Showdown at Sachs

This place is a fucking kip." Large Lily, of Belfast extraction, punctured the social souffle of the charity poker finals held in Sach's Hotel, Dublin on the night of Sunday February 24. "You're a bunch of fucking phoneys," she said into the audible silence from her six opponents around the table. "I'm fucking freezing," she continued, shuffling her monopoly money, shaking her incredible bulk, wristling her solid gold bracelet. She looked over her lorgnette, tossed off another glass of brandy, and joined in the play. The winner would walk away, three hours later, with fifteen hundred pounds in real cash.


On Lily's left sat, politely, a shop owner who had a few race horses on the side. Beside him sat a bookie. Then came a horse trainer. To his left, and opposite Lily, across the round table, sat a young mother, ex-Aer Lingus hostess. Then came a Dublin-based insurance broker from Derry. Beside him, and on Lily's right, was a businessman who dealt in underwear, with a few horses, also, on the side.


These seven had emerged victorious from the two hundred and forty-five people who had paid twenty-five pounds each to take part in the poker classic, using monopoly stake money of one thousand pounds per person. Half of the contestants had played the previous Sunday evening, squeezing seven to a narrow table in a crowded function room in the hotel, in conditions which Lily had accurately described. They were not salubrious.


Ashtrays overflowed, unemptied, the room was by turns too hot and too cold, it was hard to get a drink from the one waiter who catered to all, and the drink itself was expensive - forty three pence for a bottle of pre-budget Harp. The edge was taken off by the knowledge that Sachs had donated the room free of charge to the Charity concerned, the Irish Stone Foundation of the Irish Kidney Research Unit, Meath Hospital.


 The other half had played on the Sunday morning of the finals, starting at eleven. Lily had been playing all day, apart from a one-hour lunch break, since when she had had nothing to eat. The waiters were off duty from six to seven, when the finals were due to start. Lily now looked like a beloved granny gone wrong. Until her abrasive interjections, etiquette had been largely observed. Most of the contestants came from a wealthy background, with salaried workers thin on the ground.


The entrance fee would have represented play money, literally, for the solid business people who constituted the majority. The professions were well represented, by doctors connected with the Meath hospital, the odd legal eagle, a twice defeated Senate contender, a Fianna Fail hopeful, and I ended up playing with a priest, the only obvious white collar worker in the building. A bakery owner from Monaghan took our money from both of us.


The final table of two women and five men was a proportionate representation of the sexes. The rules were such as to discourage poker sharks - two hundred pounds maximum bet, draw only, no presents, no splitting of openers, and the player with the most cash after three hours was the outright winner.


These rules, designed to give maximum pleasure to the maximum number of average players, did not discourage a bevy of hopefuls from a computer company from working out the mathematical odds during the week. They figured out that someone would bet a last few hundred during the final minutes of play, in despairing hope of making a quick killing, or that fatal poker fantasy of leaving the game with the thrill of having cast all on one card. It was an estimation that was not quite fulfilled until, ironically, the final seven players sat down, at seven in the morning.


Large Lily played the first half hour of the finale with her tongue, roundly abusing the game, the players, the hotel and the organisers. When a waiter discreetly avoided bringing her yet another brandy, she began to spoon brown sugar into her mouth from the bowl that sat beside a cup cold coffee. That her manners left a lot to be desired by the other players was indicated in no uncertain manner when her sugar was taken from her.


That her tongue was taking social gloss off the evening was illustrated definitely when the Derryman's temper broke after twenty-five minutes of play. "I want to call a halt here," he threw down his cards. The other men agreed. The young mother stayed quiet. "This lady is obnoxious," he said, "Up yours with knobs on," said Lily.


"I wish to pass a motion that she be removed from the game," said the Derryman, in desperation. "Do I have a seconder?"

"I second that," said the bookie, The trainer, the shopkeeper and the underwear merchant threw in their hands, indicating assent. The young mother studied her cards.

"If you all want to leave, fair enough, I'll take the prize," said Large Lily.

"Send for the adjudicator," said the Derryman.


There was a Humphrey Atkins style adjournment as the adjudicator was brought from his dinner table below and the various parties stood around, sussing out common ground. The young mother listened patiently to them all. When the adjudicator arrived they resumed their seats and put the case to him.


"I'm here for a social evening," began the Derryman. "I'm just looking for a pleasant game of cards, with nice people, in a friendly atmosphere. Of course," he finished, "the money is one aspect of it, and we'd like the time lost by this to be added on to the end of the game." Injury time, the others nodded.


"Bunch of fucking phoneys," said Lily. She drew a real one hundred pound note out of her wallet. "You want to play with real money? I've got a thousand pounds here says you're all chicken. "


The adjudicator explained that a crowd of strangers couldn't vote any of their number out of a poker final. He would stay around to maintain order. Another official stationed himself behind Lily's shoulder. The game resumed. So did Lily's tirade.


"I hate burly men looking over my shoulder. They make me shudder," she cast a baleful eye backward at her guardian. The pleasant miened fellow tried to blend with the wallpaper.


"No talking please," said the adjudicator. "Fuck off," said Lily. "I didn't come here to talk rubbish," said the trainer. "You were hardly expecting intellectual conversation," said Lily.


A player appealed to her to deal the cards low down.

"I can see what you're giving the others, if I wanted to."

"So have a good look," said Lily.

"I don't want to," said the honest player.

"So don't look," said Lily. "You fucking fool."

The young mother won a close run pot from the trainer.

"I'm sorry," she smiled.

"Don't be bloody stupid. You should be delighted," Lily glared at her. "You're here to win, just like the rest of us."

"Now, now," said the adjudicator. "Fuck off," said Lily.


The underwear merchant raised his eyebrows in despair. The shopkeeper tried to engage her in pleasant conversation. The bookie appealed for mute sympathy from the bystanders. The trainer engaged her in argument. The Derryman snapped at her. The young mother played quietly on. Lily was running out of money and the rules said no borrowing. One big raise would finish her off. She opened on a pair of jacks, at least. They all saw her. They drew cards and Lily bet all her last thirty pounds. Everybody dropped out except the Derryman. He looked at Lily's. dwindled sum and went in for the kill. "Fifty pounds," he said. Lily faded. "I guess I win the pot," said the Derryman. He had a pair of sixes.


"I think I'll go and play a real game now," Lily indicated her intention to join the private session at another table. "You have out to finish out your funds," the Derryman nailed her back on the cross.

"I haven't enough left to play,"Lily replied.

"Play on," he said. "You can't leave the table. Those are the rules."

"Internment," said Lily. There was silence. "Nobody likes me here," she said. There was silence. "I'm only half a teague," she shot at them. She had a unionist ancestor among the Northern judiciary.

"Shove this up your fucking jumper," Lily threw her money on the table, heaved herself up and away, and went out of the room towards the bar.


After she went the men fell into a babble of bonhomie, swapping jokes, discussing horses, exchanging hints on how to give up smoking. The young mother played silently on. The door opened and Lily lurched back in, looking for her mink coat. The adjudicator steered her out and back to the cloakroom. He returned later and boasted that he had "had a few jars with her and then threw her in to a taxi."


In the final ten minutes the Derryman found himself with only a few hundred. His political comrade, the bookie who had seconded the motion to have Lily removed, was set fair to win second prize of seven hundred pounds. The shopkeeper, trailing third, opened a big pot, did not draw on any more cards, and made a hefty bid. The bookie judiciously faded. What the hell, said the Derryman, casting his lot against seemingly impossible odds. He flung his last hundred into the shopkeeper's pot. He lost. The bookie watched the shopkeeper slide into second place, reducing him to third prize and four hundred pounds. He looked philosophically at the Derryman who had cast him to the wolves. Man's ingratitude to his fellow man. The young mother played quietly on.


The game ended. The money was counted. The young mother had won by a neck and a half.


"Lily ruined it," the men agreed. "I'm used to children," the young mother explained how she kept her cool, as she drank a glass of champagne and accepted a cheque for fifteen hundred pounds. The organisers had raised two thousand five hundred pounds for charity.


The game organised by the Dalkey School Project, in the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire, two nights later, was considerably more down market. At ten pourrds entrance fee the players were more socially mixed and younger. The organisers supplemented hotel staff, pounding up and down stairs to bring drinks to the thirsty. One hundred people were competing for a first prize of three hundred pounds, with twenty five pounds going to the player who finished fifth. The evening closed, quickly, with five finalists going off to a private house to finish the finals.


On Friday night the Rehabilitation Institute ran its weekly ten pound a head poker session. On Saturday night a rugby club raised funds by allowing a classic between members and private guests at fifty pounds entrance fee per person.


With Charlie squeezing entertainment one way and another, a good solid poker game offering a glittering prize at the end is fast becoming the national pastime. With Large Lily around, the country could soon resemble Dodge City.