Title: For Richer, For Poorer: A love affair with poker
Author: Victoria Coren
Published: Canongate, 2009

Let’s get this out of the way: I know absolutely nothing about poker. I’ve never played it, never learnt the rules. In fact, my only experience of poker is from that episode of Friends where the girls play the boys.

My understanding of poker is nearly as detailed as Phoebe’s.

I certainly wouldn’t have expected to pick up a memoir on the subject, but I found this browsing in my library’s e-book collection. I think Victoria Coren Mitchell is lovely*. In addition to being a poker player, she’s also a journalist/professionally funny person/TV presenter/deliverer of sarcastic comments in radio panel shows. I’ll therefore watch anything she’s in, and read anything she’s written (except the book about scripting and directing an adult film, which is perhaps too far outside my comfort zone). That’s my approach to this book, then. Poker idiot, Victoria Coren Mitchell fangirl.

Despite the fact that I know nothing about the topic, this was a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. Coren Mitchell wrote it after winning the European Poker Championships—the first woman ever to do so—along with a million dollars. It documents her relationship with poker from the first game (with her brother and his friends) through to her big win. It’s warm, funny, chatty, and clever. The whole book is written in the present tense, which gives it a conversational tone—it felt like a story being told by a genial, slightly tipsy stranger in a pub, or on a train.

It was also far more relatable than I could have expected. At the start of the book, she describes her introduction to the world of poker, during a school holiday:

“Giles’ kid sister—short, chubby, bookish, growing up slowly—putting her pocket money on the table and trying to fit in with the boys. I don’t want to flirt with them. I want to be them. Big, brash, confident 18-year-old boys.”

This is how I felt about boys the entire time I was a teenager. I wanted to be friends with them. I wanted to be them. When Coren Mitchell writes about a week of mixed lessons with the boys’ school, who kicked a football around and mucked about in class and were generally rambunctious, and how much she missed them after, it reminds me of the once-per-quarter “mixer” socials that my (all-girls) youth group used to have with our church’s boys’ youth group (I know, I know. It’s much better now). It was the only time I ever enjoyed youth group—I wasn’t required to have any firsthand knowledge of make-up or dresses or, well, boys—I just got to play duster hockey with violent abandon until someone inevitably made a pointed joke about being “unladylike”, and, abashed, I would remember I was meant to be dainty. I even went to a single-sex school, so my opportunities to hang out with boys were extremely limited (read: non-existent). The first chance I had, I hightailed it out of that school to one across town, where there were two hundred boys in the sixth form to twenty girls. People kept asking me in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink way if I was there for the guys. I absolutely was, but (mostly) not in the way they meant. I wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to be part of their club.

(When the head of sixth form asked me in the interview why I wanted to go to that school when I was at a perfectly good one already, I think I literally blurted out “I just really like boys!” He gave me a place anyway. I’m so glad my grades were good).**

What I’m trying to get at, by way of this rambling anecdote, is that Coren Mitchell renders characters and situations expertly, often in only a few lines. That’s probably easier in the world of poker, which seems to be peopled entirely with larger-than-life personalities, but it’s still impressive. She writes evocatively about smoky card rooms, tournaments on yachts, and seedy bars in Vegas. It’s a world that does not appeal to me in any way, but she manages to make it sound, if not attractive, at least fascinating. The friends she makes through gambling are often present in the narrative, and the warmth and strength of those relationships carries the memoir very well. Coren Mitchell even writes about this—that she is sometimes tempted to throw a game because she doesn’t want to take money from a friend. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would expect from a hyper-competitive professional poker player, and it’s just lovely.

Although the focus of the memoir is the excitement and tension associated with competitive poker, it does go to dark places occasionally. Coren Mitchell vividly describes a period of acute depression following a relationship breakdown. She is candid about spending all day in bed, crying; sitting in a friend’s office in pyjamas and a coat, crying; not really doing very much except crying, in fact. I’m glad she included it—the whole book has an air of frankness, even to the point of including her thought processes during her poker games. At the start and end of the book, Coren Mitchell describes a scene where her mid-thirties self, fresh off the back of the European Championship win, goes back and encourages her teenage self, who has just played her first ever game of poker. That sounds a little trite, but it’s done very nicely, and it has more resonance the second time round—you know all the highs and lows that have led to that point, and… okay, it sounds very trite. I promise it doesn’t read that way, though.

In the interest of full disclosure, there were moments when I would get very anxious on behalf of the players in the book. Reading about addiction always unsettles me, and there are certainly people depicted in the book who are extremely addicted to gambling. This is dismissed or even used as a source of humour. At one point, Coren Mitchell writes that she was gambling with money she’d borrowed from her brother and lied about, and I had to close the book for a while because I was so stressed, even knowing that it all came out okay. Another time, she is on the phone with her bank, desperately trying to increase her overdraft limit, so that she can play her way out of debt. Later, she tells a “funny” story about how someone needed desperate players for a last-minute game, so he went and announced the game at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. I wish that gambling addiction was either never mentioned in the book (and everything was light and fun), or treated more seriously. I’ve met at least two people who have become homeless because of gambling addictions—which is a high percentage, considering that the sum total of homeless people I’ve interacted with socially is honestly pretty small. She does talk, later on, about refusing to work with sites that host online blackjack or roulette, because there’s no skill involved there as there is with poker, so it’s exploiting the vulnerable. Poker is still gambling, though, and not everyone is as skilled as she is. I just wish it hadn’t been a punchline so often.

Overall, I really enjoyed this, though. Maybe it starts out feeling like an extended anecdote from a tipsy stranger, but on reflection, by the last page, it’s more like a story told by a friend. I read it in snatches between night shifts, when I couldn’t sleep, and it was excellent company. Coren Mitchell includes enough information about the different hands and plays that anyone could follow it. I have no idea if this would be patronising to an experienced player, but I imagine the passion with which she writes about the game would be sufficient compensation. Recommended.

*If I understand her tweets correctly, this is how she prefers to be credited–but this book was published before she was married, so I don’t actually know what the proper etiquette is regarding what I should call her in this review. I’m sure it’s fine.

**The end of this story is nice. After leaving school I lived for a year with about 30 people on a residential church training course. The guys called me their “honorary bro”. This was excellent, because it meant I got to join in their Star Wars marathons and eat kebabs with them. It was basically everything I’d ever wanted. They are still some of my favourite people in the world, and I am not hung up on wanting to be one of the lads any more, so everybody wins.