Footballers playing poker is not exactly a new concept, and this season John Carew has recently become the latest former Premier League and international star to chance his arm on the European Poker Tour. But just as not all poker players have either the inclination or bankroll to play on the EPT, there are many levels of professional sports that take place away from the glitz and the glamour.
In the UK, there are at least four tiers of professional football leagues, populated by players who would absolutely skin you and any of your mates if they joined your game at the park, but who will not be regular faces on Match of the Day. Their role is to entertain crowds of about four or five thousand, pick up a decent pay-check, and dream of the occasional cup run that can give them glory.
Steve Watts knows all about it. For 12 years, Watts played across numerous professional leagues in the UK, including making 132 appearances for Leyton Orient. He scored 29 goals for the Os, including a crucial opener in a play-off match that gave his side a whiff of promotion from the then third division to the second. But he also got sent off in the match and was suspended from the final, which took place in front of nearly 24,000 at Cardiff’s vast Millennium Stadium.
A footballer’s career can often turn on something so minor as a mistimed tackle. Injuries, suspensions or a manager’s whim can be the equivalent of getting aces cracked or losing a flip on the bubble. But for Watts, who is now 37 but was forced to retire owing to a persistent knee problem, poker now offers him a second chance for a glittering, multi-million pound career.
“I was playing with James Akenhead, Praz Bansi, the Chatta brothers,” Watts said this morning, describing how he originally honed his skillsin games in his native London and put together a bankroll. “I got a little bit of backing and now I’m fully backed.”
He has already started to repay the faith of that backer and has recorded ever-improving results over the past couple of years. He made the final table of WPT Dublin in January 2012, then finished fifth again at the Irish Open a few months later. He made day six of the WSOP Main Event in July this year (his biggest tournament cash, for $123,597) and made the money for the first time on the EPT in Barcelona last month.
His 149th place in Catalonia was worth €8,680 and he has already bettered that this week. There are 38 players remaining at time of writing, each guaranteed at least £13,180.
For some players, poker offers their escape from the daily grind, their opportunity to cut loose from a “sensible” day job. But for footballers, for whom liquid gold often pours out of the taps and whose average day can finish at about lunchtime, poker actually offers a chance at some kind of disciplined existence. Watts talks of other footballers he knows who leave training and go straight to the bookmakers to fritter away time and wealth.
“You get out at twelve-thirty, one o’clock and it’s either golf or the bookies,” Watts said. “Poker has much more skill. You’re not relying on a horse or a jockey.”
One of Watts’s best remembered games was when he came up against Everton, one of English football’s biggest teams, in an FA Cup tie. A certain Paul Gascoigne was playing for Everton, and his bamboozling skills pretty much single-handedly beat Watts’s Orient side. But as Watts now takes his place in the EPT London field and continues his second career, Gascoigne continues his existence as tabloid-fodder, still battling addictions to drink and gambling and in desperately poor health.
So even though Watts never quite made it to the really dizzy heights as a footballer, he can now look back on the career with good memories. There was a keen twinkle in his eye when asked if the crowds ever had any particular songs for him.
“Steve Watts, Watts, Watts!” he chanted, before heading off to un-bag his chips and to continue his search for stardom in poker’s Wembley Stadium.