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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
It's a card life
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

James Vogl, 24 today, is Britain's hottest young poker player, recently pocketing $400,000 from just one card game. So why is he giving it all up for a job in the City?

To the millions of us who don't stay up to the small hours watching satellite TV, James Vogl could be mistaken for any fresh graduate, kicking around London on a sunny day, in grey sweatshirt and faded jeans.

In Las Vegas, the home of gambling, though, he's a name to be reckoned with.

Vogl is one of the rising stars on the world professional poker circuit and, at just 24 (his birthday is Wednesday), he's also one of the youngest.

In the spring he saw off more than 800 fellow players to take first prize in a big cash prize World Series of Poker (WSOP) event, a series so popular it's televised by the US sports broadcaster ESPN.

With it came a cool $400,000 (220,000) jackpot, oh, and a chunky Del-Boy style gold bracelet, which Vogl controversially said he intended to auction on Ebay.

Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck brings some glam to the game
"It was just a joke," says Vogl, reflecting on the post-game interview. "Some of the Americans have been going there for 25 years trying to win one of these bracelets.

"It was my first ever WSOP event. They were amazed. It's pretty ugly though."

Nevertheless, it's a fitting prize for a game which has itself weathered a Del-Boy image - shady characters, dodgy deals and the like. For every dinner-suited 007 playing in Monte Carlo, there are countless desperados running up debts in back-street casinos.

But that's starting to change. Like snooker and darts before it, TV is shining a light of respectability into the smoky gambling halls and injecting big money prizes.

Ben Affleck and Martin Sheen are among the Hollywood celebrities to have brought some glitz to the fare. In the UK matches are frequently broadcast on satellite channels.

James Vogl ably fits the game's hip new profile. One of the youngest players on the US-dominated circuit - partly thanks to the fact under-21s are banned from casinos in America - he sports a modest self-confidence.

He was also the only European to win a stage at this year's WSOP, the game's crowning event.

While Vogl's not prepared to say how much he's pocketed from the game, it's been enough to buy him a flat in his native north London - no mean feat for someone his age - and fund a "nice lifestyle".

You can play where and when you like - I might play hard for a few weeks and just nark off
James Vogl
His success is all the more notable given that he only picked up the game three years ago, having exhausted the less-lucrative backgammon circuit.

He broke into gambling by accident, after attending the Mind Sports Olympiad - an amateur tournament for lovers of board and card games - while on a gap year.

Vogl, who'd been taught backgammon by his grandfather, won a bronze at the event and was talked into playing for low stakes - about 3 a point. He graduated to bigger sums and started travelling to games around Europe.

By this time he'd started a degree at the London School of Economics. While his fellow undergrads were topping up their loans with bar work, Vogl was burning the midnight oil in high stakes backgammon games.

"I didn't really have any friends at university. I didn't like the student life too much - sitting in the student union for a pound a pint."

But he was also getting stung.

James Vogl
Card champ: Vogl says luck is as important as skill
"When you win in backgammon you don't always get paid. The more I won, the bigger I wanted to play. But it's informal, a one-on-one gentleman's agreement. So I would win substantial amounts [44,000 in one particular game] and people refused to pay me.

"At that point, you just have to walk away and learn from the experience."

Not surprisingly, Vogl found himself drawn to poker, where the stakes are higher and debts tend to be enforced by casinos. Yet he admits he wasn't "naturally talented" at the card game.

So what is his secret?

"I've got a knack for risk and reward games. I spent a lot of time practising, learning the game and the odds, doing the calculations," says Vogl, who admits he's disciplined and highly competitive.

He built experience, playing for small amounts on the internet and in London casinos while still earning his keep from backgammon. His studies took a back seat as he honed his poker skills before eventually making the step up to big money games.

I want a more balanced life - gambling is a lot of late nights and it's also quite volatile.
His $400,000 win in April is his biggest, and came from a $2,000 "buy in" to the game, which lasted two days.

"It's certainly not a nine to five," he says of the lifestyle. "You can play where and when you like. I might play hard for a few weeks and just nark off. I'm my own boss."

And what do his parents think? They are less keen, he says, although his father's only stipulation when Vogl started out was to "never come to me with a gambling debt".

But while Vogl says it's a life that is highly compatible with holding down friendships and a relationship - he has a girlfriend - he's already preparing to retire from the professional poker circuit. In September he's due to start a job in the City, trading equities - a job not without its own rich rewards.

"I want a more balanced life. Gambling is a lot of late nights and travel. It's also quite volatile. I won a lot this year but I could easily go a whole year without winning."

In poker, luck is as important as skill, he says, reflecting that the "cards played themselves" in his WSOP victory.

"I have a nice lifestyle but I'm not a flash git. Some of the players have bought Ferraris and Porches with their winnings. I still drive my old VW Golf."

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