The final table at the 2009 World Series of Poker. Photo: Getty Images
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Las Vegas: the last honest place on earth

Poker is pure social Darwinism – a revelation of character as well as capacity. And where better to play it than Las Vegas, a city that is brutally upfront about its desire to separate you from your money?

I once knew a girl who had grown up in a small town on the North Island of New Zealand. The town was populated by descendants of Scottish Protestants, who had established a place of sober, hard-working respectability. On Friday and Saturday nights, the young people would go to a barn outside the town limits, where there would be music and dancing and the young men would get drunk and fight each other. None of this spilled over back into the town: no one would say anything about the bruises on the butcher boy’s face; and if a couple had found an intimacy at a dance, that wouldn’t alter the formality of their relations during the rest of the week.

This is how Protestant countries work. Civic spaces are designed for polite, hard-working respectability, and young people let off steam and the sinners do their sinning in self-contained places outside town limits. The US is a very Protestant country, and Las Vegas is its barn.
Actually it’s two barns, a couple of miles away from each other. The original one, Fremont Street, Downtown, is a ramshackle place. Apart from the slickly remodelled Golden Nugget, the one-time Glitter Gulch is a couple of shabby blocks of casinos and bars and souvenir shops covered by a canopy and blasted at night with music and air-conditioning and lights (“The Fabulous Fremont Street Experience!”), surrounded by slums and bail bondsmen storefronts. The other, the Strip, is the gaudy place of postcards and movies and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, where high-rise casino-resorts stretch out along Las Vegas Boulevard.
 
It all began with a 1930s gambling roadhouse. The Club Pair-O-Dice was built up in the 1940s and 1950s with oil and Mafia money, and properly established itself after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 shut down America’s playground. The mountains behind, and the intolerable heat, remind any summer visitor who is foolish enough to stray too far from air-conditioning that this is a place in the middle of the desert without any reason to be, except for cupidity, profit, pleasure and need.
 
In July, I’d driven in from LA in the company of two old friends. We followed Interstate 15 through the Mojave Desert shimmer of heat, truck stops and Joshua trees and the occasional sun-blasted forsaken town. Both of my companions are Londoners who have been living in Los Angeles for about 15 years. One has made it big in Hollywood as a writer and producer of network television shows. The other is a professor of the history of science at California State University.
 
The Money and I had planned this trip some months ago. The Professor had joined us at short notice, leaving his wife and two small children behind. The Professor’s wife had been unresisting, maybe even encouraging. Because this is America, it is understood that men need to get together, to drive through the desert, that men need to drink cocktails and argue about politics in the Bellagio bar. But I wasn’t here to let off steam. I’d come to Vegas for a meeting of the board of the UK Poker Federation, and to take part in the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
 
The WSOP began in 1970 as a publicity stunt, as so many things in Vegas do. The Downtown casino owner Benny Binion invited the six best players in the world – most of them Texan – to compete against each other in cash games in several variants of poker, after which they voted on who had played the best. Most voted for themselves but after the second-place votes were tallied, Johnny Moss was declared the champion. The following year, seven players returned for a freeze-out tournament, in which players put up $5,000, received the same number of chips and the player who had all the chips at the end was the winner. This was again Johnny Moss.
 
The game that was played was Texas Hold ’em (“the Cadillac of poker games”). Each player is dealt two hole cards, followed by a round 
of betting, after which the “flop” of three communal cards is dealt, followed by a fourth card, the “turn”, and then the final communal card, the “river”, with a round of betting after the reveal of each communal card. The player makes the best five-card hand available out of any combination of his or her hidden hole cards and the five communal cards of the “board”. It’s a game of discipline and nerve and courage, which has become by far the most commonly played variant of poker. As the cliché goes, the tournament version is “hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”.
 
In the World Series of 1972, eight players took part, this time putting up $10,000 as the entry fee. The winner was “Amarillo Slim” Preston, who had a genius for self-publicity that exceeded even Benny Binion’s; and with this, the Main Event, the Big One, took off in the American imagination.
The modern era of poker began in 2003 when the appropriately named Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee, qualified for the Main Event on the internet site PokerStars for a $39 investment and beat 838 other competitors for the first prize of $2.5m. When I first played the Main Event, in 2006, there were 8,773 entrants, many thousands of whom were online qualifiers.
 
The lobbies and bars and streets of Vegas were filled with tribes of online players wearing their website-branded caps and T-shirts and hoodies. (We’re now in the postmodern era, ever since the US government, in one of its typical reflexes of puritanism and economic protectionism, shut down online poker in America in April last year.)
 
The WSOP events are no longer at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. The casino chain Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) bought the Horseshoe in 2004 just for the World Series brand and moved the event from Fremont Street to just off the Strip, in the Rio Casino’s convention centre. This was all part of Downtown’s dwindling. There is no economic or legal connection between the city of Las Vegas and the Strip, which is incorporated into Clark County rather than the city. Strip casinos are superbly well-engineered machines for separating people from their money. None of those proceeds goes to the city.
 
Five years ago, Las Vegas was the fastest-growing city in the United States, with an unemployment rate of 4.7 per cent. The unemployment rate now is above 12 per cent. The crime rate is high, and getting higher. This year, the projected figures are for 130 killings and 16,500 cases of violent crime, which is two and a half times the national average.
 
The biggest police anti-crime initiative that I saw when I was there in July was the clampdown on pedlars selling bottles of drinking water without a licence. They are a common street sight, almost as common as the Mexican families flicking cards advertising erotic services on Las Vegas Boulevard, and the tourists traipsing along the Strip in the desert heat are grateful. But as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported of one family group that had been warned off by a security guard outside Planet Hollywood, “Dolores Smith, 20, acknowledges that the water she and her cousins are selling for $1 is un-fair to licensed businesses that overcharge.” This is an interesting and very Vegas usage of the word “unfair”.
 
The journalist Marc Cooper published a very good book about the city nearly ten years ago that was called The Last Honest Place in America. Its thesis was that Las Vegas is brutal but self-evident: it’s all about money. Anyone can wander into the high-end casino-resorts, and people do, streams and streams of them, looking for bars and nightclubs and adrenalin adventure, drinking luminous cocktails from giant glasses, girls in tiny skirts and high heels, boys trying to act like high rollers, the prostitutes waiting in the casino bars, with the looks they send out that manage to be both candid and modest, You’re a discerning and attractive gentleman. You and I maybe could . . . ? and the disabled people rolling slowly through the aisles between slot machines in wheelchairs and mobility scooters – because, as the recession deepens, the proportion of disabled people in Vegas has risen noticeably: Mammon has finally found its Lourdes. And, if you’ve got a dollar in your pocket, you’re entitled to play. But Cooper’s book was published when Vegas was indisputably the gambling capital of the world. It’s lost some of its swagger recently. It has become more expensive. Profits from the casinos of Macau now exceed those of Las Vegas, which need to protect their income stream from the likes of Dolores Smith.
Nonetheless, I still love Vegas, its calculated gaudiness, its relentlessness, the haven it has made for smokers and gamblers and pleasure-seekers. In other contexts, I might find it decadent rather than magnificent that a resort in the desert has more championship golf courses than anywhere else in the world. The water comes from the Hoover Dam and, I’m sure, is also diverted from helplessly thirsty towns in southern California. As the journalist and president of the International Federation of Poker, Anthony Holden, says, “I love its nerve and its boldness and that every year something new happens.”
 
The conversations with cab drivers here are better than any you’ll find anywhere else, such as when the ex-marine explained to me the difference between gay and straight couples travelling in the back of his cab: “They want to give each other blow jobs? The straight couples ask you first. The gays just do it.”
 
And I love that you can play poker here all of the time, with many hundreds of games to choose from at any moment in the day. Every cash table, it seems, has at least one of the following: a cocky young man wearing enormous headphones, an implacable white-haired gentleman, an American Oriental who’s a dangerous opponent and a ferocious old lady with dyed red hair who bets aggressively, and whose ancient hands are covered with heavy jewellery and raised veins.
 
This is what I was here to do. In a fog of jet lag, I set about trying to raise my stake for the Main Event. I spent my days and nights in Vegas, as the Money and the Professor sampled cocktails and swimming pools and Vegas steaks, playing poker tournaments.
The Money, who has a slightly inflated opinion of my poker capacities because I managed to make it into the prize money in the 2007 Main Event, backed me in a couple of smaller WSOP tournaments. Staking arrangements are common in poker, with the player, as the phrase goes, selling off pieces of him or herself.
 
I had a meal with the Money and the Professor after I was knocked out of my first WSOP tournament this year after about six hours of play. Glumly, I apologised for the failure of his $1,500 investment and reported back on my exit hand (ace-ten, both diamonds, on an ace-king-jack flop with two diamonds: the subsequent two cards didn’t bring me my flush or my straight and I had to make the long walk out 
of the tournament room). We were eating at a very fancy steak joint at the Bellagio where, somewhat giddy with the food and the wine and Vegas, the Money ordered the best grappa in the house to finish off the meal. The waiter mildly observed, “That’s a dangerous thing to say in a place like this,” and fetched the order. 
 
I never did see the bill. They wished me luck on getting to the Main Event. All the top poker players in the world play the Main Event. Even some of the worst do, along with many visiting celebrities. Shane Warne and Teddy Sheringham play the Main Event. Even Jason Alexander (“George” from Seinfeld) plays the Main Event. I was having trouble accommodating myself to the likelihood that I might not be part of it.
 
Several days later, I was back at the Rio playing WSOP event number 59, a $1,000 buy-in. After the first 20 minutes or so, I was, as they say, in the zone. I knew where I was in pots; I knew which players I could bluff, which would find it unable to steer away from confrontations. It was clear who the good players at the table were and, therefore, which other players I needed to target, whose chips were up for grabs. I felt like I’d done five years before, the last time I’d played the Main Event, when I was at the top of my game and my form – when I proved, at least to myself, that I could function, even thrive, at this level and in this company.
 
Poker is a revelation of character, as well as capacity. As Al Alvarez reminds us, it is “social Darwinism in its purest, most brutal form: the weak go under and the fittest survive through calculation, insight, self-control, deception, plus an unwavering determination never to give a sucker an even break”. I was feeling so in control that I even had space in my heart to feel sorry for the gentleman at the other end of the table.
 
He was thickset with a kindly face and a white goatee that matched the colour of his dapper little cap. He was shaking, unmanned by nerves. 
I never found out how he had ended up in this tournament; maybe he was a wealthy tourist who had entered it on a whim, but he had neither the stomach for it nor the skill. Any time he forced himself to play a hand, the agony of the event was written on his face and body. He gave his chips away, some to me, some to the clever, taciturn Australian on my right, and when he had lost them all, when his tournament life was over, the relief of it returned him to some kind of version of himself.
 
There were over 4,500 entrants to this event. It would last for four days, with a first prize of $654,000. I wasn’t dreaming of this yet, nor even really of surviving long enough to get past 90 per cent of the field and into the money. At this stage the plan was to accumulate chips, with the thought of having enough to put me in some kind of decent position going into day two. I felt confident; I was on top of things.
 
And then my composure failed me. A new player arrived at our table, a glowering young man wearing enormous headphones and a baseball cap who sat down with towers of chips in front of him. I raised in middle position with pocket tens. He reraised in the dealer position. The flop came down jack high. I checked, he bet, I raised, and he reraised, putting me all in for the rest of my chips. I looked at him. He glowered back at me. I had put him on ace-king. Possibly he had a big pocket pair, higher than my tens. He might have had ace-jack. Or, he was playing position. The later you act in a betting round, the stronger your hand becomes. When you’re the last to act, you have leverage. If you have mountains of chips, you have greater leverage. 
 
I suspected I was winning. I asked for time. My instincts told me to call. I folded.
 
Poker is perhaps unique in that you are betting on an event that has already happened: the deck of cards has been shuffled and dealt; as more cards are revealed, more information is available. In playing a game of incomplete information, part of the agony is when you never find out the answer to the question that has been posed. I suspected that I had the better hand against the heavy-set aggressive kid, but I would never know. Even if I were to have asked him, dragged him out from under his headphones, he would probably have lied. Crucially, poker is also a test of the processing power of the brain and the emotional discipline of the player in response to new information and fresh stimuli. I was still beating myself up over the previous hand when I overplayed the subsequent one, committed all my chips in a toing and froing of action with the Aussie; and when it was over, I had two pairs, he had three jacks and I was out of the tournament. I had felt where I was, I had known where I was, but I was still off-balance from the earlier skirmish, and committed a kind of suicide. It takes only a moment to switch from being on top of things to taking the shameful walk away to the exit door. It happens all the time. I didn’t like that it was happening to me.
 
The day before, while I was playing a tour­nament at Caesars Palace, television screens were showing the final table of the Big One for One Drop. This was the inaugural run of a dizzying, $1m buy-in tournament, the winner receiving over $18m, by far the richest prize in sport, with 11 per cent of the entry money, suitably for Vegas, going to a water charity, the One Drop Foundation. (This year’s Main Event will have a first prize of “only” $8.5m.) The Big One was set up by the founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté, who is a high-stakes cash player as well as a circus magnate. The 2012 Main Event had 6,598 runners, of whom I was not going to be one. With its entry fee still at the 1972 level of $10,000, it’s no longer known as the Big One. Laliberté’s event had 48 entrants, including Laliberté. It was rumoured that he had paid the buy-in for 15 other players. Nonetheless, the event attracted, or enticed, all the best players in the world, along with a few deep-pocketed businessmen. It is probably the closest poker now comes to a true world championship.
 
The British player Sam Trickett came second (with over $10m to console him) to the American Antonio Esfandiari, but he deserved to win. Fearless, poised, always aggressive, always putting the question to his opponents (and we should remember here the origin of the phrase “putting the question”, which was a euphem­ism for interrogation under torture), he played poker of the very highest standard, under extreme emotional duress, for 12-hour days. He made audacious bluffs (some got through, others didn’t), he lost chips, he gathered them again. I lost my composure in under eight hours; he maintained his throughout three days.
 
I can point to the luck that let me down in the various tournaments I played in Vegas. In my exit hand from the $1,500 event, I was only a slight underdog on the flop (approximately 44 per cent to 56 per cent). In one $240 event at Caesars Palace, when we were getting close to the money (with a first prize of $61,000), I was all in, committing all my chips before the flop, with ace-king of spades against my outplayed opponent’s king-nine of clubs. The chances of my winning the hand were slightly more than 72 per cent. My opponent made his flush on the flop.
 
But all poker players, at whatever level, are used to bad beat stories. Like dreams, the only reason you put up with other people telling you theirs is that it then gives you the right to bore them with yours.
 
One of the effects of all this is to remind me how tough it is to be a poker player. Not just the world-class types like Trickett, but any of the ones who can call themselves professionals. In my week in Vegas, I played five tournaments, with entry fees of $1,500, $1,000, $350, $240, and $200. My prize winnings were $732, of which I donated $20 for dealer tips. Add to the buy-in costs the expenses of living and travel that the pros need to find. And the runs of bad luck that they have to deal with. In the poker world, it’s called “variance”. I tried to explain this to the Money before the grappa finished us off. His intelligently Vegas response was to reach into his pocket for his billfold. As Jason Alexander tweeted after his Main Event elimination: “The poker agony is over. Going home. But thrilled for the chance. Next year!” 
 
David Flusfeder is the author of “A Film by Spencer Ludwig” (Fourth Estate, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

Photo: Getty
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“There’s no equality in healthcare”: Working under the shadow of Ireland’s 8th

As the referendum on Ireland's anti-abortion law nears, the New Statesman talks to those working on the frontline of pregnancy about how the amendment affects their work. 

On 25 May, Ireland will hold a referendum that has been 35 years in the making. And it’s one of particular significance to women, whichever side they’re on.

The question is whether the 8th Amendment, which recognises the equal right to life of the unborn, should be removed from the constitution. While it is still in place, abortion cannot be legislated for or regulated in Ireland.

The only scenario in which abortion is currently legal in the Republic is where there is a “real and substantial” risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of a woman. In all other circumstances, including rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities, it is a criminal act to obtain one, with a maximum sentence of up to 14 years in prison.

This puts Ireland’s abortion laws well behind all other EU countries aside from Malta and Northern Ireland (as part of the UK). And it’s a human rights debate that has been raging in this historically Catholic country ever since conservative campaigners pushed for the amendment to be added back in 1983.

The impact of the current situation on Irish women and their health is clear, with thousands travelling abroad every year – mainly to England – to terminate unwanted or non-viable pregnancies. But what is it like to be the pro-choice medical professional who cannot support them? And what impact does the 8th have on Ireland’s maternity services as a whole?

“I was one of those people who grew up ‘pro-life’ and became pro-choice,” says midwife Jeannine Webster. “As I understood it then, you were not really a good person if you had an abortion. And then you learn, you know?”

Webster, who is 52, became a midwife in her early forties. She currently works at one of Ireland’s largest maternity hospitals, and has three adult children. In 2016 she became part of the campaign group Midwives for Choice.

For her, the issue with the 8th Amendment is the disparity in the level of care she can provide to women who make different choices: “There’s no equality in healthcare. Because as much as I can 100 per cent support a couple that want to continue with their pregnancy, I can’t do that for those who feel emotionally that would be too much.”

Webster tells me a story about a couple who came into her clinic a few months ago. During this visit, they learned their baby had a fatal foetal abnormality and would not survive outside the womb. The mother was in her second trimester of pregnancy with their third child.

 “The woman said, ‘Can we not just have the baby now?’ And I said, ‘No, because the baby still has a heartbeat.’ And she turned around to me, ‘But what’ll happen? What can I do?’ And I felt I couldn’t tell her what she could do. I can’t.”

“It absolutely makes a traumatic situation massively more difficult for them.”

In Ireland, as a medical professional, giving out information on abortion services abroad is subject to strict guidelines. It must not be accompanied by any advocacy or promotion of abortion and all options must be fully outlined. It is also against the law to make a referral to an abortion service on behalf of the pregnant woman. This makes difficult conversations tricky to navigate.

Despite this, 3,265 women travelled from Ireland to the UK in 2016 to have an abortion. That figure accounts for nearly 70 per cent of all non-resident abortions carried out in the UK that year.

Dr Jennifer Donnelly is a consultant obstetrician at Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital who deals with foetal abnormalities and complex maternal problems. She says that being unable to refer patients for termination services either at home or abroad creates health risks and unwelcome gaps in care.

“If somebody has got a devastating diagnosis and then has to try and negotiate a whole other health system with minimal support, it absolutely makes a traumatic situation massively more difficult for them,” she says. “We want to provide care for women. Part of that care is looking after women who are bereaved under those circumstances.”

Not all medical professionals agree.

“The Eighth Amendment has one medical effect only: it prevents Irish doctors from deliberately, as an elective matter, causing the death of an unborn child,” wrote Professor Eamon McGuinness, a consultant obstetrician and pro-life campaigner, in The Irish Times earlier this month.

“That right does not restrict doctors from acting to save the life of a woman where a serious complication arises,” McGuinness continued, in reference to recent reports of women being denied life-saving cancer treatment due to an unplanned pregnancy.

Dr Maeve Eogan, a fellow consultant obstetrician, was quick to point out on social media that although abortion is lawful where there is “a real and substantial risk” to a woman’s life, McGuinness had failed to address a number of important areas. For example, sexual violence and life-limiting foetal conditions, “or the fact that women travel and take unregulated medications every day”.

Eogan is Medical Director of Ireland’s National SATU (Sexual Assault Treatment Unit) Services. She has witnessed the trauma caused to women by both sexual violence and fatal foetal abnormalities first hand. One of her primary concerns is women’s fragmented experience of care.

“At the moment, Irish women who travel to the UK for termination of pregnancy – or access unregulated medications online – are not getting the full range of termination of pregnancy care,” she says.

“So they’re not getting the post termination follow-up, and they’re not getting the appropriate contraception. There isn’t the holistic care package. They’re accessing one piece of the jigsaw, but they’re not accessing the other things which promote their health in the long-term.”

“It in essence means that women have no guaranteed role in decisions about their care.”

When it comes to continued pregnancies in Ireland, pro-choice health professionals have differing views on whether the 8th Amendment plays any role.

Philomena Canning, a 57-year-old independent home birth midwife and founder of Midwives for Choice, believes the 8th Amendment undermines the rights of all pregnant women; not just those seeking an abortion.

 “The 8th Amendment strikes at the core of midwifery,” Canning says. “And at the core of midwifery is respect for the human rights and personal decision-making of the woman. It in essence means that women have no guaranteed role in decisions about their care and treatment from the time they get pregnant until the baby is actively born.”

She cites the 2016 case of Geraldine Williams, from Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, who had three children delivered by caesarean section and wanted to have her fourth child naturally.

In September of that year, when Williams was 40 weeks pregnant, the Health Service Executive applied to the High Court for an order allowing it to carry out a caesarean section against her wishes. This was to assert her baby’s right to life under article 40.3.3 of the constitution. Williams had already been hospitalised and would not agree to a c-section.

The judge ultimately refused to grant the order, saying the increased risks associated with a natural birth did not justify “effectively authorising to have her uterus opened against her will, something which would constitute a grievous assault if done on a woman who was not pregnant”.

But Eogan and Donnelly, both specialist consultants in their fields, insist that the impact of the 8th is generally restricted to women seeking terminations.

“That kind of situation is extremely rare,” says Donnelly. “A woman’s wishes should not be overwritten and a procedure should not be done to her without her consent.

“I think rather than it being the 8th Amendment, there certainly can be old fashioned attitudes from doctors and midwives to core ways of approaching things,” she concedes. “The woman’s views should not be disregarded and I think that would be a traditional patriarchal model, which is definitely changing, but I’m sure it may still be present in certain places.”

“We don’t have to have the 8th Amendment to be able to value women.”

Though their views might differ on this subject, all agree that Ireland’s maternity services still have a way to go to compete with the UK’s progressive, midwifery-led model for low risk births.

“We have pockets of excellent community midwifery in a whole range of areas in Ireland,” says Eogan. “But it is not universal. And some women who may wish to attend a community midwifery service, proximate to their home and their hospital, may not be able to do so.”

"While I may not agree personally that the amendment affects care in the labour ward, I don’t think it should be used as an excuse for poor professional behaviour either,” says Donnelly. “Our aim is to provide an excellent standard of care for women and we shouldn’t be using that as a barrier to consent, to exploring women’s concerns and choices in labour. From a cultural perspective, listening and communication is totally crucial, and if getting rid of the 8th helped to improve that culture, then I’m all in favour of that too."

And how might that culture change in Ireland, if the 8th Amendment is removed? “I hope that because that provision won’t be there that undermines women’s rights and choices that their voices will be a little more heard,” says 32-year old Dublin midwife Róisín Smith.

“And the things that women want – whether it be midwife-led care, midwife-led units, homebirths, being allowed more flexibility in terms of time in labour – all of that will be much more possible.

“We don’t have to have the 8th Amendment in our constitution for us to be able to value women and unborn babies as a society. Those kind of moralistic arguments that people make for the 8th, those morals don’t have to disappear because we also want to value women as mothers and decision-makers.”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality