Even among the tables at the Full Tilt Poker Village, Gus Hansen is free to mingle in relative anonymity. "I'm not a tournament player per se," he explains. "I don't play the poker tour anymore. I'm pickier about the events I attend."
The 39-year-old Dane was once voted one of People magazine's sexiest men alive. He has a back story right out of a James Bond movie. He talks me through a year in the life of a millionaire poker professional.
"I have certain hotspots I hit. Melbourne in January has tournaments to coincide with the Australian Open. I'm a tennis fan, so I try not to miss that. Then there's the World Series of Poker in Vegas. I'll also hit Barcelona and Monte Carlo. The rest of the time I'm in Monaco."
This year Galway can be added to that itinerary. Up to a thousand gamblers from around the world are expected to converge on the New Docks in the city this weekend to compete for prize money of more than €1 million. With a host of the sport's biggest names due to appear, the Full Tilt Poker tournament is the largest event of its kind in Europe.
Visiting the site on Thursday morning, with competition already well under way, what's most conspicuous is what the festival is lacking. There are no merchandising stalls in the foyer. No ice cream vans parked on the kerb outside. No children with painted faces. No merriment. Hell, there isn't even a queue for the bar. It may be billed as entertainment, but poker is a serious business.
In the main playing area, about 50 tables of Texas Hold ‘Em are already under way. The only sounds are the clink of plastic chips and the brush of the breeze against the canvas overhead.
Poker originated on Mississippi riverboats and in the violent territories of the American West. But in this century, its popularity has burgeoned all over again on an equally lawless frontier: the internet.
That evolution is illustrated by the dress code here. Instead of Stetsons, there are flip-flops, shorts, hoodies, headphones and sunglasses. The players are overwhelmingly male and in their 30s and 40s. Each has stumped up €1,100 to be here.
Shortly after 2pm, the players get their first 15-minute break. Most pour outside for a cigarette. A couple sprawl out on the bean bag chairs provided. In the corner, a half dozen boffins hunch over their laptops, analysing banks of statistics.
Twenty-nine-year-old Dermot Blain from Killybegs, Co Donegal, was working as a sales rep in the twilight of the Celtic Tiger era when he began playing poker seriously. During a week off work, he won €20,000 in a Derry casino. He decided a career change was in order and has since won up to €275,000 at a time competing internationally.
Former Irish rugby international Reggie Corrigan's initial enthusiasm for the game was borne out of the tedium of killing time between rugby matches. He mentions Teddy Sherringham and Tony Cascarino as other professional sportsmen who have taken up poker in retirement.
“When you finish playing sport,” says Corrigan. “You still have that competitive edge. You’re still chasing that buzz. Poker is a way of competing with other guys without smashing yourself up!”
Some 230 players have been through the door today, fewer than the organisers would have liked. Scott Collins of Full Tilt was confident the numbers would increase the next day. For him, the appeal of the event is the chance for ordinary punters to play a hand against the likes of Gus Hansen and Viktor Blom – the 22-year-old Swedish wunderkind still better known by his online handle – Isildur1.
Taking on the professionals
He offers me the chance to take on professionals Gus Hansen, Ben Jenkinson, Martins Adeniya and Liv Boeree.
We find a table and the dealer throws out the cards. For the first few hands, I’m extremely cautious. Finally, I’m dealt a pair of 10s. I open the pot for 200 chips. On the flop the dealer turns up a jack, nine and two. I check.
Across the table, Gus Hansen pitches in 1,200 chips. I have only 800 chips remaining. The others fold. I probably should too. But screw it, I reckon, a coward dies a thousand deaths and all that. I decide to go all in.
We show our hands. Hansen has an eight and a 10. In other words, nothing! I’ve caught one of the world’s greatest poker players bluffing. My pair of 10s beats him right now, but he could still make a straight with a queen or seven and win the pot.
For me it’s a moment of high tension. I feel I should be wearing a tuxedo.
(“Do you expect me to talk?”)
A two and five are turned up.
(“No Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”)
I have two pairs. Hansen has nothing. I win!
Daft Punk's Get Lucky is playing in the deserted bar as I make my way out. It might seem an appropriate song to play at a gambling festival. In truth it couldn't sound more out of place. Poker is not about hi-jinks and having fun. Poker is serious business.