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Inside football’s poker pack

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 QPRâÂÂs 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 itâÂÂs 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.

âÂÂThere'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,â claims PokerPlayer magazine editor Alun Bowden. âÂÂYou rarely, if ever, see players at live tournaments.âÂÂ

One player to buck this trend is Manchester UnitedâÂÂs Darren Fletcher, who took advantage of ScotlandâÂÂs absence from the 2010 World Cup to play in the World Series of Poker, the calendarâÂÂs marquee event in Las Vegas. It conjures a comical image of a ruddy-faced Sir Alex bundling into the Rio HotelâÂÂs 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 SharpeâÂÂs nightclub escapades.

However, FletcherâÂÂs appearance was presumably with his managerâÂÂs approval, or at least in the hope that Fergie doesnâÂÂt 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 OâÂÂShea, Jonny Evans and Owen Hargreaves. The mind boggles.

âÂÂPoker was a natural progressionâÂÂ
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 worldâÂÂs 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.

âÂÂIt was his fault,â insists Sheringham. âÂÂI 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 wasnâÂÂt until 10 years later that poker became really big in football.âÂÂ

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 â¬93,121.

His transition from footballer to poker player has been largely seamless. As he says, âÂÂIâÂÂve 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 â Vilamoura, or the Bahamas, which I went to last Christmas. IâÂÂm going to try and take in the Aussie Millions tournament next year. A couple of mates are going, so weâÂÂll have a game of golf as well, a bit of fun, a few beers...âÂÂ

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

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. âÂÂIâÂÂd finished, IâÂÂd retired. I had nothing to do,â he says, treating FFT to dinner after a recent win.

âÂÂI 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.

âÂÂI 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 thereâÂÂs luck and skill. Because if youâÂÂre relying solely on luck you canâÂÂt win at this game.âÂÂ

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

CascarinoâÂÂs progress culminated in a career-best result in 2009, when he won the Grosvenor UK Poker Tour Grand Final, trousering a cool ã168,800. âÂÂItâÂÂs 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,â he laughs. âÂÂSo I got more for playing poker â and I didnâÂÂt have to share it with anyone!âÂÂ

Cascarino insists that the thrill from winning at poker is âÂÂfar betterâ than scoring a goal. Sheringham, though, isnâÂÂt so sure. âÂÂFootballâÂÂs in my blood,â he says. âÂÂSince I was a little kid IâÂÂve always wanted to be a footballer, so I wouldnâÂÂt compare it to football because itâÂÂs very, very different. But I canâÂÂt run about anymore so IâÂÂve got to try and find something else that gives me a bit of an adrenalin rush, and poker certainly does that, especially when weâÂÂre playing for a lot of money.âÂÂ

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

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. âÂÂJust make sure IâÂÂm there â I'll never say no,â he tells us.

Now scouting for Bayern, Sagnol mainly plays poker with friends â including some recent 16-hour sessions in Las Vegas â but has occasionally pitted himself against the pros. âÂÂI 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 itâÂÂs something new. When I play in a poker tournament the pressure is bigger than when I was playing football because youâÂÂre not used to dealing with it and itâÂÂs something completely new. But itâÂÂs exciting at the same time.âÂÂ

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. âÂÂIn Munich they weren't very good!â he says. âÂÂWhen I didnâÂÂt have any money at the end of the month I used to organise a poker game... no, thatâÂÂs 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 â he can hide every emotion. But at Bayern, the main goal wasnâÂÂt to make money. It was to have fun.âÂÂ

âÂÂIf you let footballers loose, fortunes are won and lostâÂÂ
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 â as Claridge attests, having played cards at every club of his career.

âÂÂThere could be a few hundred won or lost,â he says. âÂÂManagers will try and put a cap on it for obvious reasons. Players donâÂÂt want it on their mind that theyâÂÂve done a weekâÂÂs 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.â 

Unfortunately for Cascarino, that problem came to a head in the Republic of Ireland squad. âÂÂMy first trip was the [1988] European Championship,â he says. âÂÂLiam Brady organised a card school, and after loads of money had been won and lost â and I did win â we got on the plane, at which point Liam said, âÂÂForget it. Amnesty. Bets are off.â I was at Gillingham on two hundred quid a week and IâÂÂd won about ã1,300, thinking, âÂÂThis is paying for a lovely holiday.â And I had to swallow itâ¦âÂÂ

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. âÂÂAt World Cups and European Championships youâÂÂve got a lot of time to blow. You end up playing loads and loads of cards,â 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? âÂÂThey didnâÂÂt stay long enough,â quips Sagnol, âÂÂbut IâÂÂm sure they have played. ThatâÂÂs what football players should do because itâÂÂs about conviviality. The only negative thing I can see is if you were playing like mad: three, four, five times a week and betting ã200,000. I think that would be a bit insane.âÂÂ

Big Jack's lads relax at Italia 90

But would it? Surely todayâÂÂs multimillionaire superstars can lose big money without it becoming a problem? âÂÂItâÂÂs a great question,â says Peter Kay, CEO of the Sporting Chance Clinic, which he founded with recovering alcoholic Tony Adams. âÂÂIf they lose 20 grand, thatâÂÂs like me losing 400 or 500 quid. It hurts, but itâÂÂs manageable. But if I kept doing that I would get to the point where I couldnâÂÂt pay the mortgage.âÂÂ

One wealthy star whose gambling reached uncontrollable levels is Stoke winger Matthew Etherington. The wingerâÂÂs debts reached ã800,000 when he was at West Ham, the club having to lend him ã300,000 to pay off some of that. Yet Sheringham claims Etherington was a good poker player, even making money.

âÂÂIâÂÂve never had anyone presented to me whoâÂÂs said, âÂÂIâÂÂm OK on everything else but poker is my problemâÂÂ,â says Kay, himself a recovering alcoholic. âÂÂA 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.âÂÂ

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

âÂÂItâÂÂs not a passing phase â we love itâÂÂ
CompetitionâÂÂs 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. âÂÂIâÂÂd love to win a big tournament,â says Sheringham. âÂÂBut I know IâÂÂm playing with top professionals when IâÂÂm playing these big tournaments.âÂÂ

Cascarino agrees. âÂÂIâÂÂd 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. ThatâÂÂs what me and Teddy have: a passion for it. ItâÂÂs not a passing phase for us.

âÂÂA 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...âÂÂ