PokerStars Festival London: Sea-lions, Judy Garland and Felipe Ramos; treading the boards at the Hippodrome
If you travel the world for business, you get accustomed to shrugging it off when friends tell you how jealous they are. They talk green-eyed about your lucky, jet-set lifestyle, imagining that you step off the plane and on to the beach.
Much like the travelling salesman who knows that the truth of it actually means trading one out-of-town business park and travel tavern for a foreign out-of-town business park and travel tavern, people on the international poker circuit know that this world isn't as glamorous as you might think. The one thing you learn quickly is that the inside of casinos tend to look remarkably similar regardless of country and even continent. You've seen one blackjack pit, you've seen them all.
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That rule, however, has its exceptions, and the Hippodrome Casino in London, home of the PokerStars LIVE card-room and this PokerStars Festival, is unique. This place is nothing if not theatrical.
Opened in January 1900--117 years ago last week--this building was once one of London's hundreds of "circus variety theatres", where Londoners of late Victorian era gathered in their masses to watch various cabaret acts.
The entertainment was eclectic to say the least: a young Charlie Chaplin was in the cast of the theatre's first production and Harry Houdini once performed here. There was also a 100,000 gallon water tank where spectators could watch polar bears and sea lions do their thing and into which a troupe of dwarves was also employed to dive from the top of the building. Those Victorians, huh.
For all that, the establishment was a major deal. As London throbbed as one of the world's entertainment capitals though the 20th century, the Hippodrome was the jewel in the crown of a chain owned by Sir Edward Moss, one of two impresarios whose theatres dominated the scene at the time. It latterly became a nightclub named The Talk of the Town, and a roll of honour including Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Julie Andrews, Tom Jones and Stevie Wonder ensured it lived up to its name.
As the popularity of variety shows and cabaret gradually diminished in the second half of the 20th century, it became time for another reinvention. In 2009, after a short period as a nightclub owned by Peter Stringfellow, the Hippodrome opened as a casino.
However, the £40 million refurbishment project made special efforts to maintain the features of the building's original purpose. It remains obviously and proudly a former theatre, with the gaming floor spread across several levels and often beneath shimmering theatrical lights.
The permanent PokerStars LIVE card-room is located in the gods, at the very top of what would have been the balcony or upper circle. These were the cheap seats, but now they are pretty exclusive: they're running side events, satellites and cash games up there. There's also a spectacular view down on to the entire space, over what would have been the circle (now housing the Heliot Steak Restaurant) and the stalls, which is now the main casino floor.
The first 12 tables of today's £2,200 High Roller event are located on what was once the stage. It's appropriate for the great global performers of poker's theatre: we have the likes of Jake Cody, Felipe Ramos, Aditya Agarwal, Pierre Neuville and Adrian Mateos in today's field. That's five countries and three continents among those five players alone. Six if you include Chris Moorman, who comes from the country known as Internet.
But those aren't the only areas in which you'll find action today. Theatres are typically full of nooks and crannies, and areas once in the wings now include the "Macau Lounge", for example, housing baccarat and three-card poker tables.
Similarly, "Lola's Underground Casino" occupies the basement, and it's well worth a trip into the undercroft. Fashioned after a speakeasy, Lola's requires players to disbelieve the shop window that suggests it's an old apothecary and skip past the flickering lamp-post on the stairs.
The red leather lounge chairs, Wurlitzer jukebox and dance podium transport visitors immediately back to the cabaret era. (It's where we'll have the PokerStars player party on Friday at 9pm.) Only those doors marked, appropriately, "BACKSTAGE" are truly off limits.
In short, if you've ever been tempted to play a poker tournament, but have been put off by the idea of bland, identikit casinos, built to a formula in around 1996, then this is your event. The £990 Main Event kicks off tomorrow, with three starting days and a tremendous £400,000 guaranteed prize-pool. You could record your own slice of history in this most esteemed location.