Pete Horton on the ever-growing appeal of poker

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DESPITE the rising popularity of video games, apps and online gaming, there’s one hobby which continues to surge in popularity.

Since Texas Hold ’em - simply known as poker to many - was first played in the deep south just over 100 years ago it’s become one of the most popular games in the world.

Rugby has a thriving poker scene, but unless you’re part of it, you’re unlikely to know about it. So how has a simple card game come to be such a popular past time and spawned an industry worth billions?

To describe poker’s allure to a non-player is difficult. Essentially it’s a game of mathematical chance - but the fascination lies in the use of psychology combined with successfully exploiting luck – and others’ misfortune, of course. Unlike other games and hobbies, all the outlandish, colourful clichés you hear about poker are true, which for me is something that definitely adds to its appeal.

You can take it as seriously as you want, choosing to play at many venues for as little as £1, or, if you want to make things more interesting, higher stakes.

During a decent game a player’s likely to experience a roller-coaster ride of energy- sapping emotions. There’s the thrill of “stealing” a hoard of chips by lying, the exhilarating satisfaction of covertly exploiting a chink in an opponent’s armour and the surge of adrenaline as you pick the right moment to bring an opponent’s winning streak to a juddering halt.

Of course there’s always the crushing disappointment of making all the right technical decisions only to be bankrupted by simple bad luck. Going through these cycles for hours on end can be exhausting, especially because the majority of the time you cannot convey the slightest hint of any of these emotions for fear of others’ knowing, and exploiting your game plan.

And even after sitting, sweating, lying and unassumingly calculating how to bankrupt a gang of strangers of their chips all night, it’s not unusual to leave a table, alone and broke in the early hours with nothing to show for it, except perhaps an angry partner waiting for you at home.

So what’s the motivation for putting yourself through such an ordeal? It may be strange to the non-player but for me, money certainly isn’t the answer.

In Rugby a few venues host regular poker nights and a seat at one of these tables, at a pub or other venue without a gambling licence, can cost £1. At a weekly, informal gathering of poker players first place winnings can be as little as £10 (or as much as £30 or £40 depending on the number of players). It’s hardly a big incentive for the amount of graft it takes to win a tournament. The truth is that people play because for all the painstaking hours spent plotting, toiling, concentrating, fretting, there are rare moments of pure bliss, when it feels like destiny itself is on your side as you watch an opponent throwing chips into the pot oblivious to the fact that the mathematical probability they have of winning them back is zero.

But there is another, more interesting reason why it’s so popular and that is that unlike most other sports and games, anything goes. Assuming you’re polite, courteous and don’t break the common-sense rules (like not looking at others’ cards!), you can be as devious as you dare. Dirty tactics are not frowned on - far from it. Around a poker table those who can lie are respected and feared the most. It’s like a video game in so far as there are no consequences to the sort of behaviour that in any other context would land you in serious trouble. You can lie, boast, deceive, connive and betray and misbehave as much as you dare. And after hard day at work, few things feel more satisfying. Like the best computer games, there’s always more than one way of winning in poker. But why pit your wits against a machine when you can steal chips from a room full of real people?

n Picture taken with the help of Riley’s in Henry Street, which have equipment and tables available to any poker players looking for a venue. Ask at the bar for details.