Inside football’s poker pack

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Forget the bookies or a game of blackjack at the back of the bus. The modern-day footballer gets his off-field kicks on the felt. For the March 2011 issue, Steve Hill dug out his smartest suit to investigate...

As all but the unobservant will have noticed, poker is everywhere these days. The early noughties boom brought millions of new players to the game, with the convenience and anonymity of online play making it accessible to almost anyone, and bespoke poker rooms springing up in casinos for those who like to play live.

Gambling has been part of football culture for decades, with such apocryphal tales as QPR’s Stan Bowles being spotted in the bookies minutes before kick-off at Loftus Road. The obligatory card school on long coach journeys to and from away games is a staple of the domestic season. So it’s not the greatest leap of logic to think footballers might be interested in poker, particularly those encumbered with huge disposable incomes and swathes of free time.

Indeed, big names such as Andrei Arshavin, Andriy Shevchenko, Francesco Totti and Gigi Buffon even find the time to appear in high-profile card tournaments. These are generally as a result of sponsorship from the major online poker operators, but away from the cameras it is believed that a slew of footballers are regular poker players, either privately online or among themselves.

“There's supposed to be a big Premier League footballer game organised by Teddy Sheringham that a few play in, but names are kept on the QT,” claims PokerPlayer magazine editor Alun Bowden. “You rarely, if ever, see players at live tournaments.”

One player to buck this trend is Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher, who took advantage of Scotland’s absence from the 2010 World Cup to play in the World Series of Poker, the calendar’s marquee event in Las Vegas. It conjures a comical image of a ruddy-faced Sir Alex bundling into the Rio Hotel’s vast Amazon Room, elbowing Texans out of his way in a blur of poker chips, and hauling Fletcher out by the ear, much as he once curtailed Lee Sharpe’s nightclub escapades.

However, Fletcher’s appearance was presumably with his manager’s approval, or at least in the hope that Fergie doesn’t read the PokerStars blog, where Fletcher revealed his hard luck story and early tournament exit. Fletcher also exposed a nascent poker culture at Old Trafford, citing a weekly home game involving Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Jonny Evans and Owen Hargreaves. The mind boggles.

“Poker was a natural progression”
While the majority of poker-playing footballers appear to treat the game recreationally, a couple of former pros in this country are prepared to pit themselves against the world’s best: the aforementioned Sheringham and his former Millwall sidekick Tony Cascarino. While Shezza led the way on the pitch, it was Cascarino who first took to the felt, before introducing his long-term friend to the game.

“It was his fault,” insists Sheringham. “I met Cas at Millwall: that was when I started playing poker. Only on the coach, I was only a bit-player. Cas used to play all the time. It wasn’t until 10 years later that poker became really big in football.”

Cas & Shez hit the green baize

In his short time on the circuit, Sheringham has enjoyed some notable successes, most recently when coming fifth in a tournament in Vilamoura, Portugal, for a payday of €93,121.

His transition from footballer to poker player has been largely seamless. As he says, “I’ve always played cards so it was a natural progression. I play once, twice a week maximum. Every now and then I get weekends off where I can go and play tournaments – Vilamoura, or the Bahamas, which I went to last Christmas. I’m going to try and take in the Aussie Millions tournament next year. A couple of mates are going, so we’ll have a game of golf as well, a bit of fun, a few beers...”

As for his recent success, Sheringham says: “I was pleased I came fifth. Obviously €93,000 is not to be sniffed at. It puts me in a few more tournaments  – all the five grands, 10 grands to enter, it pays for a few of them.”

For Cascarino, meanwhile, the poker boom came at just the right time. In his brutally frank autobiography Full Time, the former striker outlines how he played on through the pain barrier as a footballer with no real retirement plan. 

When Cascarino did finally hang up his boots, he found himself living in Paris, where he was able to claim a reasonable level of unemployment benefit. “I’d finished, I’d retired. I had nothing to do,” he says, treating FFT to dinner after a recent win.

“I used to go to the Cirque Casino in Paris, and every time I lost I used to punish myself and walk home from the casino instead of getting a 50 francs cab. And I got really fit when I first started playing because I was walking home every f***ing night. I was playing against quality players. Them walk homes was when I really realised I was doing something seriously wrong.

“I lost quite a bit of money the first year and I learned a lot. I always treated that period of my poker as a real lesson as to why there’s luck and skill. Because if you’re relying solely on luck you can’t win at this game.”

Away days: Fulham's Johnny Haynes and Alan Mullery start the school

Cascarino’s progress culminated in a career-best result in 2009, when he won the Grosvenor UK Poker Tour Grand Final, trousering a cool £168,800. “It’s funny because I played in two World Cups and one European Championship as a footballer and I never got that in prize money for qualifying for them tournaments,” he laughs. “So I got more for playing poker – and I didn’t have to share it with anyone!”

Cascarino insists that the thrill from winning at poker is “far better” than scoring a goal. Sheringham, though, isn’t so sure. “Football’s in my blood,” he says. “Since I was a little kid I’ve always wanted to be a footballer, so I wouldn’t compare it to football because it’s very, very different. But I can’t run about anymore so I’ve got to try and find something else that gives me a bit of an adrenalin rush, and poker certainly does that, especially when we’re playing for a lot of money.”

“Fabien Barthez is good, because he's gently mad and has a poker face”
It’s a theme echoed by former Bayern Munich and France right-back Willy Sagnol, who caught the gambling bug as a youngster playing for Monaco. “When you’re a professional in sport you're living every day with this competition context,” he explains. “When you play for so long – like Teddy Sheringham played for more than 20 years – you get a lot of adrenalin on the pitch and you’re looking for that too after your career. There are not a lot of things that can give you this adrenalin rush. Poker is one.”

Sagnol even started installing a card room in his St Tropez villa before moving back to Munich, where he has begun work on a games room that will come with an open invitation to FFT to play him at poker. “Just make sure I’m there – I'll never say no,” he tells us.

Now scouting for Bayern, Sagnol mainly plays poker with friends – including some recent 16-hour sessions in Las Vegas – but has occasionally pitted himself against the pros. “I have played some tournaments, but I'd say poker for me is something very difficult because when you play football you know what to do; you know how to deal with situations normally.

"But with poker it’s something new. When I play in a poker tournament the pressure is bigger than when I was playing football because you’re not used to dealing with it and it’s something completely new. But it’s exciting at the same time.”

Who would you rather owe money to?

Poker isn't as big in Germany as it is in France and England, something Sagnol may have taken advantage of. “In Munich they weren't very good!” he says. “When I didn’t have any money at the end of the month I used to organise a poker game... no, that’s a joke! But at Monaco some players were quite good, like Fabien Barthez. He was good because he was gently mad and he has a poker face too – he can hide every emotion. But at Bayern, the main goal wasn’t to make money. It was to have fun.”

“If you let footballers loose, fortunes are won and lost”
But what happens when it becomes more than a bit of fun? Years ago at the launch of a betting website, ex-frontman and career gambler Steve Claridge relayed the tale of having to kick off at a bleak northern outpost having lost thousands on the horses during the coach journey. Losing cash to your team-mates could provide an even greater psychological minefield – as Claridge attests, having played cards at every club of his career.

“There could be a few hundred won or lost,” he says. “Managers will try and put a cap on it for obvious reasons. Players don’t want it on their mind that they’ve done a week’s wages before a game. Many players are gamblers but you just try and control the card game. If you let lads go loose, fortunes are won and lost. That can be a bit of a problem.” 

Unfortunately for Cascarino, that problem came to a head in the Republic of Ireland squad. “My first trip was the [1988] European Championship,” he says. “Liam Brady organised a card school, and after loads of money had been won and lost – and I did win – we got on the plane, at which point Liam said, ‘Forget it. Amnesty. Bets are off.’ I was at Gillingham on two hundred quid a week and I’d won about £1,300, thinking, ‘This is paying for a lovely holiday.’ And I had to swallow it…”

International tournaments appear fertile breeding grounds for poker schools, and as Cascarino and Sagnol both admit, they can be good for team bonding and staving off boredom. “At World Cups and European Championships you’ve got a lot of time to blow. You end up playing loads and loads of cards,” says Cascarino.

Sagnol insists that hours playing poker brought the France team together at the 2006 World Cup. Perhaps England should have played a bit more poker in South Africa? “They didn’t stay long enough,” quips Sagnol, “but I’m sure they have played. That’s what football players should do because it’s about conviviality. The only negative thing I can see is if you were playing like mad: three, four, five times a week and betting £200,000. I think that would be a bit insane.”

Big Jack's lads relax at Italia 90

But would it? Surely today’s multimillionaire superstars can lose big money without it becoming a problem? “It’s a great question,” says Peter Kay, CEO of the Sporting Chance Clinic, which he founded with recovering alcoholic Tony Adams. “If they lose 20 grand, that’s like me losing 400 or 500 quid. It hurts, but it’s manageable. But if I kept doing that I would get to the point where I couldn’t pay the mortgage.”

One wealthy star whose gambling reached uncontrollable levels is Stoke winger Matthew Etherington. The winger’s debts reached £800,000 when he was at West Ham, the club having to lend him £300,000 to pay off some of that. Yet Sheringham claims Etherington was a good poker player, even making money.

“I’ve never had anyone presented to me who’s said, ‘I’m OK on everything else but poker is my problem’,” says Kay, himself a recovering alcoholic. “A lot of people who can control horse racing to a degree might be lost on a roulette machine or in a casino. But a good poker player will know when the odds are stacked against him cards-wise. Someone with an addictive nature will discard that and double the bet. You start taking risks.”

Etherington is now recovering after being treated by the Sporting Chance Clinic, but Kay isn't surprised when competitive sportsmen get drawn into gambling. “Matthew Etherington lost a fortune through gambling and a lot of people with addictive problems would think, ‘I’m really good at poker, I enjoy it and it’s a challenge.’ You’ve got to remember the competitive nature of footballers, especially when they retire. Poker gives them that.”

“It’s not a passing phase – we love it”
Competition’s not the only thing poker is giving ex-footballers. As Sheringham and Cascarino are proving, for those prepared to invest time and commitment, poker can provide a genuine post-career alternative to management, punditry or running a pub.

The former strike partners are certainly aiming high. “I’d love to win a big tournament,” says Sheringham. “But I know I’m playing with top professionals when I’m playing these big tournaments.”

Cascarino agrees. “I’d love to win a European Poker Tour or a World Series bracelet. But to be honest, I play poker because I love it, even when you have your bad days. That’s what me and Teddy have: a passion for it. It’s not a passing phase for us.

“A lot of people come in, try their luck and see how they go. Me and Teddy will be around playing poker until we pop our clogs...”