The spin legend is attempting to turn a lifelong hobby, poker, into a career every bit as illustrious as the one he is leaving behind on the cricket field
July 31, 2009
"I see a lot of similarities between poker and cricket, and I thoroughly enjoy them both" © 888.com
When great sportsmen retire, they often find it hard to carve a new niche in life. Some find solace in coaching or commentary, but many drift listlessly into middle age, unable to find a suitable outlet for the competitive instincts that drove them to the peak of their professions. Not for the first time in his life, however, Shane Warne has taken it upon himself to buck convention. His 40th birthday is fast approaching at the end of the summer, but far from dwelling on past glories, he has immersed himself in a second career that promises a whole new wave of fame, fortune and razor-sharp gameplay.
The world of professional poker is where Warne's passions reside these days, and it's hard to imagine a cricketer more likely to succeed in such a glitzy and unfamiliar world. While his punditry during Sky Sports' Ashes coverage has been lauded for his acerbic opinions and typically keen insight, his absence from last month's historic first Test in Cardiff was ample proof of his new priorities. Instead of fronting up at Sophia Gardens, Warne spent the week holed up in the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, competing in the World Series of Poker - the single most prestigious tournament on the circuit - and coming within a whisker of taking the event by storm.
It's a safe bet that, somewhere in a quiet corner of the England and Australia dressing rooms on a frustrating first day at Edgbaston, a deck of cards and a stack of chips were brought out of someone's coffin, as the players whiled away the washed-out hours in traditional fashion. In his retirement speech on the eve of the Ashes, Michael Vaughan said that the England squad's regular poker games at the back of the team bus were an aspect of his professional life that he would particularly miss, while in London last month, Warne and Darren Gough brought the two pastimes together under one banner, and led their respective countries in the inaugural Poker Ashes, a contest that finished in a familiar 4-1 Australian victory.
"I see a lot of similarities between poker and cricket, and I thoroughly enjoy them both," Warne told Cricinfo. "People associate poker with gambling, but that's not actually the case. Tournament poker, which is what I play, is completely different to playing at home or in a re-buy tournament, and it has actually been deemed in a court of law a sport and a game of skill. It's all about reading your opponents, it's all about when you think they are bluffing and when they are not, it's about table image, and position on the table, and playing the percentages. There's a real sense of satisfaction about risking your chips and making a great call, or making a great lay-down when you're behind, Playing your cards right gives a massive sense of satisfaction."
Poker, like cricket, has a wealth of jargon designed to baffle the uninitiated, but when you cut through Warne's complicated turns of phrase, it's self-evident why he is so well suited to this alternative form of cut-and-thrust. When you think of the traits that turned him into arguably the greatest match-winner of his generation, there's more at play than merely his peerless ability to spin a cricket ball on all surfaces. There was the showmanship that he brought to his game - the strut and confidence with which he set his fields and controlled the tempo of the innings, the look of incredulity after each delivery that failed to take a wicket, the absolute confidence that he, and only he, had the power to dictate the direction of a match.
"It's all about reading your opponents, it's all about when you think they are bluffing and when they are not"
There was his ability to seize the slightest moment of weakness in a team (especially England, who were in thrall of him from the very first ball he bowled in Ashes cricket) or an individual (for instance, Daryl Cullinan, who was effortlessly out-psyched throughout their jousts in the mid-1990s). And there was his ability to adapt his game to suit the needs of the hour, never more memorably than at Adelaide in 2006-07, when he took his licks from Kevin Pietersen during a humiliating first-innings return of 1 for 167, only to strike with lethal speed and intent on that irresistible final day, when at last the cards fell in his favour.
"There's a huge element of skill and tactics involved in poker, and that's one of the things I enjoyed with cricket," said Warne. "The tactical side, the gamesmanship involved, when to push your opponent around and when not to, when to huff and puff and when not to. I'd like to be as successful on the poker table as the cricket field, but I think I've got a few years to go before that happens.
"Days at big tournaments are pretty tough," he added. "Before my first World Series [in 2008] I played in three or four Aussie Millions, a tournament in South Africa and a European World Series, and they are all long days in which you have to concentrate from first hand to last, and in that respect it's just like cricket as well. You have five two-hour sessions, and every two hours you have 20 minutes off. That adds up to 12- or 13-hour days, which start at 12pm and finish at 1 o'clock in the morning." His Test-match instincts could hardly have honed him to better effect.
The basic rules of Texas hold'em poker, the world's most popular form of the game, are simple enough to grasp. Each player is dealt two cards, upon which they make an initial judgment on whether to bet or to fold (and as a rule, picture cards or pairs are the likeliest route to success). After an opening round of betting, the first three of five community cards are dealt in the middle of the table ("the flop"), followed by "the turn" and "the river", each punctuated with another round of betting. The aim of the game is to create (or give the impression you've created) the strongest five-card hand from the seven cards available, just as the aim of cricket is to score more runs than the opposition. But as with both games, the devil is in the details.
"The more tournaments you play, the more you get to understand the tactics, and you don't get intimidated when the big heavies are at play," said Warne. "One of my tables [at the WSOP] was described as the table of death. I started on 19,000 chips with six really aggressive pros at the table, but I managed to get down at 100,000 and then walked away at the end of the day in 24th position overall, and more than 173,000 in chips. You don't just do that by luck. There's a lot of strategy at play."
Dealing with aggression, particularly of the batting variety, is something Warne proved long ago he was a past master at. While fast bowlers have their own aggressive tendencies to throw back at belligerent opponents, Warne could only rely on his innate skill and deeply considered strategies to stay in command of the situation. Given that he has been a card-player for as long as he can remember (he and his brother Jason used to play for matchsticks while their parents hosted Friday-night card games) you sometimes wonder in which direction his skills have travelled.
You've gotta schmooze: Warne with Matt Damon at the World Series of Poker © 888.com
But even Warne was not an instant success at Test level. On debut against India in January 1992, he was clattered around the SCG for figures of 1 for 150, and it wasn't until the tour of Sri Lanka eight months later that he came up with the performance that confirmed he could mix it with the big boys. His final-day figures of 3 for 11 inched Australia to a remarkable 16-run victory, and from that moment on there was no stopping the momentum of his career.
"I had to try and hide my nerves in my first Test, and in poker the same thing applies," he said. "When I played my first Aussie Millions tournament in 2004-05, sure, I was nervous, but I pulled off a bluff on the flop, and won my first pot, and once I'd got over that, I started to feel okay. After that, you can start to understand the tables a bit more, and establish your own table image, and then you can begin to work out who the pros are, and who the weak players on the table are. Hopefully the weak players steal the good players' chips, and then you steal the weak players' chips! But it takes a while to work all that out."
And when it comes to stealing weak players' chips, that is where the bluff comes into its own. "A bluff is all about telling a story," said Warne. "You have pick the right opponent, and set it up right from the word go, pre-flop. It's about representing strength. You have to fire again on the flop, and fire again on the turn, and expect some action on the river, and actually have the strength to do that. It takes a fair amount of skill to actually back your bluff up, or if you're halfway through a bluff and you realise you haven't got the best hand after all, you have to have the skill to know that too, and lay it down."
Once again, the parallels with Warne's Test career are self-evident. Take, for instance, the occasions (usually before an Ashes series) when he would announce to the world that he had developed a new and mysterious delivery, such as the zooter, which nobody to this day is sure ever actually existed. "I vary my play depending on what table I'm at," he said. "If I'm at a super-aggressive table, I just play tight, and try to pick my mark, and wait for someone to try to take me off a hand that I've actually hit. But if I'm at a tight table, I play aggressive, because I'm a pretty aggressive player full stop, which probably doesn't come as much of a surprise!"
All the same, there's a subtle difference between aggression and blind recklessness, and as far as Warne is concerned, the greatest pride he takes from his play comes on the occasions he actually has to admit defeat - which he never knowingly conceded on the cricket field. "It's really tough to do, but it gives you great satisfaction when you make a great lay-down," he said. "Sometimes you don't find out whether you were beat, but usually, about five seconds after a hand has finished, you generally get an instinct or a gut feel that it wasn't on, just by your opponent's reaction. He'll look down at his chips or he'll swallow, all those little tells that say you got away with one, and actually made a great decision."
Sometimes, however, even the best calls don't work out in your favour - as Warne, to his chagrin, discovered in Las Vegas this month. The manner in which he was eliminated on the third day of the World Series still brings him out in a grimace, but typical of his sporting career, he refuses to take a backward step. Here, in his own words, is his tale of World Series woe:
"Hopefully the weak players steal the good players' chips, and then you steal the weak players' chips!"
"About an hour into the day's play, a guy in middle position raised four times the blind, I called on the button with J10 hearts. The flop came 7, Q, K hearts. I think I'm good. He checks, I bet the pot, he calls, the turn card comes a spade. He bets the pot, and has about 70,000 left in his chip stack. I put him all in. He calls and turns over a set, he's got three kings. I'm good, I'm miles ahead, but then he beats the bullet with a queen on the river, and that crippled my stack."
In layman's terms, Warne was brutally unlucky. After the first four cards of the crucial hand had been dealt, he was sitting pretty with a king-high flush, which meant, at that stage, the only hand that could have beaten him was one involving two further hearts, one of which had to be an ace. When the two players laid their cards out on the table for "the race", the only way his opponent could escape was if the river produced the last remaining K, to complete four-of-a-kind, or paired up with one of the other cards on the table, for a full house. The odds were therefore roughly 4 to 1 in Warne's favour, and had he won the pot of 300,000 chips, he would have been propelled up to fifth in the chip count, from an initial field of nearly 6500 competitors.
"People say poker is all about luck, but it's not about good luck, it's about not getting unlucky," he said. "Four out of the five times I risked all my chips at the World Series, I actually had the best hand. The fifth and final time came right at the end of my tournament, after I had waited an hour with my last 20,000 chips. I went all-in with a pair of eights, and when the flop came 4 2 6 rainbow [a variety of different suits] I was looking pretty good. But I ran into a pair of aces, and that summed my day up. I copped some pretty ordinary beats."
There's no question, however, that Warne will be back for another crack next year. With the best players in the world, a buy-in of $10,000, and an outlay of US$70 million in sponsorship and TV rights, the World Series of Poker is a massive event, and as prestigious in its own way as any cricket contest he's ever played in. "The winner of the WSOP gets more than $10 million, and I can't think of any individual sporting prize in the world that pays out that amount," said Warne. "You might get a million dollars for winning Wimbledon, or three or four million for a golf tournament, but $10 million is massive."
So too is his desire to turn a lifelong hobby into a career every bit as illustrious as the one he is leaving behind on the cricket field. In only one aspect does his outlook to poker seem to differ, however. "I just stick to my game, and don't worry much about the verbals," he said. "If a conversation comes up I might get involved, but usually I just stick my headphones on, and that's it." If, one day, we spot Warne goading Phil Ivey to "have a go, go on, you know you want to," in the manner in which he destroyed Mark Ramprakash at Trent Bridge in 2001, then maybe we'll know for sure that he really has arrived as a poker star.
888.com is offering cricket lovers the opportunity of a lifetime - a net session with Shane Warne. The king of spin will visit one lucky cricket club and put the players through their paces as he shows off the skills that earned him 708 Test wickets. Warne is looking for a group of cricketers who share his passion for poker. For full information on how to enter, please email Shanewarne@888.com
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo