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Pulse of Poker: England

By Aaron Angerman

Not long ago we looked at poker in China, right about the time the Olympic Games were wrapping up in Beijing. Now I would like to take a look at the host of the 2012 Olympics, beautiful London, England. The most prominent piece of Great Britain is home to more than 50 million people and some of the most competitive humans you will find walking the earth. It's no coincidence that they like to gamble, and they really love poker.

When it comes to spreading a choice of poker games, England does it up right. From seedy basement games, to deluxe poker clubs, to giant casino card rooms, you have your options. For that juicy, Vegas-like casino action, check out the Grosvenor Victoria Casino in London and the Aspers Casino in Newcastle, both of which have a nice spread of steady games.

If the casino games aren't your thing and you're not about to search the back alleys for an illegal game, check out one of the many poker clubs sprinkled within the countries boarders. A prime example of the poker club is the famed Gutshot Poker Club. The club with a lounge/bar-like feel was founded by Barry Martin and Derek Kelly, the Gutshot has not only served as the launch pad for many of England's best, but the biggest names in the American poker game have also made it a point to stop by the famous room. Former Main Event winners Phil Hellmuth, Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson, Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem have graced the Gutshot felt.

The Gutshot found itself in the middle of a historic ruling last year. After being charged with taking more than the allotted 10 percent on just two occasions (the maximum allowed for chance games without the proper license), Derek Kelly saw his club slapped with a hefty fine. According to the courts and the 1968 Gaming Act, a license is needed to host games of chance such as bingo, roulette, blackjack and poker, while games of skill (i.e. chess, dominoes, cribbage and bridge) can be offered. Once again, poker is denied the 'skill game' label, reducing rounders to a bunch of luckbox degenerates, while more-or-less giving the chess community the right to call poker players donkeys. Meanwhile, the 12,000 member club rolls on and has become so big that you can even play The Gutshot online, right on their very own poker site, something more openly welcomed across the Pacific.

Kelly went on to appeal the fines and had the following to say:

"The problem is that the Gaming Act came into force in 1968, when there were a huge amount of illegal casinos and when poker wasn't very popular. Poker has become the biggest card game on the planet in recent years and unfortunately the law hasn't caught up with that."

He's right. The times are a changing. Poker can be seen in prime time. World Series of Poker Europe events are being filmed to air on ESPN in the future. It's there where England will shine. Only a small percentage of American's will ever find themselves bellied up to a table overseas. What we recognize is the name brands. Let's take a look at some of the bigger English names in the poker world.

David Ulliott seems to be the most recognized English poker pro. The man more commonly known as the "Devilfish" has nearly $5 million in career earnings. He captured his only bracelet in 1997, and added to that a win in the first season of the WPT. Ulliott has helped pave the way for a wave of English poker talent, including players like Roland de Wolfe, Neil Channing, Julian Gardner, Vicky Coren and the Hendon Mob.

Londoner Roland de Wolfe picked up a win at the EPT Dublin stop in 2006, becoming the first to win both an EPT and WPT event (he took down the Major Grand Prix de Paris in 2005). To date, de Wolfe has more than $4 million in career tournament earnings.

Neil Channing, of Reading, Berkshire, took down the 2008 EPT Irish Poker Open, adding $1 million to his bankroll. Legend has it that the former bookmaker bet £500 on himself to win the event, a bet that paid out at 100/1.

Julian Gardner had to run into the Varkonyi card rack, or else the 2002 WSOP Main Event bracelet would be around an Englander's wrist. Vicky Coren became the first woman to win an EPT event after outclassing the 2006 EPT London field and parlayed that into a deal with PokerStars. The Hendon Mob, composed of Ram Vaswani, Joe Beevers and the Boatman boys, Barny and Ross, has more than $6 million in tournament winnings between them. Vaswani picked up the Mob's first bracelet this year, after he bested the $1,500 Limit Shootout event. Add to those names John Tabatabai, Julian Thew, Surinder Sunar, John Gale and a wave of young talent, and you've got some assurance that England will be represented at many final tables in the future.

Most, if not all of, those names were in London last month for the second running of the World Series of Poker Europe and the European Poker Tour's London stop. Proving that it has not problem hosting some of the biggest events around, the WSOP thought the first WSOPE went so well that they'd add a fourth bracelet event to the 2008 schedule. The EPT London stop remains one of the most popular on the tour, as evidenced by its fifth straight stop, which it completed just a couple weeks ago. As if just hosting the games weren't enough, the WSOPE has set the bar very high in just the past couple of years.

When the 2007 WSOPE was announced, the poker world seemed caught a little off guard. Some weren't optimistic about the turnout. Some people didn't like the added bracelets, going Bonds-style on them, saying that they should come with an asterisk. Harrah's was pumped, looking to tap into what the EPT had already found. While the first WSOPE may not have opened with a band, it sure closed with one.

Germany's Thomas Bihl and Italy's Dario Alioto would pick up the first two bracelets rather quietly, before a Norwegian girl on the eve of her 20th birthday stole the show. After the smoke cleared in the Main Event, online legend Annette Obrestad had outdone John Tabatabai of England heads-up for the bracelet, a win worth £1,000,000. Oh yeah, Obrestad also became the youngest bracelet winner and record holder for largest tournament win by a female at the same time. She earned herself a spot as English poker site Betfair.com's poster girl and a heads-up match with Doyle Brunson, to take place during the 2008 WSOPE, entitled 'King vs. Queen'. Doyle sucked out on the girl to take the first two out of three, then Obrestad came up short on her title defense.

John Juanda was up to the task. The quiet American superstar was able to grab his fourth career bracelet and £868,800. To do so, Juanda had to outclass a final table that included not only Daniel Negreanu, but also Ivan Demidov, 2008 WSOP Main Event final tabler. Negreanu would fall in 5tt, while Demidov was done in third. Don't feel too bad for Demidov, since the 'November Nine' member not only made history as the first to appear at both a WSOP and WSOPE Main Event final table, but he'll have a chance for even more when the 117 day break is finally over.

If that wasn't enough, Juanda went across the street and finished runner-up to Jason Mercier in the EPT London High Roller event, earning another £327,000. He couldn't take down the Main Event, which Michael Martin had taken down just prior, but the near back-to-back wins had all poker eyes fixated on London.
But has big buy-in tournament play already peaked in England? If the WSOPE's attendance is any evidence… that may be true. Just look at the numbers:

2007 WSOPE Event: £2,500 HORSE £5,000 PLO £10,000 Main Event
  Entries: 105 165 362
  Prize Pool: £262,500 £825,000 £3,620,000
 
2008 WSOPE Event: £2,500 HORSE £5,000 PLO £10,000 Main Event
  Entries: 110 165 362
  Prize Pool: £275,000 £825,000 £3,620,000

Keep in mind that this chart does not include the series' 2008 addition, a £1,500 No Limit event, which attracted 410 players, the largest field in the short history of WSOPE. But it's hard to overlook the fact that the big three bracelet events offered on the other side of the pond only attracted five more players the second time around. The eerie matching numbers each of the past PLO events and Main Events would make you think that there might be some kind of oddball-numbered-cap on each tournament, but there wasn't. Just another odd occurrence in an occupation filled with them. Or maybe it's a glaring sign that tournament poker has hit its ceiling on the other side of the pond. Enter the European Poker Tour.

The EPT was the brainchild of John Duthie, a poker player from Yorkshire. Thanks to Duthie, his home country can look forward to the EPT London event annually. For the last five years, "the Vic" Casino has played host to a stop on the pokerstars.eu European Poker Tour schedule. In 2006, hometown girl Vicky Coren outlasted 399 others in the then £3,500 buy-in Main Event. Attendance dipped slightly, as 392 showed up next year. Part of the blame could be on the buy-in hike, it was now £5,000 to play. PokerStars online qualifier Joseph Mouwad was able to turn a satellite win into £611,500. Just a few weeks ago, American Michael Martin was able to grab the massive £1,000,000 ($1,765,817 USD) first-place prize after mounting a historical comeback that saw him down to just one big blind when play was four-handed. Martin had to outlast 595 others on his way to the EPT London crown. The field of 596 hopefuls was 204 more than last year, a 34 percent improvement. Extra thanks may have to be given to PokerStars and their generous satellite programs, but it's hard to argue with the numbers. The EPT is showing no signs of slowing down, so there is no reason not to expect that there will be 600+ the next time the circus comes to town.

While the ceiling is not short a short one, in any way, since the WSOPE and EPT London tournaments are providing some of the most entertaining events, regardless of setting, it may be a glaring sign that the poker boom in England has either passed, or has yet to show its face. But that's not going to stop anyone in England from playing the game they've grown to love. They're already running online satellites for seats in the 2009 WSOPE. Are any of you blokes or birds up for it?

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Aaron Angerman is Content Manager for PokerPages.com. Raised in small town Alaska, the self proclaimed 'sports fanatic' had dreams of being a sports writer. After moving to Las Vegas in 2000, he rekindled a childhood love for poker. Grinding it out in card rooms and on the virtual felt helped Aaron to fund his schooling, eventually earning him a journalism degree from UNLV. After a couple short stints in tournament reporting, Aaron realized the poker world was the place for him.