I had the largest kitchen table. That's why they chose my place.
I had never played poker before, nor did I have any interest in it. My plan was a simple one.
I was going to get pissed and have a laugh until my friend said he needed a dealer. They would pay me £25. I snapped it up.
It cost £100 to enter. There would be one winner. 10 players and a grand to the winner. It had an elegant ring to it.
They all worked in a carpentry gaff. They would play cards during the break. Someone suggested they should up the stakes.
Now they are in my kitchen eating bowls of Doritos welded with cheese and having absinthe poured down their gullets by my wife each timed they dared to yawn.
Wayne "Bill" Jenkins won. A grand was a fortnight's wages. An idea started to form. A dream. A vision of something better than sawdust and grime.
What if we could play poker forever?
Doyle Brunson of the South Wales Valleys
There isn't much to do in the South Wales Valleys except drink and watch TV. My mate used to visit from Southampton, and he summed the place up perfectly.
"It's a beautiful place, but I would go backward if I ever lived here."
Most of us played in a pool league. It was a laugh. But there was no money involved unless you count the odd arm wrestle.
That's what makes poker so perfect. It's not the game. It's the gamble.
There's something genetic about working-class men's attempts to earn as much money as possible doing as little as possible.
When we started we were playing a £20 freezeout. The only game we knew was No-Limit Hold'em (NLHE). Then one day Eddie's Dad Steve and Gary ‘The Sleeper' Acreman turned up.
I remember the excitement. They were magicians. Each had an endless stream of cash, and they were old.
Eddie's Dad Steve took charge of the game and gave it a good shake. The fleas hit the ground hard, got up and ran away.
Neither of them cared much for the tournament. They loved the cash games. They taught the lads Pot-Limit Omaha (PLO). Now we had two games to play.
I thought they were the best players in the world. Eddie's Dad Steve was the Doyle Brunson of the valleys. Only he didn't get around on a mobility scooter; he drove a crappy old truck.
Unless Christmas Falls on a Tuesday
Suddenly, from losing £20 a night, we were losing a hundred. Trust became a significant value.
There wasn't a cash machine in the valleys. If you ran out of money, you had to borrow from someone around the table.
The game has been in situ come rain or shine for over five years. It runs all year round unless Christmas falls on a Tuesday.
We don't care about that. We are like poker piranha during the festive season, gobbling up chips at poker events held all over the valleys.
As time ebbed away so did some of the core players who made the game what it was. It was the money.
You can hide a few hundred quid from the missus. It gets a bit complicated when it turns into a few thousand. There used to be 20 people in that game. Today you will find five or six.
That Was Bobby Eggs
The night starts with a tournament around 7 pm. We only play a tournament for Bobby Eggs. He has been with us since the beginning but he doesn't have the money nor the nous to play cash games.
Bobby Eggs gets his name because he brings free-range eggs to the game. He never charges anyone a penny. I once asked him how he earned his money.
"I make chicken coops for people," he replied.
"How much do you sell them for?" I asked.
"I don't sell them," he replied. "I give them away."
That was Bobby Eggs. A gentlemen, beanpole thin and very Welleresque. He's blind as a bat and deaf to boot.
I love him to bits. He used to come to the game with his money stuffed into his wife's brown purse. You will find him playing in the Grosvenor Cardiff Sunday night tournament from time to time.
On Losing Nights, I Never Said Anything
One by one the players drift from the tournament to the cash game. An Iranian called Landi drives down from Swansea to play in the cash game.
We hand him the money and he hides it until it's time for lock-in. Nobody ever comes into the pub. It's dead, and that suits us just fine.
Landi plays Seven-Card Stud With a Spit and calls everyone 'muppet.' We played until 3 or 4 am. Some of us would go to work after a few hours kip. For others, this was their work.
On winning nights I would leave piles of cash underneath my wife's fags in the kitchen. I would climb into bed, adrenaline coursing through my body.
I would wake her up. She would get annoyed. I would talk about my glory. She would tell me to shut the fuck up.
On losing nights, I never said anything. I never touched her. I was like a cold stone.
I had an awkward romance with poker. It helped create £30k of debt. It helped me get out of that debt. It made me dream of becoming a millionaire.
It gave me nightmares thinking about new ways of hiding the losses. I stopped playing when I started traveling the world working on the European Poker Tour (EPT) and World Poker Tour (WPT).
For many years Bobby Eggs figured I was a professional poker player until one day the coverage of the World Poker Tour (WPT) Venice Grand Prix was on TV while we were playing.
"There's Lee," The Sleeper pointed out.
"Where?," asked Bobby Eggs as he put on his glasses.
“Standing by the table holding a notepad.”
He never looked at me in the same way after that.
Poker in Wales: Humble. Simple. Loveable.
On a Thursday some of the lads head down to Brynmenyn for a game. They play in an old barn converted into a poker room.
There are four tables. They play a tournament and then stay up all night playing cash games.
On a Sunday, they head down to Grosvenor Casino in Cardiff. There is a small buy-in tournament followed by a Dealer's Choice cash game.
They play all night, take Monday off and start again on Tuesday. Poker is no longer a hobby for them. It's ritualistic. It's life.
It's formed unbreakable bonds. I played in the Unibet UK Poker Tour Brighton a few weeks back and two of the lads traveled down to play. Like I said, they love it.
Down in the Grosvenor in Swansea, where the former EPT and WPT Champion Roberto Romanello plays, they have a £100 buy-in Dealer's Choice Tournament on the menu.
It's also the place where you will find the biggest cash game in South Wales. Richard Harris plays in that game from time to time. Harris was the reluctant hero in October when he won the partypoker WPT500 in Dusk till Dawn (DTD) for £150,000.
1,616 players entered that event, including a boatload of people from South Wales. The WPT kept asking me to get Harris to do an interview, but it's not his scene.
Humble. Simple. Loveable.
Give Them a Nudge
There is always a game because the money gets passed about like an expensive game of pass the parcel. Over time, the fish run out of money and you end up with a few hardcore regs of equal capability, each shifting each other a few hundred a week.
Two other places to find a game of poker in South Wales are Les Croupiers, by Cardiff City Stadium, and Gala Casino in the city centre. I've played in Les Croupiers and it's ok; I haven't tried the action in the Gala Casino.
I believe the stakes are the lowest you will find in South Wales. But the most pure games in South Wales happen away from the casino.
They take place around kitchen tables in people's homes, or in the local pub, with money stashed under the table in case the local copper suddenly decides he wants to end his boredom for the night.
I have seen these games split up marriages. I have seen them turn dark hair grey. But I have also seen then forge friendships of immense strength.
If you're ever in South Wales and see the lads playing a game of poker in the corner of a pub where the landlord is so skint they're using candles, give them a wink.
Give them a nudge. Flash some cash, and you will find a seat.