Where the very, very strange can seem almost normal

Woman in casino

One of the things I like to do at major poker festivals is simply to find a decent vantage point on the tournament floor and stand there for a while taking it all in.

Poker is a ridiculous world, but a lot of us have grown immune to its oddness. We treat it as perfectly normal that about 500 people will show up to room in the middle of a city, throw a few coloured discs at one another for a few days, then somebody will go home with close to a million dollars.

But really it’s bonkers. It’s utterly insane.

At EPT London last week, my moment of reflection came during day five of the £4,250 main event, which coincided with day two of the £10,000 high roller tournament. There’s your first moment of nonsense: to play these games, you’ll need to find the best part of an annual salary for many people in the UK, and yet there are hundreds of people who do just that.

Of course many of the participants have qualified in satellites, so the fee is less, and plenty of others will be staked or have sold percentages. But it’s a simple fact that from my vantage point, I could turn in one direction and see about 40 people yet to decide how they were going to chop up £1.7m (the high roller prize pool) and 16 still in the running for the lion’s share of £2.6m (for the main event).

Place anybody from the “real” world in that spot and tell them the bare details and they simply wouldn’t believe you. There’s no way a grown man in a hat knitted in the shape of a purple monster, another wearing a sleeveless vest in October, and several others whose appearance would restrict them to jobs in record or skateboard shops if they hadn’t been good at cards, could be in line for such riches.

But that’s the size of it. And it happens at least once a month all year.

I had chosen my particular spot as it was within a yard or so of a table that featured both Daniel Colman and Ole Schemion, a pair of players for whose recent form the term “heater” seems too chilly. Colman has won the best part of $22m in less than six months and earned a degree of notoriety that usually only comes after years of misbehaviour at the top of the game. Schemion’s $6.5m in about two years seems meagre by comparison, but is still an enormous amount by almost all other standards.

I wanted to know – or at least overhear – what it was like to be in their world. What was the conversation like at the most ludicrous end of a ludicrous business?

The answer to that question: it’s largely very ordinary. They might be inhabitants of a world that frequently defies description, but I am always gratified to learn that many of the most successful exponents in poker are what anybody might call “normal”.

I dropped by at the time that Colman and Randall Flowers (it was him in the vest) were talking about the issue of staring in poker, particularly as practiced by Mike McDonald. Colman said he found it disconcerting to be stared at, that it invaded his personal space and that he actually found it kind of rude. Flowers ($2m in live tournament winnings and close to $5m online) chuckled along, suggesting Colman was now opening himself up to be stared at more than most.

That already happens to Colman, of course. He has earned his infamy in certain quarters for his unwillingness to talk to the media, and that has put him under some intense scrutiny. But Colman’s reluctance to talk to the cameras doesn’t mean he won’t talk at all. Far from it: he was leading the conversation at this table, as he has at pretty much any event I’ve seen him play.

Schemion is more taciturn, but even in his silence, he was very much a part of this discussion. He had a bemused and amused grin plastered on his face throughout and was surely aware that he was staring fixedly at Colman during a monologue about not liking to be stared at. When somebody picked up on this, Schemion dissolved into giggles and looked away. All eight around the table were laughing like old friends.

These guys are all in their early 20s and their upbringings, in the United States, Germany, the UK, etc., were likely very different. But the poker world, which seems so artificial in many ways, can often bring together like-minded individuals from across the globe to share moments like this.

Beneath the hats, the hair dye, the vests and the bundles of money, poker is more normal than you might think.