Having sharks for breakfast

 

`Sorry. I'm just sweating out this tennis game here. Would you mind if we watched the last set?" Donnacha O'Dea likes to bet on sports. The French Open tennis final is dragging on, and he has a little wager on the outcome. As we walk through his elegant Dalkey home, the former book-maker explains that Medvedev is cruising to a handsome victory. A good result for all concerned.

We sit down, have a drink, and watch as Andre Agassi stages a remarkable comeback, winning the next three sets. More unusual, though, is the absence of any tension or despondency in the room. The Las Vegas-born tennis champ cries for the camera, and Ireland's best poker player shrugs and laughs off his loss.

O'Dea swam for Ireland at the 1968 Olympics, before carving an exotic professional lifestyle from poker. Astute, popular and respected as one of the best cash game players on the professional circuit, he also has a number of tournament victories under his belt, notably a $118,000 win at the World Series of Poker in May 1998. He sits and bets with the idle rich and the born gambler in London, Paris and Las Vegas, and is somehow neither one nor the other.

I first met him in Las Vegas when I was making a documentary about professional poker players. As I surveyed the card room, a friend pointed out Donnacha amid the stetsons and the bluster. No chewed cigar, no scowl. Here was a mild-mannered businessman with a golf professional's tan, swimming with the chain-smoking sharks. So it appeared. On the other hand, he makes a living from controlling your perception of him, from knowing what you think. Is the appearance deceptive? What do you think?

The son of actors Dennis O'Dea and Siobhan McKenna, Donnacha went to school in Synge Street, like his father. He might have inherited an interest in cards from his father too. But it wasn't until he went to Trinity College that the professional path opened up for him. "There was quite a lot of poker there in the junior common room. I didn't play for my first year, so I managed to pass my exams that first year. Then I started playing poker, and that was more lucrative . . . "Guys that qualified from business studies were going out and working in accountancy firms, and you were making more money playing poker in college. It was sort of an example of the potential of it."

Of course O'Dea had a more auspicious introduction than your average player to the world of poker. Prominent businessmen checked and raised with Sean Lemass at his father's game. One night and one phone call from that era sticks in the memory. "Somebody had asked for Sean Lemass, someone official sounding, so I went in and disturbed them and said you're wanted on the phone, and went upstairs. The phone was in the hall, so I was sort of ear-wigging, and I knew something grave had happened and I came back down. I think I might have gone back into the room, and he was saying that Kennedy had been shot."

The esteemed company at his father's poker school did not fully convince both parents that professional poker was the way to go. "Obviously because my father played that was alright with him . . . As the years went by and (my mother) realised I was very successful at it she was happy enough. But she didn't really want me to do that. Or acting." So poker it was, after a spell as a bookkeeper. He now plays mainly at the Victoria card club in London, in games that last about 10 hours a day. "It cost £1,000 to sit down at the table."

It's tempting to suggest that this background gave him all the confidence he needed to play poker at this level, so well, and for so long. Confidence is a slippery commodity. "People often say, `well why would losers want to keep playing?' But you get a great variety of people playing. You get some people who would win in provincial games, maybe in Birmingham or Bournemouth, and then they want to go and play in the best game. So they're actually winning money at poker but losing to us. So it's the competitive thing. They want to sort of move up ... but you'd need to talk to a loser to understand their viewpoint."

He has met his share of gambling addicts, and is sympathetic toward to the condition. But poker is a fair game to win or lose, with skill available to be learnt. "If somebody has an addiction to gambling, if they bet on horses, you go into a betting shop and pay 10 per cent tax. You literally cannot beat that, unless you're just having a couple of bets a year. And if you go into a casino or buy lottery tickets, you're going to lose. "But with poker, you can learn the skill to actually become a winner. You don't have a built-in percentage against you unlike other forms of gambling . . . Any time somebody has come to me and said `I'm losing; am I playing badly?' or `what do you think?', I have tried to help them. I have also suggested to them that maybe they play in a smaller game to maybe get their confidence back."

He admits to being drained by tournaments. "Playing in a tournament for five hours is like 10 hours in a cash game for me," he says, a remark which places Noel Furlong's victory in the 1999 World Series Of Poker in a significant context. Furlong was the first Irish player to win the £1-million-dollar prize. While O'Dea has made it down to the last table in "the Big One" before, he credits Furlong with a more aggressive betting style, a style he recognises well from the Irish tournament circuit. "(Furlong) had a phenomenal run in the 1980s when Terry (Rogers) ran tournaments, and he won three out of the four major Irish tournaments in two years . . . I thought myself that the whole performance, apart from Noel winning, Padraig (Parkinson) coming third and George McKeever coming 7th . . . was quite amazing.

"There were probably six Irish players in a tournament of 400 players, and three of them got in the first nine, which is quite amazing. I thought that was a fantastic feat. If one person won the tournament, maybe you'd say he got lucky, but for a small entry from Ireland, I thought it should have got more publicity than it did, and it should have got more kudos."

When Amarillo Slim won the inaugural World Series of Poker in the mid-1970s, the infamous Texan proposition gambler dragged the game out of the backroom. The tournament is televised, and American poker has acquired a respectability of its own. But for a country with such a strong history of card playing, and such an impressive reputation the world over, poker is still regarded as a back-room game in Ireland, an opinion reinforced by the lack of a major casino. "I think it's ridiculous that we don't have one. Ireland's been at the forefront of European gambling with racecourse bookies and betting shops, and now almost every country in Europe has a casino except Ireland. I think it'll come eventually, and I'd prefer to see one good casino to a lot of small bad ones." If it does, you might get your chance to bluff Donnacha O'Dea out of a big pot. But don't be fooled by the still waters . . .