Tales from the VicA regular face at the poker tables at ‘the Vic’ in London, GOM got an insight into the razor-sharp wit and wisdom of writer and broadcaster Vicky Coren.
Vicky Coren juggles as many different jobs as possible—her modest logic being that if a few of them are going badly, then at least one of them must be going well. In truth, everything is going well. She’s a popular radio and television presenter and a national newspaper columnist, among other things. She’s also a damn fine poker player—to the extent that we weren’t sure if it was fair to include her in a ‘celebrity’ poker feature. But once she’d given us an interview this good, we were duty bound.
How did you get into poker in the first place?
My brother [journalist and critic, Giles Coren] used to play with his friends, as teenage boys do. I thought it looked cool and that it would be fun to hang out with them. I got hooked on the game. They all passed through it and went on to the next phase and I was left behind buying poker books, joining the Vic and thinking “Who needs to have a life when I can do this for the next 20 years!”
So what it is about the Vic that has made it such an enigmatic place to play poker?
Well, to me, it isn’t enigmatic. It’s incredibly familiar. I always think that poker and London go very well together—since both involve slightly standoffish, suspicious, prickly people. This is very much a natural home for the game. And when the two come together, I guess it can be intimidating for people. I was the same at first. Now, of course, it’s about as scary as my mum’s house on Christmas Day. All of these people—these grumpy, crotchety old gamblers in their aertex shirts, smoking B&H out on the terrace and swearing at everybody—they feel like family to me.
Who would you pick out as your favourite of the characters here?
Oh, I love all of them. Pedro is a favourite for people here. He’s a tiny little Scottish fellow who is always carrying around about 19 bottles of homeopathic medicine for something or other. Every time he sees you, he’ll scuttle over and say something like “Your eyes look bloodshot” or “Your ears are a bit off colour, have this oil of midnight primrose,” as he whisks a little flask out of his pocket. I’m always happy to see him.
What’s his surname?
I don’t know! I’ve known the man for 20 years, and I’ve no idea what his surname is. Then there’s Mr Chu, a wizened old Chinese gambler who’s also a magistrate. He likes to keep his fingernails very long on his little fingers. I have no idea why. I think he’s secretly a wizard and maybe the fingernails do something magic.
Do you think you’ll ever play poker full time, or is it always as a complement to writing and presenting?
I don’t imagine I will. I think poker is supposed to fit into a varied life. I’m a big fan of Al Alvarez, who is a great figure in poker and author of one of the classic poker books. But he’s also climbed mountains, written poetry and travelled everywhere. He was friends with Sylvia Plath and he’s a champion swimmer. This is guy who, at 79, can look back at a life full of adventures and poker is one of them. And that’s what I’d like my life to be like too.
Who is your most feared opponent at the poker table? And by the same token, is there anyone who dreads playing against you?
I doubt there’s anybody who dreads playing against me. They should, but they don’t [laughs]. Gus Hansen was a bit of a headache for me [at EPT London]. On my starting table, he had a seat but came very late. For the first two levels I didn’t lose a hand. It was easy. I managed to get to two-and-a-half times my starting stack without anyone being knocked off the table. Then Gus Hansen turned up. I immediately handed him about 10,000 like it was nothing. Then I got moved table and it was all going well, before Gus Hansen moved to that table and I immediately lost another 7,000. Not to him—but I immediately thought, “This guy is interfering with my mojo.”
What do you think of the standard of poker journalism, and what changes would you make if you were editor of a poker magazine?
For my taste some of them are bit laddish, but then most people who are buying them are young men. If I were the editor I would try and find my way back to the feeling that this is a romantic game that has always attracted great writers and poets. A lot of the coverage is very heavy on the big winners, the glitz, the good-looking girls and the hotel suites. I would like to see more of the hard truth about the losses, the bitterness and the frustration. More of that flavour, alongside the aspirational stuff, would give it a bit of bite.
You’re the presenter of Radio 4’s comedy discussion show Heresy. Who is your favourite guest you’ve had on the show?
It was probably Clive James. I think the natural impulse of radio and television producers is to go for the hot, young comedians. And it should be—it’s exciting to hear those people. But let’s not forget that there are still people like Clive James around. He came along and was absolutely as smart and funny and clever as he always was.
Your brother’s leaked email rant at a newspaper sub-editor was one of the most entertaining things I’ve read this year. Have you ever been the victim of over-zealous sub-editing?
Oh, of course, anybody who ever writes has had jokes ruined, words misspelt—it happens all the time. Generally, though, I love subs. The guy who subs my column at The Observer is just a wonderful man. Of course, as in every trade, there are some people who just want to finish and go to the pub. They’ll hack off the sentence at the end of a paragraph without realising it was the punch line. Or spell something wrong in a way that ruins it. And all writers are very frustrated about that—all of the time. Although my brother may be the only person who pours out his frustration in quite such a vitriolic way and then actually presses send. If it had just been a bit rude, people who have thought it was terrible. But it’s so preposterously rude, it’s just funny.
In 2003, you and Charlie Skelton wrote Once More, with Feeling: How We Tried to Make the Greatest Porn Film Ever. Tell us about your experiences in writing this book.
Charlie and I had a job reviewing porn films for a magazine. We just thought it would be a funny writing exercise to review x-rated titles as if they were real films—so really talking about the characters, the plot, whether we were moved by the story—and completely ignore the sex. We would say, just as people do when they walk round a modern art gallery, “I could do a better job than that myself”. So eventually we decided to see if we actually could. We wrote a beautiful script, magnificent plot, great dialogue—all of which is incomprehensible in the film because it’s spoken by a lot of Dutch hookers who had no idea where the jokes were.
Vicky’s Fantasy Poker Table
Vicky Coren, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, Philip Green, Bernie Ecclestone, Roman Abramovich, The Duke of Westminster, The Queen
*With the specific proviso that we all play a cash game afterwards.