Victoria Coren, Queen Of The Vic

Victoria Coren

Victoria Coren

“Let’s play,” says Victoria Coren, and then adds, as airily if she were talking of pence rather than pounds, “for a hundred? Or two?”

There’s ten of us round the oval table at the Vic, a cavernous space above an Edgware Road casino which is London’s most famous card room and Coren’s second home. Apart from me, all feature in her long-awaited memoir, For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker. There’s Alan the sex mogul, who’s bald, smokes a cigar and drives a Bentley; Neil “Bad Beat” Channing, one of Britain’s more famous players; and “DY”, who’s still complaining that Coren writes that he has a lisp.

“You’re very masculine and I love you very much,” Coren finally tells DY, “but you do have a lisp. And I have a squint and a big nose.”

She doesn’t really. With her long blonde hair and ready smile, she’s in her element: a joke here, a raise there, a sympathetic squeeze of the shoulder when she takes someone’s chips. She casts herself in the book as Alice in a looking-glass world, the poker games as a mad hatter’s tea party.

Coren was drawn to poker as a teenager, when her brother Giles (also a writer and columnist) started holding games. “I wanted to spend time with boys because they seemed endlessly fascinating and mysterious. I soon discovered boys were easy to understand; it was poker that was fascinating and mysterious.”

The first few times she tried to play at the Vic were, she says, like the bit in American Werewolf in London where all conversation stops and “60 eyes all swivel towards you”. She literally ran away. “I thought, they’re all male, all cockneys, all between 40 and 70; how can I, a middle-class girl, fit in? Then I realised it could never be scarier than walking into the school canteen. Each and every one of these players feels like a misfit, and that’s what we have in common.”

Frequently Coren was the only woman in the room, let alone at the table. But eventually she came to speak the arcane language of wire-ups, trips and suited connectors, to measure out her money in ponies, carpets, bottles and monkeys. “The Vic’s like the Tube,” says Coren. “We’re not immediately friendly to people we don’t know. But the plus side is, when you do finally get on, you know they mean it. I feel very patriotic – not as a Briton, but as a Londoner.”

She’s since played with millionaires and gangsters; at private games guarded by machine gun; with literary figures such as Martin Amis and Al Alvarez. She’s helped poker join the 21st century, as a TV presenter on Late Night Poker. And she’s seen the internet change the game from a refuge for misfits to a career choice for maths grads. It’s now a heavily sponsored billion-dollar business. Starting this Thursday in London’s Casino at the Empire, the third World Series of Poker Europe presented by Betfair will make two millionaires: one a humble chancer who’s qualified for the Free Million Dollar Game through the Betfair internet site, the other a bona fide world champion.

The WSOPE may bring the world’s very best players to Leicester Square, but Coren has as good a chance as any. In 2006 she won the European Poker Tour and £500,000 – the biggest single win by a British woman. But she’s also very upfront about the game’s terrible compulsion, the players, less skilled or disciplined, who’ve lost everything.

“I have a weakness for gambling,” she admits. “Don’t ask me how much I’ve lost on Blackjack. Luckily I roped it into poker, where you can overcome fate with judgement and caution and discipline, while still feeling the adrenaline thrill of risk.”

Her entire social life now revolves around the game. Does she play poker because she’s not married with kids? Or is she not married with kids because she plays poker? She sighs. “That’s the question I set out in the book to ask, if not to answer. All I can say is, I only gamble on certain hands, under certain limits. Committing to marry someone and have a child… that’s like gambling with your whole life.”

Back at the big game, my suited Ace-Jack (“Ajax”) comes up against Ace-Queen (“big chick”) and a pair of Kings (“pocket cowboys”). I’m knocked out. “That’s poker,” says Coren. “It’s ugly.”

I join one of the dozens of cash games that are always running at the Vic, lose a little more. Then Coren, having won, invites me to a second £100 game. This would leave me with exactly £1 to my name. Do I dare? Two hours later, I stand up victorious, with £200 profit on the night. Coren seems genuinely delighted for me. Because that, as she knows better than anyone, is poker too.


For Richer, For Poorer is published by Canongate, £16.99. The WSOPE runs Sep 17-Oct 1 at the Casino at the Empire, Leicester Square.