In 2006, the TV quiz show host and journalist Victoria Coren played her way into the history books when she became the first woman to win the European Poker Tour, and a prize of £500,000. It was no flash in the pan, however. Coren has more than doubled her tournament winnings since then, becoming one of the best known, and best liked, players on the circuit.
Next week she flies to Las Vegas for the mighty World Series of Poker. It offers 62 different tournaments over two months, culminating in the Main Event: that one costs $10,000 to enter, and pays out over $60 million including a first prize of over $8 million - the largest in sport. No woman has ever won. No Brit has ever won. Could Coren make history again?
"I hope to do well, obviously!" says Coren. "But they're big fields out there [over 6,500 players in the Main Event], so you never know, really. As to my strategy, the old rules still apply: play aggressively at a passive table and patiently at an aggressive table."
I've played against Coren myself a few times, and can attest to her ability: patient at waiting for the right hands, but never afraid to move all-in when need dictates. The first time, ten years ago, was at Coren's own home game, in north London. As she dispensed playing tips from my right, I realised poker was like an onion.You could peel back endless layers of complexity, and it would eventually make you cry.
Coren was first drawn to poker as a teenager, when her brother Giles (also a columnist) started hosting games. "I wanted to spend time with boys," she explains, "because they seemed endlessly fascinating and mysterious. I soon discovered boys were easy to understand; it was poker that was fascinating and mysterious!"
The first few times she tried to play at The Vic (The Victoria Casino, in London's West End), it was, she says, like the bit in American Werewolf in London where all conversation stops and "60 eyes all swivel towards you". She literally ran away. "I thought, they're all male, all cockneys, all between 40 and 70; how can I, a middle-class girl, fit in? Then I realised it could never be scarier than walking into the school canteen."
Frequently Coren was the only woman in the room, let alone at the table. But eventually she came to speak the arcane language of wire-ups, trips and suited connectors; to measure out her money in ponies (£25), carpets (£30, £300...), bottles(£40, £400...) and monkeys (£500).
When she's not penning a new play or presenting the thinking person's quiz show Only Connect, she's playing with millionaires and gangsters; at private games guarded by machine gun; with literary figures such as Martin Amis and Al Alvarez. She's helped poker join the 21<sup>st century, as a TV presenter on Late Night Poker. And she's seen the internet transform poker from a refuge for dodgy geezers in smoky back rooms to a billion-dollar business. She herself is sponsored by the biggest poker website, PokerStars, which on 13 June celebrated dealing its 100-billionth hand.
Yet where there's easy money, the dodgy geezers are never too far away. On 15 April 2011, a date known as "Black Friday", US players logged on to find an FBI logo across their screens in place of their favourite websites. Not only is online poker of dubious legality in the States (Nevada was the first state to legalise it, this April), but the second biggest site, Full Tilt, stood accused of fraudulently using $300 million of players' money.
"This is a tough one for me," says Coren when asked to comment on the impact, "because in the UK it really didn't make much difference, especially if you played on PokerStars where everyone's money was safe. Everything stayed the same, other than that the Americans disappeared overnight, which was a shame. If you ask an American, of course, you'd get a different answer! But I believe they're recovering. And the live game over there seems as healthy as ever, if not healthier."
A lot has changed in Coren's personal life since then, too. In her memoirs, she bravely lays her broken heart out for all to read. When I spoke to her in 2009, she said of being "married to poker" that "I only gamble on certain hands, under certain limits. Committing to marry someone and have a child... that's like gambling with your whole life." Yet last year she married the comedian and Peep Show star David Mitchell. What convinced her to go all-in?
"I said that in the abstract, of course, before meeting David," she says. "I was never especially bowled over by the concept of marriage in principle - it's not something I was particularly looking to do. But if you meet the right person, it doesn't feel like a gamble at all, it feels like the easy and obvious thing to do.
"My poker life continues as before, really - I play online at home, and I still travel to tournaments. David keeps me company if he's not working, or not if he is - he's pretty easy-going and flexible, and he knew he was marrying a poker player. Of course I miss him awfully if I go to a tournament and he's not there, but that's okay, it's probably good for me really."
Mitchell admits in his own autobiography to having been in love from afar with his "clever, funny, beautiful" wife since 2007, but she was then otherwise attached. If she does become the second woman ever to make the final table of the Main Event, or the first to win it, she will make history in another way: we'll see Mitchell's famously sardonic, deadpan delivery give way to a cheer.