One of the things I love most in the world is looking through the window into other people's worlds. Earlier this week three of us from my local poker club went to the Genting Casino in Plymouth for my first ever real life poker tournament.
We arrived at 6:15pm, and were almost the first in the door. The hostess was extremely welcoming, in a way that I found a little disconcerting - it's not normal in the UK and feels quite false. Kind of like how friendly strippers are.
Dark and warm
The casino is a strange place, dark and warm with soothing flashing lights encouraging you to spend your money. I was expecting the continual clatter of coins but all the money is electronic now, you put your casino card in the slot machine and it spits back the winnings onto the card.
I can't imagine ever feeling comfortable in this space, but the majority of people were obviously regulars who were completely at home.
He's a maniac
The game started at 7pm with 18 players over two tables. Over the next hour another nine joined us, almost all of whom were regulars who knew each other. I took this to be a bad sign. The guy to my right turned out to be a maniac, going all-in with pretty much anything, which is handy because that's where you want that kind of player to be seated. He saved me a lot of chips by making huge bets, allowing me to comfortably fold.
The thing that surprised me most was the hyper-male environment. Playing online you don't know anyone's gender, and I'd kind of assumed that there were some females players. I realise now that I was probably wrong about that. The only two women at the tables were dealers, and I only saw a couple of no-tails all night in the whole casino.
Getting it in with nines
The next thing that surprised me was how aggressively everyone was playing. I hardly got to play a hand in the first two hours because people were making bets for most of my stack. It made me play very tight, and the only hand I got involved in early on was my pocket nines all-in against AK - I was a 55% favourite and won. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Slowly I grew to realise that most of the players on my table weren't serious poker players - they were just gambling for the sake of it. Some of them were £40 down within an hour. They kept buying back in as quickly as they could, then going all-in on the very next hand. This is really different to our little Losty Poker Club where everyone plays quite sensibly in comparison.
After 90 minutes we went on break, and immediately most of the players took to the roulette wheel, blackjack or the slots - another thing that marked them out as gamblers because of the poor odds of winning.
After the break
As soon as we came back from the break I was dealt a pair of queens, and played them very aggressively only to get called by AK. I was a 56% favourite, but he flopped an ace (making me a 10% underdog) to win, and my first live poker tournament was over.
I was very relieved!
I went outside for a walk around to get rid of the adrenaline, then returned to have some food and wait for my mates to get knocked out. I had to regularly fend off the hostesses who were rather pushy in trying to get me to play the other games, which I politely declined.
A third of nothing is nothing
One of my friends went out half an hour later, and the other finished 45 minutes after that. On the drive into Plymouth we'd made a rather optimistic agreement that we'd split our winnings three ways, but a third of nothing is still nothing. The only thing I came away with was my complimentary soft drink token.
All in all it was a really fascinating experience, but not one I want to repeat.
Play it safe
I picked up a copy of the casino's Play It Safe leaflet, giving help and advice on gambling responsibly. The first thing I noticed was the photo on the cover: there were as many female players in that photo as in the entire building. Maybe that's just Plymouth, but I doubt it.
The leaflet starts:
For most people, a night out at a casino is a leisure activity to be enjoyed in the same way as a trip to the football or an evening at the cinema [... ] However, for a very small number of people the temptation to push their luck or re-experience the elation of an early win can be compelling and sometimes irresistible.
From what I saw, the large majority of people there fell into their 'very small number' category. It felt like a lot of people had gambling problem, and it made me feel very uncomfortable to realise that the casino obviously know this too. They're taking advantage of these people's addictions, like a 19th century Opium den or probably quite a lot of pubs.
In ten days we're leaving the UK for new adventures in Spain...Read more
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