Jamie Oliver puts his cards on the table

While the rest of Britain sweltered in the early Summer heatwave, seven celebrities risked their shirts in a charity poker tournament. Read our play-by-play account of their flops and flushes.

Dominic Wells (Times, May 2008)

Jamie Oliver and Matt Skinner

Jamie Oliver and Matt Skinner

Last week, while most of England stripped off in the sun, seven celebrities led by Jamie Oliver were trying to keep their cards close to their chest. They were competing in a Texas Hold ’em tournament at exclusive London restaurant Sketch, in aid of the One2One Children’s Fund which supports social and educational projects all round the world, and sponsored by one of Britain’s most popular 3D poker websites, PKR.

Players had stumped up £350 a head to play with the celebrities, with an extra £100 to buy new chips if they ran out, and each table had one star to the left of the dealer.

“Sorry,” joked Jason Flemyng at our table when this was announced, after looking over his shoulder in a pantomime of seeking the real celeb. Clearly the actor realised that his star wattage would not power quite as many flashbulbs as Jamie Oliver, or Teddy Sheringham.

I’ve played against celebrities before. Patrick Marber, who wrote the poker play Dealers’ Choice, was an excellent player, ruthless and inscrutable; by contrast Roger Lloyd Pack, who played the poker shark in the play’s recent West End revival, was in real life hesitant and unsure. Nancy Dell’Olio used her low-cut top to devastatingly distracting effect, but clearly couldn’t play, so no surprises there; while Sir Clive Sinclair was a careful better, calculating the odds, but lacking flair.

What of the celebrities here? Would Jamie Oliver live up to his own hype? Could Teddy Sheringham score? Who, after six hours of play, would reach the final table around midnight? Click on our picture gallery (left) to find out.

Jamie Oliver

The famously voluble chef and tireless campaigner is a recent convert to poker, but has taken to it like he does to everything: with gusto. He plays in a “home” game with Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng, and is, apparently, fiercely competitive, reading dozens of poker books to improve his play. And yet in the PKR One2One game, he is the first celebrity to be knocked out. He had been dealt two eights, the “flop” of three following cards were all lower, so he felt confident in betting the lot with what he thought was the top pair — but he came up against the dreaded pair of aces, “pocket rockets” as they are known.

He was more successful at the One2One charity auction, where he raffled off a special meal at his restaurant Fifteen. Bidding reached £4,800, at which point Jamie, with typical chutzpah, announced he’d double the prize, and take £4,600 from the runner-up too. Nearly ten grand for charity; now that’s good play.

Teddy Sheringham

The colourfully shirted striker plays a lot of poker; and as you would expect of a professional footballer, it’s often for big money. He is modest about his ability, and it’s up to his friend to sing his praises: “He’s tight and aggressive, the perfect tournament style.”

“It’s a funny game tonight,” offers Sheringham, who’s clearly used to match reports, “not a lot of people here know what they’re doing. They’re here for the charity, not because they play a lot of poker. It makes it hard to bluff, since they’ll stay in no matter what.”

And is he a successful player? Does he make money over the course of a year or lose it? He won’t answer, and again it’s his friend who assures us that yes, Sheringham makes good money. And now Sheringham reveals the reason for his diffidence: he’s not modest, he just reckons he can do better at the tables if other players don’t realise how skilled he is!

As in football, then, so in poker: a disciplined, highly competitive player with a killer instinct, who can stick it in the back of the net when he gets the hand for it. Which, sadly, he doesn’t. Every poker tournament calls for some luck, and cannot be won on skill alone. He ends up “short-stacked”, ie with dangerously few chips, and has to risk going “all-in” with A5. He comes up against A7, giving him only the slenderest odds of victory. It doesn’t come off. Sick as a parrot, Brian.

Jason Flemyng

One of the busiest actors you may never have heard of, Flemyng has appeared in over 40 films and TV dramas since his breakthrough in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Sadly, he is less successful at poker. TimesOnline’s player knocked him out when the flop came 10, 6, 6, turning a Q-6 into three of a kind. Your devious correspondent checked with this excellent hand rather than raising — which is called “slow-playing”, or pretending you don’t have a hand when you do. Flemyng foolishly took the bait, raising wildly with nothing, and was quickly skewered.

Flemyng’s mate Dexter Fletcher, who clearly looks out for him, kept coming over to hiss at him to play “tight”, or conservatively. He is particularly concerned that Flemyng is getting married soon, and shouldn’t lose too much money, even if it is going to charity.

But to no avail. Flemyng is very obviously a lovely bloke, but utterly devoid of the killer instinct and ruthless competitive streak you need to succeed at poker. Which makes his bride-to-be a lucky woman. Better a good-looking, kind-hearted, charming and considerate husband than a devious, back-stabbing poker shark, surely?

Dexter Fletcher

The increasingly wild-haired star of Hotel Babylon is a serious player who early on built up a chip stack so huge that he wasn’t sure how much was in it. Living near one of London’s top poker clubs, the Gutshot, he runs his own home games to which he attracts other celebrities, yet he still downplays his own abilities. He is wrong to. Crucially, he has the courage to see a bet through to its conclusion, even when there is the risk of losing, but unlike his friend Flemyng he has the wisdom to know when to do so and when it’s a hopeless cause. He’s also quick to remind you that the real point of the game today is not the play, but the worthy One2One charity they have all come to support.

In the end, Fletcher does well. He reaches the coveted final table (there are seven tables of nine players, and each time nine players are knocked out, the seats are redistributed and a table taken away), and finishes eighth, just after the comedian Norman Pace.

Norman Pace

The cherubic comedian, best known as half of Hale and Pace, is the closest thing the celeb contingent has to a seasoned professional. He plays in a number of tournaments, and presents “The Open” on the Sky poker channel. “I like to mix up my hands,” he says of his style of play. “I create a tight image to start with, then re-raise people off hands and bluff a lot later on when people don’t expect it of me.” Before becoming a comedian, he was a teacher, and has both the cunning and the discipline to do well. He ends up seventh, most successful of all the celebrities.

Interestingly, his wife Beverley is Party Poker Women’s World Open Champion, and their two sons are sponsored players. Clearly the family that bets together, gets together.

Benedict Wong

The Manchester-born actor is a familiar face on British TV having appeared in shows like The Bill and State of Play. He’s also venturing into the deeper waters of Hollywood with appearances in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and forthcoming sci-fi thriller Moon. He is currently shooting a movie called Shanghai with John Cusack, Gong Li and Ken Watanabe.

At the break, he confesses to have been rattled by a “bad beat” — ie a statistically unlikely defeat — when his pair of aces lost to someone’s pair of fives after a third five turned up on the flop. “In poker terminology you call that…” Cracked Aces, isn’t it? “… really s***.”

Sadly he never fully recovered from the blow, ending up short-stacked and having to push in with a pair of Jacks — not a bad hand, but only just better than a 50-50 chance against his opponent’s AK. He lost the toss.

Charlie Condou

The former Nathan Barley actor will this summer abandon his role as Marcus Dent in Coronation Street, to concentrate on other acting roles; he has just made a film with Viggo Mortensen. He is a quiet and unflamboyant player, who seems to know his stuff.

In the break, however, he is licking his wounds: the flop gave him two pairs, a monster hand… but it also gave his opponent a straight — an even bigger monster. It’s not the sort of blow from which it’s easy to recover, and he does well to last for quite a few hands after that.