WSOP Diary Day 9: Manchester United soccer star Darren Fletcher tackles World Series of Poker

wsop2010_thn.jpgDarren Fletcher would much rather be in South Africa right now, but the Manchester United midfielder and Scotland captain did not make it to the FIFA World Cup because the Scots failed to reach the finals (and I take no pleasure in writing that, even as an Englishman).

While his United team-mates Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand flew out to South Africa with the rest of the England squad, Fletcher was at least able to enjoy some time off after the regular domestic football season ended.

And that meant he could fly to Las Vegas with his friends to enjoy his second passion after soccer - poker. Yesterday, sponsored by PokerStars, he sat down to play Event #11 of the World Series of Poker, the $1,500 No Limit Hold'em. Sadly for the 26-year-old his stay at the tables lasted no longer than a regular soccer match - less than 90 minutes.

"The big story was me walking into a royal flush when I had flopped a set of kings!" he said. "We were talking in the taxi on the way here about flopping a royal flush because at the Mirage hotel there is a $10,000 bonus if you did it. I've never seen one in a live game before - and then, bang, just an hour later I lost half my chips against one!

"The blinds were 25-50 and I looked down at pocket kings. The guy in seat 2 bet 250 and I called, then the man in seat 7 called as well. The flop was J♥Q♥K♥. The first guy checked and I bet 800, about the size of the pot because I was a little scared about the possibility of someone having a flush draw. Only seat 7 called. The turn was a blank with no heart and I bet again, and again the seat 7 called. The river was another blank and this time the seat 7 bet 1,300. I did not really believe he had a flush, I put him on a missed flush draw, perhaps something like A♥Q♠, but still made the call. Then he turned over his cards, A♥[10h], and I was like 'Oh, wow!'"


Darren Fletcher

That was a rough spot for softly-spoken Fletcher, who first took up poker around five years ago when it was "all the craze".

He was one of 2,563 players to begin the tournament yesterday, and although he managed to build his stack back up to about 1,800 after that royal flush encounter, he went out soon after.

"I was a bit unlucky again, I think, as I flopped top pair and an open-ended straight draw - but the other guy had flopped the straight already! Today was just amazing - I had more action in one hour than I have done in 12 or 13 hours of play before! It's one of those things."

You may think trying to win money at poker is not that important to Fletcher, and you'd be right. After all, he is one of Britain's highest-paid sports stars. "It's really not about the money," he confirmed. "It's about enjoying the poker and trying to get better at the game. That's the challenge."

With his busy soccer schedule, which involves a lot of community work for Manchester United, Fletcher gets little time to play poker. But he does enjoy a weekly home game with some of his team-mates. "There's Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Jonny Evans and Owen Hargreaves who turn up, but it's low stakes as some of our friends play as well. It's just a bit of fun."

And the poker leads to plenty of mickey-taking in the dressing room. "Yes, there's a lot of banter," Fletcher said. "We joke a lot with each other about the game and how we all play it. In fact, we had our own poker forum which we used to use on our Blackberries, but it was starting to take up so much of my time that I had to stop using it!"

Fletcher joined Manchester United as trainee in 2000, initially seen as a right winger in the shadow of the club's starlet David Beckham. He then switched to a more central midfield role and is now a first team regular. To date, he has played 255 games for United and scored 18 goals.

As well as playing at the recent PokerStars UKIPT event in Manchester, when he busted on day one, Fletcher has played the World Series of Poker before. "I played in this same WSOP $1,500 event a few years back and busted literally a few places before the money - I had ace-king and it did not stand up. By the time I had walked out of the room, the cash 'bubble' had burst and everyone left got paid. I suppose I should have folded and stayed in.

"It would have been nice to say I had a cash at the WSOP - certainly it would have been very good for the banter with the lads!"

Fletcher is here in Vegas with friends, and enjoying every minute of it. "I love everything about Vegas. Obviously we play some cash games here with my friends - nothing big, maybe 1-2 or 2-4 no limit - and I've played the $500 tournament at the Venetian. But there's so much more to do as well.

"We enjoy the shows; on a previous visit we had a great time at the Elton John Red Piano concert. We've also done the Grand Canyon, and then we went to Red Rock and did some horse riding yesterday... dressed as cowboys.

"I'm not a horse rider, so I just held up the reigns and used them like a control panel, moving them in the direction I wanted to go. It seemed to work, but in reality I think the horses are just trained to follow each other."

I was keen to pick Fletcher's brains about the soccer World Cup, which starts in South Africa in just a few days. He was made Scotland's youngest ever captain and was devastated when his national team failed to make the finals. But could he bring himself to support the old enemy, England? "Even though I am obviously Scottish and play for Scotland, I have always been brought up to enjoy watching England when they play.

"When I grew up I used to enjoy the World Cups even if it was England there instead of Scotland. I'm a fan of the game, you see, so I want England to do well, especially as some of my team-mates are in the squad - Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. I'm gutted for Rio, though, as he has picked up an injury (on the training ground) and will now miss the matches. He had only just been made England captain.

"Also I have a lot of respect for England players Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, both of whom play in the same position as me. With their manager Fabio Capello, I think you have to say England have a real chance of winning the competition."

Even though Fletcher plays for one of the biggest club sides in the world, I wanted to know if he could offer any hope for my team, Ipswich Town, who endured a dodgy season in English football's second tier under manager Roy Keane, who used to be Manchester United's club captain.

"Roy Keane was a massive influence on my career," Fletcher recalled. "He was club captain at Manchester United when I was younger, and I used to watch him train and play, see how he conducted his career and his life. It certainly rubbed off on me, and it's true to say my professional approach to football now is all down to him.

"He was a fantastic player and it was always obvious to me that he would go on to be a top manager as well. Clearly he's had a difficult season at Ipswich, but if anyone is going to turn the club around it will be Roy."

I told Fletcher Ipswich had a bit of money to spend before the next season begins, and he was quick to say what sort of player the club needed. "I tell you what Ipswich needs now more than ever - another John Wark!"

Wark was a legend in the club's magical era 30 years ago, when Ipswich won the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup and finished runner-up in the League Championship. "Wark was Scottish like me, played in midfield like me, and scored an incredible number of goals. If only Roy Keane could find someone like him now."

With that hope in mind, I bid farewell to Fletcher as he left the Rio hotel to enjoy the rest of his time off in Vegas. With his obvious passion for poker, I'm sure it won't be long before we see him back at the tables.

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Other WSOP News
The remaining Team PokerStars Pros who returned for day 2 of the $10,000 7-Card Stud Championship had mixed fortunes. While Barry Greenstein and Daniel Negreanu busted before the money, Canadian Pat Pezzin made it to 14th place and picked up a healthy $28,623 as a result.

Pezzin went out to Men 'The Master' Nguyen, all in on fifth street with 2♦A♦5♦[10d]2♠ and Nguyen's 6♣3♣J♦J♠7♥. Nguyen went on to make trip jacks, while Pezzin failed to hit his flush. Congratulations to him for what was Team PokerStars' biggest cash of the WSOP so far.


Pat Pezzin

Just 12 remain in this headline event. Chip leader is Vladimir Schmelev, the PokerStars player who finished runner-up in the $50,000 Poker Player's Championship, while PokerStars-sponsored Eric Buchman, who was fourth in the WSOP Main Event last year, is currently in ninth place.

Yesterday's start of the $1,500 Limit Hold'em tournament brought a huge collection of Team PokerStars Pros to the tables. Barry Greenstein, Chad Brown, Daniel Negreanu, Vanessa Rousso, Noah Boeken, a first WSOP appearance for Marcel Luske, Bill Chen, Victor Ramdin and Alex Kravchenko all took their shot.


Daniel Negreanu

By the end of the night, only Greenstein (17,400) and Brown (8,100) made it through, some way behind overnight chip leader Jameson Painter (47,600).

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Tweets of the Day
@billchenpoker: Crap. redbull exploded on our table we are soaked

@barrygreenstein: Completely shut out. Last hand kings up against Queens, Queen on the river.

@FossilMan: Quickest exit yet. Flopped 2 pair, player made higher 2 pair. Only lost 1200 chips. Shoved with 55 on the guy in every pot, but his JJ was good that time. Completely primed now for some run-good, lol.

@RealKidPoker: Dang it. Came 33rd in the Stud. KK vs JJ going to river. He made two pair and I didn't. Ugh so frustrating

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Thought of the Day
I wish Darren Fletcher would sign for Ipswich.

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Previous WSOP Diary entries
WSOP Diary: $10,000 Stud Championsip draws big names
WSOP Diary: Nh, gg, wp Daniel Negreanu, k?
WSOP Diary: Grinding out $1.5million with perfect timing
WSOP Diary: Team Pro Maridu needs Baker, Baker needs dough
WSOP Diary: Viva la revolution in Las Vegas
WSOP Diary: Safari, so good for Noah Boeken
WSOP Diary: Barry Greenstein mixes it up in the $50K
WSOP Diary: Going supersize in Las Vegas