Nick Heidfeld has zipped his jacket up to his nose. And he’s wearing sunglasses indoors. He doesn’t want to reveal anything. But he keeps thumbing the two cards he’s been dealt, reminding himself of his hand.
That probably means he’s got something. A flush maybe. So I fold. Fisichella does the same, and the pot belongs to Nick.
This is Formula One’s secret poker club. Most weekends the drivers will get together – sometimes back at the hotel, this time in the Energy Station’s VIP room – to play Texas Hold ‘Em.
Rubens Barrichello was the trendsetter. He began playing online poker in his room after engineering debriefs, just to relax and escape. Then he was joined in the same digital casino by Giancarlo Fisichella and Robert Kubica, gambling through the motorhome walls.
While Kubica is considered the biggest hustler in the paddock, tough competition comes from Fisichella and Fernando Alonso who like to sit around the green felt as often as they can. Nico Rosberg has caught the online bug now too, and stays up late in front of his computer. I’m told his handle is ‘F1pimp’.
Round the table this evening we have Messieurs Fisichella, Heidfeld, Liuzzi, Glock, and Hay-Nicholls. No need to go mad, we’ve each put 50 Euros on the table and the first few hands have gone my way. The ‘small blind’ is one Euro, the ‘big blind’ two and I’m routinely raising five chips whenever I think I have a shot. The drivers are cautious, sizing up each other and me to determine what our individual ‘tells’ are.
Nick notes that Timo “needs sunglasses for his teeth”, because every time he thinks he has a good hand he breaks into a wide grin. When his pearly whites are kept from view, all you need to do is raise and he’ll fold. He’s been playing for nine months or so and is gaining confidence, but if he’s not turned on by his hand he’ll often fold before he sees the ‘flop’, the first three cards to be unveiled by the dealer. He is the opposite to Liuzzi.
Tonio is what you might call a high risk player. He likes to keep things interesting, and it’s hurting him right now. He’s shoveling his chips in on practically every hand, or at least matching any raise I offer. “I get bored easily, so I tend to just go all in. It makes for an exciting and quick game,” he says. So quick that, 20 minutes into the tournament, Tonio has been forced into retirement.
Nick is well guarded. The only giveaway that I can spot is that his left leg will shake on occasion when the dealer burns and turns. It’s difficult to know if this is an actual ‘tell’. What seems more reliable is his routine. He is not playing aggressively, his play seems more honest. Given the option, he’d probably ‘check’. When he wins, as far as I can tell, it’s with a strong hand rather than a bluff.
Giancarlo is the opposite to Nick. He’s an experienced player and a skilled bluffer. All he’s doing right now is sizing up the opposition and getting into a rhythm. In poker it’s all about momentum. Start winning, keep winning, and raise the stakes all the time. Pile on the pressure.
And this is where I’ve made a mistake. We’re half an hour into the game and I’m still raising five chips on the ‘flop’, and only on the ‘turn’ (the fourth card revealed by the dealer) and the ‘river’ (the fifth and final) if I’m challenged. It’s too conservative and also predictable.
A change of strategy then. Check on the ‘flop’ and then raise on the following two cards if a high card comes up, to make it look like I have some matching face cards under my palm. Apply pressure with bigger raises.
But Fisi has seen this coming, and the momentum has swung to him. He’s betting 15 chips on the ‘flop’ and he’s prepared to repeat it on the ‘turn’. Timo folds on the ‘flop’, I wimp out on the ‘turn’ and poor old Nick gets sent to the cleaners. He’s out.
Giancarlo has taken a big bite out of my stack and Timo is hanging on for dear life with just a handful of chips. A cheeky tactic on the next ‘river’: I pull out a list of poker hand values from my pocket. “Just reminding myself what equals what,” I remark as Nick tears the list from my hand and hails me the world’s most blatant bluffer. Actually it was a double bluff – I have a straight. Fisi looks genuinely confused, calls and loses, but again I’d only raised him ten and his stack of chips remains a Petronas Towers next to my Canary Wharf.
Then he gets ultra aggressive, betting stacks on every hand as Timo and I continue to cave. Now all I want to do is leave with the shirt on my back.
Fortunately, we close the game while I’m still solvent. I’ve made a glorious six Euro profit! Timo’s lost most of his stake money and Giancarlo just added 130 Euros to his children’s inheritance. He also takes Timo’s chips in payment “for Brazil” and warns me never to lend the Toyota driver money.
Fisi’s form was mightily impressive, but what happened next was even more ice-cold. Settling up after the game I tapped Giancarlo up for my 56 notes. “Here you go, here’s five. Come see me tomorrow for the extra one,” he tells me. “Cheers Fisi,” I reply. It wasn’t until we’d gone our separate ways that I realized he still had my stake money. He’d performed a simple yet effective mind trick on me. The man is a pro.
Later that night, Giancarlo played again. He won a further 800 Euros, and kindly saw fit to return my paltry wad. “Adam, I’m so sorry. It was a genuine mistake.” What a bluffer.