Victoria Coren-Mitchell Interview

Victoria Coren-Mitchell Interview

Monday, 2 June 2014

We meet EPT's first double champ.

She’s done it. As if being the first female EPT winner wasn’t enough already, Victoria Coren-Mitchell is now also the EPT’s supremely long-awaited first double champion. Oh, and she also pretty much exploded the internet in the process. Bluff Europe’s Eve Goodman talks to the lady herself – or should we say, Her Majesty?

I have a confession. I have a massive, stupendous girl crush. The subject of this curious and enduring infatuation? None other than Ms. Victoria Coren-Mitchell.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t actually want to seduce Ms. Coren-Mitchell, lovely as she is. (Not that she’d want me to anyway, presumably, being married to sharp-tongued veteran comic David Mitchell, as well as being rather out of my league.) No; I simply think she’s bloody brilliant.

Vicky Coren Hat

For one, Coren-Mitchell is the definition of a modern Renaissance woman. Not only is she a prolific newspaper journalist and writer, having penned the critically acclaimed novel, For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player, she also has a successful television career (including a presenting role on popular quiz show Only Connect), and has in her possession a sharp and ready wit. Oh, and did I mention she’s a pretty stellar poker player, too?

Eight years ago, Vicky made history by becoming the first female champion of the European Poker Tour, winning EPT London for a cool half a million at her old stomping ground, the Victoria Casino. She remembers the 2006 tournament, a pivotal moment of her life, in her book. One excerpt in particular casts back to when she marvelled how ‘showbiz’ poker had quickly become: “I think back to that old Islington game, and how frightened I would have been to lose a £200 pot. There were no televised tournaments then, no celebrities, no courtesy cars. [...] Poker wasn’t about fame, it was about hiding.”

How things have changed.

She’s now made history once again, taking down EPT Sanremo and consequently clinching the hotly-anticipated title of first ever two-time EPT winner.

The wait for someone to win two EPT Main Events has been a long one. Indeed, many beleaguered individuals in the poker media expressed doubt that it would ever happen, despite the fact that the tour has now been running for 10 seasons and shows no sign of slowing down. Mike ‘Timex’ MacDonald came close in the Caribbean earlier this year, only to crash out in second to Dominik Panka and for the search to continue.

But the once-slippery accolade has now been captured. When Vicky knocked out Giacomo Fundaro to claim the trophy, the internet just about exploded. Twitter went into overdrive as just about every established poker player and commentator rushed to congratulate the lady herself, and hastily-written news stories chronicling the occasion shot up everywhere. It wasn’t just the poker world who rejoiced, however, with mainstream media such as The Guardian, TIME Magazine, and even the QI Elves reporting on her success. Vicky had done it. She’d well and truly brought the house down.

When I finally manage to get hold of her weeks later, Coren-Mitchell is, unsurprisingly, in the midst of a media storm. Despite this, she is still breezily buoyant.

“To be honest, I haven’t got as far as feeling like I’m on Cloud Nine yet – I’ve been too busy!” she laughs. “I’ve had so much to do, I haven’t quite had a moment to jump up and down and say, ‘How exciting!’ I’ve pencilled that in for early July.”

We get straight to business discussing the implications of her win. Numerous people have hailed the circumstance as having the potential to be a kind of ‘second coming’ for poker, predicting that Vicky’s reach in the mainstream media could well cause a surge of much-needed recreational players picking up the game.

Arguably, she is better-placed than anyone to fix poker’s ‘image problem’ – but she is dismissive of her ‘special-ness’. “First of all, I don’t think I am unique,” she says, the tone of her voice indicating what a frankly silly notion she perceives it to be. “I think there are a lot of quirky people in poker, and a lot of interesting characters, and that’s one of the great things about the game. I certainly hope that – not necessarily that I’ll draw people in that hadn’t considered playing poker, but that there are a lot of people out there who WANT to play poker and are just shy, and when they see the big professionals in that uniform of hoodie and sunglasses and iPod, these maths geniuses, I think they might be put off.”

“And not just women – all sorts of people who might like to play, but look at it and think, ‘That seems a bit nerve-wracking.’ If they see me having a glass of wine and having a laugh – maybe they’ve seen me on TV – it’ll give them the confidence to walk into that cardroom, because they see it can be fun.”

How does she feel about people calling her an ambassador for the game? “Well, that’s very kind of them,” she hesitates, perhaps a little discomfited at such a lofty title. “I think what’s more important to me than necessarily the attention of the thing, is that I have always tried to play poker according to a gentlemanly set of rules – rules that were in place when I started playing the game. Stuff like not cheering when you win a pot, not losing your temper when you lose a pot, not giving the dealers a hard time – just being calm and good-natured and fun to play with. Those are always my big ambitions in poker. So I wouldn’t say ambassador as such, but I hope people might think, ‘She was nice to play with for these reasons, maybe I’ll try and do the same.’”

Vicky Coren 2

She certainly was having a visibly good time in Sanremo – the final table saw her chatting and laughing with her opponents, all the while packing away a bottle of red wine. I make a light-hearted inquiry as to whether the wine consumption helped her performance, only to be met with a throaty chuckle. “I don’t think it helped or hindered, really. I think if we’d played for another 12 hours after I started drinking then I could have been in trouble!” More laughter. “I just had a glass of wine to signal to the people on the table and all the people watching on the internet that all the talk of money and trophies and titles and records aside, it was Easter, we were on the Riviera, and we were playing a game – lets enjoy it!”

It doesn’t take a genius to know that this kind of relaxed, entertaining figure will be more appealing viewing to the average recreational player than today’s stereotype of a ‘serious player’, who is often portrayed as scowling in the shade of their baseball cap, plugged into headphones that block out all forms of social interaction. But a bigger problem than that, perhaps, is something else. Have grace and good manners – something once so important – begun to slowly disappear?

I confront her on whether she thinks the aforementioned ‘gentlemanly code’ of poker is on the decline. Vicky makes a pained noise, considering her answer. “It changed when TV came in, because TV is all about the big reactions,” she explains, somewhat reluctantly. “In came a lot of jumping up and down and shouting, and a lot of tournaments that I disapproved of a lot where the players were encouraged to be rude to someone who’d just lost a pot. Also, of course, being realistic about it, the game’s much bigger, the money’s much bigger, and there are many more people – it probably is more exciting. But the old rules that you keep the excitement inside are just woven into my bones. I learned them early and I can’t unlearn them now.”

Vicky acknowledges that poker has become more serious over the years, but doesn’t condemn the phenomenon. “Oh, it happened [poker got serious] when the money got big. Of course, that’s right in a way. If you’re playing tournaments for £1,000, or God knows £5,000, you’ve got to take it quite seriously, because that’s real money! When that happened, a lot of people took it up professionally from an early age.”

“When I started playing, people who called themselves ‘professional poker players’ were just people who’d got to a certain stage of their life without ever getting a proper job, and happened to like playing cards. Whereas now, people are coming out of university and launching careers as professional poker players! I’m delighted they take it seriously, because if that’s going to be your career for life, you better bloody take it seriously! However, you’ve got to get the balance right. If it’s going to be hours of grinding every day that makes you nervous and miserable and worried, you might as well get a normal job – it’d be a lot safer!
Does the fact that poker is day by day becoming seen as more of a sensible and legitimate career path make it less attractive to those who just want to play for fun? Vicky is torn. “I don’t know. Obviously, one of the reasons I try to be chatty and make jokes at the table and so on is because I want it to be a friendly and welcoming environment. Not in a sharky way to get fish coming in, but just because I think it’s a lot nicer for everybody.”

“But no, I think the ultimate appeal of poker is that it’s a great game. Before you get into who’s playing, what the mood’s like, what are you wearing, how much do you talk – at the heart of it is an amazing and unique game that requires a lot of skill, but with a big luck factor like a loose horse in a race. It’s fun, and it’s challenging, and it’s crazy, and no two hands are ever the same. That’s its essential appeal, and when people see that they know that it’s either for them, or it isn’t.”

She herself does many different things to make a living, and certainly doesn’t have time in her busy schedule to study the ins and outs of four-betting percentages and game theory every day. So how does she keep up at the tables with those who do? “Well, it’s just a different approach.” She says matter-of-factly. “It has its own advantage.”
“If you’ve studied the game a lot, if you watch videos, and if you play thousands of hands a day, then you’re going to pick up a lot of experience and your immediate skills are going to get very sharp. On the other hand, if you’re like me, you don’t play 100% of the time – you have a lot of breaks and a lot of rest, and you have the security of knowing there’s another source of income as well – you bring a certain confidence and fearlessness to the game, which balances out the rest of it.”

The conversation quickly turns to another hot topic – poker’s persistent lack of women. Though it’s been close to a decade since Vicky became the first female EPT winner, the game is still distinctly male-dominated, with men making up approximately 98% of tournament fields. Will this ever change? “Of course it’ll change,” she replies decisively. “It’ll change slowly, because things do. I’m not sure it’ll ever be 50/50 in my lifetime, because that’s not the point we started from.”

“I think there are things about poker that make it quite a masculine game. Something I have in common with quite a few female poker players who I like and respect is that I have a tomboyish streak. I’m a bit geeky, and women tend not to be that geeky. But I think the factor of women wanting to play but feeling excluded because they don’t see enough women in the game, obviously that’s a vicious circle. People like me and Liv [Boeree], the two Vanessas [Selbst and Rousso], and Maria Ho, all the women who people see playing in tournaments. The more people see that, the more women will think, ‘Maybe it is for someone like me.’”

Vicky Coren Trophy

It is a subject that she has spoken out on before. In 2012, the poker world hungrily consumed a blog written by Coren-Mitchell in which she scathingly criticised Brandon Uhl, a male player who had controversially gatecrashed the Ladies’ Event at the World Series of Poker. Coren-Mitchell blasted Uhl for ruining the spirit of the event, causing a storm of debate about who was in the wrong.

At the mention of the blog, Coren-Mitchell snorts derisively. “It’s funny, I didn’t play Ladies events for a long time,” she says. “For a long time, I saw them as patronising. I thought, this isn’t weight-lifting! We don’t need our own category; women can compete just as well as men. I didn’t really approve of them.”

But after a while, she changed her opinion. “I got a message on the internet from a woman on a poker forum. She said, ‘You’re looking at it the wrong way. It’s about fun. It’s not that women think they need a special advantage, it’s that they don’t want to walk into a room full of men and be the only one and feel weird! When you’re in a Ladies’ tournament, it’s a bit of fun.’”

“So I thought, okay, maybe I was a bit hasty. So I played one and it was INCREDIBLY good fun! The banter and the laughter – it reminded me of poker when I first started playing, before it got too serious, and I loved it. I’ve played a few more since then, and I think it’s really nice. As I’m always saying, it is only a game, and we must be careful of taking it too seriously – and the women’s events are a great day out.”

She’s never let being female stop her, though – oh no. When I ask if there’s anyone she’d be intimidated to play against, she confidently replies, “Nobody.” It’s then her voice takes on a mischievous tone. “I did play on a table with David Williams today, and he was so absurdly handsome I found it quite difficult to concentrate. Fortunately he was sitting two to my left, so I couldn’t really see his face at the time. I think being heads up with him across a table would make me start daydreaming. I’d start staring at him like an oil painting in a gallery.”

“But in terms of [being intimidated by someone on the basis of] skill, no. I’ve already played with the greatest players in the world and I respect them. I know what I’m doing, and if I found opponents intimidating I’d do something else.”

Played the best in the world she certainly has – one particular episode of Poker After Dark even sees her doggedly trying to run a bluff past Phil Ivey. At the time, Ivey lazily called off her bets with fourth pair, but Vicky still remains unfazed. She remembers the incident fondly. “What are you gonna do?! You’re on a table with Phil Ivey, you can’t just roll over!” she protests.

“Actually, I didn’t find Phil Ivey intimidating at all, because obviously he’s a phenomenon and a great player, but I think he’s quite shy. I found being on a TV table with him, I was a lot more confident about just chatting, really. I made it my goal to make him laugh. I thought, he seems to be such a serious man – my goal today is not necessarily to take all his chips, but it’s to make him laugh. As soon as I succeeded in that – I can’t remember what it was I said – I just thought hey, it’s been a pretty good day.”

Is jokey banter an important part of her game, or is she genuinely just having a good time? “You know, I’ve been accused of doing it to get reads, and it’s not true,” she says indignantly. “If I’m going to get a read on somebody, I’m going to get it whether they speak or not. If I get into conversation, it’s because I think that poker has given me the opportunity to travel the world and play with so many different kinds of people – men, women, old, young, of all nationalities. If I didn’t take that opportunity to talk to them and find out about their lives, and learn something from these different places, then it would be immoral. So I talk to them for that reason, not because I’m trying to take their money.”

She’s been the first female EPT winner, and now the first two-time winner. What mountain has she got her eye on conquering next? “I never really think like that,” she chuckles. “I just hope I enjoy the next game I play.”

Tags: Victoria Coren-Mitchell, interviews, Eve Goodman