Thursday, February 03, 2022


Poker in the Strand by John Molyneux ----- This is another old article posted for reference. It it is based on my experience as a poker player in London in the mid-sixties (when I was already a rebel but before I became a socialist). It was originally published as a contribution to ab anthology 'Players: conmen, hustlers, gamblers and scam artists', edited by Stephen hyde and Geno Zanetti, Thunders Mouth Press, New York, 2002. One of the attractions of this anthology was that contained contributions from the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, Blaise Pascal, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Brecht and Saul Bellow. So on this one occasion I found myself published alongside the giant's of world literature. ----- Of course, it's all different now. For a start, nowadays there are always beggars and rough sleepers in the doorways in that part of The Strand. In those days, in the mid-sixties, I had to go to New York, to the Bowery, to see such things and very shocking it was too. In those days of The Beatles and Mary Quant there was 'something in the air' in swinging London but this is not an exercise in nostalgia for that mythologised golden age, this is an exercise in nostalgia for a particular place, a particular institution, in the London of that time, which existed at a much lower, more subterranean level of sixties society. Nor is there now any visible trace of this institution - I checked it out just the other day. The building is still there, of course; they haven't knocked down and rebuilt The Strand but from the street, there's no sign that En Passant ever existed - well, there wouldn't be, would there? But if you had passed that way when I first visited in 1965 and were not in the know, you would also have seen nothing. I first found my way there with a chess-playing friend when I was sixteen by tagging along with (more accurately trailing along after) the chess master, Bob Wade, and some prodigious young chess players after a London chess tournament. I was still at school, just starting to find my way round London by night and had very little idea where I was going, except that it was in a vague way notorious. Anyway, we followed Wade and his disciples to a shop in The Strand, nearly opposite The Savoy and just in between The Adelphi and Vaudeville theatres. The shop sold off property lost on London Transport and had a U-shaped glass front for the display of its wares. The shop entrance set back in the center was, obviously, closed but just before the entrance, on the right hand side, was an unmarked door which, when tried, turned out to be open (permanently as I discovered later). Behind the door was a dingy bare wooden staircase, which led our band to the first floor above the shop. This turned out to be a large, minimally decorated room devoid of people or signs of life, except for several long tables with chairs and benches and, on the tables, a few chess sets. Wade and his group sat at one table, my friend and I at another. They chatted and, as serious chess players do, started to set up positions and analyse them. We, feeling very awkward, half tried to eavesdrop on their conversation and half played our own game. Soon, however, we became aware of sounds, voices, faint but quite animated, coming from above and we saw there was another staircase leading upwards. After about twenty minutes a rather nondescript man came up the stairs from the street, passed through our room without a word and disappeared upstairs to the next floor. Fifteen minutes after that, another nondescript but to us rather tough-looking guy came down the stairs and left, again without a word. No one from the Wade group made any move towards going upstairs so neither did we. After an hour or so they left and we followed with our tails between our legs. When I came back, now three months older and three months bolder and just turned 17, with my friend from school, Chris Carvell (who went on to become a croupier at The Golden Nugget), we climbed the second set of stairs to the En Passant proper. The En Passant was a poker club, hiding behind the very tiniest fig leaf of a chess club. Actually, this is not quite true. It was really a poker game, not a club. There was nothing one could join, no membership fee or list, no records of any kind, no entrance fee, no reception or receptionist, no doormen, no security - though the people who went there, some of them at least, were more than capable of dealing with any trouble that might present itself and capable, if they chose, of creating more trouble than any doorman or security could handle. There was just a game of poker, occasionally two games - seven or eight men sitting round a table playing cards permanently. Every now and then a player would get up and go to be replaced by someone waiting or there would be a vacant seat till the next punter arrived but the game would go on. In its heyday the poker game at the En Passant ran continuously 24 hours round the clock, one endless game of cards without beginning or end. It was also, to my knowledge, the hardest game in London at that time and by hardest, I mean the one with the highest average level of skill in which it was most difficult to be a regular winner. In every society at given points in time, there exist unofficial places, hidden from the overwhelming majority, where intriguing social interactions take place. Such were the 'buffet flats' frequented by the likes of Bessie Smith on the black music scene in the US in the twenties, or the extra-legal raves in the 1987 'summer of love' or the squatter organized events in Hackney today. Such was the En Passant. These places are either completely unknown to the mainstream society or else radically different in reality to whatever vague public image they might have developed. The danger is that if they are not recorded, all knowledge of their existence may be lost. It may be true that 'one picture is worth a thousand words' and one may wish that Brassai could have been transported from Paris in the thirties to record the scene at the En Passant but he wasn't, so now the only recourse is to words based on memories. I have already given some impression of the En Passant's grim physical appearance. Let me add that the second floor, the scene of the action, resembled the first in its barren dinginess. It may have been above street level rather than below it but the En Passant was a dive of the first water. With no decor or decoration worth mentioning, lighting that was adequate but on the dim side and furniture consisting only of the main card table, a couple of spares and a scattering of chairs, this was minimalism resembling that of a Carl Andre brick sculpture. In addition, there was a kitchen-cum-office, whence tea and not much else was served - no alcohol, occasionally a sandwich. There must have been a toilet and washroom - punters spent days and nights there - but I don't remember them. They could not have been very salubrious. Looking back, however, I have no doubt that this very minimalism, this absence of distractions, the 'purist' focus on the main thing, men playing poker, was one of the En Passant's attractions. Regarding the origins and history of the En Passant, I can say very little.I encountered the place as an established fact in circumstances in which the last thing on my mind was historical research or enquiring about the past and there is no book to look things·up in. All I know is the hearsay I picked up on the poker scene, which amounts to this: the En Passant was set up and opened, l don't know when, as a bona fide chess and card club (hence its name taken from the chess move, en passant) by an emigre Russian entrepreneur known as Boris Watson. Boris, whom I played poker with and therefore got to know in the extremely limited sense one did get to know people in the poker world, closely resembled in girth, facial appearance and manner, the actor Sidney Greenstreet, who played the fat man in The Maltese Falcon. For Boris, the En Passant was one of three related business ventures, the others being The Mandrake, a drinking club in Meard Street in Soho and The Prompt Corner, a chess cafe at the corner of Pond Street and South End Green near Hampstead Heath. The Mandrake closed and The Prompt Corner was sold to a Greek Cypriot called Mr Kanou (who appeared to dislike the chess players but nevertheless tolerated them with the result that The Prompt remained an interesting place for some years). The En Passant also failed but in a peculiar way. Boris's problem was that he was a very bad but completely compulsive poker player. Over a period of time he lost so much money in his own game that he had to hand over control of the 'club' to two of the most regular and successful players, who then paid him a modest weekly rent. It was these two, Ted Iles and Colin Kennedy, who ran the game at the En Passant during all my time there. Their method was to work alternate twelve-hour shifts, organizing and running the game, playing in it and cutting the pot - taking sixpence or a shilling for the house out of every pound bet - at the same time. They were an unlikely partnership. Ted, who was clearly the dominant one of the two, was a large, thick set man, supremely solid rather than fat, in, probably, his late thirties or early forties. (I do not know his exact age or that of anyone else featured here and I don't think seventeen year olds are good at estimating the ages of their elders). He was an ex-policeman - rumour had it that he had been kicked out of the cops in disgrace following some involvement with a teenage runaway girl - but he also possessed a powerful intelligence having been a county standard chess and bridge player. Everything about Ted Iles exuded strength, hardness and there was something else, a hint of real malevolence, a touch of evil just below the surface. Colin Kennedy was about ten years younger, a gangly, rather shy, somewhat intellectual gay Irishman. By what route he arrived at the En Passant I do not know but he was something of an oddity in that environment. Although he was cool and competent in his management of the poker game, he can1e over as weak in comparison to the intimidating Ted. This was certainly Ted's view. "My partner is a wanker", he would say from time to time. Despite this, Colin Kennedy wasa formidable poker player. There are many kinds of poker and they are played with a wide variety of rules and arrangements in different venues, clubs and parts of the world. Classic 'Draw Poker', in which each player is dealt five cards face down and then draws, i.e. exchanges one, two, three or four cards to try to improve his hand, is the form of the game most often featured in films and on TV, usually as a plot device-but in my experience it is hardly ever played, at least in clubs as opposed to private games. The same is true of 'pure' Five Card Stud - one card dealt face down, one face up, followed by three up cards with a round of betting after each - probably because, for all the legends about 'Aces-in-the-Hole' and so on, the vast majority of hands are very low, less than one pair and this is not conducive to exciting play or big pots. Today the dominant form of poker is 'Texas Hold'em' imported from Las Vegas; in the sixties it was generally Five Card Stud stripped deck, that is with cards below the seven removed, which greatly increases the size of the average hand. At The Strand, however, the main game was Seven Card Stud - two down cards and one up card, followed by three more up cards and a final down card with five rounds of betting in all. In my opinion, Seven Card is the best, most interesting and most demanding form of poker. The five rounds of betting allow for sustained and subtle bluffing and remarkable feats of card reading (working out an opponent's hand) and from time·to time, produce a buildup to a real dramatic showdown in which everything depends on the players' correct judgement on whether to call, pass or raise. All poker is a combination of luck and skill: luck in what cards you are dealt, skill in how you bet them. In the long run, therefore, poker is a game of skill like bridge or chess because in the long run the luck evens out. But the fact that luck plays a big part in the short run and is the main factor determining who wins each hand is what makes poker attractive to the gambler in a way that chess is not. The weak player can always tell himself he has a chance of beating even the strongest professional and, in the short run, he does have such a chance. At the same time the weak player can always tell himself, and anyone else, that the reason he lost was because he was unlucky. But the balance of luck and skill is not the same in all kinds of poker. Texas Hold'em with its high antes, heavy betting on the first two cards and its flop of three cards at once is a version that increases the element of luck. Seven Card Stud is a version that maximizes the element of skill. This was especially true of the way the game was played at the En Passant. The ante put in by the dealer and the first bet from the player showing the highest card, were very low, usually only one shilling, occasionally half a crown in a 'big' game. After that, betting was pot limit, i.e. if there was three shillings (or three pounds) in the pot, player A could bet up to three shillings (or three pounds), then player B could call that bet and raise up to nine shillings (or nine pounds). This meant that it was possible to play very tight, sitting and waiting patiently for a very good initial hand, without losing too much in antes (high antes work against this strategy). However, once a pot got going, the size of the bets could escalate rapidly, especially in the later stages. A hand that began with bets of a few shillings could end in bets of thirty, fifty or even hundreds of pounds if there. were raises and re-raises. This put a very high premium on precise judgement in certain highly pressured situations. After Seven Card Stud, the next most popular game at The Strand was Dealer's Choice. In this, the dealer got to choose which version of poker would be played for that round (eight hands if there were seven players). Dealer's Choice was poker for aficionados. In fact, unless you were quite experienced, or very sharp, you would not be able to understand how to play the games at all, never mind how to play them well enough to cope with the sharks at the En Passant. Players chose the most weird and .won­ derful versions of poker imaginable and often invented new forms on the spot. Characteristic features of these Dealer's Choice games were: proliferating wild cards - not just deuces wild but leaners (adjacent cards of the same suit, 9-10 of Hearts, A-2 of Clubs etc) or jumpers (next but one cards of same suit, 6-8-10 of Spades etc) or pairs (so that Kings up, KK55, equaled four kings); hi-lo games where the pot was divided between the highest and the lowest hand; multiple rounds of betting with complex card exchanges. A typical game, therefore, might be announced by the dealer as follows, "We'll play ... Seven Card hi-lo, leaners wild, changes on the third, fifth and last cards, dealer sees the changes, simultaneous declaration". Sometimes the cards lost their usual values and were measured by their point count or some strange combination of the two, as in Seven Card Stud, eight point count and the best hand, three exchanges. In this, only cards up to eight counted for the point count side of the pot while everything counted for the best hand side. In this game what you wanted was something like 88877 - very strong for both point count and best hand. What you didn't want was AAAJ10 or KKQQ4 - no use for the point count and probably beaten for best hand. One key feature of Dealer's Choice was that players delighted in inventing games with tricky rules that gave an advantage to the dealer; an extreme example of this was 'the Tim Swindle', invented by my friend Tim, the complexities of which I shall not attempt to describe, save to say that if you understood how the Tim Swindle worked, you simply didn't play, no matter how good your cards, unless you were the dealer when you played whatever you had. Despite its giveaway name, there were many occasions on which the Tim Swindle proved an effective way of relieving mugs of their cash. Other aspects of poker at The Strand also contributed to the game's particular atmosphere. There was the fact that it was illegal, which created an attractive frisson of danger for the middle class elements in the clientele. Legal poker was available in London at this time, at established casinos, such as Crockford's or the Victoria Sporting Club but these games, initially, were organized in a very genteel way with low stakes and restricted betting limits. They had none of the drama and tension of a pot limit game. The illicit status of the En Passant game, however, raised an interesting question. How was it possible for an illegal poker game to operate undisturbed twenty four hours a day on one of central London's main thoroughfares without even a lock or a doorman on the door? I don't know for certain but I can think of only one plausible explanation: the cops were being paid off, which, given what we know about the Met in the sixties is hardly surprising. Then there was the absence of any croupiers or dealers, the players dealing for themselves and finally, the use of actual cash instead of chips. These features, which if not absolutely unique, were at least pretty unusual, both made for a heightened feeling of gritty realism, like the use of black and white in classic film noir. In the end, however, it was not the minimalist decor or the kind of poker, or the cash pots or any of these things that made the En Passant what it was. It was the people who went to play there. The majority of these fell into three main categories: a criminal, small gangster element from London's East and West Ends; a middle class intellectual/professional element - lawyers, journalists and the like - and the professional poker players. Each of these groups brought its own particular 'flavour' to The Strand but it was the interaction between them that was the crucial factor in the game's distinctive atmosphere. The small gangster types all had Runyonesque nicknames: Johnny the Builder, Chills Tony, Little Art, Jumbo, Scouse Billy, Paddy George, Chrissy Doobie, Brian the Burglar and such like. By and large, these were hard men, some with that keen, hunted look in their eyes that, in my experience, goes with having been in prison. Johnny the Builder wasa small wiry man, middle aged going on old, with a harsh rasping voice that testified to chain smoking and could hardly utter a sentence without several expletives. "Fucking cards. I ain't seen a fucking pair since bloody eight o'clock". That sort of thing. Chills Tony, whose nickname certainly had the desired effect on me, was probably in his late twenties. He was lean, muscled and had a fearsome reputation. One day a newcomer to the scene, whose name I forget, got into a dispute with Chills over the table. He was a young man, early twenties, tall and broad shouldered. Either he fancied his chances or just got carried away but he wagged his finger in Tony's face, "Don't do that, son", said one of the older hands sitting next to the youngster. "He'll hit you over the head with an iron bar!" And such was the matter of fact realism of this helpful advice, that the young man realized instantly that he was making a mistake and the matter was sorted. However, the enormous Jumbo, whose soubriquet did not deceive, once told me that in his view, Chills Tony was not the hardest man at The Strand, the honour belonged to Little Art. "If I had to I could just about handle Tony", said Jumbo (I did not really believe this ­ Jumbo was too nice), "but Little Art ... no way!" Little Art was, or had been, a stunt man on one of the first Bond films, it was said - and Little Art's strength, Jumbo explained, lay in his exceptional speed. Interestingly, physical violence was a rarity at the poker table, despite the presence of these potentially violent men. I think the psychological aggression of the game itself worked as a kind of sublimation. In all my poker-playing days I only once saw an actual serious blow struck at or around the table. That was by Vivian, the Irish queer basher, in a dispute over a £5 bet and happened not at The Strand but at The Primrose Club in Belsize Park, an altogether safer place. 'Vivian 'earned' his living by picking up gay men (no one used this term yet), taking them to The Strand Palace Hotel or somewhere similar, bashing them and robbing them. I was told that he once turned up to play at the En Passant with notes covered in fresh blood. But Vivian was an outsider, a pariah even among the villains. On one occasion I found myself obliged to share a cab with him. He complained bitterly of the coldness of the English. "No one seems to want to be friends", he said. That this might be related to his 'profession' did not seem to occur to him. Violence away from the table was a different matter. Paddy George, for instance, was disfigured by a large and hideous scar from the corner of his mouth to his ear - clearly the product of some knife or razor attack. George hung out with the terse and hard-bitten Scouse Billy. One day George and Billy disappeared from the scene. The word was that they were on the run. Apparently some doorman had tried to deny them entry to a late-night drinking club. With the aid of a third accomplice, they had captured the doorman, dragged him into the back of a car, cut up his face with a broken bottle and thrown him out of the car at speed. I never saw either of them again, except for one night on Greek Street I saw Scouse crossing the road towards me. "Hi Billy", I said, without thinking. He swept past me without a word and dodged into an entrance. The most attractive personality among the viilains, to me at any rate, was Brian the Burglar. Brian was thirtyish, tall, good looking and generally charming. In a delicious irony, his real surname was Law. His nickname, however, was a simple statement of fact; he was a professional thief, a housebreaker. His method of earning a living was to go to an apartment block in a fairly well heeled area at an appropriate time - say 2pm when people were likely to be out - ring the doorbell and, on receiving no reply, effect an entry by means of a piece of plastic, like a credit card. He would then help himself to whatever cash, jewellery or other portable valuables were lying around and beat a hasty retreat. Brian's career was assisted by the unstated policy of the Metropolitan Police at that time (I don't know if it is still the same today) not to investigate house break-ins, on account of their great frequency. This meant that so long as he did not get caught in the act, he was in the clear, barring any accidents such as getting stopped and searched in a car full of stolen goods. Despite this 'indulgence', Brian, when I met him, had already been inside a couple of times and was therefore looking at a long stretch should he be convicted again. In his personal dealings I found Brian both affable and genuinely kind. For some reason he took a liking to me and for a time, took me under his wing, which greatly assisted my transition from isolated callow youth to member of the rather louche poker scene. On occasion, after an all-night poker session, we would drive out at dawn to have breakfast at London Airport. I remember it then as deserted, eerie and vaguely exciting - now it has changed beyond recognition. The thing with Brian was that you felt that if you ever really needed help, he would go the distance for you and this I tried to reciprocate. As poker players, the villains - with the exception of Jumbo who was definitely 'loose' and weak - were generally quite good. They were sharp, intelligent, nobody's fools and usually had plenty of bottle at the table. They were not the best however. I think this was because for them, poker was a leisure, not a work activity. They had other means of earning their living and therefore did not play with the absolute intensity and 'commitment' necessary to be a consistent winner, a real professional. The middle-class element brought an essential ingredient to the En Passant: its money. Every poker game needs its quota of mugs or losers to supply the lubricant to keep its wheels turning smoothly. If the proportion of pots and tight players in a game gets too high, the game dries up and becomes no good to anyone. This was especially true of a game like The Strand where the House was cutting the pot. By the standards of many clubs and private games these were quite good players but by the standards of The Strand they were a weak link, inferior to both the villains and the pro-gamblers. Typical of the middle class crowd were men like the young lawyer, Jeff Abrahams, Stewart Reuben (who was part of the chess - poker crossover and who is still around as an organizer of chess events), Charlie Gale and the journalists, Jeremy Hornsby and David Spanier. Charlie Gale lived with and off his parents in Hampstead Garden Suburb. He had been to Oxford but he preferred ducking and diving to the disciplines of a proper job or career. I knew Charlie from the Prompt Corner and it was partly through me that he got involved in poker. Often we would drive to games together in his tiny Fiat car. An interesting case was David Spanier. He was quite a prestigious journalist at The Times, who won some kind of European Journalist of the Year award for his reporting on the Common Market and who played in the 'famous' private game with Al Alvarez and Anthony Holden - famous because they were media people who publicized their own exploits. In later years, Spanier presented himself as a poker 'expert', writing a book, making the odd TV appearance etc. but at The Strand he was a mug. The news that 'David of The Times' was on his way would always raise spirits at the table since it meant that a welcome injection of cash was coming. On one occasion, I fleeced Spanier in a two-handed game of Dealer's Choice with the crude device of repeatedly choosing the Tim Swindle. David, for all his intellectual status, seemed unable to work out the fairly obvious catch. These middle class characters were, of course, drawn by the frisson of danger provided by The Strand's low life clientele but they had to pay for their thrills at the table. From among this group there was one individual who stood out, at least from my point of view, and who is the only person from those days I'm still in touch with. This was Maurice Sumray. When I first saw Maurice at the En Passant he was a small unshaven man in his mid-forties, scruffily dressed and wearing a floppy old cordouroy hat, which made him look a down and out. "Ask him for a lift home", said Ted Iles one morning, with a psychological insight that was in a way typical of this unpleasant man. "He may look like a tramp but he has on E-type Jag parked downstairs." So I did and he agreed and this proved the start of our friendship. Maurice was a Jewish artist who had set aside his art to make a pile of money with an engraving business. At this point in time, he was busy dissipating his fortune on wine, women and poker. He had a beautiful house in Muswell Hill with an extraordinary private art collection, including a small original Picasso(!) and other great 20th century originals. His wife, Pat, was also stunningly beautiful - in an artistic bohemian not bimboish or show business way - but there was evident strain and pain in the relationship, maybe because of Maurice's gambling and philandering. Superficially, Maurice could be cocky, cheeky, arrogant, aggressive and humorous by turns. There was always a inkle in his eye, which could be exceptionally charming to women and men alike and which is still there now that he is eighty. But the real thing about Maurice was that he had been, was, a serious artist, a real painter. He had exhibited at the Whitechapel and Gimpel Fils galleries and been described by Wyndham Lewis as one of 'the best artists in England' and knew Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and such. He therefore understood all too well the high calling of being a real artist and beneath his bluff, gruff exterior, there was a deep sadness and profound human sympathy with the downtrodden, which showed itself in his work and his half denied left wing politics (he remembered Mosley and the Battle of Cable St in the East End) and his choice of company. Like me, Maurice also played chess at the Prompt Corner and was close friends with Brian the Burglar. The professional poker players were the kings of the En Passantand, at the same time, its humble servants and its lowly parasites. They were, of course, few in number. Apart from Ted Iles and Colin Kennedy there were only three real pros: Ray 'Doc' Joseph, Paddy Joe and Irish John Turner. Ray Joseph was a tall, thin young man in his late twenties, with a long face and long bony fingers, which handled the cards with elegant precision. Ray had once been a student at the nearby London School of Economics but had abandoned his studies for poker. He was the extreme example of the 'scientific' player. Someone who knew all the odds and stuck strictly to them - the tightest man at the table who would wait hours for a decent hand if necessary. They called him 'the Doc' in honour of Dr. Death, the wrestler who strangled his opponents into submission. (To have someone 'strangled' is poker parlance for having a hand so strong that the other player(s) cannot possible beat it. In stud, this is not uncommon e.g. in Five Card Stud a pair of Aces has the whole table strangled if no pair is showing and there is no possible straight or flush). Away from the game, Doc was an amiable fellow but he could be tetchy at the table, especially if things were not going well. He was married with children and found playing for a livinga strain. "I have to clear two grand a year before I start to live," he would say, referring to his domestic commitments. Certainly Doc was tight but he was also a very skillful subtle player, a good 'reader' of the cards and master of the unexpected raise and deceptive bet or check. I once asked Ray if his reputation for caution didn't make it difficult for him to get paid when he did have a hand. "Yeah," he said, "but there are compensations." "How do you mean?"I asked. "Well, you don't get people trying to bluff Jumbo out of a full house, do you!" The Doc could sit quietly, almost unnoticed, in a game for many hours but at the end of the night he was usually ahead. Sometimes he would go for a drink with other players, especially the pros but usually he would go home to his family in Blackheath. When I first met them, John Turner and Paddy Joe were mates, two young Irishmen who had come over on the boat together when they were sixteen and graduated from snooker hustlers to poker pros. By the time I left the scenea few years later, their ways had parted as John's star rose and Joe's declined. Paddy Joe was small, quiet of voice but intense in his feelings and concentration. He lived a life totally devoted to and within the gambling world, moving from poker game to roulette wheel to dice table and always back to poker again. Ray Joseph once said of Joe, "Sometimes he plays like a God and sometimes like a complete mug". His passion for the game enabled him to play very tight for a long time and then go absolutely fearlessly for a really big pot. Then the fearlessness could suddenly turn into reckless self-destructiveness. One night in a big five card stripped deck game, not at The Strand, Joe patiently built his last five pounds into £450. He then put the lot - a small fortune in those days - in a single bet on a pair of Queens against a showing Ten, only to be called and outdrawn with a middle pin straight on the last card. When Joe was doing well he would rent a nice flat, buy himself a good suit and watch ­ these were the limits of his ambition. When he was broke he would give up the flat for a bedsit, pawn the watch and suit and hustle to get back in the big time. Some pro players, Ted Iles for example and I was like this too, are not really gamblers; they play a game of skill for money and have no interest in betting for its own sake. Joe was a fantastically good poker player but he was also a mad compulsive gambler. This was probably his downfall. Occasionally Joe would interrupt his gambling binges to take in a movie. The last time I saw him he had been entranced by the Woodstock film and had started smoking dope. John Turner was the most fearsome and most feared player on our circuit. He was probably the best poker player in London at the time and certainly the best I saw. Medium to short, stockily built, barrel chested, he was the Diego Maradonna of the poker table with a personality to match. Ted Iles once said of him that John Turner managed to play more cards, drink more booze and sleep with more women than anyone else he knew. At the table, John Turner was all energy and action. From the moment he sat down he sought and usually achieved a personal domination of the game. His method was to unleash a flurry of small bets and raises combined with a stream of mildly aggressive banter, in such a way as to make himself the center of attention. This simultaneously created the illusion - and it was an illusion - that he was basically a loose player and aroused the envy of almost every other player in the game. Unlike Ted, there was nothing seriously malicious in John Turner but he used his pugnacious personality to provoke other players to engage with him. When you played with John Turner you felt harried, got at and personally challenged so that you put your money in the middle when you shouldn't and whenever that money was substantial, you could be sure that Turner would produce the goods. This was only possible because John was a superb 'reader' of both cards and people. No player I ever saw made fewer mistakes, fewer errors of judgement in betting, calling and passing in crit­ ical situations. If Turner had a weakness, it was his heavy drinking but even this he could turn to his advantage. He would turn up at the table obviously the worse for wear and spread some easy money around. Then he would sober up rapidly and catch people on the rebound who thought he was still drunk. The interesting thing about John was that despite his aggressive, provocative personality and his way of getting under everyone's skin and making them play badly, almost no one bore a grudge against him or actually disliked him. On the contrary, he was generally popular, especially with the villains, who aamired his 'bottle'. What happened to him later I've no idea, but I fear that in the long run, the drinking must have taken its toll. Naturally, not everyone at The Strand fitted into my three main types. There was, for example, Tony Tea - a rather camp youngish man, employed by Ted to make the tea. Whenever Tony could scrape together enough from his doubtless meager wages, he would chance his arm at the table - not very successfully. From time to time Tony would appear with the odd younger lad in tow, who would also do a stint in the kitchen. It was clear from the odd comment he made that Ted lies had a certain 'interest' in these young gay men but Ted was overtly straight and my guess is that his interest was 'psychological' rather than directly sexual. Another gay guy on the En Passant scene for a time was Johnny Mew. Johnny was a somewhat rough looking, working class man in his forties, who, I was told, had had a rich sugar daddy. The sugar daddy had died and left Johnny a very considerable sum - maybe £30,000 or something like that. But Johnny was a total poker addict and the world's worst player. While he had money, Ted courted him, reserved him a seat at the table, even allowed him to stay in his flat and drip fed him credit £10 at a time. In this way, Johnny Mew, who always lost, contributed £100 or more a night to the En Passant game and the house cut until his inheritance was all gone and Ted discarded him like a used rag. So far I have spoken only of men. Obviously in the mid sixties, the poker scene as a whole and The Strand especially, was overwhelmingly male but there were a few women players. Two that I remember were Diane and Edna. Diane, I hardly knew at all but Jumbo claimed to have had an affair with her and Brian the Burglar, from the manner of his greeting of her that I saw on one occasion, may also have had some kind of relationship with her. She was, as far as I can recall, not a bad player. Edna, I came to know very well. She was half Italian, half Irish, swarthy of complexion, plump and in her forties. Edna was sort of half professional. On the one hand, she was a very regular player who was certainly not a mug and who clearly lacked the source of income to sustain a losing poker habit. On the other hand, she clearly was not in the same league as the Doc or John Turner. Edna played sometimes at The Strand and could just about survive there but, generally, she preferred the gentler game at The Primrose, which anyway was nearer to her Kilburn home. Both on and off the table, Edna was kind and friendly to me in a mildly maternal way. One aspect of The Strand of which I am more aware today than I was at the time, was its 'whiteness.' The poker scene as a whole was very cos mopolitan. A number of the clubs I used, including The Primrose and the Double One, were run by Asians and frequented by many Indian, Pakistani and Chinese players. There was also substantial participation from the Greek community but none of this was true of the En Passant, which remained almost exclusively white (though, as we have seen, very Jewish). Not, I hasten to add, that there was a colour bar. As far as I can recall, no one of any description was barred from The Strand, especially if they had money to lose but it seems it was just not a place black and Asian people felt drawn to. Finally,I should say something about my own position within this scene. My main distinguishing feature was my youth. At seventeen, just out of school, as I was by some distance the youngest person around and as a result they called me Schoolboy John. By education and background, I was closest to the middle class professional/intellectual element but I was a rebel and tended to despise the respectable bourgeois types (except the bohemian Maurice). Also I had little or no money so I had to play to win like the real pros. A feat I managed in a small way most, if not all, of the time. Luckily for me I was not a gambler - games of chance held no interest for me - or an addict and when the time came for me to move on in my life,I was able to give up poker without difficulty. Up to this point, I have not offered up what dominates most depictions of poker on the page and the screen, namely the tall poker tale or the description of the dramatic pot. This has been intended as a deliberate corrective to the way poker is usually represented. Mostly poker features in stories as a plot device, a set piece scene focusing on a single hand, leading to a gunfight or a confrontation between hero and villain. Typically, all we see is a huge pot in which the guy required by the storyline to be the winner has four Aces against the predetermined loser's four Kings, or the dramatic climax in which The Man does or does not have the Jack of Diamonds in the hole to make a straight flush. Real poker is not like that. Ninety, no ninety nine percent of the time, it is a matter of routine pots in which Two Pair beats a pair of Kings or a Straight outdraws a pair of Aces and winning at poker is basically a question of trying to ensure that when you have the Two Pair against the pair of Kings, you win more money than you lose when the hands are reversed. This is why poker is a boring game unless it is played for stakes that are high enough to hurt if you lose. You've got to really care that you have a pair of Queens and your opponent only has Jacks or Tens and you have to be very pleased that you managed to pass your Aces Up when you read the other guy for Three Fours. Only the money makes you that. Nevertheless, there were some incidents that stood out and which I can still remember more than thirty years later. One of these involved Maurice Sumray and Ray Joseph. It was Seven Card Stud and on the fourth card, Maurice, holding a pair of Aces (showing A6 with A4 in the hole) bet the pot. The Doc, showing Q10, raised just below the maximum but strong bet. Maurice, mistakenly, called - unless it was an out and out bluff, which was unlikely, Ray would never raise in that situation unless he could beat the possible Aces. On card five, Maurice hit a four making Aces Up and the Doc drew an irrelevant seven. Maurice checked. The Doc paused, checked his hole cards, pondered some more and eventually said, "I don't believe you've got Aces Up!" He then bet the pot. The remark riled Maurice. "Is he allowed to make comments like that?" he said. "At Crockfords they'd call that 'cheating"'. Colin Kennedy, who was in charge, shrugged his shoulders. "This is not Crockfords", he said. "Right, I call", said Maurice, his dander up. On the sixth card neither player improved and Maurice checked again. The Doc bet the pot. As he leant forward to place the money in the middle, Maurice grabbed him by the wrist and looking straight in his eyes, said, "Don't worry, I'm staying to the end, whatever you bet. But if you've got the Three Queens I think you've got, you'll never get a penny of the money." Doc never wanted trouble at the table, he already regretted his 'clever' remark but her wanted the money, badly. "Calm down, Maurice. Just play your cards," he said, extricating himself. Maurice called the bet, anything but calm. When the final down card was dealt Maurice saw that the Doc only had a few pounds left. "I set you in," he announced rather pompously. Ray Joseph called immediately. "Aces Up", said Maurice, defiantly. The Doc turned over his inevitable Three Queens. In an instant Maurice reached forward, seized the pot, comprising some £80 - £I00 in five and ten pound notes, tore the notes in half and then again into quarters and threw the whole lot high into the air. To this day Maurice, with his artist's eye for the visual, recalls the scraps of paper money 'floating down to the table like confetti'. At that point Maurice simply got up and walked out. Anywhere else he would have been barred, probably for life; at The Strand a phone call to Ted a couple of weeks later and he was back, everything forgotten and forgiven. Apparently he and Ray Joseph had a good laugh about it in later years. Another particularly spectacular and memorable pot, possibly the biggest ever played there, featured Brian the Burglar, flush with the proceeds of a lucrative job, Colin Kennedy running the game, an unnamed American serviceman on his first visit and Ted Iles, not playing but attending to some business in the office. The American had sat down earlier in the evening and said he would play, call or pass (i.e. cover any bet made at the table without limit). He had played quietly for several hours without being involved in any dramatic action. Brian arrived sometime in the small hours in a rather excited mood. He too announced he would play, call or pass. Normally only one person could be call or pass at one time but by this time, people had sort of forgotten the Yank and nothing was said. (Strictly speaking this was Colin's fault). After a while the American was dealing with Brian to his left and Colin on his right. It was Seven Card and Brian showed an Ace, Colin a ten and the Yank a deuce. Brian, as high card, opened the compulsory half-crown and received three or four callers, including Colin. The Yank raised the pot, fifteen shillings. Brian just called and the others passed but Colin re­ raised three pounds more. The Yank called and Brian raised another tenner. Colin and the Yank called. This was already exceptional. betting for the first of five rounds of betting. The next card made no apparent difference to anyone - a five to the Ace, a seven to the ten and a Jack lo the deuce. Brian bet forty pounds, Colin called and the Yank raised another hundred. Brian called and Colin, after a long pause, declared that he was going all in the hundred plus another hundred and twenty. The Yank, who was starting to sweat profusely, checked his money in his wallet and, with a touch of agitation in his voice said, "I call". At this point Brian rather triumphantly announced, "Well I'm raising. How much is there in the pot?" Colin counted the large pile of notes. "With your one twenty, it comes to nearly eight hundred", he said. Brian reached into his inside pocket and fetched out a huge roll of notes. "I raise five hundred", he said. The American's face fell through the floor. Frantically he checked his wallet."I can't cover the bet", he mumbled. "Then you must fold", said Colin, with a slight smirk. "You said you were playing call or pass". "No, no. I'll go all in". "Oh no you won't", said Brian, starting to get angry. "Call or pass is call or pass". There was a general muttering of agreement round the Table. Everyone was tense - it was a huge pot by the standards of the game and the time - but everyone was on Brian's side. The Yank was getting desperate. "I - I'll get the money", he said. 'I'll leave the hand here and I'll get the money. Give me an hour". "Hmm ... ", Colin hesitated. "Look mate", said Brian, who had made a decision. "I've got three Aces here and you're strangled. I'd swallow it if I were you". He flipped over his hole cards to prove his point. "I've got over a hundred and fifty in this pot. I want to carry on. I'll get the money", the American protested. Then a voice came from the back. It was Ted. "I have to tell you that if you get the money, we shall be cutting the deck before the hand continues". This was decisive. Ted had rumbled that there must be a rigged deck and the Yank knew he was rumbled. "I - I'm getting the money", he said, and rose from the table. He was running before he reached the door. Everyone knew he wasn't coming back. Colin, who had three tens back-to-back, now suggested the pot should be split. "No way", said Brian with his three Aces. "What we will do", said Ted, taking control, "is deal out the top cards to see what would have happened, then we'll reshuffle the deck and deal again for real". Colin wasn't happy but he couldn't buck Ted. The next three cards [illegible] the absent Yank. But when they're - dealt, there was a bitter twist. Colin paired his seven to make a full house but Brian did not improve. And that was how Colin won the biggest pot in the short history of the En Passant. "Oh well! Easy come, easy go", said Brian the Burglar. When now, from the vantage point of middle age and a new century,I reflect on the En Passant and my experience of it, two things stand out: one personal, one social. Personally, it assisted and in large part effected, my rapid transition from a socially isolated, nerdish, certainly very gauche adolescence into the adult world. In the space of a few months it enabled me to leapfrog over the 'normal' teenage scene of dances, parties, pubs, dates - from which I had largely felt excluded by the peculiarities of my sheltered upbringing. Hindsight has revealed this to bea mixed blessing but at the time I was deeply grateful. Socially,I think it was symptomatic at a subterranean level of a trend that was evident in the higher reaches of the culture in the sixties, namely the arrival on the stage of a young non-deferential working class which challenged the hitherto uncontested cultural hegemony of the traditional middle and upper classes. In its own tiny way, therefore, the world of the En Passant was a part of the cultural wave that gave us Saturday Night and Sunday Moming, Room at the Top, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and indeed, The Beatles. And from the clear fact that John Turner was loads smarter than David Spanier and Brian the Burglar an infinitely preferable human being to Ted Iles or Jeremy Hornsby, I learned the invaluable lesson that, contrary to everything I had been taught at school, neither intelligence nor decency were linked to social status or respectability.