugby tackle me to the floor. Luckily I was able to largely avoid the impact, although he did succeed in grabbing me in the testicles, much to his amusement.

“Are you still in the tournament?” I asked him. He looked unsure, “I don't know. Am I?” he replied. I told him he better get back and check because he would be blinded out of the game.“You're right Donald” he exclaimed, before bounding off to the tournament room.

The following day I got up early on a lack of sleep to play the next side event at 12 noon. There he was at the venue, bright as a button, more coherent today and with no trace of a hangover. He had a vague idea who I was and had little memory of the final table the night before. All I know is that he outlasted me and therefore won more money than me. I asked him how he was able to be still playing today after a night of heavy drinking. The answer was simple. A shrug of the shoulders and an concise explanation.

“I am Russian. It is easy.”

Friday, 20 July 2012

Five minutes

I try to urinate every hour. Usually this lasts from 56 past to 57 past the hour. My bladder knows when it is time to go, at 50 past it is getting prepared, by 54 past it is positively bursting. In the izakayas of Tokyo my name is called aloud for its slow steady stream.

In these times my life is compartmentalised into five minute windows. Sometimes I cook eggs, mostly I make toast. If I'm feeling daring I might run to the spätkauf (the corner store), but a queue there causes the mission to buy snacks to be abandoned. If I'm feeling organised I will eat cold Vietnamese takeaway food that I bought earlier that day, giving a rueful look to my broken microwave.

At midnight I start to wonder if I will finish work before the good kebab shop closes. By 1:30 I know that only the crap one will still be open. At weekends there is the late night bakery and one can always walk in search of falafel. On a good night in the summer the birds begin to sing. When the sunlight starts peeking through I know I am up late enough to probably be making some money.

When playing online poker tournaments you receive a five minute break every hour. At the moment I am in the United States where playing online poker is illegal. Therefore I cannot work.

My life is now composed of hours comprising 60 minutes rather than five, but somehow I achieve less.

The sense of urgency is replaced by inertia. The sense focus replaced by a muddy confusion.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Albums of 2011

These are my favourite albums of 2011. I'm not saying they are the best, merely the ones I've listened to and enjoyed the most.

1. Glasvegas - Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\

2. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

3. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will

4. Cold Cave - Cherish The Light Years

5. True Widow - As High As The Highest Heavens And From The Center To The Circumference Of The Earth

6. Austra - Feel It Break

7. Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi

8. The Horrors - Skying

9. Zola Jesus - Conatus

10. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

11. White Lies - Ritual

12. Chelsea Wolfe - Apokalypsis

13. Eddie Vedder - Ukelele Songs

14. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

15. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

And I don't really like the album that much, but this is my favourite single and video of the year

She Wants Revenge - Take the World


But mostly I've been listening to Tindersticks. Their five disc collection of Claire Denis film scores was released this year. This is Another Night In, which is not part of this collection, but I like this mix with clips from the movie 'The Girl on the Bridge'

Lest We Forget

2010: Crystal Castles - II
2009: Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
2008: Foals - Antidotes
2007: Calvin Harris - I Created Disco
2006: Yeah Yeah Yeah's - Show Your Bones
2005: LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem
2004: !!! – Louden Up Now
2003: Yeah Yeah Yeah's - Fever to Tell

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Austrian scumbags

I close my eyes.

The aroma of cheap hair gel and cigar smoke fills my nostrils.

I feel my face being scrutinised.

I hear the familiar click clack of poker chips, the drag of a cigarette and then the exhale.

Did he just breathe his cigarette smoke on me on purpose?

I pull the brim of my hat to cover my eyes further, try to remain still and control my breathing.

My opponent is clearly frustrated and I know he is probably going to fold.

I want him to fold. I try not to do anything, even to move.

I don’t want to give him any ideas about making a hero call.

Eventually, after a painfully long time, he folds.


I had heard the poker games in Vienna were good, so had travelled to the Austrian capital to investigate. A nine hour train ride with Swedish backpackers later and I was in the suburbs of the Austrian capital.

The Montesino Card Club is located in a very odd leisure complex, the centre piece of which is four large gas cylinders which have been decommissioned and converted for modern use. A couple are apartments and the other two are a shopping/retail complex. The idea is GREAT and the structures look absolutely awesome, but the execution is not the best and the shops inside are an uninspiring mix of drab chainstores and generic restaurants. There is a cool looking tattoo shop though.

The card club is on the other side of the street where is also a table tennis centre where you can hire a table and play, though I see nobody in there the whole three days I am in town. Advertising the poker club are posters promoting the chance to play with several random and most likely awful ‘live pros’ from German speaking countries. Oh and one of Sandra Naujoks.

Playing poker can really bring out the worst in people, myself included, and the players in Vienna were mostly a collection of highly unpleasant individuals. They also weren’t very good at poker.

One evening I got deeply involved in a €2/5 nl Texas Hold’em game into the early hours of the morning. The game had broken down to be played five handed. There was me, three middle aged Austrian guys and a quite tight guy who wasn’t really a factor as I mostly folded every time he entered a pot unless I had a big hand.

Playing shorthanded means you are paying the blinds more often so you have to play more hands. As people’s hand ranges open up, you get into more interesting situations where the skillful player should prevail. My online experience is mostly in 6-max games, so of course I love playing shorthanded at the casino.

I was maintaining my ideal casino persona, aggressive and mute - and had worked my stack up a little when the following hand occurred:

I have €600 in front of me and my nemesis has me covered. An Austrian businessman fish open limps and my bête noire makes it 35 from the small blind, I look down at T9 diamonds and call to take a flop in position. My nemesis is very loose and can have a wide range of hands. I prefer to see a flop rather than bloat the pot and open up the action again for him to put in a further raise. My hand flops very well. By that I mean I will likely hit the flop hard or not at all. I know if I do hit one pair that I am prepared to release the hand and move on. The limper folds.

A note about my nemesis: He clearly fancied himself in the role of table captain. Other players seemed to respect and even be in awe of him a little and he used this to his advantage. He looked remarkably like the character of Reg Hollis from long running ITV police drama The Bill, only with a lot more hair gel and gold jewellery. I could already tell he didn’t like me. We had chatted a little in English and it was apparent that the the Hugh Grant factor* wasn’t going to work on this occasion. He was highly suspicious of my story of being a tourist and stumbling into the card club.

As something of a rules nit, I'd already called the floor on two occasions to get a ruling. This had caused some annoyance amongst my opponents as they were in the main, a bunch of angleshooting scumbags.

Angleshooting is something that I detest at the poker table. I'm a big believer in ettiquette, fairness and playing within the spirit of the game. Secretly I wish I was a 19th century cricketer.

An angleshooter is someone who uses tries to use the grey areas of the rules of the game to their advantage, creating deliberately ambiguous situations that they can exploit. If they have more experience than their opponent, if they know the floorstaff, if they can intimidate their opponent, it is often possible to get away with many things.

This takes advantage of the fact there is not one universal set of rules in poker throughout the world. If they get caught there is always the smile and, 'oh sorry, I made a mistake'. The thing is, most of the time it is really small stuff, and I wonder why people even bother. It's almost as if trying to get away with small-scale cheating is part of the game itself. In my eyes, people who play poker like this are lowlife scum

-- Back to the hand --

The flop is 478 with two diamonds, giving me both a flush draw and an open ended straight draw. A huge flop for my hand.

There is 75 in the pot and ‘Austrian Reg’ leads out for 100. It is an oversized bet, far too big in fact, but I didn’t think it was any indication of the strength of his hand as he had bet on the large side several times since I had sat at the table. The problem with his betsize was that it left me with only one way to play my hand. Folding was clearly not an option and calling was not desirable as he was giving me a bad price and could well bet again on the turn and I would have to fold if I didn’t hit one of my outs. The only choice was to go all in, therefore I would get to see the turn and river for sure. It was a big all in and if ‘Austrian Reg’ has one pair (let's say his hand was Ace Seven), then he might choose to fold and I would get to pick up the pot without needing to hit my draw.

So jam it in his face and go all in for €565 and this is where the evening took an interesting turn. From this moment on Reg refused to talk to me in English and began cursing me under his breath in German. It was clear I had put him in a tough spot and I began to think perhaps he did have a big hand.

At this point I was very relaxed because I really didn't mind either way if he called or folded. I would prefer the fold, because then I pick up the pot uncontested, but I knew that if he did call I would have a tonne of outs and would probably even be a favourite to win the hand.

Eventually Reg called and flipped over two black queens and even though I had ten high, I was a slight favourite as I could hit any diamond, any jack or any six. In a cash game you don't have to turn over your hand when you are all in and on this occasion I chose to keep my hand concealed. Firstly I could muck my hand if I missed my draw to avoid giving away information and secondly if I got there, I would be able to flip up my hand and triumphantly show the winner. (Like I say, being in a casino brings out the worst in you.)

The turn was a nine, giving me even more outs and I got there on the river, flipped over my hand and scooped a sizable pot.

As someone who has played hundreds of thousands of hands online, the way this hand played out is extremely standard. However, Austrian Reg was furious.

I am familiar with the term steaming, but had not even seen someone steam as much as Reg did over the next few hours. He was angry, played with reckless aggression and verbally abused the dealers and other players. He still had the most chips at the table and I saw this as my chance to make my wages for the week and much more besides.

Greed is an ugly feeling to have, but it is one that can't be avoided if one plays poker. It is something I struggle with. Chips are used instead of actual money, but it impossible to divorce the two and if someone has a lot of chips in front of them and is playing badly, well it is a chance for you to take their money (something you should of course want to do). I now wanted to take the rest of the chips that 'Austrian Reg' had on the table and perhaps he had even more cash in his wallet. He was a man, a human being, albeit a seemingly not very nice one with too much hair gel and a penchant for gaudy gold jewellery - but at this moment I tried to think of simply the money in front of him that I could win.

I would like to believe that basically, at heart, I am a nice person - but over the next few hours I was locked into this game and there was no way I was going to leave, I tried to turn off my emotions and simply to take his money. He and the other players at the table were also trying to take my money weren't they? Right?

At this point the layout of the table was such that I was seated at one end in the 'two seat' and the four other players were seated at the other end in seats 6-9. One player decided they would like to have direct position on me and switched to the seat directly to my left. Fair enough. Another player decided they would also like to sit next to me and moved to the seat directly to my right. This made less sense, but it did have the effect of crowding me a little bit. Perhaps they were trying to intimidate me?

'Austrian Reg' took the opportunity to sit directly opposite to me, the perfect position for glaring. For the next few hours he delivered a masterclass in tilt. He entered every single pot I played, threw his cards at the dealer every time he folded and muttered under his breath about my bad play. His mannerisms became more ragged, his actions with chips more pronounced and violent. I concentrated on playing in a measured and sensible way. I managed to hit a few hands and take down some pots by making him fold on the turn or river, thus further adding to his frustration. His stack fluctuated as mine grew, and eventually the delicious sight as he reached into his wallet to reload.

The slowroll cometh

It was almost inevitable that he would get me back and so it proved to be the case. His style of playing was highly aggressive, even though he was steaming. This meant that he was going to at some point put me to some tricky decisions. I don't remember the exact details, but I do know that I overplayed my hand somewhat, he suckered me in and I went all in and he called. After the river, as I had made the last aggressive action in the hand, I turned over my cards. He was clearly waiting for this moment.

A pained expression, a furrowed brow and a shake of the head as he stares at the board. Another check of his cards and another furrow of the brow. Then the show to the guy next to him, the classic move, as if to say 'can you believe how bad I run?' But wait! The guy next to him points out that yes indeed, he does have the winning hand! How could he be so stupid, his hand is better than mine. HE HAS WON THE HAND! About thirty seconds after I show my hand, he now shows his better hand and breaks into an enormous lizard grin.

I had been slowrolled in the most epic fashion.

As Reg stacked up the chips from the pot, he took the opportunity to again speak English to me. Ah yes, the classic rubdown to finish it off. "Now we are even" he told me emphatically, "this is what you deserve." It was now my turn to glare.

It seemed with every chip he stacked, his body loosened, his tightness uncoiled and a sense of calm and control returned to his body. It was time for him to light up a cigar.

As for me? Well I was still a winner for the evening but the game was looking less enticing. It was getting late, I was getting tired and Reg was almost unstuck. Added to this, a new player took a seat in the game, he was young and seemed fresh and savvy and knew how to handle his chips.

It was time to bank my profit for the evening and bid goodnight to the Austrian scumbags.


I find myself increasingly wondering if I want to spend any more of my life sitting around a smoky table with a collection of unpleasant individuals. As online poker continues to seemingly unravel and collapse, it appears that if I'm going to continue playing, then it will be necessary for me to play more in casinos rather than have the shield of my computer screen. I'm not sure that is something I want to do, but that is a post for another day.

*The Hugh Grant Factor has served me well dealing with official people and cocktail waitresses in the USA. In a smoky Austrian cardroom it was less effective

Monday, 27 June 2011

Let Lisbon shake


Recently I saw PJ Harvey play in Lisbon, Portugal. It was a most excellent show.

Having been unable to secure tickets for London (sold out) and Berlin (German bureaucracy), I had resigned myself to not seeing PJ Harvey on this tour. When a show in Portugal was announced, I logged on and checked the seating plan. It was mostly sold, but there was one seat free on its own, centre 4th row. Well it would have been churlish not to buy it.

The venue was great. On the university complex, the theatre was a beautiful Art Deco building constructed during the era of right wing control of the country, as it seemed did most of the buildings in the university.

Firstly I must comment on the high quality selection of pastries behind the bar inside (you wouldn't get that at the Academy), next on the reasonably priced beer, drank in very small glasses as elsewhere in Lisbon. My seat was more of an armchair, with a great view of the stage. The venue even had wifi, so I sent some email whilst waiting for the show to start.

For this tour, Polly Harvey was joined by long-term collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish, as well as Jean Marc Butty on drums. It was an impressive line up of accomplished musicians and they produced a wonderful show. Of course drawing heavily on material from latest album 'Let England Shake', there were some good choices of old favourites.

The reaction of the crowd was interesting. A lot more muted than at a UK show but extremely warm and passionate. Respectful. Reverant.

Polly used an autoharp on several songs, which is an instrument that I can't quite work out but intrigues me all the same.

I really enjoyed the show and Lisbon as a whole. A most captivating city!