POKER UNDER THE GUN
The St Peterburg Open, the biggest poker tournament in the history of Russia, saw a field from across the world travel to the edge of the Arctic Circle. Lush, Warren Lush, reports on guns, vodka and gun-toting Russians
Industrial strength vodka, gangsters with entourages, James Bond in a tuxedo and glamorous six foot tall women working as hostesses.
Welcome to poker Russian-style.
Even though you cannot think of casinos in Russia without the imagery of the Cold War, times have changed.
Russia boasts its own band of poker pros, most based in Moscow or St Petersburg, and the online revolution has opened up opportunities across the country.
Landing at the Golden Garden Casino in St Petersburg it would be fair to say you do not know what to expect.
In the casino itself you could feel the eyes of the security men penetrating you. I have never seen a Kalashnikov in a bouncerâs pocket and I donât know exactly what they were packing in their pockets but I can safely say it wasnât because they were pleased to see me.
As you entered you went through a double set of metal detectors and got the full airport security treatment.
It got me thinking about what might have happened within these walls in the pastâ¦
The players themselves, with a few exceptions, were unfamiliar to me and it would be fair to say that I hadnât brushed up on my Russian language skills in a while.
I soon realise that cok meant juice and that to hail a cab you had to wave your arm down at a random Lada driving down the street.
The event was the biggest poker tournament ever held in the country – the PartyPoker.com St Petersburg Open, a four day festival with over $500,000 (Â£265,000) in the prize fund and a main event with a total prize pool of over $250,000 (Â£130,000).
Apart from our group there were not a huge number of English speakers and those Russians who were helpful enough to give advice, gave guidance on how to speak to certain figures in the casino.
I was told to maintain eye contact at all time in conversation and not walk off if I was in dialogue with an important person and they moved on to talk to somebody else.
All this before a card had been dealtâ¦
The event featured 35 online qualifiers from all over the world who were playing in the main event along with a healthy Russian contingent.
There were a handful of representatives from the UK. Amongst them was 46 year-old Phil Dale, a cattle farmer from Stoke-on-Trent who jokingly admitted that he spends most of his days measuring the rectal temperatures of cows rather than playing poker and 61-year old May McGrellis and her husband Dennis, who was busy at the bar while watching his wife play.
Both Phil and May qualified for the event through freerolls and were playing in their first live event. May looked terrified half the time and I couldnât blame her.
There she was a lovely lady who had only ever played for $5 in her life sitting around a table with a posse of stern Russian men.
I told her that if she could play here she could play anywhere!
âI thought that most of the Russians played aggressively,â? said Jon Pallis, an IT consultant from Holland, âbut sometimes you just think that because they look like mean dudes.â?
Other online qualifiers included players from the Ukraine, who could speak no English at all and a German man, who was such a good lookalike of the Russian President that his nickname was Putin at work.
All of us were focused on the poker action but none of us could help people watching.
At reception there were two stunning tall Russian blonde girls who casino staff would randomly encourage customers to have their picture taken with.
It was rather strange. Sat in the corner I saw so many men crash and burn as they tried to make conversation with them.
The foreigners soon bit the dust when the poker started as well and the final table of the main event featured five Russians and one Brit, 39 year-old David Rudling from Essex. David, another IT consultant, won Â£50,000 in the UK show Poker Den last year and is one of those on the circuit that is flirting with going professional.
He went out in fourth but was pleased to get that far.
âI took a few bad beats early on when I had monster hands,â? he said.
One of the most well known players in attendance from outside Russia was World Series bracelet holder Mel Judah.
Most know Mel on the circuit for consistent wins year after year and a third place finish to the legendary late Stu Ungar at the World Series Main Event in 1997. He has played a lot in Russia and insists that in the future they could become a real superpower in the game.
âPoker has come on leaps and bounds. I can see the Russian players becoming a real threat in the future just like Scandinavia is now. At the moment a lot of the players donât have the experience but that will come.â?
One of those picked by many before the tournament even started as a future great was 27-year-old Peter Vlasenko from Moscow. Peter â dubbed Peter the Great, Russiaâs new Poker Tsar – was the eventual winner of the tournament, scooping $84,000.
He has a big online fan club where he only plays in high stakes limit games. He was heads-up on the final table with Mark Vronskiy, an aggressive professional player from St Petersburg. Some thought Peterâs inexperience in live games would go against him but his pair of eights held up against Markâs pocket threes.
With the action over it was time to find a TV to watch soccer’s Championsâ League Final. Even though I couldnât understand a word of what Russiaâs Clive Tyldesley was saying you could tell the writing was on the wall for Arsenal in the second half. After that it was time for a cash game with three guys called Sergey and a couple of American whiz kids. Then it was back to the hotel with a security escort and a look at Russian TV.
At least three channels featured their most famous recent music export Tatu â fake lesbians manufactured by an ambitious manager.
Their biggest hit was âAll The Things She Said.â?
Most of us non-Russian poker players on the trip wish they knew what was being said in the casino.