I recently played an event in the Green Isle Hotel, Dublin, which was attended by a large number of Northern Irish players. Some of them would have been there anyway. Others were there because Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where poker is illegal, so they have to travel to the South to play the game that is in their blood. It is madness. Poker is one of the few activities which completely crosses boundaries imposed by religion, politics and those who don’t want to see more cross community unity and understanding.

In my role as partypoker Ambassador, and as myself, I have travelled to Northern Ireland several times to play slightly illegal poker. I have played with both Unionists and Nationalists. And the police. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been treated with kindness and respect and have had fantastic craic playing with people who love the game and the banter. What better way to concentrate on similarities rather than differences? Are the politicians mad? Or afraid to recognise the obvious?

There was only one dodgy moment in my travels. I was visiting Belfast with my friend Eamonn and playing poker with a pretty mixed bunch. I was having great fun until I heard raised voices at the table behind me. Eamonn, a Celtic fanatic, was getting into it with a large Rangers fan. Oh God. The Rangers lad stood up and reached into his pocket. I concentrated on trying to figure out how long it would take me to escape through the window. The guy pulled out a match program from the last Ibrox meeting between Rangers and Celtic and handed it to Eamonn. I later learned they knew each other quite well from playing poker together and had agreed to exchange match programs!

I learnt two valuable lessons. Firstly, don’t underestimate the power of poker to bring people together and secondly, don’t bring Eamonn again. Anywhere.

BAT OUT OF HELL

A couple of weeks ago, I was greatly saddened when my mate Jeff Duval announced on twitter that his good friend Tall Alan Vinson had died suddenly. I phoned Jeff. I’d enjoyed Alan’s fatalistic humour for thirty years. It was nonstop. Apart from his talent as a comedian, Alan was also a very good poker player. He was at his best when broke, which is an excellent trait in a man in my book. He also played pretty good when playing with Jeff’s money. Or Micky Moran’s maybe. Even in death, Alan had us laughing. Jeff told me he phoned Alan every couple of days to have a chat and find out what he was sweating. He said he didn’t know why he bothered as he figured Alan hadn’t had a winning day in ten years!

I travelled to London, hooked up with Rory Liffey, and we went to say goodbye to Alan and pay our respects to Ben and Adam. As funerals go, it was nice. Looking around me, I figured I was close to the median agewise and nowhere near favourite to be the next to fall off the perch. I liked that. Jeff did the eulogy. From the heart. To be fair, he didn’t get carried away and exaggerate Alan’s prowess as a sports punter or roulette player! He told a typical Tall Alan story that Keith Hawkins had told on twitter. The usual suspects travelled to Dundee for a poker tournament. Alan, Jeff, Micky Moran, The Camel, etc. went to a Hills betting shop and lost their nuts. As they were about to leave, Alan stood in the middle of the bookies and announced to a bunch of bemused Scotsmen that he had to go, so if they wanted to borrow money from him they’d better speak up now!

When it was time, the coffin began its journey through the hole in the wall, and Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell nearly lifted the roof off. Nice exit Alan.

Then it was off to the pub. People kept asking me if I wanted a drink. Very kind. Then I found out a poker player who wished to remain anonymous (let’s just call her Vicky for convenience) had generously laid on a free bar. Forever it seemed. Jeff whispered in my ear that this was a godsend as by his calculations half the punters were skint. Or thereabouts. The beer and the stories flowed as one would expect with wall to wall characters on the premises. Half of them thrilled it wasn’t their funeral.

Story of the day was about the time Tall Alan played poker for Italy. I had spoken to Jesse May from Dublin Airport. Jesse loved Alan. Like Sexton, he likes degenerate gamblers, but especially Alan. As we spoke, he posted the highlights of a TV show where Alan was at his comic best. The story was partypoker were sponsoring the partypoker.com Football and Poker Legends Cup in 2006. It was made up international teams, each made up of two poker pros and a soccer legend. It was a strong lineup. Mike, Daniel, Gus, The Devilfish all rocked up. Alan Ball, Norman Whiteside, Tony Cascarino too. The only problem was the Italian team. They had Eastenders actor Michael Greko, who was a bit Italian either on TV or in real life. Nobody cared. After that, they were struggling. Italians didn’t play poker. If they did, we didn’t know.

At the last minute, Jeff Duval was asked if he’d play for Italy. It was like asking Tom Cruise to play Mary Poppins. He wasn’t available but said Tall Alan was available if the price was right. It was. Anyway, he had a genuine Italian connection. He’d been in Italy on a day trip when Tottenham were involved in a Cup Winners Cup tie in the 70s. The footballer was a problem, Neil Barrett swears Totti had gotten delayed at the airport. Hmmm. Anyway, what we got was a Portuguese Brazilian who spoke neither English or Italian. And no. He couldn’t play football too good either (he had an unsuccessful trial at Barnet). And he couldn’t play poker. Apart from that, he was perfect!

Anyway, the show must go on. The format was simple. Two 3 man teams faced up in a 6 man sit’n’go. Whoever finished up with all the chips won a place in the next round for his team. How could it go wrong?

Greko, the captain, decided to knock himself out in the first hand with ace ten. That didn’t help. Alan was left facing the Northern Ireland team with a random guy for a team mate. On the plus side, Jesse and I were having a ball in the booth! It was hysterical. During the break, I overheard the Italian team talk. It was mostly Alan saying “aggressive” multiple times. It worked. Alan fired multiple bullets with 64. His teammate called him down aggressively with 65. The 5 played. You couldn’t make it up! Alan was gone leaving the kid to face the Irish lads. Not for long though, he first made TV poker history by passing the aces before the flop. Jesus! We think he thought they were ones.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Alan did the finest exit interview I’ve ever seen. Despite the carnage we had just witnessed, Alan calmly explained to the viewers that the problem was he and the other lad were from different regions in Italy and the dialects were quite different. This led to a couple of understandable misunderstandings, which were a little unfortunate. OMG. What a performance. I nearly believed it myself. Comic genius under pressure. But that’s what we expected from Tall Alan.

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