It's not luck. It's not gambling. It's psychological warfare

Paul Maxfield has returned to his Stoke-on-Trent home from a Las Vegas casino almost £1 million richer after triumphing over 448 of the globe's toughest players to come second in the World Poker Tour Championship.
By Adam Lusher / The Sunday Telegraph

Paul Maxfield does not have the eyes that one might expect a true card sharp to possess. They are bright blue with not a hint of icy intensity. In fact, they look downright weary.

Bald and wearing slip-on shoes with silver buckles, this 48-year-old poker player looks almost out of place in our chic Kensington restaurant rendezvous, like a well-meaning, slightly shambolic uncle. There is nothing threatening about him - which is a misapprehension I was under for all of two minutes.

My impression changed the second that he eye-balled me, and, ever so casually, suggested: "Let's toss a coin for £100,000."

For a moment, as I mumbled evasions into my salad, I could imagine him leaning forward and raking in two big armfuls of chips.

"You see, you wouldn't do it, would you?" he says, grinning. "You're too conservative. Whether I would have gone for it or not is irrelevant. You were never going to risk calling my bluff, and I knew it. That's all I need to beat you.

"It's not about luck," he adds, with touching sympathy for the vanquished. "It's not about gambling. It's a game of strategy, like chess. It's psychological and emotional warfare. In poker, there are very few stupid winners."

As of last week, only the very unwary or very, very rich would consider Mr Maxfield a stupid loser. He has returned to his Stoke-on-Trent home from a Las Vegas casino almost £1 million the richer after triumphing over 448 of the globe's toughest players to come second in the World Poker Tour Championship. His $1.7 million prize money - he is waiting confidently for the exchange rate to move in a favourable direction before converting the dollars into what he hopes will be a nice round £1 million - is the most any Briton has ever won in a poker tournament. The divorced father of two, a factory worker's son, who left school at 15 with no qualifications and began his cards career at nine playing whist with his Grandma Florence, rose from nowhere to eighth in the overall World Poker Tour rankings.

It was all something of an accident, he confesses. On April 3 he left for Vegas with Steve Elliott, his brother-in-law, hoping to celebrate Mr Elliott's 40th birthday spending two weeks playing in the minor tournaments there.

Mr Maxfield paid $1,000 to enter a World Poker Tour qualifying tournament, hoping to come at least 27th in a field of about 500, win about $6,000 and pay for the holiday. He came first and won a ticket to the grand final itself, to be played in the Bellagio Casino, made famous by the gangster film Ocean's Eleven. The winner would walk away with $2.8 million.

Mr Maxfield and Mr Elliott decided it was worth buying a later flight home. Against all expectations, the English outsider stayed at the table, battling through games so tense the sweat dripped through his shirt and dropped on to the table "with a noise like an explosion".

Then came the final showdown, with Tuan Le, from Los Angeles, the world number one. Normally, such single combat lasts just 25 hands. Mr Maxfield took the leading player to 180 hands, and but for a "gut shot" - the card that makes an "inside straight" - he would have beaten him.

After nearly three hours of "psychological, emotional and physical warfare," they reached the hand that turned the game.

The three communal "flop" cards showing on the table were a six, a five and a three. Mr Maxfield was holding the five and six of diamonds, giving him two pairs (two fives and two sixes), a potentially devastating hand, if he could just trick Le into betting big against him.

He tried some timid, small-scale raises to lure Le in. It worked. Thinking the Englishman had nothing and would fold if bluffed hard enough, Le pushed all his chips into the centre.

Mr Maxfield thought the $2.8 million was his. "I flipped my cards over. He put his head in hands. He had an eight and a nine, nothing. As the last card was being dealt, he was picking up his bags and walking out.

"Then the last card came up. It was the only thing that could save him: the "gutshot seven". He had a straight: five, six, seven, eight, nine. "That card cost me $1.1 million."

At the end, he says, he suffered in all-too-real life the kind of devastation inflicted on his cinematic hero, Steve McQueen, The Cincinnati Kid, the young contender who, in the 1965 film, bet big and lost everything. "It was as if I was drowning. I was gasping for air. I was absolutely drained. If it had lasted another 15 minutes I would have just walked out anyway, because I couldn't stand it any longer. Le was crying. The warfare had been that intense."

This time, the money softened the blow. The only other time the cards brought such despair, he had no such consolation. He was 28, and just starting to win the minor games on his thrice-yearly Vegas holidays.

"I was a kid. I'd won $50,000 dollars and I thought I could take on Bobby Baldwin, the world champion. Fifteen hours later Bobby had all my money. He just said, 'thanks', and walked away from the table. He didn't even shake my hand. I was nothing to him, just another day's work."

Since then, the "kid" has learned a lot. Today, as he always does, he wears a shirt with a collar. It stops the pulse in his neck showing if he gets excited. He has a pair of dark glasses in his pocket. "I've spoken to a doctor about this. No one can stop their pupils dilating if they get excited at a good hand. It's the classic "tell". Some Americans take betablockers to stop the flow of adrenaline. I prefer sunglasses."

Nerves of steel are also vital. In a recent televised match, the players' pulse rates were measured. His opponents' pulse rates went to 120, even 150. Mr Maxfield stayed at a steady 85, little more than his resting heart rate.

"I don't consider myself a gambler," he says confidently. "Yes, there is luck involved, but I am in control of it. I don't have to put those chips down. Poker is 15 to 20 per cent luck, 50 to 60 per cent psychology.

"The rest is whether you can hold yourself together under severe pressure. Can you play a bluff from the heart, as if you really have got two aces? At the poker table, in his attitude to winning and losing, a man shows his true self."

Mr Maxfield no longer needs to subject himself to such gruelling public examination. He knows he has had his "life-changing" victory - and it could not have come at a better time.

Financially and socially, poker is moving out of smoky backrooms, into glitzy arena. Online poker has grown into a global industry with a £15 billion turnover. In Britain, probably the biggest market after America and Japan, about £4 million a day is bet on internet poker, and as many as 40 per cent of the players are women.

Mr Maxfield agrees wholeheartedly with Tom Parker Bowles, the poker-playing son of the Duchess of Cornwall, who has declared poker "the middle-class game of choice".

"All the bridge crowd are interested in it now," he says. "I play with doctors, lawyers. I have played against Sir Clive Sinclair."

Mr Maxfield has high hopes of getting the sponsorship that would pay for him to enter all the major tournaments and turn professional. He says that tournaments are now being televised so often that he will appear, possibly late at night or on cable, as often as four times a week in the next year.

He thinks that poker could soon follow snooker, shedding its gangster image to become something that the likes of Grandma Florence watch with avid enthusiasm instead of stern disapproval.

Granny-pleasing televisual extravagance, however, is just not Mr Maxfield's style. His winnings will be used to give him financial security, to pay off his mortgage, and possibly to buy "a Mercedes, not a Ferrari".

Until a sponsor materialises, he will continue running his pharmaceutical engineering business, and he celebrated success in Las Vegas not with champagne, but with "a couple of beers, a Chinese meal, and 14 hours' sleep".

He could walk away, but of course he won't. Indeed, he played, and lost, last night. Which explains the bleary eyes. For those who have yet to join the new, middle-class poker revolution, it is baffling. Why is victory in a card game so compelling? For a moment, Mr Maxfield seems lost for an explanation. Then the answer comes. "Pride. When you win, you know you have faced your opponents, and played better than them."

Suddenly, the eyes don't seem so weary. "The money?" he says. "The money is a way of keeping score."

The newly enriched Paul Maxfield, the man who would be the new grannies' favourite, picks up his jacket, flicks the collar over his pulse, and walks into the sunlight.

This article is a reprint from the Telegraph. To view the original article, click here.

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