It’s sometimes hard to say that poker is much of a spectator sport. For a start spectators are not usually allowed. Until the final table, where there is space to watch, there is rarely enough room to accommodate anyone who hasn’t either paid €5,000 to play. Or, is paid to watch, clean up after, or massage the shoulders of them.
Not only that, if you do get close enough to see the worry lines of a player’s poker face, you soon realise that’s all you can see. It’s why the game works so well on television, with cards exposed, and a couple of people with microphones getting excited.
But on those rare occasions when you can get close enough it presents a great opportunity to see moments not always included in the edited highlights, moments that can make poker so enthralling at close range. In soccer it might be watching a curled free kick hit the top corner. In tennis is might be a sublime cross court backhand that outfoxes an opponent. In poker it means watching a great player totally outclass someone.
Among those best at this is Mike McDonald, who unraveled an opponent in the closing stages of play last night. These are the among the most enjoyable times in a poker tournament, made more memorable when the victim affects an unwise swagger, sashaying while out of his depth and about to suffer greatly for their own folly.
Mike McDonald in action in Sanremo
McDonald’s strength comes from a load of talent and experience, as well as a knack for reading the weaknesses of those at his table.
This particular hand came against a player with large sunglasses and a large jaw who was being brave with his chips, tossing them in with a flourish and, on the river, with a sideways glance away from McDonald, as if to say his raise was merely a formality and he’d soon be getting his chips back. He didn’t need the shades to hide the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to look at McDonald.
For his part McDonald doesn’t much go in for histrionics, or words. Instead his eyes tend to sound a menacing alarm, blinking slowly every few seconds, like a loading icon on a computer, processing a combination of programs that will then unlock something. In some ways it’s almost cruel, the matador using an overwhelming advantage to toy with a defenceless creature whose demise is inevitable.
In this case the battered challenger, having bet with balls on each street, was called on the river. He knew this game was up and slowly mucked his cards, allowing McDonald to claim a sizable pot without showing. He’d been caught at it, but it appeared McDonald had had his number from the start.
Of course, these little ascetic moments are isolated, and pass without fanfare. They may not even be true, just an interpretation from someone on the rail with too much imagination. But for some of us it’s as fascinating as hearing the thought processes after the event. You don’t need to understand the words of an Opera to find it a beguiling spectacle.
There’s also the flip side, the defeat, which McDonald was subject to within three hands of play starting today – out on the rail. There’s nothing pretty about that.
Follow hand-by-hand coverage, plus latest chip counts, in the panel at the top of the main EPT Prague page.