The Mad Yank

‘The Mad Yank’ was an irritating feature of poker rooms in London about five or six years ago. He had been in the US military, he said, a submarine officer, but he said a lot of things, he seldom shut up, high-pitched, often shouting, with an opinion on everything, almost all of which I disagreed with.

I kept my distance from him, from the cult of his own personality that he was trying to promote. He had a walrus moustache and wore thin-rimmed glasses, he was average height, a little overweight. The last time I saw him was in a corridor outside the Rio Exhibition Room in Las Vegas in 2006, at the time of the World Series of Poker, when he was trying to beat the world record for the longest period of playing heads-up poker, and his manner, of giddy, slightly aggressive hysteria, seemed appropriate for once.

He went to live in Thailand and I doubt if I’ve thought of him in the intervening time. Yesterday, a friend alerted me to a news story from the Phuket Gazette. The suspected murderer of a bar girl had been apprehended after what was described as one of the biggest man-hunts in Thai history. The following day, the suspect, an American, Ronald Fanelli, who had once been a lieutenant in the US Navy, was at a press conference. He confessed to the crime. Asked if he was the same person who had been a poker player under the moniker of the Mad Yank, he said that he was. He laughed, apparently, the reporter said, with ‘bitter irony’, and said ‘that was a long time ago’.

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Big Fucker at the Golden Nugget

If the Empire, in Leicester Square, is the closest we get to a Vegas Strip kind of cardroom, then the Golden Nugget on Shaftesbury Avenue is strictly Vegas downtown, Fremont Street. It’s a small casino, and it feels local, almost friendly. The game I was in though was becoming serious.

‘Someone looking at me would say, There’s a big fucker… And you know what? I AM a Big Fucker.’

The Big Fucker was rolling over the table. The game had started as a small 1-1 game, almost like a nervous home game. A £10 bet on the flop would be enough to take down most pots. But that was before the Big Fucker joined the table. A large Irishman already full of beer and fuelling himself with more, he’d recently been knocked out of the tournament and sat down on my left. (I’d been knocked out of the tournament some time before.) The Big Fucker had curly hair, a slightly pouting mouth, and eyes that were getting a little fishy with beer. But, he was a good player, and he was very aggressive. The plump American who was sitting between an attractive young couple didn’t like every pot being raised by at least £15 pre-flop and got up to sit elsewhere. He was replaced by a bald German, who fancied himself as something of a player himself. Bald German would raise to £3. Big Fucker, as a matter of course, would reraise, making it £15 or £20. Very tentatively, the German would call, huddle inside himself. And inevitably fold when Big Fucker put in a £35 or £40 bet on the flop.

Big Fucker had bought in for £65. A few hands later, he had over £100. And when I had ace-jack on an AA3 flop, and called his all-in reraise only to see him table ace-king, he had over £200. That’s the problem with aggressive action players who play a wide range of hands in a more or less identical way: sometimes their holdings are the nuts or close to it.

Big Fucker shook my hand, hard. ‘You’re not going to be chicken are you? You’re not going to chicken?’

‘No,’ I assured him. ‘I’m not going to chicken.’

I reloaded for another £100, the table maximum. Quarter of an hour later, I had about £60 left after I’d folded my 44 on a J99 flop. ‘Unless you have a 9, you’re losing,’ Big Fucker told me. Why would a player advise you to fold? Because they’re kind and and caring and want you to save your money? It’s more likely that they don’t want you to call. Nonetheless, I folded. He showed me 10-8. With his straight draw and his overcards, he was in fact out in front.

Nonetheless, I felt it as a kind of failure, close to elemental. I was losing money to a drunk player. He happened to be a good drunk player but all the same, if I’m claiming to be able to play poker, this was wrong. I made a kind of vow. If I didn’t win my money back from Big Fucker, I was going to give up the game.

The wisdom in playing difficult opponents is that you want them on your right. They have to act before you, this gives you an edge. Actually, with someone who is predictably going to raise almost every pot, it’s rather good to have them acting after you. You can limp, then reraise. I waited for a hand to go up with against Big Fucker. Most of the time I was getting garbage. I won a hand, when Big Fucker’s attention was elsewhere, against the German and a young Oriental player, who bizarrely called my all-in bet on the end with Q7 off-suit on a 997K2 flushing board.

I’ve been playing some cash recently, mostly at the Empire, where the action is much bigger than the Golden Nugget. I’ve been developing a taste for cash play, the bravery needed, the different kind of adrenaline. Big Fucker’s stack was growing. He was throwing abuse the way of a player across from him, he was throwing in raises and reraises, and every now and again he would punch me on the arm and make manly noises, ‘Eh?! Yeah!’ He was an imposing presence and he was bullying the table with his play and his size. But I don’t like being punched on the arm. I told him to stop it. He offered his arm for me to to look at. ‘Look at the size of me!’ he said. ‘You’re a big lad,’ I said. ‘That’s right! I am a big lad. I raise.’

This was the hand I had been waiting for. I had AQ of clubs, and had limped, waiting for Big Fucker’s inevitable raise. But Big Fucker was drunk and he was used to playing a 1-2 game at least, so he put in two £1 chips and started counting out his raise. ‘Raise to two pounds,’ the dealer said. Big Fucker was prevented from throwing in the extra £20 and a very relieved, rather gleefully craven table saw his raise. When it came back to me, I called as well, in the dangerous aim of disguising my strength. The flop came down KQ3, rainbow. I checked, he bet, everyone else folded. I raised, he reraised all in. If he had a king, my poker career was over. I called.

He had QJ, my hand held up. I raked in the chips and shook Big Fucker’s offered hand. It was a genuine shake, unaccompanied by the brutal hand squeeze I’d seen him use against the player on my right. I felt as if I was being welcomed back into the game.

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Waiting for the marines

A friend was in the Academy Club last week. She met a nice man named Patrick O’Connor who was wildly enthusiastic about the book. Turned out he was reviewing it for the TLS. Then, a couple of days later, he died. I’m sure he was a very nice man and if I’d have known him I’d be mourning his passing, but all the same, an ignoble part of me is just hoping he filed his copy before he died.

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Farewell to Argentina


In Buenos Aires there are many wild cats, which seem to lead quietly contented lives, supported by the food scraps provided by tender-hearted matrons. In Mar del Plata, wild dogs share the streets and parks and shadows. They appear to live in a parallel world, accepting food when it is offered, but I never saw any of them begging from or bothering their human neighbours. On the bus out of town, we passed a lame dog trying to make itself go faster. A few hundred metres ahead, a pack of four other, more able-bodied, dogs were running, led by a handsome Alsatian. And then the bus sped up, and the dogs, and the town were left behind.

I’ve been back in London a week now, and still get rueful flashbacks from moments at the poker table when luck was against me. If only those 5s had held up, if only Gustav Wagner hadn’t hit his two-outer on the river, if only… There were fine poker moments too, going up repeatedly, with mixed success, against Andre Akkari, discovering that I had acquired a pair of fans, Mario and Jean-Paul from Cordoba, who seemed to think I was some kind of poker pro, and followed my progress through the tournament and elimination from it with a graceful enthusiasm. I’ve rediscovered my enthusiasm for big tournaments, and realised that I no longer have any taste for Julio Cortazar as a novelist (his short stories though are a different, superior matter). And the image of the wild dogs of Mar del Plata lingers in my mind, and I’ve got two novels to finish, and I want to go back to Buenos Aires.

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All-in and Out

55 versus AQ. Opponent hits a straight on the river. Taxi to the airport, please.


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Alive but Crippled

Day 1B has just finished; there are 35 survivors from the starting field of 151. I’m one of them, but with about half the average stack. No one likes a bad beat story, but all the same this is my blog and you’re going to get one. A couple of hours ago, I was cruising along quite happily; I was in the small blind, everyone folded and I called with QJ. My new friend, Gustav from Brazil, who was sitting on my left throughout the day and who has an enthusiastic interest in psychedelic music, recommending the 60s Brazilian band The Mutantes to me, made no raise. The flop came down QJ9. I bet, Gustav raised; I reraised, putting him all-in. After some consideration, he called. Gustav had Q9. So we each had two pairs, and he had two outs to win the pot. You wouldn’t be reading this unless one of those 9s hit on the river.

So, the 62 remaining players reconvene tomorrow. 27 will get paid, and I’m going to have to do a lot of work, and get lucky, to be one of them.

There’s a lot more to say, about the craziness of some of the players: early on, an opening raise to 1,000 when the blinds were 25-50 was standard at my table. Every now and again there was screaming. A fight broke out on the casino floor. I played horribly early on, quite well later; and probably my best achievement of the day is having over twice as many chips now as I had after Gustav hit his 9. But, I’m tired, we start again in 10 hours’ time, when I’m going to try not to feel forlornly small-stacked, there’s a Boris Karloff season on late night TV here, which I’m going to try to ignore in the interests of sleep.

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Getting Ready for Day 1B

The morning goes like this: breakfast in the hotel buffet, then a walk along the seafront and back to the hotel — narrowly avoiding Jack from near Sacramento, whose blustery attempts to bolster his fragile self-esteem are becoming rather wearing — then a shit and a shower (excuse me if this is more than you want to know), and I’ll pack my bag and smoke too many cigarettes.

They played last night until nearly 1.30 am, when the 113th casualty of the day was eliminated. So, we’ll be playing for the same length of time, although, it seems, with a bigger field. Moneymaker made it till midnight (the word is, that every player in the room was gunning for him, bluffing him, trying to push him off pots, calling his bets down on every street), Boris Becker lasted a significantly shorter time. None of the Brazilian models who were playing made it through the day, but my neophyte Dutch chum Patrick survived, albeit in 24th place of the 27, with 32,100 chips. The Day 1A chip leader is Jaime Ateneloff from Uruguay, with 108,300 chips, followed by Eduardo Santi of Argentina with 96,300. Santi looks about 10 years old, but is as ancient as 19. Ateneloff, known in these parts as ‘The Godfather of Uruguayan poker’, is 77. There’s hope for us all.


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Other People’s TV

There’s a rather charming game show on television here where contestants stand on a high platform in tight yellow leisure wear and endure the ordeal of holding a tray of drinks, with the aim of being the last person standing.


When that’s finally over, we cut to the studio where girls in bikinis take it in turn to wiggle around while holding miniature dogs.

What’s the point of this? I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a  comparison to make to poker, but I can’t quite rouse myself to do it. I’m watching tv in my hotel room because the museum was shut.


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We’re Under Way

This being Latin America, players go for a different kind of card protector here.


There were 140 entrants today, and after two-and-a-half hours, 136 were left, with the average chip stack being a little under 11,000 from the starting size of 10,000. Our Dutch friend, Patrick, in short-sleeved shirt and sunglasses below, had just under 30,000 and was clear chip leader at his table and was one of the early leaders of the tournament. It helps to flop top full house and get paid, and it helps too to have AK on an ace-high board and for an opponent to go all-in with A7.


We all make mistakes; I hope my only one is that I reported that the casino carpets were yellow-brown, when in fact that’s the colour of the walls. (The carpets are a defiantly dull green.) Tomorrow’s field looks to be a bigger, and tougher, proposition than today’s: most of the name pros, Hachem, Brenes, Rousso, et al, are playing their Day 1s tomorrow. And oh how we would all love to be sitting at Boris Becker’s table. Nattily dressed in a black suit and white-blond hair that looks sort of like crystal, he has been resolutely and, after a while, a little depressedly, giving his chips away.


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Day 1A About to Start

At the PokerStars welcome party in the Gran Provincia Hotel in Mar del Plata (tango dancers, buffet, well-stocked bar, speeches from dignitaries, or so I supposed) I fell into conversation with Jack, who’s from somewhere near Sacramento. Being surrounded by groups of vaguely autistic, testosterone-loaded, poker-playing lads is preferable when they’re doing their stuff in a foreign language, but I was feeling in need of some communication. My previous conversation was with a cheerful, if travel-dazed, young Dutchman, who has never played a live tournament before and qualified by investing $22 in an $11 rebuy tournament online. Jack, who is 53, kept reiterating that he was focused and ready to play. He took part in the Mexico leg of the LAPT, which was the event that wasn’t–being suddenly cancelled half-way through when the players were getting close to the money. Jack had recently been knocked out, was sitting at a cash table when the Mexican police came into the resort.

Jack sold his business a couple of years ago and is now a full-time online player, sitting with 12 screens, grinding away as he makes more more money than he ever did before, and his farm goes untended around him. He is a big man, ginger-haired and freckled, who wears little dark shades over his eyes. He has a sort of Gene Hackman geniality about him, a sharp little laugh, speaks slowly and carefully, with the slightest suggestion that some sort of explosion might be just about to ignite. He prides himself on his ability to read players, to get under their skin, and I had no doubt that this is the case.

The tournament begins today. The event is capped at 600 runners, but there seems no likelihood that the field is going to be anywhere near that large. They’re still running satellites at the Casino Central, which is an old building that should be charming and art deco-y impressive but is in fact rather dingy, with yellow-brown carpeting, poor lighting, and a staleness of cigarette smoke and the tiredness of a resort out of season in the air. Maybe we’ll reach 350 runners. Day 1A will play until there are 27 left, and Day 1B will play for as long as it took 1A to get there. I’m playing 1B tomorrow, and rather wish that I was starting today. I’d like to get going. As Jack says, 90% of us are going to lose. I prefer him when he’s announcing how focused and ready he is.

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