Playing to win - Lilly Becker heads-up against Boris, and other scenarios
by Mad Harper
I'm not quite sure what I was expecting when I met up with Lilly Becker, wife of tennis legend and Team PokerStars Sport Star Boris Becker. I knew she played poker - that's why I was planning to interview her. But as Boris is one of the most famous men on the planet and Lilly is a former model, my assumption was that perhaps she was just some kind of dilettante, dabbling in poker to keep herself occupied while waiting for her uber-famous husband to bust out of a tourney, or perhaps while she's waiting for her nails to dry.
I could not have been more wrong about Lilly if I'd tried. This is no fragile, demure poker wallflower living in Becker's shadow. Lilly Becker is a powerhouse of a woman, fiercely competitive, full of energy, sparky, punchy--and absolutely mad about playing poker.
It wasn't just Lilly's super-feisty character that I got wrong either. I was also pretty wide of the mark regarding how she came to take up the sport. My assumption was that she was merely following in Boris' footsteps, politely showing an interest in her husband's new hobby.
Wrong again. And how!
As it turns out, it is Lilly who is the gaming aficionado. Long before her husband took up poker, in fact, long before the three-time Wimbledon champion and Lilly even met, Lilly had been working as a croupier in a London casino. And it was she who first got Becker interested in card games rather than the other way round.
When she was 18 years old, Sharlely "Lilly" Kerssenberg relocated from her native Holland to pursue a modeling career in London. She was earning good money, but to supplement her income, she answered a recruitment ad in the London Evening Standard to work as a casino croupier. "It was for the Colony Club in Mayfair. I trained for something like three months and I wasn't very good to start with, but then I became really good. I was working at a clothing store in the daytime and dealing Caribbean poker, roulette, blackjack and baccarat at night. It was great."
After a lengthy stint at the Colony Club, Lilly took a job offer in Israel to work at Oasis, the country's first ever casino run by Casinos Austria, and situated near Jerusalem in Jericho. She worked there for two years before departing for Miami to gave modeling another go. "I wanted to concentrate on my modeling career and it was in Miami that I met Boris, when I was 28. After that I gave up modeling to be with him. "
The couple now live mainly in London and it was Lilly who took Boris along to her old haunt, the Colony Club, and introduced him to blackjack. She said: "He liked it. He's very quick to get things . . . and we still go to the Colony Club all the time. Then in 2007 he was approached by PokerStars to join their German team and he had to practice poker at home, so we got a proper poker table and started playing. We both really got into it. We still love playing at home together. We will open a nice bottle of wine and sit and play heads-up, or we'll watch poker together on the TV at night and we really enjoy it."
"I actually still owe my husband £1,500 from our heads-up games. I pay him in installments. He wouldn't let me off!! We also host home games at our house in Wimbledon. John Duthie, who founded the European Poker Tour comes along, Johannes Strassmann, Sandra Naujoks, and other friends. It's fun."
After chatting with Lilly for a while, one gets the impression that poker isn't so much a shared interest for her and Boris as an ongoing battle in which they're both determined combatants.
She said: "Boris is competitive by nature; I am competitive by training. And certainly I'm competitive against him when we're playing poker. I really want to win. He's won Wimbledon! So I want to win a poker tournament. Then I can have the bracelet and push it in his face! He would be really jealous you know. "
Comparing cash with tournaments, Lilly claims she prefers playing cash and hasn't got the patience for tournaments. But she has outlasted Boris twice in European Poker Tour Main Events and made two Day 2s, including EPT Snowfest last season.
Lilly is hugely gregarious and relishes the social side of playing live poker, the interaction with other players, and the chance to meet people from all walks of life. She said: "Poker is a great leveler, everyone is equal. You sit down at the table and that's it. You know what you're playing for and what you can win. You all become one. That's what makes poker so great."
"And every time you sit down, it's a different situation. That's what keeps it interesting. You might be nervous to start with . . . people will think 'oh this is just Boris's wife,' but once you win your first hand, then it's game on! And you have to be intimidated sometimes, so you understand the game, so that you value the game."
"I sit down and I make friends and I chat. I love all the different characters, the different nationalities, the vibe at the table. I become one of the guys, laugh at the jokes, have fun. That's one of the things I really like about poker.
"Yes, you use being a woman to your advantage. You ask them what their hand is, flirt a bit, that kind of thing. That's the advantage of being a woman - you have to use that. But I'm an aggressive cash game player."
Lilly played her first ever live poker tournament at EPT Copenhagen in Season 5. She busted on the first day. She said: "I was really nervous so I was really obvious about everything I did . . . how I called, how I raised, how I moved my chips. I was so nervous I was sweating. But I learned a lot. Now, in cash games, I'm a winning player. I get to the table and it's anything goes. Some people are overflowing with money, some people play very tight. I'm the wife of Boris so I have unlimited cash, but when you sit down at the table, everyone is the same."
Boris busted out of the EPT Vienna Main Event late on Day 2 so the couple have now headed home with their nine-month-old son, but both plan to compete at EPT Prague in December. Lilly said: "I'll play the Main Event definitely, and then if I bust, I'll play in the Ladies Event. I'll play anything I can. I love it."