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A big hand for gambling nights

Social poker nights both at home or at style bars and clubs have been the fad trend of 2005 – and whisky has been the drink of choice. Rob Allanson reports
By Rob Allanson
Think of poker and it stirs up images of either suave casinos or dirty smokefilled back rooms: the tuxedoed Monte Carlo high life of James Bond, or seedy, salacious danger-tinged impromptu card schools.Both images of the game are as valid as each other as they have played integral parts in the development of the game, lending it both an edge of tension and glamour.People used to see it as a sordid, secret pastime, its devotees shadowy and its rules an enigma. The action would take place in smoky underground caverns and dimly lit backrooms among people who gargled whisky and carried guns – and that was just in the 1970s.However, this lawless period in poker’s development, that of spur boots, bottles of bourbon and Colt peacemakers holstered but ready for a quick draw, gave the game its most feared hand.The term ‘Dead Man’s Hand’, the notorious run of cards, refers to two black aces and two black eights – the cards Wild Bill Hickock was reputed to be holding when shot in the back during a poker game in South Dakota.There is the flipside of this wild image, with the James Bond-esque casino scene.Cocktails and green baize tables lined with throngs of beautiful women and double agents trying to outdo each other.It is from this glamorous image of the game that many poker terms, such as ‘ace in the hole’, ‘passing the buck’, ‘upping the ante’ and ‘poker-faced’ have passed into popular culture and language.The growing global market for poker passion, fuelled by people playing on the internet, was worth a massive £30 billion in 2004. And it’s not just cards: dice games are enjoying a comeback too, as part of a move towards social gambling.Poker is a surprisingly easy game to pick up, but to play well is another matter. It is really a generic term for a slew of card games such as Five-card Stud, Seven-card Stud, Draw, Omaha and Texas Hold’em, the game most casinos and serious players embrace.In all its forms, poker is a game in where players aim to secure the highest value of five cards and those with weaker hands can bluff those with stronger. The key to understanding it is to memorise the 10 different ranks of hands which are, in order of highest to lowest, Royal Flush, Straight Flush, Four of a Kind, Full House, Flush, Straight, Three of a Kind, Two Pair, One Pair and High Card.Now the game, like whisky, is enjoying a major revival and has become the latest amusement among the drinking public.Not a weekend goes past without decks of cards being separated, chips distributed dice thrown and the whisky tumblers filled, either at private parties or high profile events organised by some of the big whisky companies. Poker in particular is a game of genuine complexity, each hand being affected by the situation, the opponents, the timing, the chip stacks, oh and your nerves.As with bridge, chess or even distilling, you could spend your entire life learning the subtleties.For years, whisky, poker, and let’s not forget cigars, have been linked together as ‘something the bad boys or the moneyed folk did,’ but the fashion for televised poker and the freedom created by the internet has exploded this game into a massive worldwide hobby.Television has lifted the lid to a certain extent on how the game is played. Now there are all sorts of poker-themed sports shows and game shows that tell us the rules.With innovations such as glass tables, shows allow the novice to see what the masters are doing and give a glimpse in to the professionals’ card playing minds, but knowing the rules does not stop poker being baffling.The game is beginning to take the United Kingdom by storm, with more than one and a half million British people playing regularly. The biggest uptake has been in London and the South East among residents in their early 30s.Companies such as Chivas and William Grant regularly hold glamorous poker nights in London, and the lifestyle magazines are beginning to show the glitzy side of the game and whisky.One casino in Ayr has taken the link to the extreme, offering 800 different varieties of whisky and earning it a place in the Guinness Book of Records.Betting giant Ladbrokes, which runs one of Europe’s leading poker websites, cites the internet as one of the reasons why people are becoming more interested in the game.Ciaran O’Brien, Ladbrokes head of Public Relations, says that websites are allowing people to hone their skills before hitting the tables in pubs and clubs.He adds: “People can play for low cost and learn the intricacies of the game. It also lets people play without going into a casino where they might be worried they will be read by more experienced players.“This starts to feed peoples’ interest. We have a game called Poker Millions, where people play for low stakes and if they do well can go for a bigger prize.“We had one guy start on a free roll and then walked away with a million dollars.” Putting poker and whisky together has taken off so much that William Grant, owners of the trendy, triple malt whisky Monkey Shoulder, have brought in renowned poker aficionado and dealer Roy Houghton to devise its own version of the game – Monkey Poker.Houghton says that this is a combination of three-card brag and draw poker, a version of Texas Holdem with a twist.“The enjoyment of the game is heightened by a one card change during round two of the betting,” he says.“This adds an element of bluffing and real excitement to a fixed limit betting structure.“Monkey Poker is faster than more traditional styles of poker. Three threes – which signifies the three single malts that Monkey Shoulder is made from – is the top ranking hand.” The game was officially launched with a mammoth four-hour poker session attended by the bar industry in London, all dressed as gangsters – naturally.Guy Middleton, new William Grant brand development manager, says the snappy game was expected to take the bar world by storm this year.He adds: “So far we have had good feed back from the industry and next we plan to take it to the consumer.“We are trying to have a look with a wry smile at the more serious competition with players wearing shades and hats. This is a game which can take five minutes or five hours.” With the general public seemingly becoming more mature about gambling, especially with the proliferation of lottery games, the popular rise of poker and dice is very much a social thing.Middleton says: “I think that we have tried not to be too associated with the gambling end of things as the game is all chip related. There is either gambling for money or for the buzz and this is definitely a buzz.“The growth in gambling has been phenomenal and we wanted Monkey Shoulder to be associated with the game’s tension and atmosphere.“We are just starting out with this brand and we wanted to take some of the images associated with whisky and give them a contemporary twist.” Ladbroke’s Ciaran O’Brien agrees: “The British have always been a gambling nation, but now I think it is starting to be seen more as a leisure pursuit rather than a vice.“More than 20 years ago betting shops were very different places. They were designed and set up so as not to encourage people to hang around. Now we can offer lots more.“People have been attracted by the cool image of poker and there is an increasing element of players becoming more skilled, even those who just want to have a flutter on a Friday night.” Chivas Brothers has aimed their poker events firmly at the glamorous Rat Pack/Las Vegas lifestyle market.The company is hosting a series of events across London’s influential watering holes and mixing its premium blend, Chivas Regal, with the high rollers and cardsharks.Jim Long, Chivas international public relations manager, says that people are jumping at the opportunity to take part in the glamorous evenings.“Poker has emerged as a trend which is sweeping the country and we have found it a good way to give people the taste of an up market evening with a classic whisky,” he says.“Our evenings have moved away from the gambling side, and people play for prizes so the emphasis is on enjoyment.“We have held invitation nights in private members’ clubs and smart venues, and hopefully next year we will be taking the events to other bars and even internationally.“Part of the event is educational, basically how to play, and this is something that will stay with people, so hopefully the trend is here to stay.” Predictions are that social gambling will continue to rise in popularity. And if it does so, whisky is well positioned as the ideal card playing or dice rolling accompaniment, is perfectly placed to benefit.