WSOP 2016: The London bar bluff–was there a World Champion in their midst?

July 18, 2016


James Obst: Did a London bar manager see greatness in a gaggle of no hopers?

It was Season 6 of the European Poker Tour and we were in London, which was then a regular stop on the EPT. Over in the convention centre of the Hilton hotel on Edgware Road, Aaron Gustavson was building a stack to beat Peter Eastgate heads up and win the first major title of his career.

But our action takes us away from the poker tables and to the midweek streets of London’s Soho. It was a motley crew: three veteran poker reporters, two PokerStars employees, a Team PokerStars Pro from Argentina and a young Australian player, barely 19 years old. All were thirsty, but it was past midnight and bars were closing their doors.

The duties of entertaining the crowd had fallen that night to two of the veteran reporters, both of whom typically spell “colour” with a “u” and “centre” with an “re”. We–sorry, they–had each lived in London for years and, you would think, could at least find somewhere to slake a thirst.

The PokerStars employees were a married couple from Costa Rica, who could always be trusted to keep the booze flowing through the night. The third reporter knew bars in his home town–a small place in South Carolina–that would pour into the early hours. But here they all were in a city of 8 million people, with two guides unable to find them a drink.

Approaching desperation point, they went for the last resort: a god-awful low-rent joint known to cater for tourists, mid-level marketing managers and the desperate. It was, however, usually open until 1am so ticked precisely one of the boxes. Like the start of a long-winded joke, the two Brits, the American, the Argentinian, the two Costa Ricans and the Australian walked into a bar.

One thing was quite obvious. The room was empty. But the gaggle took a seat in a dingy corner anyhow and one of the reporters headed to the bar. He talked to the bartender who explained what would have been obvious to anyone but the parched and stubborn: the place was closed. There would be no drinks.

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The reporter is not usually an argumentative man, particularly not with people in positions of authority. (There is no one with so much authority as a bartender.) But this was beyond the pale. It was simply unacceptable to lead a group of disparate vagabonds through the London streets at midnight and not find them a watering hole. The reporter demanded to see the manager.

The manager appeared. He was a friendly guy. He glanced quickly through the darkened room at the wastrels, but said his establishment was closed. The reporter tried to reason with him, making claims that it was his right to have a drink. But having struck out with reason, the reporter took a punt. He tried to run a bluff. Without any real hope of getting this one through, he stood on his tip-toes, leant over the bar and whispered to the manager: “Have you seen who I’ve got with me here?”

The strength of this ploy is in how utterly hopeless it is. There was precisely nobody in the group who was famous beyond their own immediate family–some unknown even within that. But maybe it was a trick of the light; maybe one of the stragglers smiled at the right time; maybe the bar manager thought that this man was actually Salma Hayek or something. He looked over the reporter’s shoulder, his eyes widened, and he said, “Oh. Wow. Sorry. Yes. Of course I’ll get you guys a drink.”

I genuinely have no idea how this worked. It was nothing more than a whimsical stab in the dark, some kind of vague implication that we were in the presence of greatness. But the manager bought it hook, line and sinker. It got us a drink and we went happily on our way: the reporter was redeemed, having somehow pulled off the best bluff of his career.

But now, seven years later, maybe it all makes sense. Maybe that bar manager saw a future world champion in the gaggle. That is the only time I’ve ever been for a drink with James Obst, that young, naive Australian.

But I’ll have another if he wins $8 million in a few months time.

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