Poker and Le Mans

Note: PokerStars has sponsored the Aston Martin Race team throughout the 2006 GT race series, including the complete America Le Mans Series (ALMS), The Goodwood Festival of Speed and Silverstone in the UK, and, of course, the 24-hour Le Mans race in France. The following is PokerStars blogger Brad Willis' account of his first Le Mans race.

There's a certain smell in the air that only car racing enthusiasts know. It's gasoline, oil, and sweat. It's the smell of a tightwire tension that can be snapped by one moment of failed concentration. It's a smell that I would only know as "fear."

It's what I smell as I stand within a few feet of the Houston Grand Prix American Le Mans series track. I'd seen such racing on television before, but it never looked so fast. Raised on stockcars, I knew only left turns and wide open straightaways. I didn't know hairpin turns and the sick chance for mortal injury at any second. Even the practice run I was watching seemed more than dangerous. It seemed deadly.

Perhaps every poker player has felt this before. It's the intestinal tightening that comes from sitting down and playing a cash game that's too big for the bankroll. It's the feeling that everything is moving too fast. It's the sense that if you blink, you will miss a tell that never really exists. You know you can play the game, but there is a sinking part of you that tells you you're playing too far above your head.

This is what I think as I stand on a catwalk above the Houston track and look down between the wooden slats. The blurs are going by so fast, I'm not even sure I see a blur. The speed is beyond my ability to calculate. At any second, you could ask me about pot odds and I should be able to give you a reasonable answer, but there is no chance I can tell you how fast the cars are going.

It's then that it occurs to me how poker and Le Mans racing are intertwined. As the Texas sun burns the ridge of my nose and the exhaust fumes scorch my lungs, I figure it out. See, just like anybody can play poker, anybody can drive a car. However, the ability to deal with the fear, the high stakes, and the danger is what divides real players and drivers from the people who drive a Honda to the weekly home games.

In short, there's something--maybe something I don't even understand--that separates champions from everybody else.


There are several kinds of beauty here in Houston. There's the adoration the fans have for the drivers. More so, it's the adoration for the cars. I'm awed by what these fans know about the exotic Aston Martin ride.

A fan asks the AMR drivers to autograph her PokerStars shirt

Then, there is the beauty of the PokerStars girls, Crystal and Lacy, who spend their days introducing legions of Le Mans fans to the game of poker. While there are certainly people there who have never played, we all quickly find there are tons of poker players who follow Le Mans.

Crystal hands out PokerStars t-shirts to Aston Martin fans

Within a few hours, we have met a firefighter who knows just about everything that goes on in the poker world. Then we meet a guy who is wearing a PokerStars hat so worn and tattered, it is clear that the guy wears it every day. Both the poker players and thousands of other regular fans appreciate the poker as much as the ladies handing out the shirts.



Curious, I headed to the paddock where the car techs were putting the final pre-race touches on the car. The guys in the garage are not grease monkeys. They are scientists who, with one turn of a wrench, can decide the difference between a first and second place finish.

But there is something more stunning than all of it. Watching the cars navigate the course at a speed that could blister leather and not miss a turn, it gives a jaded, skeptical guy a new appreciation for the talent it takes to win on the Le Mans circuit.


Television makes everything look easy. When we see Greg "Fossilman" Raymer put a move on a player at a table, we say "Well, I could do that. I can make that same read every day of the week and twice on Sunday." It's not until we're sitting at the table and bluff into the stone cold nuts that we realize it's not nearly as easy as it looks on TV.

It's night now in Houston and the cars are wheeled rockets on a 1.7 mile road course. Their headlights cut lasers through the air. When CBS sports cameras show the race the next day, it will look as simple as a joyride on a go-cart track. From my vantage point atop the Aston Martin van, the controlled chaos on the track looks anything but easy. It looks like sure death delayed only by the drivers' grip on the wheel.

As the PokerStars Aston Martin cars power through the turns in third and fourth place (their eventual finishing spots), I think back on the afternoon before the race. I sat and watched the Aston Martin Racing drivers sign autographs for fans, I wondered how such people could drive a car so fast and with what--for anybody else--would be reckless, stupid abandon. Shaded by the gorgeous Pirelli tire girls, these guys look like smiling playboys, not the type of people who would strap themselves to the nose cone of a sidewinder missile and laugh when the pilot hit the launch button.

The night would not bring a win for the AMR team, but it would seal a relationship. PokerStars and Aston Martin racing will spend the rest of the year together. Poker and racing are two different sports, but their intricacies are well-enough pronounced that the relationship is bound to bear fruit. When two sports of champions merge, more champions will be born and I'm happy to be along for the ride.

Brad Willis
@BradWillis in PokerStars news